In her fantasy novel, ‘Six Crimson Cranes,’ Elizabeth Lim tells an enchanting tale of love, magic, family and sacrifice as we follow the unlucky princess, Shiori, as she attempts to save her brothers from a terrible curse.
Once a pampered princess, everything changed for Shiori when her wicked stepmother transforms her six brothers into white cranes. Cursed with silence, Shiori is the only one who can find a way to save them. If this story sounds familiar, it’s because it should. Lim’s novel is inspired by the fairy tale of ‘The Six Swans,’ reimagined to take place in Kiata, an East-Asian inspired fantasy world.
The original story of ‘The Six Swans’ is a German fairy tale that was included in the collections of the brothers Grimm in 1812. The story tells of a king who managed to get lost while hunting and was offered aid from an old witch, on the condition that he marry her only daughter. While the king was reluctant, he agreed to the deal. The king had been married before, however, and already had six sons and one daughter from his previous wife. Fearing that his new wife would hurt them, he sent them away and would visit them in secret. One day he was not careful enough, and his new wife learnt of her stepchildren. Just as the king had feared, she decided to do away with them, and transformed her stepsons into swans. Their sister escaped and went searching for her brothers, and when she found them, she learnt that they were capable of taking human form, but only at night. In human form, the brothers are able to tell their sister how to break their curse – over six years she must make six shirts out of star-flowers (aster) for the brothers to wear. In this time, she must not make a sound, as doing so would mean that the cure would not work. The princess agreed and began her task.
After several years she was seen by another country’s king, who was struck by her beauty and decided to marry her. Her new home also brought her to the attentions of another wicked queen. Her new husband’s mother (believing her a commoner) did not see the princess as fit to be queen. Though she attempted to persuade the king to put her aside, he refused. Eventually the queen took drastic measures. When the princess gave birth the queen stole the child – and two subsequent children – accusing the princess of killing and eating them with each kidnapped child. Unable to say a word in her defence, the princess was sentenced to be burnt at the stake. Determined to save her brothers, the princess continued her sewing up to the pyre. Just before she is burnt her swan brothers appear and she throws the shirts over them, transforming them back into humans.
While this is one version of the story, there are many similar tales telling of a princess who must save her transformed brothers. The number of brothers changes, as does the type of bird that they are turned into – sometimes they are made into ravens, geese, or doves. In Hans Christian Andersen’s version of the story, ‘The Wild Swans’ published in 1838, protagonist Elisa must rescue her eleven swan brothers. In this version of the story the shirts must be made from painful stinging nettles, collected from graveyards. The nettles are particularly painful, and Elisa’s hand are badly damaged and blistered from handling them. Andersen also adds a cruel twist to the original legend, Elisa must be silent, not to ensure the cure works, but because uttering a single sound would kill her brothers.
‘Six Crimson Cranes’ contains many elements of these stories, while adapting them for an East-Asian inspired setting and fantasy realm. Magic is banned in the kingdom of Kiata and, when Shiori witnessed her stepmother using magic, the queen’s beautiful face transformed into the guise of a white serpent, Shiori was quick to warn her brothers of their stepmother’s seemingly demonic nature. In response, their stepmother transformed Shiori’s brothers into cranes, and banished them and Shiori from the kingdom. But alone and banished, Shiori was hiding a magical secret of her own, a secret that may save her brothers or doom them all.
Like in Andersen’s version, Shiori was cursed to silence, for each sound that passed her lips would mean the death of one of her brothers. This aspect of the curse was tied to a wooden bowl, placed over Shiori’s head down to her nose, and enchanted to be impossible to remove. Though magic allowed Shiori to continue to see through the bowl, it made her completely unrecognisable, while her silence left her unable to tell anyone her identity – very thorough, the curse also extended to the written word. This does tie back into the novel’s fairy tale inspiration. In many versions of the story the princess is dirtied or stained to make her unrecognisable (though this does lead to the question of why she didn’t just wash her face).
Another change is how the curse should be broken, the alteration stemming from the source of the stepmother’s power. Rather than witchcraft, her magic comes from the (presumably) stolen pearl of a dragon. In order to break the spell, Shiori must weave a net from a magical flower named starstroke. Like aster, the flower is named for a star, however like a nettle, the flower has terrible thorns and sharp leaves. To make matters worse, the magical plant produces an unnatural burning heat. The process of gathering the plant and beating it to flax for weaving is an excruciating one, and Shiori finds herself struggling to keep her silence through the process without crying out in pain. Rather than gathering the plant from churches and graveyards, Shiori must collect the plant from Mount Rayuna, a place guarded by dragons.
However, there is yet another cruel twist to the curse. In order to break it, Shiori must catch her stepmother in the starstroke net and steal her dragon pearl. The curse will be broken when Shiori holds the pearl in her hands and speaks aloud her stepmother’s real name… killing one of her brothers.
Determined to find a solution to that issue later, Shiori sets about making the starstroke net. It is during this time that she encounters Takkan. Takkan takes on the role of the mysterious king who falls in love with the beautiful but silent woman that he meets in the woods. Unlike in the fairy tale, however, Takkan is not a stranger to Shiori but instead her fiancé, with the two having been betrothed since childhood. Though Takkan is unable to recognise Shiori he still attempts to help her, and she is taken into his household first as a servant and then as a friend. During this time romance begins to blossom between Takkan and Shiori – who had previously chafed against a betrothal that she had no choice in.
The story takes place over one year, rather than six, and so the two’s romance does not reach the point of marriage and children. That does not however mean that Shiori is safe. Rather than being accused of cannibalising her own children, Shiori is instead accused of being a sorcerer and spy. This accusation comes from Zairena, a close friend of the family who, in Takkan’s absence, is able to convince his mother that the strange girl with the bowl on her head is not to be trusted. Like her fairy tale counterpart, Shiori is sentenced to be burnt at the stake. As she is led to the pyre Shiori is making, not shirts (the starstroke net already having been created) but instead origami cranes, inspired by a Japanese superstition that folding 1000 origami cranes will result in a granted wish.
Shiori is saved by her brothers and Takkan and from here the tale diverts into new territory, with the novel exploring its own story, examining the motivations of the stepmother, the history of magic and demons within Kiata and the source of Shiori’s own magical powers.
Overall ‘Six Crimson Cranes’ is a charming and enchanting novel that manages to contain many elements of the original fairy tales while still exploring and developing its own characters and story. Through the new world and setting Shiori’s tale is both original and familiar and is a wonderful addition to the fairy tale archetypes’ long history of being retold and reimagined.
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