Retold by Alexis York Lumbard, illustrated by Demi,
The Conference of the Birds
Wisdom Tales, 2012.
Ages: 7 +
Artist Demi has provided a lavish visual feast to illustrate Alexis York Lumbard‘s adaptation of a Sufi classic, The Conference of the Birds. Farid al-Din Attar’s 12th century Persian poem presents an analogy of the human spiritual quest through the quest of thirty birds (si morge in Persian) to find Simorgh, a phoenix-like enlightened being reputedly residing on a faraway holy mountain. They are led by a hoopoe, the long-beaked, apricot-crested bird with dramatic black and white markings that is legendary in desert countries for finding underground water.
Along the way, various birds suffer the same setbacks human beings do on their spiritual paths: in Lumbard’s text, the duck procrastinates; the parrot is attached to her gems; the finch fears a storm; the partridge becomes impatient; the hawk forges ahead and gets lost. With the hoopoe’s encouragement, presented in verse, each bird lets go of whatever obstacle is in its way.
“So do not let your many doubts
Destroy this golden chance.
Release their hold upon you now,
and to your King advance!”
Demi’s vivid water colors and lively lines reveal quirky individual bird personalities and egos as she renders the birds overcoming trepidation in response to the hoopoe’s admonishments. Her paintings, on pale or midnight blue washes, are framed with gold borders that depict in tiny images characteristic postures of the particular bird in question. Young children can intuit an inspiring story from the illustrations alone.
In traditional versions, the birds arrive at the holy mountain to find not Simorgh, but a reflecting pool in which they see themselves. The story subtly suggests that one finds the infinite in the particular, the holy in the very self that seeks the Other. Lumbard has appended a page to her version in which the sun on the water transforms the birds’ reflections into dazzling light. “In this moment of silence when no thoughts…passed before their minds, the birds found themselves in the loving embrace of God, their true King.”
Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr‘s introduction offers background on the original Persian poem. Parents and teachers who prefer that young readers realize for themselves the profound wordless insights of this enduring story may find, for example, Peter Sis‘ beautifully printed 2011 version more to their liking; but many others will appreciate Lumbard’s explication and look forward to her continued project of providing children with books of spiritual guidance.