I adore fairy tale retellings. While some scoff at the simplistic lessons and unrealistic conclusions to these stories that held us all enthralled as children, I’ve yet to allow the cynical hand of adulthood leach the wonder out of these classic tales. There is a reason why we cling so eagerly to them in our youth, and why they have endured in countless iterations throughout generations and across cultural ties. They speak to a part of us that never tires of contemplating the potential for hope and happiness, no matter how improbable the odds or circumstances.
While I’ve long heard Juliet Marillier’s praises sung, for some reason, I’ve never before picked up one of her novels. Yet today I found I could no longer ignore the reviews that hailed Daughter of the Forest as one of the best fairy tale adaptations to date, and I’m glad I finally gave Marillier a chance, because her tale did not disappoint. Her take on
the Celtic tale of Wild Swans is epic in emotional impact if not in action. This is a tale in which a woman must strive to become her own savior and that of her family; her strength is not questioned and discounted by those around her, and she delivers on her promise, quietly suffering to fulfill the salvation that only she can bring about.
I often find fault in heroines whose innate goodness seems unmarred. Though unfortunate circumstances are heaped upon their shoulders, they bear it stoically and kindly, and we the readers know the vast injustice that they face to bravely. Sorcha could easily have come across as this type of heroine, and in truth, Marillier does little to create the faults that might otherwise be necessary to flesh her out into a believable character. As it is, Sorcha’s unwavering resolution in carrying out her mission seems more than any one person could hope to undertake. Yet I never felt resentful toward Sorcha as I so often do toward heroines whose qualities are irreproachable. Perhaps it owes to the weight of the tasks she is forced to perform and the isolation in which she exists for three years, but each time some new adversity was forced upon her, I could not help but long for the day when Sorcha’s accomplishments would be acknowledged, no matter how unlikely their achievement might seem in real life. For what else is the purpose of fairy tales but to make the improbable seem possible?
For most of the book, I adored Sorcha’s relationship with her brothers. Often, when so many characters are introduced, particularly in a familial setting, it becomes inevitable that some of their personalities fail to distinguish themselves. Yet Marillier succeeds brilliantly in creating each of Sorcha’s brothers as distinct characters, ones whose love for their sister and heartbreak over their fortune makes the reader all the more sympathetic to the necessity of Sorcha’s success in her endeavors. It was due to Marillier’s success in evoking my emotional investment in Sorcha’s brothers that I was so upset by their attitude towards her after their curse is finally lifted. Maybe Marillier wished to contrast the effects of the curse on the male and female figures involved, showing a stunt in growth on the brothers’ part that stood out against Sorcha’s emotional development. Yet whatever the case, her brothers’ failure or disinclination to take Sorcha’s own desires and happiness into account after all she had sacrificed for them was disheartening. It undermined the very strength of sibling bond that justified and necessitated the heartbreak that has sustained the story thus far.
I’ve read many reviews that debate Sorcha’s decision to stay with Red rather than Simon. Suffice it to say, after finishing the story, I’m not sure how this can even be a topic of discussion. Sorcha’s connection to Simon was fleeting at best, and founded on the same superficial hopes that the tales she recounted to him warned against. While many lament the fact that, in contrast to Simon’s colorful energy, Red is too boring and unemotional to warrant Sorcha’s love, I found Marillier’s slow and subtle evolution of Sorcha and Red’s romance utterly charming. Red is exactly the type of hero I prefer in my stories, fairy tale or otherwise. His emotions simmer below the surface, yet they are fiercely present to those who know to search for it. His ambitions and desires reflect the mature mind that Sorcha needs upon emergence from the traumas of her childhood. Even had she been given the chance to get to know Simon better, he could offer her little more than the idealistic dreams sprung from youthful fantasy.
I’m glad I’ve finally given Marillier the attention she deserves as a masterful teller of tales told many times before. The ability to make such a story seem at once fresh and enchanting is a rare talent, and I look forward to reading more from her in the future.