Wednesday, 30 June 2010
WHERE THE SWAN KINGDOM CAME FROM
As anyone who's read my first book The Swan Kingdom knows, it's based on a fairytale called The Wild Swans, which is a Hans Christian Andersen story. When I actually came to write the book lots of other influences crept in there, like Celtic mythology and some Japanese folklore, but the original spark of inspiration was the fairytale.
This was my favourite fairy story growing up for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I liked that the heroine got to be the one to save her brothers. I also admired how bravely the heroine suffered in silence, and the fact that she lived by herself in a forest and managed to find things to eat on her own and arranged her own shelter. Badass.
But the biggest reason that I loved the story was that when I was fairly young my sister bought me a picture book of it. It was a cancelled library book. It just turned up in the rickety plywood 'For Sale' box one day. If I remember correctly, I had loved the book for some time and borrowed it continuously, and the thought of the book being sold away to some stranger reduced me to tears. With much sighing and tutting, my sister forked over the 25p to the librarian, and the book was mine.
Frankly, I was obsessed with it. It followed me everywhere. I used to use it to lean on when I was drawing (and before I discovered the joys of writing, I drew CONSTANTLY). I stored my completed pictures - maps of fantasy countries and princesses and castles - between the pages. That book, with its curled over plastic cover, its shiny pages and purple end papers, and it's magnificent illustrations, became so much a part of me that I suppose it seeped indelibly into my imagination's landscape.
So I thought I would post some of my favourite pictures from the book here, to show how they offered me inspiration in writing The Swan Kingdom.
This shows the scene where the wicked stepmother turns her stepsons into swans and banishes them. On the face of it nothing from this image - or this event in the original version of the story - survived in my version. But I always remember thinking how very much like clouds the swans wings looked here, and that idea does turn up in the book. Plus, just look at that stepmother's face! Ooh, she looks triumphant and evil.
A picture of the picture book heroine, after she runs away from the palace and her stepmother. This doesn't really happen in The Swan Kingdom. What you can see here though, is that the heroine has red hair, like Alexandra (I just couldn't think of the heroine of this story any other way) although Alexandra has green eyes (like me) and the heroine of the picture book has grey eyes. I also think this picture sums up the way my heroine, Alexandra perceives her brothers throughout the book: as a part of nature which she cannot quite reach. The picture book reads: All night long Elise dreamed of her brothers. Once more they were children playing together, carefree and loved... This may have been why dreams played such an important part in The Swan Kingdom.
Next, an image of the storybook princess on the shore, looking for her brothers. In the original story, the princess meets her brothers here and they rescue her and carry her off across the sea. But in my version the heroine does not see her brothers - only great white birds in the shapes of the clouds - and she walks the beach alone. Until she meets Gabriel...
Here's an image of the hunting party that finds the princess in the woods and carries her off to be married to the King (without asking her, I might add!). Look at those exotic hunting creatures! In The Swan Kingdom, there are no leopards, but there are some very friendly hunting dogs, which belong to Gabriel. He's been looking for Alexandra, and has trained his hounds to know the scent of her magic.
This is one of the final illustrations in the picture book. In the original fairytale, the heroine is about to be burned at the stake by her husband the King! She just has time to throw the nettle shirts over her brothers before the fire is lit, and when they transform back into princes, the heroine is cleared of all charges of witchcraft, and the pyre where she was to be burned blooms with roses. That certainly does NOT happen in The Swan Kingdom, but this image of the roses blooming at the moment of the heroine's triumph stuck with me, and turned into the legend of the King's Rose, which blooms when...well, you'll just have to read the book to find out!
I think what's interesting about looking at the pictures and comparing them to the way The Swan Kingdom turned out, is that you can see how tiny, random details in the original story, or impressions of the illustrations, became so significant to the novel. And how major parts of the original fairytale just fell by the wayside! That's they they call it 'inspiration' I suppose.