Leonardo’s Dream and Icarus Swinebuckle are both stories of animals who want to fly, a penguin and a pig, respectfully. In both stories the characters start out as outsiders of sorts. Leonardo doesn’t have any friends, and he spends his time trying to fly. Icarus Swinebuckle has a wife and child, but ignores his shoe-making business and thus faces conflict with his customers and landlord. In both stories the heroes gain popularity through flight. Yet both stories come to slightly different conclusions. For Leonardo the penguin, having the opportunity to fly once satisfies his desire to fly and he learns to love his short swimming wings. For Icarus Swinebuckle the opportunity to fly only whets his appetite and even a crash land into water doesn’t stop him. He wants to keep going further out.
I love presenting my children with two stories that overlap in some way, so I was pleased when I found these too. The overlap allows us to explore the differences between them. Both stories gain new meaning in comparison with the other. In this case I found myself looking at the ways in which the creatures interact with their neighbours. Why aren’t the other penguins friends with Leonardo? In what ways is Icarus Swinebuckle a loner? When we find our own differences isolating us from others around us, what lessons can we learn from these books? (Perhaps something about the need to be able to find common ground with our neighbours or to be patient when they do not understand our desires to fly.)
Then I stumbled across the poem Musée des Beaux Arts by W. H. Auden which references to Brueghel’s painting Icarus and the idea that world does not turn around a single person or event.
In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Contrasting the poem with the two children’s books highlights the fact that in the children’s books the flight is a very public event. Leonardo does not end up flying alone, but with all the other penguins too. Icarus Swinebuckle’s flight is witnessed by an excited crowd. How could the stories have turned out differently if the flight took place alone?
A different poem, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by William Carlos Williams, about the same painting, brings another detail to the front. I read the end lines:
a splash quite unnoticed
and I seem to sense an element of blame to those around for failing to notice. If the desire to fly or the possession of wings is sometimes used as a metaphor for gifted or different children then surely Icarus drowning represents the times when we fail our children. Or perhaps also the times when our community fails us? (I’m thinking here of a post I read recently about The Invisible Mom.)
We can move from looking at the story of Leonardo or Icarus Swinebuckle from the point of view of the main characters. How would you act if you were one of the other penguins? What if you were a sea gull faced with the question of whether to tell Leonardo that his wings will never grow large enough to fly? How should you behave to those who see things differently than you, who dream different dreams? When are the times when you are just a side character in someone else’s story? How should the customers, landlord, or wife respond to Icarus Swinebuckle? Mr. Swinebuckle is an adult pig; how would the story be different if he was a child? Would that change how others should interact with him?
I have a lot of questions and thoughts, but not much today in the way of answers. Human interactions always stump me and the fun I find in these two children’s books is that they present such very familiar themes about which so many questions can be asked. The poems and the painting help shake us lose from the ‘hero’s’ point of view and encourage us to look again from other views.
If you liked this post, you might also like one of these other two posts of mine: Introducing a Seven Year Old to Albert Einstein (which includes mention of a different Icarus story) or Charlie Sparrow and the Secret of Flight.
When I wrote this post I was not using Amazon affiliate links, but in the time since I have signed up for the program. I still think that libraries and second hand books are the way to go, but if you are buying books from Amazon anyway, you could do so by going through one of the following affiliate links: Leonardo’s Dream or Icarus Swinebuckle.