Monday, August 24, 2009
Five uses for birds in fantasy
1. Head decorations
If you watch this video clip from Disney’s Fantasia, you’ll see a centaur’s hair being decorated with birds at 1:33. The doves used in Fantasia are probably too large and heavy, but what about hummingbirds? That could work for a lot of women, who might even have real flowers in their ‘dos to feed the captive hummingbirds.
2. Optical enhancement
In a world without binoculars or zoom lenses, birds of prey might make an adequate substitute. If you wanted to compensate for the refractive properties of water, you could look through a seahawk’s eyes instead. And in the dark, nocturnal birds might come in handy.
Of course, this would require magic of some kind that allowed people to see through the birds’ eyes. Perhaps this requires a blood-based bond between people and birds that ties the bird inextricably to the person, such that if the bird is harmed or killed, the same thing happens to the person.
3. Children’s guardians
I liked the idea of children having guardian daemons, a la Pullman’s His Dark Materials, but a lot of parents might prefer birds trained to report to them. Send the kiddies off to school with a intelligent parrot or mynah which will observe everything they do and sing out if they decide to play hooky.
Or if the wee ones need defense more than they need monitors, they could get a vulture or a kestrel instead. Imagine a dining room with children unwrapping their sandwiches, then taking out strips of raw meat for the birds of prey which land on their (padded) wrists and which glare in a territorial way at each other. As long as these weren't owls and used to carry letters, it could avoid infringing on Harry Potter too.
This has been done a lot in fiction, but like any interesting concept, there’s still potential in it. Stephen King’s The Dark Half used sparrows to bear away a dead man’s soul; The Crow used, well, a crow. I believe that in Stephen Erikson’s Malazan Books of the Fallen, crows carry away the spirits of sorcerers.
But what if you lived in a place with relatively few birds, or even with flightless birds? Better hope no one dies in the Arctic.
Or what if you had to go out and physically locate a bird, then persuade it to carry away the soul of your dying loved one so that he or she would experience an afterlife? Maybe birds are tired of being hunted and exploited and refuse to do that any longer, even though they know that human souls cease to exist if they’re not borne away on wings.
5. Medieval storytellers
So you’re wining and dining your guests in your castle and it would be a good time for a story or a song as well. Unfortunately you have no fool or jester, nor are there any traveling bards whom you might have hosted in return for entertainment.
No matter. Your servants open a window, leave a plate of scraps on the sill and wait for the first bird to swoop in. It could be an eagle which will tell heroic stories in return for the food. Or a peacock with a tale of beauty will step delicately over the sill. Or perhaps a raven will come to say what happened once upon a midnight dreary.
Alas, it turns out to be a flock of squabbling gulls. They fight about who gets to tell the story, and even when they decide on one of their number (the biggest, of course), the others still interrupt and try to correct him about the details. What’s supposed to be a storytelling session looks more like a noisy domestic dispute.
Your dinner does not go so well and your guests never visit you again.