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.

4. Psychopomps

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.


A. Shelton said...

Birds as hair accessories: done in real life. I forget the time period, but the women wore wide skirts and had monstrous wigs, sometimes with animals, including birds, caged in them. Most of the animals were unsavory, because these wigs were not cleaned, nor were the people wearing them very often. Still; it's something I've not seen used in any fantasy/science fiction books.

Optical Enhancement: see any of Mercedes Lackey's books that include characters from the Tayledras. Notable novels include the Owl series (Owlflight, Owlsight, Owlknight--magic required) and, in the Mage Wars series (specifically in Black Gryphon and White Gryphon) she uses birds as intermediaries that can mimic the speaker originating the message down to tone of voice.

Marian Perera said...

Thanks for commenting! Birds as hair accessories have been done? Life imitates Art, as they say. :)

It didn't occur to me to have actual animals in one's hair, though. That would probably be unsanitary. Especially if the animals were like mice, which produce a lot of, um, waste.

I remember the title Owlsight because it sounded intriguing, but I didn't know what it was about. I have to go to the library today, so I'll check if they have it.

Anonymous said...

Never more, never more....

Anonymous said...


Randall said...

I seem to recall a minor character with a (talking) bird for a hat in the Labyrinth. Can't find a picture through Google so far.

As for psychopomps, Lovecraft had the whippoorwills sort of serve that purpose in "The Dunwich Horror"; when an important character in the story is dying, the birds gather around the house and sing until they die, at which time they try to catch the soul. You can tell by the noise they make whether they have succeeded or not.

When Wilbur Whately's grandfather dies, for instance, the whippoorwills fail to catch him. When Wilbur himself dies, the birds are heard fleeing in terror.

A. Shelton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A. Shelton said...

Thank you for the link, Gypsyscarlett.

Randall--you would be referring to the sage whom Sarah pays with one of her rings for the statement that "Sometimes it seems as though we're not getting anywhere when in fact we are." I'm surprised I remember it that well; it's been months since I last watched Labyrinth. LOL

From what I remember, the mice were a side effect of unclean wigs, as were various insects that infested them.

The first link is a wikipedia article about big hair with a section on 17th-18th century wigs, which was what I was referring to. :)

The second has a reference to the wigs, with a note that women used model birds in their hair, but I recall clearly from research I did for a report in school (this really stuck because I thought of how cruel it was to the animal) that they did indeed use _live_ birds, in addition to studding their hair with gems and the like. I don't think using live birds was very common, but I do believe it more than likely happened considering peoples' propesnsity for stretching the boundaries to impress others and make names for themselves.

It should be noted that these wigs were both expensive and restricted because of that to being worn by nobility.

This gives me an idea for a society. whee

Marian Perera said...

Hey Tasha,

Thanks for the link! That list at the end was... fascinating, in a disturbing kind of way.

I knew there was a reason the birds I envisioned were all still alive.

Mary Witzl said...

I absolutely love the idea of a talking bird that will monitor the actions of my kids and report back to me, though I suspect I've left it too late. In particular, I'd have liked to know who they traded their carrot sticks to for candy at lunchtime, and if they were really doing their homework upstairs.