Thursday, June 18, 2009

Mulan and Ballad Spotting

This posting is an update to my entry on "The Ballad of Mulan" in Stories from Songs. Two very recent reworkings of Mulan's story have been published: a young adult novel and a graphic novel aimed at middle school readers. Here is my take on these two reworkings:

Dokey, Cameron. Wild Orchid: A Retelling of “The Ballad of Mulan.” [Once Upon A Time Series]. Simon Pulse, 2009.

The product description states: “Wielding a sword as deftly as an embroidery needle, Mulan is unlike any other girl in China. When the emperor summons a great army, each family must send a male to fight. Tomboyish Mulan is determined to spare her aging father and bring her family honor, so she disguises herself and answers the call. But Mulan never expects to find a friend, let alone a soul mate, in the commander of her division, Prince Jian. For all of Mulan's courage with a bow and arrow, is she brave enough to share her true identity and feelings with Prince Jian? “

Readers familiar with the Ballad of Mulan will be quite surprised with Dokey’s retelling of her story. It is, indeed, much closer to the ancient song than the Disney movie but I can’t help thinking that the movie had a great deal of influence on this novel. The romantic male hero is introduced to the reader from the very beginning as the story of Prince Jian rescue by Mulan’s father and the subsequent reward to marry the woman he loves instead of a traditional arranged marriage is told to provide Mulan’s family background. Mulan’s mother dies in childbirth and her father refuses to come home to meet his daughter for the first thirteen years of her life. She is raised by servants and befriended by a young boy, Li Po, who shares all of his lessons with her. She grows up more than proficient in martial arts as well as in reading and writing.

There is much repetition regarding the fact that “there wasn’t a girl in all China who had my unusual combination of skills, not matter that I looked like a simple country girl on the outside” (31). When her father makes his way home, he is aloof, wounded and disgraced. Although it had always been one of her wishes to make her father love her, Mulan almost gives up the desire until she repairs his newly opened wound with her embroidery skills and a fragile relationship begins to build. This relationship continues when Mulan’s father remarries and impregnates his wife. A call to arms is received at this crucial point and Mulan secretly answers the call. She immediately makes contact with her old friend Li Po and her father’s best friend, both in the service of Prince Jian, the third but favourite son of the Son of Heaven. Her archery skills and acute strategic planning result in her heroic saving of the army in her one and only battle. Li Po is killed, Mulan wounded and her gender is discovered. As proclaimed in the ballad, Mulan is rewarded for her brave deeds but in the novel she deflects the reward to Prince Jian who can now choose his own path which, oddly enough, includes marriage to Mulan.

There is very little about Mulan as a warrior or honest heroine for China, instead this is another retelling of the romantic coming of age of a contemporary young adult dressed in ancient costume.

Hughes, Susan and Willow Dawson. No Girls Allowed: Tales of Daring Women Dressed as Men for Love, Freedom and Adventure. Kids Can Press, 2008.

The story of Mu Lan is only one of the tales included in this graphic novel but it is told with much more connection to the traditional ballad than Wild Orchid. In this brief telling, Mulan’s aging father is aware of her leaving for battle, Mu Lan spends many years as a soldier, gradually working her way up to general all the while keeping her true gender successfully hidden. She, too, declines the reward offered her but because of being homesick. After returning home and returning to her own identity, Mu Lan is visited by some fellow soldiers who are nonplused but not repulsed by the fact that she is a female. The short story ends as does the ballad with the words about Mu Lan’s disguise: “Two hares running side by side close to the ground, How can they tell if I am he or she?” (27) Jeanne M. Lee’s 1991 picture book is recommended for further reading in the back matter of the graphic novel.

Other stories included in this anthology: Hatshepsut, Alfhild, Esther Brandeau, James Barry, Ellen Craft and Sarah Rosetta Wakeman.

The book is highly recommended on the blog “The Graphic Classroom.”

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