Tuesday, 3 February 2015

The Three Ravens: The Transformation

Beginning as I must, at the beginning - and starting, as I must, at the start....
~ The Storyteller.

I've always loved folk and fairy tales. I think it all more or less began for me with Jim Henson's Storyteller series. I can remember with great clarity the experience, as a child of sitting in my Grandparent's front room, their big heavy deep blue curtains drawn, and watching recorded episodes of these fabulous stories. John Hurt's knarly-faced, gravelly-voiced, gnome-like weaver of tales - with his faded patchwork overcoat and sharp twinkly eyes and bright white teeth - brought them vividly to life.

As I grew older, writers such as Neil Gaiman, Angela Carter, Madhur Jaffrey and Brian Froud fuelled my love of re-told and re-imagined folk and fairy tales and mythology. And more recently, the likes of the brilliant Emily Carroll and Laura Makabresku allowed me to re-explore them all over again.

So it seemed about time for me to write and illustrate my own book of folk and fairy tales - something I've been wanting to do for a long time. It'll be a long and slow project, but a greatly enjoyable one all the same :) 

This picture (and the one that follows it) are the illustrations for the first of the stories in my collection - The Three Ravens. I'm part-way through the process of writing the full story that will accompany these pictures in the final book - but am still tinkering with it and refining it - so, for now, this is just a snippet.

The story is based closely on the old traditional version of the tale - which follows the fate of three brothers and their younger sister. The sister falls ill, and the boys are sent out to draw water from a nearby Holy Well, in order to revive her. They have an accident while they're travelling, are unable to bring back any water, and return home empty-handed. The furious father curses the boys, who are promptly transformed into ravens, and fly out of the window and away, never to be seen again. 
Years later, the sister is grown, and sets off on an epic quest to rescue her brothers. She travels first to seek assistance from the sun, the moon and the stars, before finally gaining entry to the Glass Mountain, where her brothers are held - able to transform back into human shape only in the confines of the palisade. She befriends a dwarf, who instructs her to place her ring into one of the goblets the boys drink from each evening - if they recognise the ring, the spell will be broken, and they can return to human form permanently. Which they do, of course, and all is well :)

Interestingly, this tale seems to sometimes merge in detail with other tales of the time, involving birds, children and transformation - such as The Six Wild Swans, the Twelve Wild Ducks, and the Magic Swan Geese - and in some versions of this tale, it is seven brothers that are transformed - not three. 
I love the inherent fluidity of the stories, how they merge and change with each telling. It keeps them wild and untamed. 


An arena of yellow eyes
Watched the changing shape he cut,
Saw hoof harden from foot, saw sprout
Goat-horns. Marked how god rose
And galloped woodward in that guise.
~ Sylvia Plath

... There was a moment or two of silence after the angry words were hurled at the boys - a breath or two was taken, but no more. And then, before the eyes of the startled Father and Daughter, the three boys began to change.... 
Their warm soft skin began to grey and pucker, eyes darkened, down began to sprout on arms, on legs.
Books and toys fell from hands as finger became feather, boots and stockings peeled swiftly away to reveal talons curled beneath. 
And feathers - everywhere feathers - jet back and glinting in the fading evening light, shining like oiled gems.
A ragged cloud of wild birds swooped into the room, wheeling and curling around the boys as they morphed - their many wings creating a whirl of wind that swirled about the small room.
Until nothing remained yet three large ravens, circling and cawing. They flew to the open window.
And they were gone. 
All that remained was a startled silence. The wide, wide eyes of Father and Daughter... and a scattering of ebony feathers, which curled and spun their way lazily to the floor.

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