Six Crimson Cranes is book one of Elizabeth Lim’s duology. Princess Shiori of Kiata is the youngest sister of six brothers. As their last summer together approaches before adulthood, Shiori discovers a part of herself that she had inadvertently locked away. She conceals her forbidden powers, but when she uncovers a greater secret, she is confronted by her stepmother, the Empress Consort Raikama.
Raikama banishes the princess and turns her brothers into six cranes with crimson crowns. With a bowl fused to her head and a warning that every word she speaks will be a death sentence for her brothers, Shiori must brave the wilderness, magic, dragons, and war before she can break their terrible curse.
A World rich with Lore
From Rabbit Mountain to the Dragon King, the lore told within the Six Crimson Cranes illuminated every corner of this book. The people of Kiata have deep roots within their culture and are storytelling people, even Shiori who is more likely to daydream about rice cakes than pay attention to her history lessons. At its very essence, this tale was a tribute to stories and storytelling, leaving readers wishing to dive deep into the traditions of Kiata and learn more about Emuri’en, the cranes of fate, and the reign of Dragons.
Elizabeth Lim’s fairytale does more than retell the story of the Wild Swans by Hans Christian Andersen, Donkeyskin by Charles Perrault or Hachikazuki. It weaves an elaborate story that engages in a world of folklore and culture. It is a kaleidoscope of fantasy with an ensemble of colourful characters. Shiori is not ‘powerful’ in a classic ‘badass female protagonist who hates dresses and is the chosen one.’ She is smelly, frustratingly mistreated, and magically powerless throughout the book.
The overall plot was engaging and full of unexpected twists and turns that genuinely needed follow-up to make sense. The tidbits of information dropped like breadcrumbs throughout the book come to a satisfying end while still leaving enough for the duology to explore!
Since we are a podcast that loves looking at the footnotes, this section is a spoiler zone for all the potential allusions and references to other myths, stories and fairy tales that make up the lore in the Six Crimson Cranes. As always, these easter eggs could have been intentional or happy accidents! Literature is one big, never-ending story that borrows, mimics, and shape-shifts across the human timeline.
Wild Swans by Hans Christian Andersen
First published in 1838 in Andersen’s Fairy Tales Told for Children, Wild Swans tells the tale of eleven princes transformed into swans by their evil stepmother. The only Princess, Elisa, is banished and threatened into silence with a curse that will kill her brothers if she speaks. Elisa begins weaving shirts out of stinging nettles to break the spell on her brothers. In the meantime, she married an infatuated King. However, her strange habits draw attention, and she is accused of witchcraft. Without being able to defend herself, she is sentenced to burn at the stake. At last, when she is burning on the stake, does she finish the shirts and throw them over her brothers, who transform back into humans. The fire extinguishes, and she can explain her story to the King.
Categorization and Similar Tales
This story falls under the ‘ATU type 451: The Brothers Who Were Turned into Birds.’ The Aarne-Thompson-Uther type index refers to the categorization of folklore based on motifs and themes. The system is not perfect, but it is a valuable tool for identifying the key tropes and elements within similar stories. This story is not to be confused with the “Swan Maiden” classification which includes ‘The Swan Princess’ and ‘Swan Lake.’
Donkeyskin by Charles Perrault
Written by Charles Perrault in 1695, Donkeyskin tells the tale of a Princess forced to disguise herself under a flayed donkey skin and work in a kitchen to flee her incestuous father. The kitchen hands avoided her because of her foul stench. One day the Prince of the manor fell ill, and only Donkeyskin’s cakes could cure him. While she baked, her ring fell into the batter. The Prince bizarrely declared he would only marry the girl whose finger fit the ring. Everyone in the Kingdom tried on the ring until at last, it was Donkeyskin’s turn. The Queen was grateful for Donkeyskin, but detested her looks until she showed up in her finest gown and revealed herself to the family. To hear an in-depth retelling and analysis of Donkeyskin, check out our episode and show notes here.
Overall, the story falls under ATU 510B, the “unnatural love” type of the “persecuted heroine.” The Brother’s Grimm recorded a variation of this story called “All-Kinds-of-Fur” in 1812.
Hachikazuki: The Girl who has a Large Wooden Bowl on her Head
Hachikazuki is part of the Japanese Otogi-zoshi, a collection of 350 stories written between 1392 – 1573 that highlight the Medieval era. Hachibime was a beautiful girl that had to wear a wooden bowl over her head. In some retellings, she was born with a bowl on her head, but in others, she promised her dying mother that she would hide her beauty. Eventually, her father remarries, and her stepmother is cruel to Hachibime, forcing her to run away from home. She takes up work at a Lord’s house, where she keeps her bowl on constantly. One day, the Lord sees her without the bowl and falls in love with her beauty. When he begins looking for a wife, Hachibime takes part in the selection and wins. After their wedding, the bowl falls off her head and inside, the couple found treasures!
In contrast to the fiery image of dragons, many East Asian dragons are serpent-like water guardians. In Six Crimson Cranes, The Dragon King Nazayun is the ruler of the Four Seas and the Heavenly waters.
To hear more about dragons, check out our video on “Raya and the Wish Dragon.”
Chinese Folklore: The Boy and the Dragon Pearl
In this Chinese folktale, a village near the Min river faces a severe drought after the River Dragon disappears. A young boy travels around looking for grass to cut in exchange for rice. One day he finds a massive patch and cuts it all down to take back to his mother. The next day, he heads out and finds another patch of grass in the same spot. On the third day, his mother suggests he digs up the plants and move them close to home. When he begins digging, he finds a large white pearl to take home to his mother! He runs home, telling his mother that they will be rich if they sell the pearl! His mother declines, saying it is a precious gift, and keeps it in the rich sack for safekeeping.
The next morning, the rice sack is overflowing. Anything they place the pearl near grows in quantity! The boy and his mom help their entire village until they draw suspicions from a greedy mob. To keep the pearl safe, the boy shoves it in his mouth, but when he does, it gets hot. He runs outside, begging for water, but as he does, his body starts transforming. When his mother finds him, he is a long, serpentine dragon. She realizes that the River Dragon of the Min had lost his pearl and perished. The Pearl her son had found was his, and now her son would take his place.
Red String of Fate
The red string of fate is a common theme associated with the belief that every person is fated for someone. Their fates are connected with an invisible red string. In several tales, a young boy asks an old man (Yue Lao) about his future wife. He is displeased with the outcome and injuries the girl, only to meet her again on their wedding day. There are many references to this trope in dramas and movies, one which being the 2016 Japanese movie, “Your Name.”
Threads are often used as a symbol for fate or destiny in folklore and myths. For example, the ‘fates’ are called the Norns in Norse mythology (we cover this in an earlier post).