AUGUST 17, 2019
G. WILLOW WILSON’S latest novel, The Bird King, may be set in 15th-century Spain during the collapse of the last sultanate, but it is in reality a book that seeks to rise above place and time. Alternative communities, magical maps, religious dogma, the Inquisition — these major themes drive the narrative forward toward an unmistakably hopeful, utopian conclusion. This book, like her previous novel, Alif the Unseen (2012), examines the liminal and the unclassifiable, which is in keeping with the author’s own spiritual and physical movements across borders (from the United States to Egypt and back, from atheism to Islam) and genres (between memoir, novels, comics, and graphic novels).
Based on a masterpiece of Persian poetry called Manṭiq-uṭ-Ṭayr (The Conference of the Birds) by 12th-century Sufi Farīd ud-Dīn al-Aṭṭār, The Bird King uses the mystical poem and its allegorical framework to explore how a palace concubine and her mapmaking friend, aided by a jinn named Vikram, might escape the lethal hand of the Inquisition and find peace on a magical island. As in al-Aṭṭār’s 1177 poem, the characters in The Bird King must leave behind not just their homes but also their belief in their own wisdom, what they think they know about the world, and their very identities. The novel could even be seen as a fictional microhistory of how the disempowered dealt with the rise of the Inquisition at a time when Spain was taking control of the Iberian Peninsula (one year before Christopher Columbus’s ships set out for the “New World”).
But back to the birds. In the story from the Qur’an, Sulayman (Solomon) and Dawud (David) are taught the language of these creatures about whom humans have speculated since the development of abstract thought. Bird-related myths, like bird species, can be found all over the world. Their vocalizations are at once speech-like and musical, opaque yet tantalizingly familiar. Some people spend a lifetime perfecting their birdcalls or analyzing what each particular sound means in specific contexts. And yet, like a cat silently and patiently scaling a tree in pursuit of a bird, only to watch it calmly fly off at the last minute, we humans think that we’re constantly scaling the tree of knowledge, only to land on an unsteady branch and realize that we don’t know anything and we could fall at any minute.
Wilson’s choice of an epigraph, taken from The Conference of the Birds, is especially apt in its reference to reflection/self-reflection and all of the related metaphors: “Though you have struggled, wandered, traveled far, / It is yourselves you see, and what you are.” The core theme of renunciation in the poem is itself reflected in the cultures and religions of the world — each community internalizes and interprets the idea of renouncing wealth, power, love, and friendship to attain a “higher” level of spirituality or inner peace. Further, the many centuries of invasion, exploration, trade, and religious war have enabled ideas and philosophies to circulate and get reinterpreted according to local customs and beliefs. The Bird King itself replicates this process, as it is a 21st-century novel based on and about a 12th-century mystical poem, which is itself based on a story from the Qur’an, which is based on stories about King Solomon and his father David from the Old Testament, which is a collection of texts written down by unknown scribes. In both genealogy and spirit, The Bird King celebrates the whirling mix of diverse beliefs and voices and the utopia that they could theoretically create.
This is also a book about language, communication, storytelling, and, well, books. The Conference of the Birds exists in the novel as a yellowed, unbound, incomplete folio, a remnant brought into the palace by an elderly bookseller, who sold it to Lady Aisha, the sultan’s mother. Eventually, Fatima, one of the sultan’s favored concubines, discovers it and reads the available text, continually wondering how it ends. The allegory uses various bird species to represent the multitude of human communities and their interminable philosophical and religious disagreements:
It unfolded in the time before Adam, when the animals could still speak. The bids, forever quarreling with each other, had long been without a ruler, and gathered together in their meeting place to decide what must be done. The hoopoe, wisest among them, urged the rest to put aside their differences, and rallying the hawks and owls and sparrows and ravens, they set off to the land of Qaf to find their lost king. Yet there was no hint of what befell them next. The folio ended in midverse with the birds in flight over the Dark Sea.
When Lady Aisha sees Fatima returning the pages to the bookcase one evening, the former reminds her bondswoman that, before it was written down, the story existed in the minds of whoever could memorize it, but “[n]ow, like the birds, we’ve forgotten more than lesser peoples have ever remembered.” This kind of knowledge, to Aisha, is more valuable because it exists in a person’s mind and can thus accompany them wherever they go, as opposed to knowledge that is written down and must be physically carried from place to place (leading to wear and tear).
Endlessly intrigued by this story, Fatima attempts to come up with her own ending with the help of her friend Hassan, the palace cartographer who has the ability to shape reality by drawing magical maps. At one point, when Fatima is trying to convince Hassan to escape the inquisitor who has come for him (rather than giving up), the mapmaker suggests that he draw a map to the mythical island of Qaf. To Fatima’s protest that their riffs off of The Conference of the Birds are just stories and Qaf doesn’t really exist, Hassan asks, “What if our stories are like my maps? What is a story but the map of an idea?”
At this point, Fatima and Hassan set off on their journey to find the mythical hidden island that, like Atlantis, exists in the imagination as a mysterious place upon which humans can project their hopes and desires. Just as the hawks, owls, and other birds follow the hoopoe in its quest to find the island, Hassan follows Fatima, who was freed from Lady Aisha’s service once the sultan’s mother realized that her bondswoman was intent on leaving the palace for good. Aided by Vikram, a jinn who had disguised himself (to certain people) for years as a stray dog that hung around the palace, the three barely manage to outrun a small contingent of the Inquisition led by a woman named Luz. Seemingly compassionate and sweet, Luz is in reality relentlessly brutal, driven on by a demon that has possessed her.
After stealing a small ship in the harbor at Husn Al Munakkab, Fatima and Hassan discover that its owner (a Breton monk named Gwennec) is still on board, and they convince him to help them escape (or at least take them to the next harbor, where they can try to escape on their own). En route, Gwennec notices the map and tells them a story about the mythical island city of Antillia that sounds suspiciously like The Conference of the Birds, only Gwennec’s story involves not birds but bishops, who are (ironically) escaping the Moors’ earlier conquest of Iberia. This Christian version of the island includes a constantly shifting landscape and prosperous cities that developed in pristine isolation. Gwennec’s story both unsettles Fatima’s faith in finding the island and reinforces the idea that utopian dreams circulate around the world like blood in the human body and belong to no specific culture or tradition.
Despite the distance that Fatima, Hassan, and Gwennec put between themselves and the soldiers chasing them, the relentless Inquisition contingent catches up with them at the next harbor. After another confrontation with Luz, the trio escape once more, eventually landing on Qaf/Antillia, which apparently does exist. With its magical properties, fantastic creatures, and resistance to the march of time, Qaf/Antillia functions as a safe haven for the three castaways, who are then joined by others seeking harbor, including Jews banished from Spain, an African doctor set adrift by superstitious sailors, and eventually Luz herself. The demon has left her body at this point and directly attacks the small community but is repelled by the local leviathan (who also destroys the Inquisition’s ships). Knowing that the Inquisition will never stop trying to find them, the community decides to destroy Hassan’s map and make the island disappear once again.
Thus do Fatima and Hassan discover an ending to their version of The Conference of the Birds: as the jinn tells Fatima, she is the king of the birds; then again, so are all of the other people on the island. They must all find their own path in this utopia, where they can begin their lives again and exist without the threat of war and hatred. Here humans and nonhumans live together harmoniously, regardless of religion or nationality — a kind of Convivencia, in fact.
A metatextual bildungsroman about religion, war, and love, The Bird King enriches the genre of historical fantasy. And yet, as with many novels that are rich in ideas and allusions, it raises more issues than it has time to address. Its many tantalizing questions (for instance, “Why is the Inquisition so bent on catching Hassan?” and “Where did the demon that possesses Luz come from?”) are neglected in favor of thrilling escapes and other adventure elements. The island community itself would be a fantastic basis for its own novel, with more attention given to those who have washed ashore, the daily interactions between human and nonhuman creatures, and what it might be like to live in a world without time. Also intriguing is Hassan’s magical mapmaking, about which I wanted to learn much more, though it seems to fall by the wayside once he reaches the island.
Nonetheless, Wilson has given us much to think about and invited us to refresh our knowledge of medieval Spain at a crucial moment in world history. This is what good fantasy should do, after all: offer us alternative worlds that, no matter how fantastic, turn the mirror back on ourselves.
Rachel Cordasco has a PhD in literary studies and currently works as a developmental editor. She also writes reviews for publications like World Literature Today and Strange Horizons and translates Italian speculative fiction.