I have to admit, every time I read the title of this story to myself, the song “Who Loves the Sun” starts playing in my head – recently, it’s usually Zee Avi’s rendition of it. Ha. ANYWAY, “The Girl Who Loved the Sun” is one of my favourite stories from the Unexpected Magic collection. It was first published in a 1990 anthology, Heartache, and was collected in Minor Arcana in 1995 before the current reprint. It’s about a girl named Phega from a very long time ago, who loved the sun. She loved the sun so much that she wanted desperately for it to love her back. And so she observed that while the sun shines on everyone, it nurtures trees in a different, special sort of way. This made her think that to gain the sun’s love, she had to be a tree.
Turning into a tree came easily enough for Phega, although turning into a good tree-looking tree was a little harder. Still, every now and then she would plant her feet on the ground and set root. She kept observing, and noticed that the sun lingered in some areas more than others, and set root in those places. But still, her love seemed unrequited. Her parents had indulged in her fancies as a child but as she was coming of age, they began to worry about finding her a good husband. Knowing this, Phega became more desperate, and made a loud plea to the sun to love her.
The sun was surprised to know that her love was the reason she kept turning into trees. It loved all beings as they were meant to be, it told her, and she wasn’t truly a tree the way the other trees were. Knowing that her father was looking for potential suitors for her, Phega made a bargain with the sun – she would stop pretending to be a tree, and it would love her.
At first I thought that it meant that she would be human, but instead Phega was resolved to be a new kind of tree, something that’s wholly herself, so that she wouldn’t be pretending to be any of the others. She spent entire seasons studying trees and how they worked, becoming wiser in the ways of nature as she did so. But as her research was getting close to completion, her father’s chosen suitor for her was also on his way…
I really, really loved the fairytale-like quality of this story. The bargain, the transformations, the task Phega’s mother put to her suitor – they all felt right, like I was reading something true, something richer than the few pages that held the story. Because it is so fairytale-like, I’d read it and anticipate the fairytale ending, or at least something close to it. Heroes win at the end, after all. People get saved, and all that. But the hero of the story is Phega. And this is a Diana Wynne Jones story after all, and what DWJ does best is subvert fantasy/fairytale tropes. It didn’t quite end like I wanted, but at the end of it all, it still felt right, and true.
As the beginning of the story mentioned, Phega was hardly the first girl to turn into a tree. Her only distinction was that she wanted to, and wasn’t turned out of punishment from the gods, or to protect herself from the gods. Reading this made me think of people-turned-trees and tribes of them making up forests, and then it made me think of Blue from Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle (and of course, her name is Sargent, which is a kind of cherry tree, isn’t it?) – I read “The Girl Who Loved the Sun” after reading The Raven King, and Cabeswater was already making me think of Hexwood, and now this, so in my head Blue is now some sort of descendent of Phega’s and Cabeswater is really Hexwood moved to the US and now I want to reread both the Raven Cycle AND Hexwood, except I can’t reread Hexwood yet, because it’s at #46 on my reread list and I’m still at #38.