Wings of Wax and Feather

Colm pointed to the gulls hanging in the sky. “Birds fly. Why can’t someone make wings so people can?”

“You know the tale of Vikar, whose father built wings of wax and feathers.”

“That’s a story,” Colm said, a little impatiently. “About setting our ambitions neither too high nor too low. I mean really fly.”

Empire’s Heir

The legend of Icarus, which has come down to us from Greek mythology, is often interpreted as a warning not to set our goals too high. But Daedulus, Icarus’s father (Vikar, the name used in Empire’s Heir, is from the Etruscan name for Icarus, Vikare) warns his son against flying both too low, too close to the sea, where the waves might take him, and against flying too high, where the sun’s heat will melt the wax of the wings. A warning, as Colm says, not to set our ambitions too high or too low.

As I biked to and from the farmers’ market this morning, I contemplated what this meant for authors, or indeed, for any artist. At the market, I bought veggies from local farmers, and artisanal cheese, and looked at hand-made cards and jewellery; outside, I listened to buskers and took photos of the street art. So much art, so much talent…how do we as artists set our ambitions, so that neither the waves of despair nor the often-brief sun of recognition destroy us?

The Fall of Icarus, 17th century, Musée Antoine Vivenel. Public domain.

There is, of course, no one answer. Knowing why we create art, what purpose it serves in our lives, can help us understand where our flight path is. I write for the love of words, their cadence and rhythm and sound, for the look of them on the page, to explore ideas, and to tell my characters’ stories. Structure challenges me intellectually, a puzzle to solve. I love both the constraints and the freedom I grant myself in writing.

I have to remind myself of this, more often than I like. Our society tends to equate value with money, and more and more with celebrity. But the quiet satisfaction I find from the words of a reader who loves my books, or a review that appreciates my prose or worldbuilding, help keep me at the right height for my wings, although I will not pretend I don’t feel the desire for the sun, nor the darkness of the depths.

But these are my wings, my fragile construct not of wax and feather but of dreams and love. All my art has to do, in the end, is satisfy me, not pay my bills. This is only my flight path, not a judgement of other artists with different needs and different goals. But when I look up from my computer, from social media and sales charts and review stats, and take some time to consider and remember where writing has taken me – and, more importantly, what it has given me – I think I’ll keep flying for as long as I can.

Featured image: Jacob Peter Gowy’s The Flight of Icarus (1635–1637), public domain.

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