Adapted by Czechoslovakian-born illustrator, author and film-make Peter Sis, the story tells the tale of a flock of birds who fly through seven valleys – quest, love, understanding, friendship, unity, amazement and death – to see which one should be crowned king.
The book is designed and art directed by Claire Naylon Vaccro, and looks incredible. Sparse text puts the huge colour illustrations to the fore – in washy watercolour and ink, with the richness of the colours reflecting each of the valleys the book depicts.
We see our hoopoe bird protagonist set out on a quest to find the natural king – buoyed by the discovery of one of his feathers in China.
Many birds, however, prove unable to take on the tumultuous quest. The duck is reluctant to leave behind his water; while the falcon decides that he already has a master – and could do without trawling the earth for another one. Our typically poetic nightingale says, in rather Shakespeare parlance: ‘I live for love. My rose and I are one. How could I leave my rose?’
The remaining feathery crew set off on their quest – and in doing so, ‘fill all the corners of the world.’
On having to cross the first four valleys, they are warned: ‘Jettison your obsession, your power, and everything you hold dear.’
In the valley of love, we encounter the rather Nick Cave-like stanzas ‘The ancient gravedigger was asked if you could bury love./He answered that he had buried many corpses over many years but had never once buried his desires.’
The pink hues of The Valley of Amazement are truly wondrous – while the ash and grey of the mountains in The Valley of Death are punctuated with sinister flocks and little skeletons.
Those who have survived this final valley – birds that escaped being ‘ravaged by beasts’, ‘lost direction…from the vastness of the ocean’ or ‘dropped dead and fell from the sky’ are richly rewarded by the all-colour final stage of their quest, where an imposing blue mountain speaks to the hoopoe. At last, they find their king.
‘And there they saw Simorgh the king, and Simorgh the king was them.’
The Conference of the Birds is published by Self Made Hero on 18 April priced £16.99