Friday, November 10, 2017

Why a Vermilion Bird?

A few months ago, in “The Story Behind the Story,” I discussed themes in novels. But themes also show up—for me, at least—in images. These images range from cover graphics to metaphors and symbols that recur throughout the world of a given story.

Often the two are connected: the image sparks the recurring metaphor; the metaphor or symbol gives rise to the image that becomes the cover and even the title of a given book. Because of the way my mind works, I often see the image first, and I have to explore it to find out what it’s telling me about the story. Of all my novels so far, that was most true of The Swan Princess, which took a long time to incubate as I probed meanings of swans and swan princesses throughout the world and tried to imagine what the relevance of those legends and images might be to my series characters.

What then, is the relevance of the Vermilion Bird? As I explain in the Historical Note to Legends 4, the Vermilion Bird is a variation on the phoenix. Each of the Legends of the Five Directions novels links to one of the cardinal directions in Eurasian cosmology (west, east, north, south, and center, in that order), each of which has an associated element, color, and animal. Traditionally, the South connects to fire and thus to red and to the firebird, the phoenix or Vermilion Bird.

Just to confuse things, the Chinese have a second phoenix, Fenghuang, which through its association with the Dragon became a symbol of the imperial house, of the empress and emperor and, through them, of a balanced and therefore  happy and prosperous marriage. Like all things imperial, Fenghuang represents the center, the source of harmony (hence the old name for China: the Middle Kingdom), and is associated with yellow or gold, the imperial colors. But since I’m a novelist and not a cosmologist, I happily blend the two phoenixes without worrying about this distinction overmuch.

Behind all this background lies a simple point: whereas we in the West think of the phoenix primarily as a symbol of immortality, along the Silk Road(s) it has far richer associations. Fire, anger, and passion, of course, but also good fortune and happiness, striving and achievement. Fenghuang even rewards moral behavior.

All these elements show up in my novel, as does the theme of rebirth or renewal. Maria, the heroine, takes another stab at marriage, despite her disappointing experience the first time around. Alexei, the hero, has to remake his life after his long-term allegiance explodes in his face. Fyodor Koshkin, Maria’s father, struggles to reestablish his place at the Muscovite court, but he also finds himself in the throes of desire and jealousy in his second marriage, contracted purely for love after twenty years or so in a conventional arrangement that, however appropriate and fruitful, for him proved ultimately unsatisfying. Relationships grow, mend, and break, but the themes of revival, prosperity, and virtue (or lack thereof) intertwine throughout the book.

On the political side of things, in contrast, the skies are darkening. Two opponents, driven by fear, turn a simple misunderstanding into a steadily escalating crisis that no attempt at negotiation seems capable of resolving. Here the power of raw emotion pits family members against one another, and the inability to find harmony in the end damages both sides. The effects of that crisis give rise to the story—and the image and the theme—for the next book, The Shattered Drum, already close to completion and due for release next year.

Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy this next journey in the company of the Vermilion Bird, which, although it does not technically take place in the South, relies on the destabilizing presence of refugees from that region to set its cast of characters in motion.

As to when you can expect the journey to begin, stay tuned. I’m predicting three or four weeks, tops.

Phoenix purchased from, no. 56421991.

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