the witch's boy December 09


Strange Birds by Kelly Barnhill

“Once upon a time there was a sorcerer who disguised himself as a poor man, went begging from house to house, and captured beautiful girls. No one knew where he took them, for none of them ever returned.” - “Fletcher’s Bird,” a story from the Grimm Brothers

“Once upon a time there was a sorcerer who disguised himself as a poor man, went begging from house to house, and captured beautiful girls. No one knew where he took them, for none of them ever returned.”
– “Fletcher’s Bird,” a story from the Grimm Brothers


When I was a little girl, once I actually started reading (which, for me, took a while; longer than most), I read fairy tales. Lots and lots and lots of fairy tales. I started with Grimm, of course, because that was what we had on the shelf. I have no idea which edition or translation it was, all I know is that our copy was so old that the covers disintegrated, and my dad had to re-bind the ancient pages himself, using an old checkerboard and a lot of duct tape. These were the stories he read to us, over and over, when I was small, and these were the stories I read to myself, over and over, often out loud, when I was somewhat bigger than small.


Fairy tales filled my head, a great, murmuring flock of them – all feathers and talon, and down and birdsong, and sharp, sharp beak. They roosted in my imagination. Each one jostled and squawked and preened. They sang impossibly beautiful melodies. They sometimes pecked at my heart.


And these stories? They were dark. The world of fairy tales is filled with things that will catch you, and hurt you, and even eat you – ogres and witches and wolves and stepmothers and mostly-unwitting fathers. There are devilish bargains to be struck and manipulative men who will refuse to give you their names. At any moment, you might eat the wrong thing, pick the wrong flower, speak the wrong words, take the wrong path. There are princes who would wed and behead you, mothers-in-law who try to frame you and kings gone mad by magic and greed. There are mothers who are transformed to birds and remain birds forever. And worst of all, wolves dress as grandmothers – they call you by name, and draw you ever nearer, and smile all sharp-toothed in the softness of a bed.


I think I was nine when I read that. No wonder I had little interest in dating until well into my college years. Let this be a lesson to parents everywhere.


A fairy tale, by its nature, explores the explicit connection between the Known to the Unknown. They are linked, you see, just as peril is linked to triumph, and love is linked to loss. For a child though, the Unknown is exponentially larger than the Known, which is why fairy tales are so useful. (The same is true for an adult, of course, but an adult is much better at ignoring it. Adults are experts in ignoring things.) A child follows in the footsteps of a hero or heroine from safety to danger to safety again, and learns the skills by which she will one day negotiate her own journey into the wider world. I read fairy tales obsessively because I needed to. I was a bullied kid. I was a lonely kid. The world was full of dangers. And I was afraid. I needed a kind wolf and a bird mother and a very sharp knife. I needed a kindly beggar and a transformed deer and Clever Manka. I needed fairy tales. Badly.


This is how began my journey into the realm of fairy tales. This is also why I stayed. I Eventually, I discovered Andrew Lang, and his Fairy Books – Violet, Red, Green, Blue and all the rest. I discovered Charles Perrault. I discovered Joseph Jacobs. I discovered the great, great Madame d’Aulnoy. And still my hunger for fairy tales persisted. Thanks to the ineffable patience of the library staff at Walker Library in Minneapolis (a building that was, then, largely underground – my own subterranean kingdom. Or queendom. Whichever) I learned the magic of interlibrary loans. I read folk and fairy tales from the Arabian Peninsula and the Norse countries and South Africa. I read stories from Russia, Poland, Japan and Mesoamerica. If it had the word “tales” in it as I scanned the mircofiche files, I wrote it down on my ever-increasing call slips and handed it to the long-suffering librarians who gave me indulgent smiles while repressing their sighs.


Good people, those Walker librarians. Very good people.


My brain, in all of its various bits – the storytelling bits, and the teaching bits, and the mothering bits, and the bleeding-heart-do-gooder bits – they were all built by fairy tales. Good monsters and wicked maidens. Seven swan brothers and most helpful wolves. Giants with no hearts in their bodies. Impossible tasks made both possible and transformative by clever, industrious girls. Crack open my skull and great flocks of stories will fly out – so numerous, they will blanket the sky.

strange birds 2

The darkness in fairy tales is a necessary darkness. When Madame d’Aulnoy wrote her Les Contes de Feès in 1697, it’s true that she did not intend it for children. However, she knew full well that the stories she was transcribing and refining were the stories that the servant women in her grand castles told to their children. And they themselves heard them as children from the mouths of women who heard them when they were children. There is a reason to give a child a dark tale – a frightening tale. A tale of loss and sorrow and danger and immutable hope. When we give a child such a tale we are giving them tools.


Here, we say. This story is a map.


Here, we say. This story is a compass.


Here, we say. This story is a sword and a shield and a purse full of coins. It is a physician’s pouch and a very long staff and an intricate machine that will only reveal its purpose when you set the gears just right. It is a bird that will tell you the truth. It is a mirror to help you examine your scars. It is a lantern, to help you find your way.


In fairy tales, I learned about fear, yes. I learned that the world can be dark and treacherous and mean. I learned that there are people who are hungry – who will try to snatch the good parts of my spirit and take them away. I learned that sometimes wickedness exists just because.


But I learned something else, too. I learned that there is a difference between strength and resiliency, and that the latter is far more important. I learned that we can and must keep loving people, even when they transform, even when they become unrecognizable to those who love them most. Indeed, that is when our love is most crucial. I learned greed perverts even the best and noblest of minds, and that the only currency worth anything in this world is kindness.


In the end, it is kindness that redeems us all.


When I sit at my desk, the stories that I listened to, and the stories that I read, and the stories that I read out loud to myself in my back yard all alone, all flutter out and roost in the room. They perch on the windowsill, on the bookshelf, on the picture frames, on the closet door. They spiral above my head in updrafts of their own making, keening all the while. Strange birds, these stories, they are strange, strange birds. But they tell me the truth, and they soothe my spirit, and they lead me forward. And I try to do the same with my readers.

strange birds 3


the witch's boyKelly Barnhill is a teaching artist and a writer from Minneapolis. She’s the author of The Witch’s Boy, Iron Hearted Violet, and The Mostly True Story of Jack, as well as several short stories across the genre spectrum. Her work has garnered earned her starred reviews, a Parents Choice Gold Award, an Andre Norton Award finalist, and fellowships from the Jerome Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board. She lives with her architect husband and her three possibly-evil-genius children and her one thousand year old dog. It’s a pretty good life, actually.