Feathers are the soul of the wind.
To fly, you just need wings, gleaming, beautiful, lighter than the thickest ribbons of air so you can take off, heavier than the thinnest clouds so you don’t stumble upon the pathways of the gods.
So the man believed. Man, inventor, father.
The wings were almost ready, the primary feathers sown into place, the secondary feathers glued with wax.
“There.” The man tightened the strap on his son’s right arm, before adjusting his own. The boy quaked for fear of heights.
“What can be more exciting than this,” the man said, “father and son, taking to the clouds, escaping all those guards Minos has sent to secure the coast?”
The boy nodded, hardly reassured.
They launched themselves from the highest Cretan cliffs at noon, when no archer dared watch Helios drive his blazing chariot across the sky.
The man went first, confident, eager to feel the air carry him. He glanced back, and saw his son steadily gliding in his wake. Good.
Shy, inexperienced, and wary of his large wings, the boy chose a steady course between heaven and sea, not looking up, not looking down, even when his father swerved and looped, showing off his flying skills. How he soars, my father! He’s so skilful and I’m so clumsy. One day, I’ll make him proud. The boy glided on.
Disaster crept upon them, stealthily, like a lion stalking a flock of sheep.
The boy noticed a small feather slip from his father’s wings. Then another. All that soaring and acrobatics was making the wax melt. He shouted a warning.
“It’s nothing,” his father said, though he too now chose to fly a cautious middle-course.
But the melting had started, the boy saw, and it could not be stopped. Unless…
Without a word, the boy flew up and up, until he was right above his father, flying at the same speed, providing a constant shade for the melting wax on his father’s wings. It hardened; no more feathers separated.
As they neared an island, the father rejoiced. They had made it. “Son! You see, my wings have not melted after all.” He turned.
Down below, his son’s body bobbed on the wine-dark surface of the Aegean Sea.
You probably recognised the myth of Daedalus and Icarus, with the same beginning and ending, though I imagine the mechanics and moral felt unusual.
That’s because they are.
In the original myth, Daedalus warns Icarus not to fly too high or too low; Icarus, in his wilful, exuberant youth, disobeys. The admonishment is passed down to us in the form of a saying: don’t fly too close to the sun.
In my version, Icarus pays the price for bravely, naïvely protecting his father after his father’s exhibitionist folly.
I chose to reinterpret the roles to make a point: even the oldest, tritest myths can provide new stories using simple internal inversions. Which elements you invert determines the complexity and the freshness of the result.
Neil Gaiman’s Snow, Glass, Apples is a dramatic retelling of Snow White from the perspective of the Queen (who is good) rather than that of Snow White (who is evil)—I discussed his story in a post last year. There the roles have been exchanged, the viewpoint shifted. Any story that has two opposing forces can be switched around like that: Little Red Riding Hood, where the wolf is good, Beowulf, where all Grendel ever wanted was to rid the world of some evil Danes, Hamlet, where Claudius is a doting step-father and Hamlet had actually killed his father.
If you’re Kafka, you might make a deeper, philosophic point with your interpretation. In Book XII of the Odyssey, before sailing past the deadly Sirens, Odysseus (or Ulysses) has his crew fill their ears with wax, while he himself is bound to the mast of his ship so that he may listen of the Sirens’ song without succumbing to their seductive call. Kafka’s short text The Silence of the Sirens sets this episode on its head.
(Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir; found in Vintage Kafka.)
The first sentence establishes a flippant tone, disrespectful of the hero:
Proof that inadequate, even childish measures may serve to rescue one from peril:
The narrator then tells us how Ulysses filled his own ears with wax and was lashed to the mast of his ship, even though:
The song of the Sirens could pierce through everything, and the longing of those they seduce would have broken far stronger bonds than chains and masts.
The narrator implies that Ulysses (and his unmentioned crew) should be doomed regardless of any waxy earplugs or chains, yet Ulysses did not think of that, although he had probably heard of it. He just trusted his ploy to work. So formidable was he in his ignorance and confidence, that upon seeing him the Sirens changed their strategy.
Now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence. And though admittedly such a thing has never happened, still it is conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence certainly never.
Ulysses does not hear their silence, so to speak, he thinks their bobbing throats and craning necks mean their song simply does not penetrate the wax stoppers. His ignorance and confidence are therefore perpetuated, which in turn further enchants the Sirens so that they watch in awe as his ship sails past and he escapes their greatest weapon—their silence.
At first glance it’s nonsensical: how can their silence possibly be more alluring than their song? But think about it. Silence—that of victims or of aggressors, that of the dead or of the unborn, that of the stars or of the earth—can generate curiosity in ways that no finite sound can match. By virtue of being a type of absence, silence is always multivocal, and infinitely, indescribably so.
Perhaps this was one of the ideas that Kafka tried to convey.
But how could Kafka think Ulysses, the subtlest mind of Ancient Greece, such an idiot?
The opening sentence, which introduces Ulysses’ ploy as a childish measure, is counterbalanced by the final paragraph of the story.
A codicil to the foregoing has also been handed down. Ulysses, it is said, was so full of bile, was such a fox, that not even the goddess of fate could pierce his armor. Perhaps he had really noticed, although here the human understanding is beyond its depths, that the Sirens were silent, and held up to them and to the gods the aforementioned pretence merely as a sort of shield.
With Ulysses and Kafka nothing is as we knew it to be. The deceit they practice also drives any good reinterpretation of a story.
This post is part of series on the fantastic grotesque, specifically a sub-series on Kafka (all stories taken from Vintage Kafka).
- Kafka’s Harrow: On the creeping terror of the slow reveal in In the Penal Colony (1919).
- Kafka’s Hunger Artist: On Hunger Artist (1922) and the performance art of fasting.
- Kafka’s Invisibles: On invisibility in The Bucket Rider, Investigations of a Dog, Rejection, The Bridge.
- Shape-Shifters: On shape-shifting creatures and the Report to an Academy (1917).
- Cross-Breeds: On hybrid creatures, and in particular on the half-kitten, half-lamb in Crossbreed.
- Beautiful Frankensteins: On traits that make up original creatures, and in particular Odradek from The Cares of a Family Man.
- Inspired by Myth: Reinterpretation: