The Books of Bayern is a middle grade fantasy quartet by Shannon Hale, centering around the country of Bayern. The Goose Girl is the first of the series. The protagonist, Ani, is from neighboring country Kildenree, betrothed to a Bayern prince she has never met. En route to Bayern, Ani’s lady in waiting starts a coup, killing most of Ani’s guards while Ani herself barely manages to escape. Alone in Bayern, she hides as the king’s goose girl until she can figure out how to reveal to the royalty there that the supposed princess is her lady in waiting.
The setting of the series is small in scope. In The Goose Girl, there are only two countries, Bayern and Kildenree. Subsequent books mention rival country Tira to the south, but on the book’s map, it is only annotated as “the desert lands.” Yet there are a few areas of setting development that most fantasy stories don’t consider that, because of the nature of the story, Shannon Hale dives unabashedly into. In addition, the magic of Bayern, the culture of its people, and the contrast between this country and Kildenree do make for a well-detailed MG fantasy novel.
Warning, from here on: spoilers abound.
The First Word of a Language
The novel starts when Ani was young, forging a bond between her and her aunt that Ani’s cold-hearted mother cannot comprehend. It is implied that Ani’s wind-speaking nature is what kept her silent for those first three days of her life, though she does not learn about being a wind-speaker until nearer the end of the book.
There are, one can assume, four different magical languages that one can speak. Both Ani’s mother and Selia (her lady-in-waiting) are people-speakers; they’re more charismatic, and their lies are more easily believed, though there is a limit. Enna is hinted to be a fire-speaker, and Ani herself is revealed to be able to speak to the wind, to get it to do her bidding and come to her defense. Lastly, Ani’s aunt is able to speak to birds, though how encompassing that magic is remains unclear–it seems unlikely that she can speak to all animals, since speaking to horses is its own separate thing–but to assume it is only birds she can speak to seems a little far-fetched.
The Language of Horses
The communication between Ani’s horse, Falada, and the communication between her and geese are two separate things. However, her later speech with the wind is close enough that she thinks it’s Falada’s ghost at first. Ani was present at Falada’s birth, and his first breath released his name. Since she heard it, that gave her a special connection to him that allowed them to communicate telepathically. It’s clear that Falada still thinks like a horse, although sophisticated enough that one could assume bonding a human has slightly increased the horse’s intellect.
Upon their separation in the woods, where Selia and her guards kills those loyal to Ani, Falada goes crazy and the mental connection snaps. It is unclear, if given a chance to retame Falada, whether the connection could be re-established.
Ani has a plethora of stories she’d grown up on, mostly told to her originally by her aunt when she was little. These are stories that seem to have come from Kildenree alone, as none of the Bayern Forest-born know them. The stories are tied loosely into the plot through a beautiful tale about horses that eat gold, and a Kildenrean girl that eventually fed the horses her own (gold) hair, and they ran as fast as the wind with the girl on their back. It has the proper level of whimsy that a fairy-tale should, and it served as foundational work for when Ani would hear the wind speak in Falada’s voice.
The map shows a rather simplistic setting. A massive range of mountains separates Bayern from Kildenree. It gives off the impression that Kildenree is little more than the space occupied in the corner of the map, a sentiment that the text itself re-affirms. One must assume that Kildenree is more than just the capital city as shown here, that it has other cities and towns, but Ani frequently asserts that Kildenree is vastly smaller than Bayern, and even uses that reason to cite why her home country would not attack Bayern.
What’s concerning is that there is a complete lack of cities beyond the capitals of both countries. The reader is shown that there is definitely a population within the Forest, and we also know that there are other settlements–which leads to the Hundred Bands, a hundred men from each settlement, called upon in times of war–but where they are or the exact nature of them is left unclear in the story.
One thing that the book does that many YA fantasy shies from is it gives weight to the distance that needs to be traveled. It takes the Kildenreans a whole month to travel from one capital to the other, and is the main reason why Ani cannot just flee back home and chooses instead to press on to the capital.
Kildenree and Bayern are set up as opposing sides from the beginning from the very color of their hair. Although Bayern is not by any means described as evil, the distinction between the two countries is black and white. Indeed, the Kildenreans are described as the “yellow” people because of the color of their hair while all Bayern folk have black hair.
The consequences of these differences are not side-stepped; Ani has to keep her hair covered and dye her brows a darker color in order to hide from the murderous Kildenreans, and when she’s careless with her hair, that’s when her secret begins to slip loose. However, it is a common thing for authors to make the people of one nation follow very strict stereotypical appearances to differentiate where they’re from, and it comes across as if intermingling is not an option. Especially in the case of the Forest-born, who live in the gray area that barely belongs to Bayern in the first place, it seems strange to assume that the common folk living on the fringes of Kildenree’s own borders would not ever cross that line and mix up the genetic pool.
Bayern Class Divisions
Hale clearly defines the categories a Bayern character can fall into. Most that Ani has the pleasure of interacting with are Forest-born, people who live on the fringes of Bayern borders and who are treated as Other. Those that were born in the capital–as well as those born in the unnamed settlements throughout Bayern–are considered better just because of where they were born. Then there are the nobility.
The Forest-born are shown to have two different occupations. Those that stay in the Forest make goods like blankets and hats from hand to sell at Marketday in the city. Some move to the capital to find jobs, and make very little money tending royal animals like Ani’s geese, or the pigs or cows and so forth.
The occupations of city-born folk is never delved into, though it’s implied that there are tavern-owners and seamstresses and all of the usual businesses one would find in a medieval town.
Bayern’s Warring Culture
There are many advantages to being city-born, things that Forest-born are not usually granted. It’s mentioned that Forest-born are not allowed into taverns and the like. The biggest difference, however, is that city-born men, when they come of age, are challenged to survive a fight of sorts. If they live, and most do, they are given a javelin that signifies their new adult status. It is also said that once someone makes their first kill, then they truly are adults.
This does leave a little to be desired in terms of setting development. If one gains status by battle, and if one puts weight on the importance of javelins–a weapon for war–then it’s no surprise that Bayern is always looking for a fight. However, it would encourage its inhabitants to always want war, but that is unsustainable. Enna says on page 365 (chapter 22) “A javelin bonds a boy to a community. A sword makes him a man.” It is unclear what happens to the male population if there is no war in a man’s lifetime, if they are considered a boy even as old men simply because there was no war against which to test themselves.
What’s even less clear is the community’s general consensus on the idea of going to war. Everyone is said to be relieved when Ani is able to stop a war between Bayern and Kildenree, but truly what she has done was denied many the chance to be viewed as men. The new prime minister of Bayern is considered a blood-thirsty man, and its old prime minister wanted to avoid war, but that contrasts with what one would expect to see in a culture that had been defined the way that Hale defines them.
Perspective matters when it comes to developing one’s setting. As a royal princess hiding in a foreign country as a common goose girl, Ani is the perfect exploratory eyes through which the reader can learn about Bayern, and, by contrast, about Kildenree as well.
It is important, however, to consider the nuances of certain elements. It pays to be creative, and generally, it’s better to experiment at the risk of forgetting about that nuance. However, it will make the setting feel more alive if one can explain such questions that I mentioned above. That’s not to mean that Hale completely overlooks the minute details of her setting; the fairy-tale stories from Kildenree, living with the trouble of hiding her hair, and the divisions between the haves and have-nots add that extra layer of realism. But the questions left unanswered allows cracks in the narrative that can detract from the overall enjoyment of the story.