Friday, January 20, 2017
Let's Read: The Once and Future King (Ch.17)
Picking up some weeks later from where the last chapter ended, we see Wart waking up during an early spring morning.
Master William Twyti and King Pellinore have departed; the Questing Beast fully recovered and ready once more to play its game with the forlorn king. Being a gracious sport, King Pellinore counts to ten-thousand before chasing after it—quite the head start!
Merlyn thinks that it is time for Wart to continue his education and so asks him what he would like to be transformed into this time. Wart remarks that even though he has already a bird, he would like to be transformed again in order to experience flying. Merlyn agrees but the conversation quickly gets onto the subject of bird linguistics.
“’Do you know,’ asked the Wart, thinking of the thrush, ‘why birds sing, or how? Is it a language?’
‘Of course it is a language. It is not a big language like human speech, but it is large’ [replied Merlyn]” (155).
Merlyn then launches into an explanation of bird language, how it is very old and though not much is said, much is connoted.
Wart says that his favorite bird is the Rook, a bird that I have no idea what it looks like since I am writing this entry from the solitude of ‘No-Internet Land.’ But, it seems that Rooks are the only sort of bird to have a parliament, which reminds me of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Parliament of Fowls since, evidently, rooks discuss, in part, marriage laws at such gatherings.
Merlyn then waxes eloquently on the pigeon. He says that it is a kind of Quaker and knows how every man is against her, how they are skilled in eluding predators and are very maternal and the sort; so pigeons are religious conservatives of a proto-feminist nature—got it! This literally goes on for the better part of a page. Then the conversation moves back to bird language.
“’Another friend of mine,’ said Merlyn immediately, in the most learned voice, ‘maintains, or will maintain, that the question of language of birds arises out of imitation. Aristotle, as you know, also attributes tragedy to imitation’” (157).
Yes, White has figured out a way to sneak in some depressing writing into what was a slightly amusing conversation on bird linguistics. Because, reasons.
Turns out that it is ‘tragic’ because the origins of bird language comes out from imitating the death knells of their prey; from this sort of imitation, comes elaboration through tonal shifts which gradually come to mean different things to these predators. This happens over a many year count, but still, way to make bird language sad, White.
Incidentally, I am not sure I have ever seen someone talk about how birds converse and then attribute that language to taking on the death cries of their food. Pretty dark stuff. I really don’t think the modern crop of grimdark SFF writers have anything on White.
Eventually, though, the conversation reaches its conclusion when Kay enters the classroom.
“’Hello,’ said Kay, opening the door of the afternoon school room. ‘I’m sorry I am late for the geography lesson. I was trying to get a few small birds with my cross-bow. Look, I have killed a thrush” (160).
Not sure this is supposed to be ironic or sarcastic, but it is definitely leaning on the dark Absurdist side of things: of course while Wart, Merlyn, and Archy (I don’t want to spell out his own name), are having a lovely—‘civilized’—conversation on bird custom and language, Kay comes in to announce and display his recent bird trophy. Too perfect.
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