The owl has always been my favourite of all birds. There is something so eerie about them and although studies have shown that they are far from the most intelligent of those that fly, they have an air of wisdom that has done them no harm in the world of literature and mythology. Yet still, there is something about them that also has an air of menace – in Twin Peaks, we are told that ‘the owls are not what they seem’ and somehow the spookiness would not have worked with any other bird. Is it the big eyes? Is it the way the heads can swivel? Or the fact that they travel by night? What is it about owls that makes us think that they are not what they seem? What are they?
The Owl of Athena
The drachma above depicts the Owl of Athena. The association between this bird and the goddess of wisdom is shrouded in mystery. Some believe that Athena may be a descendant of a goddess associated with birds, others that the way owls can see in the dark may be linked to wisdom itself. A third theory has it that there just happened to be a lot of owls around Athens. Still, wherever there were owls, one could guarantee that Athena was watching. However, while the owl was seen by the Greeks as a protector, the Romans saw it more as a harbinger of doom. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar even has his death foretold by the hooting of the owl. A dead owl nailed to the door of a house was a way of averting evil.
Ascalaphus was one of Pluto’s daemons of the underworld and when Pluto abducted Persephone, it was Ascalaphus who tattled that Persephone had eaten of the pomegranate seed and so would not be able to leave. In revenge, either Demeter or Persephone (reports vary) turned him into a screech owl, his horrible cry a punishment for his tale-telling. By contrast to Athena’s owl, this version of the owl is notable for being ‘a loathsome bird’ and ‘an ill omen for mankind’.
Owl, Winnie The Pooh
Owl presents himself as wisest one in the Hundred Acre Wood but even the child audience is able to see through to his scatter-brained nature and of course, the way he tends to spell his own name as ‘Wol’. While he is perhaps possessed of more intellectual gifts than that Bear with Very Little Brain himself, Owl is often stuck having to bluff his way through when his compatriots (often Rabbit in particular) inadvertently show him up. With his terribly English manners and courtly speech, Owl is like an elderly professor – unlike the other characters, he is not based on a stuffed toy and some have even wondered if he might be a manifestation of A A Milne himself.
The Owl, The Owl and the Pussycat
The owl and the pussycat famously head off in their pea-green boat, have a whirlwind romance and get wed. Which one is male and which female? Not sure. Their courtship may be an exercise in the ridiculous but somehow there is an elegance and a romance to it. An unfinished sequel dealt with the fate of their offspring – the cat had long since died falling from a tree and the heartbroken father owl continued to strum his guitar. Surely no other bird could capture that sense of tragedy?
Owl Brown, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin
Squirrel Nutkin was the immediate sequel to Peter Rabbit, telling the story of a group of brave squirrels who travel to Owl Island and have to offer Owl Brown a gift to gain permission to gather nuts. Squirrel Nutkin taunts the owl with riddles and eventually Owl Brown snaps and nearly skins him alive. As with so many of Potter’s apparently innocent stories, there are strong themes of class and hierarchy within the tale with the owl representing the nineteenth century land-owner figure of whom the squirrels live in fear. More so than perhaps any of Potter’s other stories, the animals retain their natural behaviours including the urge to kill.
Archimedes, The Sword in the Stone
An early precursor to Hedwig, Archimedes is Merlin’s familiar and keeps the Wart company on a few of the occasions whenever Merlin turns him into an animal (generally so the Wart learns a useful lesson). Having an owl as a companion adds an extra chaos to Merlin’s character, with the owl droppings ruining his pyjamas. Still Archimedes also represents Arthur’s own pre-Camelot innocence and in the heartbreaking final part of The Once and Future King, Merlin returns to Arthur on the eve of his battle with Mordred and brings with him Archimedes to further Arthur’s education one last time. Here the owl manages to signify both innocence and experience – quite the metaphorical feat.
Glimfeather, The Silver Chair
Glimfeather is another wise owl, although he becomes steadily more so after dark being somewhat slower in the hours of daylight. Recognising that Trumpkin will not let Eustace and Jill find the prince, he convenes the Parliament of Owls to come to their assistance. Respect has to be paid to C S Lewis for finding a way of using the actual collective noun for a group of owls and all the hooing and whooing which punctuates their speech makes them terrific fun to read aloud. While they have a relatively short appearance, they have always stuck in the mind.
The Owl Service
This is a definite case of the owls not being quite what they seem. When Alison finds a dinner service in the house she has recently inherited, she is captivated by the image of the owl which she sees within the pattern. So much so that she has to draw it out, again and again, making an owl for each plate. The next day, the plates are blank. The rustlings of the owls begin to be heard throughout the house and Alison, her stepbrother Roger and the housekeeper’s son Gwyn realise that they are being caught up by the legend of Blodeuwedd, which plays out every generation in the valley. I always remember how one of the characters overhears a conversation between the locals as they observe in a detached way that it is happening again, taking as little notice as one might do of a spell of bad weather. Do you see owls in the pattern or do you see flowers?
Plop, The Owl Who Was Afraid Of The Dark
My teacher read us this story when I was six. As the title suggests, Plop fears the dark and given that he is a barn owl, this has its disadvantages. Over the course of the story, he meets creatures of various shapes and sizes and gradually realises that dark can be fun, that it is needed and that it has lots of nice things going on within it. Often recommended by doctors for children who have genuine fears of the dark, the funny thing is that from my own experience, I remember consciously thinking about the night differently afterwards – which means of course that Jill Tomlinson got her message across.
Hedwig, Harry Potter
Oh Hedwig. You are the Queen of Owls. Like Archimedes, Hedwig represents for Harry both innocence and experience – she comes to him as a birthday present and marks the moment he enters the wizarding world and when she makes her awful exit, we know that nobody is safe. There are many owls within Harry Potter, from the Weasleys’ moribund Errol to the innocent Pig but Hedwig is Harry’s companion whether he is at Hogwarts or back at Privet Drive. A true friend and companion, may her song be ever sung.