Daughter of the Forest
This novel retells Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tale “The Six Swans”, setting it in medieval Ireland (and thereby drawing parallels to the Irish legend of the Children of Lir). The central character, Sorcha, is the only daughter of an Irish chieftain. She runs wild with her six older brothers and loves them devotedly. But when the children’s father remarries and his evil fey wife transforms Sorcha’s brothers into swans, Sorcha is left alone — with a nearly impossible task to carry out. If she does not weave and sew six shirts of nettles, all the while keeping completely silent and communicating nothing of her mission, her beloved brothers will remain swans forever. Only through Sorcha’s completion this task will they become human again.
Marillier takes this well-known story and breaths new life into it, expanding it into a 500+ page novel with several subplots and a few extra characters, all while remaining faithful to the essence of the original plot. The writing quality is, unfortunately, mediocre at best; the first-person narrative is often annoyingly modern in style, as is the dialogue. (In spite of the supposedly medieval setting, this book is 110% modern in its tone and moral perspective.) The prose in general is far from brilliant. Probably the best part about the writing is the character development — the characters are fairly well-drawn and likable (or hateable, in the villains’ case). I think it is the character development which creates the book’s occasional effectiveness, since there were undeniably some scenes which surprised me with their emotional impact in spite of mediocre writing.
The moral attitude of this book is basically relativistic. Marillier seems to equate ‘perspective’ with ‘truth’ — even so far as to treat the words apparently synonymously. Thus she extends one theme of the book — that the combatants on both sides of a feud are equally human and that there are good and bad people on both sides — and applies it rather indiscriminately to moral situations in general. In attempts to explore the moral implications when several characters rescue a spy of the opposing clan from torture, for instance, rather than delve into the complexity of the issue, she sidesteps it by implying that the morality of the act just depends on your point of view. In this context, characters are left to make difficult moral choices with no moral framework.
Particularly, the author avoids moral judgment on the position of the supernatural Fair Folk in the story — either they are amoral beings, or Marillier would just rather not address the morally complex issue of their role in the story and in the lives of the human characters. One thing is certain, though — the author does not bother to conclude whether the Fair Folk are good, evil, or neither; or whether the characters live their lives freely or under the unjust coercion of all-powerful, amoral, and capricious supernatural beings. (The characters would like to believe they live free, but who knows?) I am tempted to chalk this ambiguity up simply to a lack of writing expertise on the author’s part rather than an intentional nod to complete relativism, since to me it seems much easier to leave these questions unanswered than to address them conclusively. Not that the general tone of the book isn’t relativist — but Marillier doesn’t seem a good enough writer to address these issues satisfactorily, and she definitely cheats in using relativism to back out of difficult questions.
I don’t wish to label Marillier a whole-hearted relativist simply because this book does also contain some strong moral content. A central theme of the book is the power of selfless love — love that is willing to give endlessly of itself for the beloved. I liked the book’s emphasis on familial sacrificial love as well as romantic — this is, in my experience, rather rare. Sorcha’s dedication to her brothers is amazing and powerfully moving. And obviously morally right, from the author’s perspective. The characters do also, in certain contexts, appear to believe that some actions are right and others wrong. I think the difficulty here is that relativism strikes me as so illogical that it inevitably appears to me to be a stylistic flaw as well as a moral one. I can’t separate the two, because relativistic answers so often seem just a cop-out intended to replace an actual cohesive explanation.
As to the magic in this book, it consists of an annoying combination of new-agey tree-hugging connection-with-the-earth mysticism (Sorcha is a vegetarian…puleeze!) and clunky non-explanations of the Fair Folk’s actions. For instance, we’re told that Sorcha has to weave the nettle shirts and not speak in order to save her brothers because, well, that’s just the way these magic spells work. Come on, I could come up with a better explanation than that. (But then again, it would involve the redemptive power of sacrificial love, and that’s probably too absolute-truth-y for Marillier.) The main characters are all staunch pagans, and there is also a really lame portrayal of a Christian priest who is kind…but mostly because he’s very open-minded towards paganism as well.
Content advisory: The book contains a rape scene that, while, not excessively graphic, is definitely unambiguous and disturbing, as well as other sexual references (none of them explicit).