Hardcover, 176 pages
Published October 1st 2015 by Frances Lincoln Children’s Bks
If you’re not familiar with “The Wild Swans” by Hans Christen Anderson then let me present it to you in my own irreverent words.
In the Hans Christen Anderson story, there are twelve royal siblings, 11 boys and 1 girl, who lose their mother to some illness. Their father, the king, marries another woman who is, as women are wont to be in old fairytales, evil. She turns the brothers into wild swans leaving the sister unharmed…well, I guess not really, she took away the sister’s male protectors, leaving her vulnerable. The sister is tasked with finding a way to break the curse on her brothers and the faerie queen (I think) tells her to spin nettles into thread and then weave it into 11 shirts for the brothers. I don’t know the process but you get the idea. Nettles are to be transformed into beautiful shirts which will break the swan curse on the brothers. So the sister starts to do that but midway through the process a prince comes and snatches her away from her work–oh yes, she is not allowed to let one sound pass through her lips while doing the spinning, weaving, whatever. If she does, all her brothers die. Who made this deal anyway? But yeah, the prince snatches her away to a palace but she finds a way to continue working. Things happen, the curse gets broken, the girl develops Stockholm syndrome and falls in love with her kidnapper and they live (dubiously) happily ever after.
As you may be able to tell, “The Wild Swans” is one of my least favourite fairytales but I quite liked Jackie Morris’s take on it.
Morris stays true to the traditional elements of the tale but she subverts the story in interesting and modern ways particularly where female representation is concerned. The mother of the 12 children does indeed die early (and you know, she had 12 children so her death shouldn’t be a surprise? I’m just saying…) and the tragedy of her death is reflected very nicely in the faithful dog, Shadow, who abruptly finds himself without a mistress to follow around. Eliza, the heroine of the story, is left with 11 older brothers (eughhh, I have two and they are quite enough, imagine 11) among whom she is closest to the youngest, Cygfa, who has a predilection for birds. Their father sinks into depression after his wife’s death and drowns his sorrows by hunting in the great forest that belongs to him.
Out on a hunt one day, he follows a white hare deep into the woods and comes across a strange house inhabited by a woman who is most certainly a witch. In exchange for safe passage back to his castle, he agrees to marry the witch’s daughter who is extremely beautiful but has a quality that gets the king’s spidey senses tingling. In a preemptive measure that casts him distinct from all others kings of his ilk, he builds a castle in the middle of an impossible-to-navigate maze and sends all his children there for something tells him that his new queen will/can harm them.
The story diverges somewhat from this point on. Morris brings into question the age old question of guilt and innocence–the queen does end up cursing the sons but would she have done had the king not found her guilty before she had a chance to commit any crime? The readers are invited to look into the heart of this stranger who is sent to live in the castle after being reared in the forest. We see her yearning to be a mother and wondering where the paraphernalia that belongs to children comes from. We see how the distrust of her husband wounds her and how the coldness of the subjects she is supposed to rule by her husband’s side alienates her. Was she inherently evil or were her actions a result of the king and his subject’s actions?
One of the things that most bother me about this fairytale is the protagonist’s lack of voice. Morris stays true to this element and Eliza is forbidden from speaking one word. Another thing that bothers me just as much about the tale is the ‘romance’ if you can call it that. The prince falls in love with a girl he finds in the woods and seeing what he wants to in her, he takes her away from the place assuming she is a victim not realizing that he, by his very actions, is victimizing her.
“But [the prince] saw only what he wanted to see, a proud, fierce young beggar woman. In his head he found words for her, the words he wished to hear.
“You cannot stay here,” he said. Panic began to grip [Eliza]. “You will starve alone in the forest.” It was true, she had grown thin, as all her waking effort was put into picking and spinning and knitting and sewing shirts. “You must come with me. I will care for you.” And now he knew that he had fallen in love with this silent woman of the woods. And he mistook the fear of him, of his hounds and the hunters, of being taken away, far away from her brothers, for fear of being left behind.
I love that Morris addresses this most trenchant element of the original tale and compounds the prince’s wrongful action by his silence when another situation arises in the palace when Eliza is accused of something she doesn’t do and sentenced to death because of it. And I love that Eliza takes him to task for this. She asks him why he failed to behave in a manner befitting the suitor he was playing and though the fairytale is resolved in the traditional manner, the fact that Eliza regains her voice and takes the prince to task for his inability to protect and trust her as he ought to have done, as he had all but sworn to do was gratifying.
The usual fairytale princess accepts the prince flaws and all and allows his actions to pass unremarked. This still doesn’t make me like the romance any better but I did appreciate Morris’s subversion of the tale. I also loved how the book is about Eliza and her growth but without using the evil stepmother trope to create a binary of good and bad. Eliza’s purity, beauty, and innocence are not constructed at the expense of another woman. She acquits herself and her qualities shine due to her own actions and interactions with the land and the animals on the land. I appreciated this very much.
As a fairytale retelling, Jackie Morris’s The Wild Swans is a wonderful, far superior in both the telling and the message it contains to Hans Christen Anderson’s. The art, examples of which are interspersed through this review, makes this book one for your collection. Strongly recommended.