March 22, 2016

Winged Messengers: Birds in Fairy Tales, by Susan Caroff

February brought us the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, in which citizen scientists and ornithologists across the world identify and classify birds in backyards and park(St. Fleur, 2016). Results of this year’s count included sightings of common birds, such as the American blue jay, and uncommon birds, such as the Great hornbill in India.  Data on thousands of birds were uploaded to a database to add to the extensive information already known about bird species.

"The Ugly Duckling," John Hassall
Birds, with their wonderful gifts of flight and song, capture the attention of many in the real world, so it’s no surprise that they often appear in fairy tales.  In bird tales, birds are often the agents of transformation or are themselves transformed into different creatures.  Three of the best known stories involving birds are "The Little Nightingale" and "The Ugly Duckling," by Hans Christian Andersen and "Hansel and Gretel," by the Brothers Grimm.

First, the little nightingale, though plain, has a splendid song that moves the heart of even the most imperious emperor.  Her voice is unique and cannot be replicated mechanically.  And the ugly duckling, facing rejection by many, eventually becomes a graceful swan.  Finally, birds play an oppositional role in Hansel and Gretel, eating the breadcrumbs the children drop to guide their way home from the dark forest.
"Hansel and Gretel," John B. Gruelle
 "The Happy Prince," by Oscar Wilde, is not often included in anthologies of fairy tales, yet it is a compelling story of regret and enchantment.  A brave, tireless swallow helps a bejeweled statue of a prince give all his gems to the poor.  The swallow dies in his efforts, and along with prince, whose lead heart is broken in two when the little bird dies, is carried to heaven to live in paradise.  Even less known is a tale of retribution and redemption, "The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf," by Hans Christian Andersen.  The girl in this story begins her life as cruel and selfish child, and is eventually turned to stone for her bad deeds.  But after learning to have pity for others, she is shown mercy and becomes a happy little bird overjoyed at the beauty of the world around her.  
"The Happy Prince," Charles Robinson
Here are a few other tales you may have missed: The Slavic folktale, "The Firebird," provides a foundation for many fairy tales.  The firebird’s plumage glows as if it contains real fire, and so becomes the goal of heroic quests by princes and paupers alike.  A famed version of the story is the Russian ballet, The Firebird,with musical score by the celebrated composer Igor Stravinsky. In another retelling, "The Golden Bird," by the Brothers Grimm, a prince teams up with an enchanted fox to seek the prized bird.
"The Firebird," Edmund Dulac
A modern version of a bird story can be found in the song by Bob Marley, “Three Little Birds.”  The birds appear outside Marley’s window to deliver reassurance to the singer and his listeners.  “Don’t worry about a thing, they say, ’Cause every little thing gonna be all right.”

Please share other information you may have about birds in fairy tales in comments on this article.

Susan Caroff teaches at West Chester University.

(Editor's note: First image is by Harry Clarke, from "The Nightingale.")

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