The first book of, in my opinion, Australia’s best fantasy author, Daughter of the Forest is a brilliant start. Marillier published her first book, in her later years, and since it broke through has undertaken the time and effort to research another 11 novels.
DotF is tentatively set in the late 9th century, and based on a fictional regional dispute, between those of Erin and the Britons, the family at Sevenwaters and Richard of Northwood’s. Although many of her other novels are based loosely around historical era’s with the intention of being historical fantasies, the books of Sevenwaters are not intended as such, allowing for discrepancies such as Druids remaining after the Norman conquest, however, these are facts noticeable only to those with immense knowledge of early Irish history, and as Marillier has stated, the novel was not intended to be historically accurate.
The protagonist is Sorcha of Sevenwaters the youngest of seven children, and only daughter of Colum, seventh son of a seventh son. Sorcha’s mother died at her birth and left her to be raised by her older brothers, Liam, Diarmid, Cormack, Conner, Finbar and Padriac, as their father is busy attempting to reclaim ‘The islands’ sacred land to the people of Erin who follow the old ways, which has been taken by the Britons, lead by Richard of Northwood. Sorcha begins as a happy and carefree thirteen year old girl, her innocence and naivety juxtapositioning with her role as healer to the people of Sevenwaters, and lives happily chasing after her brothers, and we spot early on Sorcha’s dislike of change when her oldest brother Liam becomes betrothed to Eilis. However this change Sorcha can handle, unlike the tragedy that befalls the child and her family soon thereafter. As the tiniest pebble can start a rock fall, the betrothal is what Sorcha sees as a beginning to her tale. Sorcha’s characterisation begins as she begins to understand the damage the fighting between her people and the Britons has, and begins to understand the prejudice and hate that can come from ignorance. It is at this point in the novel that Marillier’s story takes on familiar characteristics, not unexpectedly as the tale is based on the folk tale of the Six Swans. In the tale, a Kings sons are turned to swans by their evil step-mother, and the youngest, a daughter must break the curse by remaining silent as she labours, creating six shirts, usually from a painful stinging plant*.
Sorcha’s character develops maturity and wisdom as she faces tragedy after tragedy, has her innocence torn away and her faith, in the old ways, and in herself, tested, but maintains her strength, her sweetness and her determination to save her family. Marillier is well known for her ability to create an intense and moving romance, and the developing love between Sorcha and her jailor/saviour Red, is as poetic and sweet as any. Marillier manages to make the realisation of love as sudden as possible without being unrealistic as many others tend to. At the same time, she creates in Red, a man who is sweet, steady, kind and courageous, and equal to Sorcha while contrasting, reflecting the consistent theme of duality present through the novel, he is still where she is free, he is tamed as she is wild. Duality holds a strong thread in the novel, with the faith of Sorcha’s home, in the old ways and the Fairfolk, and Christianity, the Deidre the Lady of the Forest and the sorceress Oonagh, the properties of Starwort and even the conflict between those of Erin and the Britons.
I am going to mention characterisation. I believe Marillier has balanced well between the complex characterisation of the main characters, and slight background for minor characters. Sorcha and Red for instance become very real people, with fears and hopes and dream. Contrastingly, Ben or John are lesser characters, so we learn of their nature rather than their identity, of Ben as the joker and John as the thinker. Marillier has done an excellent job, in my opinion, on the brothers, who aren’t quite one dimensional characters, though they each represent different types of people, each has a story, or a way in which they develop themselves through their relationship doting on Sorcha, or setting off along their own unique paths preparing to lead Sevenwaters (Liam), to take on Orders (Conner), or as an inventor/Adventurer (Padriac).
This happens to be one of my favourite tales, because of the depth and complexity of plot, the characterisation of prime characters and its basis on the Six Swans. Below I have included a link to a sight with many folk tales, including an annotated version of The Six Swans, and below that a link discussing some of the mythological groups which appear in the novel, including the Fomhóire, from whom the family of Sevenwaters can claim an ancestor, and the Tuatha Dé Danann, who appear as the Lady of the Forest and the Lord of Fire.
Surlalune Fairy Tales –The Six Swans
Mythology of the novel
*usually nettles, though Marillier created a fictional herb called starwort, which reflects one of her main themes, that of duality. Starwort is intended to be a pretty herb, all fluff and colour, but the slightest touch inflicts pain as the plants barbs nestle into the skin.