Angry birds for Meggy Swann

Dear Meggy Swann,

I was reading about you the other day. And I kept thinking, “You were allowed to say ‘Ouch,’ I hope you know.” (Or, as you might prefer, “Ye toads and vipers!”) And that was a good thing.

In my time, you would probably not be considered demonic and/or forced to stay indoors for so long, where your legs would atrophy and add to your existing pain. You would, however, be read as a symbol of transformation, and I fear you may lose something in it. Well, you would — you know how alchemy works — but I don’t want you to lose the wrong thing, because I like you.

Stories of transformation are plentiful here, like your ballads, and have a common refrain. We’re meant to read your story as your transformation from an ugly tempered, self pitying “ugglesome crookleg” into a friendlier and somewhat stronger girl who is therefore no longer ugly. This is an Ugly Duckling refrain, often written with people like you in mind. (Colin Craven, for instance.) Your name evokes it: the cygnet mistaken for a duckling and mocked for its ugliness, sad until it turns into a swan. Ugliness vanishes, and it becomes a symbol of grace and beauty and serenity.

But here’s what that tale doesn’t tell us and you already knew: swans are some feisty birds. Argumentative, even. Fighters, like you and your angel-winged friend Louise. They hiss and have rather smart mouths when provoked — a hard bite for anyone who gets too close or threatens. People accustomed to swans’ more idealized symbolism sometimes find this display of attitude incongruous, even disappointing, because the symbol isn’t pure anymore.

I’m not an alchemist, but I know a few things about reactions and making of something what it isn’t. I can say it short this way: “crooklegs” and “fish scaled boys” and “pig women” are often the objects of other people’s alchemy, an attempt at purification. Alchemists mean them to lose their base metals: their sticks and frames and chairs, their fear and grief and anger. This makes things much easier for the alchemists, because the alchemists thus don’t have to change their ways. (Your father knows that tendency well, Master Peevish indeed.) If they call someone’s difficult feelings self-pity, for example, they magick away any role they may have played in those difficulties. The problem becomes solely individual.

You are not pure. You are made of reactions: yours and others’. The test is in telling them apart.

The second definition of “feisty” is “quick to take offense.” Greeting the world with your fists up, as your gran would say. And you did that in the beginning, a bit. You were quite suspicious of that Roger Oldmeat, Ancient-pork. You couldn’t understand why, for all he affectionately called you “knoddy-pated whey face,” he did not call you “cripplesome.” But how were you to know he meant well, with people having spat on you and cursed at you until then?

When the thief cornered you and yanked your sticks and legs from under you, and you wondered, “Would this be her [your] end, a helpless cripple huddled against a wall,” and “tears of anger and self-pity slithered down [your] cheeks,” was that purely self-pity as alchemists understand it? Or was it survival instincts and self-regard declaring, “I don’t deserve to die in this manner”? When you were “more angry than grateful” after being saved from robbery or worse and shouted, “Aye, I be hurt indeed… I be crippled! Crooked! I could not defend me, nor even walk away,” were you angry at your disability or at the scoundrel who used it to harass you? Your sticks were not the problem. The problem was the man who took them and rendered you helpless.

I once saw a sign that said, “Attitude is the only real disability.” I didn’t understand until much later whose attitude that sign referred to. But I understand now, and I see it in you. The disability you changed with (I can’t say “overcame”) was not physical, but perceptual. That perception was not wholly yours, but others’ too. Their attitude created yours. You weren’t disabled by your mind only, but others’; the fault was not solely on you. You just had to take it on alone, unfortunately. And THAT kind of alchemy – separating yourself from internalized external prejudice – is long and toiling work. And you deserve to dance for that.

But here’s the rub, Meggy Swann. That work isn’t over, in your time or in mine, for those like you. You cannot lose your sticks or your pain or rogues and pukesome people. There are ways that you cannot change, and that is not your fault. Others must change too; that’s basic chemistry for you. And that’s what anger is good for: recognizing when something or someone is unjust, and putting fire under it so it might change. In my time, that is how movements get started and acts get signed. Sometimes the only way to save yourself is to get angry – because you are being treated badly, not because you wish to be contrary. (There are better ways to be contrary. Like calling someone a “wart-necked mammering clapdish,” say.)

I’m glad you found the lilt in your stick-swing-drag, and the Grimms saw the graceful part of the swan in you. And I know Roger said he didn’t see your legs when he looked at you. But I have to say – I see a bit of Louise and smart swan in you still, the angry bird with the sharp beak peering out like the way the swan’s wing slipped from the sleeve of the boy in The Six Swans. And that heartens me.

You know what fire can do. Don’t lose it.

About Amy

Children's librarian, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
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2 Responses to Angry birds for Meggy Swann

  1. zubakt says:

    Another wonderful post, Amy.

  2. Rebecca says:

    Reading The Humming Room and rereading The Secret Garden made me want to come back to this post, too. Insightful stuff here.

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