The Bird King is a fantasy novel written by the American writer Gwendolyn Willow Wilson and published on the 12 of March of 2019 by the publisher Grove Atlantic. Within its 440 pages, the author blends fantasy, historical romance, magical realism, and adventure. A story set during the Spanish Inquisition, of love versus power, religion against faith, and freedom against security.
Known professionally as G. Willow Wilson (August 31, 1982), she is a comic book writer, prose author, essayist, and journalist. Writer of the World fantasy awarded novel: Alif the Unseen, and of the Ms. Marvel series, her work has been translated into over a dozen languages. Both her work as a comic book writer and her novels are strongly influenced by her time in Egypt and her conversion to Islam.
The literary piece in question oscillates between historical facts and fantasy, with the conquest of Granada in the background, and the medieval imaginary towards which the protagonists flee. The book is based on Farid al Din Attar’s The Conference of Birds, a Persian poem that tells how the birds meet to decide who will be their king and, following the suggestion of the hoopoe, set out on a long journey across seven valleys to find him. The title of this poem is taken directly from the Qur’an, where Solomon and David are said to have been taught the language, or speech, of the birds. In it, all the birds of the world gather together to decide who will be their ruler, as they have none. Due to this search for a majestic figure they take over a long journey, where most of the birds are left behind. Finally, the only 30 birds who make it to the abode of Simorgh, realize that they are their own masters.
Through an old copy of this poem, the novel follows Fatima, concubine of Boabdil (the last sultan of Granada), and her best friend Hassan, the sultan’s cartographer, during the siege of the city by the troops of the Catholic Monarchs. Fatima is a rebellious soul who feels caged despite being the Sultan’s favorite and who takes advantage of any free moment to visit her friend, as he has a special gift: he can draw on maps things that do not exist, such as doors or rooms, and make them real. He can chart hidden paths that bend reality and fold the distance between a person and their destination. So long as the map exists, so does the path, and the place. With these maps, Fatima can momentarily escape from her routine, locked up in the palace and in a body that is owned by others.
Everything changes when the Catholic Monarchs send a delegation to negotiate the surrender of the city. There, Fatima meets Luz, a woman who intrigues her until she learns that she is an inquisitor and who, on discovering Hassan’s gift, demands that he be handed over to the Inquisition for witchcraft. Faced with this prospect, the friends will flee the besieged city, aided by a djinn (an Arabic mythological creature), towards the sea but without a fixed destination. Then, remembering the verses of The conference of Birds and the children’s game they created from it, they decide to go in search of the King of the Birds with the help of Hassan’s skill. An epic adventure and journey where the characters, like the birds, will have to overcome all the obstacles along the way in order to achieve their own self-realization as sovereigns.
The novel is clearly divided into three parts. The first takes place in Granada, with a historical and realistic background, except for Hassan’s gift. The second, that of the characters’ flight, is a transition between the historical and the lyrical. Thus, the final part, which is just when the characters arrive at their destination, gives free rein to the medieval imaginary. There is a clear progression from the historical reality to the imaginary world created by the author. This extensive transition from the physical to the imaginary is the authors’ way of making the literal flight of the characters, from the Inquisition and their predetermined lives, into a much greater metaphorical liberation. Through the search for physical freedom, both Fatima, who crosses the Iberian peninsula to finally be the owner of her body, and Hassan, who flees from those who want to hang him for sorcery, achieve a much higher mental liberation. Shedding the roles and limitations imposed on them by society and becoming the owners and creators of their story is the ultimate tale behind this novel. As clearly understood from this quote at the end of the book, the author aims to empower her readers to take the reigns of their story:
Fatima looked into the water again. Her own face stared back at her. All the moments that had comed before, the things she had remembered and forgotten, arranged themselves into a straight line. She could not look back into the yellow room in the palace where she had been born and see how they had each other proceeded, one after the other, to the wild place in which she found herself, though she could not have imagined at the beggining where the end would be.“I am the king of the birds,” she whispered to herself.
Beyond the meaning of the words themselves and their precious metaphorical insights into empire, love, war, and religion, the author makes use of the language itself to get her message across. Through active descriptions of the characters’ actions, relationships, and dreams, the author has a unique way of presenting their personalities. Not being limited by the classical way of description and story-telling, she creates lived-through characters who become incredibly close to the reader and with who everyone can relate and empathize.
In conclusion, this is a rich metaphorical story with characters that will make you wonder about the basis of love, friendship, and self. A literary work parallel to the message of my own project, chasing the same mental liberation from what is real and possible, as well as the ideal that we are each the ultimate creators of our future and sovereigns of our story.