Luba and the Wren by Patricia Polacco sounds remarkably like The Magic Fish by Freya Littledale. In both stories an enchanted animal is spared from capture and offers to grant a wish. In both stories the person who makes the wish is in fact contented with nothing to wish for, but is badgered into making repeated wishes on behalf of someone else. In both stories the wishes increase in size, from a larger house to a palace, and so on. In The Magic Fish the hero is a fisherman who gives into the wishes of his wife. in Luba and the Wren the heroine is a young girl who gives into the demands of her parents.
The Magic Fish does not specify its location. The Luba and Wren is set in the Ukraine, with the parents wishing to be rulers of the Ukraine before deciding they should be Tsar and Tsarina of all Russia instead. It’s a great opportunity to remind children were on the map the two countries are. As the wishes became more and more extravegant I half expected the story to have a non-magical ending with the Tsar and Tsarina facing a revolt of the people. I thought also about how the gap between the wages of workers and the CEOs has been growing. How far can the gap stretch? At what point will people rebel against CEOs earning 200 or 300 times what the average worker earns, like the magic fish saying no to the fisherman?
The Magic Fish is a (potentially secular) fairytale about greed, where the last wish is refused because the wisher asks too much and instead of gaining more the fisherman and his wife return to their simple fisherman’s hut. But in Luba and the Wren the final wish – to become as Gods – is granted, just not in the way the wishers expect. Luba fears conveying her parents’ request to the wren because it is sacrileges and the imagery becomes dark and scary until the wish is granted, in which case suddenly everything is as it was in the beginning, except everyone is happier and more loving. It’s easy to overlook the details and imagine the same thing has happened as in The Magic Fish, that they have been punished by being restored to their original setting, but the beauty of the story is that they haven’t been punished!
What does it mean to be like Gods? Early Roman writers criticizing the claim that Jesus was son of God objected not to the idea of God having sons but that God would choose a poor woman! The title “Son of God” was reserved instead for the Roman Emperor but Christianity declares it the title of a Jewish peasant in a powerful statement rejecting the values and assumptions of the time period.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The book makes a second theological statement too. It makes the statement that we are to become like Gods. These are poor but compassionate, contented Gods, but Gods nonetheless. Religion as something to inspire us and bring us up, rather than to seperate us or show a distance between us at God.
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.