Robert D. San Souci,
illustrated by Sally Wern Comport,
Brave Margaret
(Simon & Schuster, 1999)

Folk and fairy tales are often accused of perpetuating sexist stereotypes of weak and passive princesses who sit around and wait for princes to rescue them, but this accusation is belied by the number of hardy heroines who show up in folklore and legend. Kate Crackernuts springs to mind, as does Molly Whuppie, the sisters Snow White and Rose Red, Janet in Tam Lin and, oh yeah, anyone heard of Mulan?

Robert D. San Souci certainly has; his book Fa Mulan was the basis for the Disney movie Mulan. This time, he turns to Irish folklore to bring us the tale of Brave Margaret.

Margaret lives alone on a farm in County Donegal. She is strong and hardworking, managing to feed her herd of cattle, but she longs for adventures beyond the wide sea. Her opportunity comes with Simon, son of the king of the East, in need of provisions for his men. Simon is sailing north to the Kingdoms of the Cold, and when Margaret hears this, she agrees to give him her cattle, as long as she may come, too. After some persuasion, Simon consents.

They aren't gone long when a sea serpent rises from the ocean, demanding that they give him Margaret. Simon refuses and is ready to fight, but Margaret lowers a small boat and rows away, determined not to let him die for her sake. To everyone's surprise, she defeats the serpent, but the creature's death throes send her boat hurtling to the shore.

Margaret takes shelter with an old woman who shows her a ring on a cord and a sword hanging over the fire. The woman was driven from the castle at White Doon by a giant, and only the champion who can wear the ring will slay the dragon and restore her home to her. Later, Simon finds Margaret, but the old woman will not let her go, thinking to lure the champion to her door. Simon tries the ring; it is too small, but he goes to fight the giant anyway, with predictable results.

It is then that Margaret realizes that the champion doesn't have to be a man. As she expects, the ring fits her finger, and she rides to slay the giant. The old woman is restored in more ways than one, and so is Simon. The two are wed, and the "wedding lasted nine nights and nine days, but their happiness lasted a lifetime."

The story is told with the faintest lilt in the language, and San Souci also captures the roll and rhythm of the ocean which seems to permeate the story. San Souci packs his tale with evocative imagery presented in clear, crisp and elegantly economic writing. Margaret is feisty and resourceful, and the narrative and dialogue are true to her characterization. The story is completely satisfying and appeals to a wide range of readers and listeners, to which I can attest from watching my 5-year-old daughter be entirely engrossed by the tale while her father read it to her. (She exclaimed "Good!" when Margaret dispatched the giant.)

The tale is greatly enhanced by Sally Wern Comport's illustrations rendered in pastels -- which refers to the medium, not to the colors used. The pages are filled with vibrant jewel-like colors in illustrations that blaze across the pages, full of motion and power. Comport uses bold angles and perspectives to heighten the impact, as well as more subtle contrasts. The illustrations convey the spirit of the text without overpowering it; rather, the narrative and the pictures work seamlessly to tell the story.

Next time someone tries to tell you that folklore is full of wimpy passive princesses, introduce him or her to Brave Margaret.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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