Sunday, February 26, 2006


Birdwing by Rafe Martin

The Plot: In The Six Swans by the Brothers Grimm, six brothers are turned into six swans. They are eventually returned to human form; except for the youngest brother, Ardwin, who is left with a wing for an arm. Martin tells the story the life of Ardwin, who has to live with the tangible reminder of the curse.

The Good: I'm not sure what picture book version of this fairy tale I had as a child, but I adored the Six Swans. The picture I still recall is the sister throwing the shirts on her brothers, the boys shown in the process of turning from bird to boy, and the youngest with his one armed shirt, left with the wing of a swan. The sister, with her sacrifices and dedication, is one of my favorite fairy tale heroines.

Martin stays close to the original tale, because all that happens before the book begins. Ardwin, the youngest son, has returned home to his father's castle. As can be imagined, life with one arm and one wing is not easy, and Ardwin works hard to accomplish physical tasks. But always there is a longing -- to return to the swans, to the freedom of flying, to belonging, instead of being the freak, the outsider.

Ardwin learns that you can't go home again; that the past, and childhood, is another country. "I was confused by childhood memories. Things had seemed so good, then." But the swans are no more welcoming than humans, and now that Ardwin is unable to return to the past, and has no future -- what to do? Where to go?

I really like how Martin uses the wing to symbolize common feelings about growing up, about acceptance, about feeling like a misfit. Ardwin confronts his stepmother, who turned him into a swan originally, and she says that she could make him "whole" again and return him to "the Land of the Drably Ordinary. Yes, I could change you. But it would make even me terribly sad to do it. To never be outcast or misfit again. To know your place in the eternal scheme and be accepted." But, of course, the truth is that everyone, at one time or another, even without an external sign such as a swan's wing, feels like they are a misfit or an outcast. Ardwin's struggle to feel whole, to feel accepted, to fell less like an outsider is universal.

Various folk and fairy tales are referenced, such as The Goose Girl, which is also good. But it's not just that; Martin has created a world that is rich in fairy tale images, but is not soft or pretty or safe. He makes this world dark and dangerous, and takes it very seriously.

The other children/swan folk tale I love is The Children of Lir. Which is, being Irish, much more of a heart breaker. Which makes sense, as it is one of the Three Sorrows of Storytelling.

Another The Six Swan's retelling is Juliet Marillier's Daughter of the Forest, which is fabulous and makes the story Celtic.

Do you know any other retellings of either swan - children story? Or good picture book versions?


Camille said...

I am off to search my bookcase. I was also enthralled by the story of the Six Swans. I also remember owning a picture book which showed the sister knitting? weaving? the shirts and a vivid illustration of the sister throwing the shirts over her brothers. The picture was a dramatic flurry of wings and swans turning into boys.

I have got to go find that book.

Anonymous said...

Hi, just now reading through your blog. One of my favorite retellings of the Six Swans is The Seventh Swan by Nicholas Stuart Gray.