Broken Feathers

One of my favourite scenes in Black Swan shows Nina pulling a tiny black feather out through her skin. The idea of someone metamorphosing into a bird fascinates me, and over the last couple of years I've kept coming across bird transformation stories.

In fairy tales such metamorphoses are common; in the Grimms' alone you can find a baby transformed into a raven, a girl into a nightingale, six brothers into swans, seven into ravens, and a white dove with the key to the trees who is transformed back into a prince. For these fairy tale characters and their families metamorphosis is a curse. Happily ever afters allow the changed to return to human form, although, as in the case of the baby never reunited with her mother, or of the brother left with a wing for an arm, some trace of the transformation remains.

There are swan maiden tales from all over the world, but in these stories the human form is the unnatural one. A swan maiden's feathery robe is stolen to trap them into a relationship, and on finding their feathers years later in a chest the wife will fly away (in some versions, after proving himself in various tasks, the husband can win her back, but she must give up her swan form forever).

In Ovid's Metamorphoses, Cornis is transformed into a crow by Minerva to enable her to escape Neptune's attentions:
                               ... I raised my arms
To heaven; along my arms a sable down
Of feathers spread. I strove to throw my cloak
Back from my shoulders: that was feathers too,
Deep-rooted in my skin. I tried to beat
My hands on my bare breast and had no hands
Nor bare breast any more. And then I ran,
And found the sand no longer clogged my feet;
I skimmed the surface; in a trice I soared
High up into the air...                                                 
(from the translation by A.D. Melville)

In the M. John Harrison novel Signs of Life, genetic engineering can partially fulfill the desire for metamorphosis (I'd also recommend 'Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring', the novelette which underpins the novel ). And bird transformation is alluded to in Katherine Mansfield's 'A Suburban Fairy Tale', in the R.B. Russell story 'The Beautiful Room' and in Nicholas Royle's 'The Obscure Bird' (Black Static #18). In J.G. Ballard's The Unlimited Dream Company a whole town learns to fly.

I have two bird transformation stories published online (Raven and Feather Girls, the latter soon to be reprinted in this anthology) and many others half-formed and discarded in notebooks. So I can't help but ask myself — why the urge for wings? In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino wrote of 'the search for lightness as a reaction to the weight of living'. He goes on to say:
... in villages where women bore most of the weight of a constricted life, witches flew by night on broomsticks or even on lighter vehicles such as ears of wheat or pieces of straw... I find it a steady feature in anthropology, this link between the levitation desired and the privation actually suffered. It is this anthropological device that literature perpetuates.
Black Swan is interesting because the transformation is linked not only to a desire for escape but to a desire for artistic perfection (although perhaps that is a type of escape). Yeats wrote about the choice between 'perfection of the life, or of the work'. These stories often show that the cost of flight is to leave something broken behind.