The Fairy Who Wouldn't Fly: A retelling for 2014
How I brought a much-loved children's story by Pixie O'Harris into the 21st century
2 October 2014
The Fairy Who Wouldn't Fly was first written by Pixie O'Harris in 1945 and subsequently re-written in 1974. The first version was my favourite book as a child—so much so that my father's nickname for me was Fairy. In some ways it is a predictable story; the fairy doesn't want to be like all the other fairies, and she is banished to the Woodn't, where all the creatures who won't do as they should are sent. There they must stay until they learn to do what they should. Fairies must fly and be busy and useful, frogs must hop and kookaburras must laugh.
In 1945 the fairy is rebellious and lovable, and eventually she learns to fly. The picture of her standing on a high, jagged, purple rock, with a huge yellow moon behind her, just before leaping off and discovering that she can fly, is one that I spent many hours contemplating as a child. The subsequent description of her learning to fly is one of the most beautiful passages in children's literature that I have ever read. In the end she and all the other creatures go back to fairyland and become busy and useful doing what they should.
In the 1974 version, in contrast, the fairy and all the other creatures in the Woodn't are afraid of failure. Their challenge is to overcome their fear. The characters are no longer lovable, but examples for the reader of pathological creatures you would not want to be. Here there is no joy in learning to fly, but simply a necessary overcoming of an undesirable pathological state.
In my third version, I bring the story into this century. I wanted a book that was ethically and environmentally sensitive. I wanted a fairy who could successfully challenge out-dated orthodoxies, who could work toward new ways of thinking and being, who could develop new ideas in thoughtful interactions with others. And I wanted all of that without adopting a didactic tone.
My first challenge, then, was to the dominance of categories that dictate what one should do. Categories can be very limiting, and we need to think outside of them. My second challenge was to celebrate the invention of new ideas and new ways of being. My third challenge was to move beyond individualism to a sense of community and to show how, together, the banished creatures might work out new ways of thinking about what matters, and new ways of being.
The characters in the new version create a community together; they listen to each other, and they are listened to; they are responsive to the differences among themselves, while at the same time affirming the unfolding of whatever capacities for life each one of them has. Their responsiveness is not just to each other, but also to the environment—they respond to a dead leaf fluttering on the breeze, a road, a tree, a storm.
In philosophical terms, this new version asks what is it that we want for our children now. It doesn't create a gender-free or gendered utopia, but, rather, an opening up to creative engagements with others, which leads to new thought and new ways of being. It maps out an ethics that asks: Who and what is being made to matter, and with what effect? It listens and responds to the material world; it shifts away from individualism toward the co-implication of all beings. To accomplish this, my new version offers each character not a fixed identity, but ways of being fully alive in the world in multiple and emergent ways. At the end it does not seek closure in which everyone becomes what they should be, but lines of flight that open each one out to the immense liveliness of the world, and to the possibility of ethical encounters within it.
Bronwyn Davies' The Fairy Who Wouldn't Fly with original illustrations by Pixie O'Harris was released by NLA Publishing in May 2014.