Daughter of the Forest Sets a High Bar For Fairytale Retellings

Hello, everyone! Fairytale retellings are a popular sub-genre these days, but the quality of each retelling vary. For every genre standout, like Naomi Novik’s “Rumpelstiltskin” adaptation Spinning Silver, there are a hundred weaker offerings. Separating the wheat from the chaff is no easy task, but sometimes finding the best of the genre requires going back to the beginning. Daughter of the Forest, Juliet Marillier’s adaptation of the Brother Grimm’s tale “The Six Swans,” was originally published in 1999, but still remains one of the genre’s crown jewels. Her immersive world-building, complex characters, and imaginative adaptation of the original story provide a blueprint for how to write a successful fairytale retelling.

Synopsis: The only daughter of Irish lord Colum of Sevenwaters, Sorcha, gifted in healing, is raised with loving care by her six older brothers. When her father re-marries the mysterious Lady Oonagh, she takes over Sevenwaters, and determined to install her son as heir, Lady Oonagh uses her dark magic to change the children into swans, with only Sorcha escaping unharmed into the forest. Scared and alone for the first time in her life, young Sorcha makes a pact with the Lady of the Forest to save her brothers. Her task is to sew six shirts of stinging nettle without ever speaking a word, or telling anyone her story. With this monumental task ahead of her, Sorcha embarks on the greatest journey of her lifetime.

My thoughts: I’ll break my comments into three sections: world-building, characterization, and adaptation of the original story.

World-building: Marillier writes in a genre known as “historical fantasy” because her novels combine thorough research with fantasy elements. Set in an ancient version of Ireland called Erin, Daughter of the Forest shows modern readers a world that many have never seen before. In a country almost entirely untouched by Christianity, the magic of druids, the Fair Folk, and prophecies flows through the land. Sorcha, a healer, gains much of her power through her ability to communicate with the Fair Folk and her respect for the natural order of the forest. Although she has a gift tinged with magic, her strengths in healing, gardening, and potion-brewing are not too different than what we could expect from a highborn woman from pre-historical Ireland, making her abilities seem realistic and achievable.

Historical fantasy means constraining characters to the limitations of their time-period. We see this most with the gender roles inhabited by Sorcha and the men around her. Sorcha begins the book as a twelve-year-old girl who is under the thumb of her older brothers and father. It’s only when she begins her quest that she gains the freedom to make her own decisions, but that comes with the price of being a woman alone in a man’s world. Throughout the novel, Sorcha is constantly ordered about by men. She suffers violence at their hands, including rape, and because of magical “otherness”, is a natural victim for their vicious political games. Even though it’s difficult to watch Sorcha struggle against the whims of the men around her, it’s also realistic for the time. Compared to a modern heroine, she has a distinct lack of agency, and her voicelessness makes her even more helpless. But rather than being a damsel in distress, Sorcha is a true heroine, working tirelessly to complete her task despite the cruelty of the world around her. She acts as a woman of her time would act, which I appreciated, although I know some readers did not.

The historical element gives the novel the authenticity that other fairytale retellings lack. All fairytales are products of their time, and characters act in ways that are often incomprehensible to modern readers. As a child, I remember being bewildered by the actions of the main characters in the Brothers Grimm version of “The Six Swans.” Why would the king’s new wife want to transform his children into swans? Why would the daughter agree to take a vow of silence to help save them? Why would a neighboring king decide to marry her, and why would she become the victim of the cruelties of his family? Marillier answers these questions by setting her story in a time with distinct political and social context. Transforming children into swans becomes the answer to the question of succession. A random king marrying a silent girl he met on the road becomes a political game between two warring countries. The petty cruelties of family are transformed into acts of violence committed by people fearful of the unknown. Marillier’s world-building gives every detail in this perplexing fairytale a rhyme and a reason. Just by taking this step, she sets her novel worlds above many other books in the genre.

Complex characterization: Fairytales are based on stereotypes. The saintly princess, wicked stepmother, weak king, and heroic prince are trademarks of the genre. Marillier manages to preserve the bones of these stereotypes while also building off of them to create characters that are recognizable, but also unpredictable. Sorcha is a classic example of this. Though she starts the book off as an innocent princess of sorts, she is soon forced to grow into a woman. She encounters violence and darkness, feels love and desire, and makes difficult decisions, all while retaining the inner “virtue” that makes her worthy of being a fairytale heroine. While the princess of the fairytale was a mere symbol of womanly devotion, Sorcha is a complicated character who constantly questions her choices, while still continuing on the “righteous” path.

The men in this novel occupy a wide spectrum of good and evil. Sorcha’s brothers, relegated to silent swans in the fairytale, are given hopes, dreams, and pitfalls in this novel. Her father, the stereotypical weak king, gets his own tragic arc, and the heroic prince, perhaps the best-drawn male character in the book, is lover, protector, and confidant. The two characters who do fall prey to stereotyping are the two antagonists: Lady Oonagh and Lord Richard. Both are evil without much cause, but in Oonagh’s case, I believe the reasons behind her actions will be shared in later books in the series.

Since Daughter of the Forest was written in 1999, it’s saved from falling in the character traps that so many fantasy books rely on these days. By that I mean there are no femme-fatale heroines, and no bad-boy love interests. The characters in this novel seem real and human, and most importantly, they act like people in their time should act. I never once felt drawn out of the story by anachronistic character dialogue or actions. This is important because fairytales should immerse you in an old world, not make you feel like you’re visiting your own.

The Swan Princes - Anne Anderson.jpg
“The Swan Princess” by Anne Anderson

Adaptation of the original fairytale: Like I said in my world-building section, one of the primary reasons that Daughter of the Forest succeeds is because it gives a type of coherence to a strange and confusing fairytale. Marillier takes a traditionalist’s perspective in adapting the original fairytale by preserving almost the entire structure of the plot. While other fairytale re-tellings may borrow the source material’s characters but completely change the plot, or vice versa, Marillier keeps both the characters and the plot intact while still breathing new life into the story by transposing it into an imaginative alternative world. While Marillier is a strong storyteller in her own right, she also recognizes the inherent strength in the original fairytale’s structure, and knows that there’s no point in fixing what isn’t broken. On the other hand, Marillier does know the value of editing. She combines characters in some parts, invents new ones in others, but stays true to the essence of the fairytale. That essence is what makes Daughter of the Forest worth reading, and what I think most modern fairytale re-tellings are missing. There is a reason that these tales have stuck around for so long, and that’s because they each carry a kernel of the extraordinary. Stripping these stories for their characters or plot might make for a shiny new entry in the genre, but it won’t necessarily produce a story worth reading.

Final consensus: Daughter of the Forest represents the height of storytelling in the fairytale re-telling genre. With its mix of historical fantasy, its well-crafted characters, and its faithfulness to the source material, the novel sets an example for the niche, and for the fantasy genre as a whole.

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