Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Birds play significant roles in fantasy for several reasons. Their mastery of flight makes their condition seem desirable, and the metaphorical meanings which can be attached to the idea "flight" ensure that fantasies in which humans borrow the attributes of birds are not without a certain gravitas. Birds' mastery of song is sometimes given similar symbolic treatment. One of the most frequent Folktale motifs is that of the bird-bride – often a swan-maiden – who must be captured by stealth and might be lost again through careless neglect. Popular superstition has long sought hidden meanings in the appearance and movement of certain bird species; birds of ill-omen include owls and ravens, while swallows and storks are generally considered harbingers of good fortune. The fact that some birds – notably parrots and ravens – can imitate human voices lends credence to fantasies about talking birds. The most famous fabulous birds are the Phoenix and the gargantuan roc featured in the Arabian Nights (> Arabian Fantasy).

Notable fantasies in which birds symbolize human dreams of flight or "flight" include "The Eccentricity of Simon Parnacute" (1910) and The Promise of Air (1918) by Algernon Blackwood, Going Home (1921) by Barry Pain, They Chose to be Birds (1935) by Geoffrey Dearmer (1893-1993), The Summer Birds (1962) by Penelope Farmer, Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1970 chap) by Richard Bach, The Unlimited Dream Company (1979) by J G Ballard and Birdy (1979) by William Wharton. Notable works in which birdsong performs a similarly metaphorical role include Luscignole (1892 France; trans 1928) by Catulle Mendès (1841-1909), "The Nightingale and the Rose" (1888) by Oscar Wilde and "My Lady Sweet, Arise" (1983) by Frank Baker. Another significant Allegory involving birds is Sparrow Farm (1935 Germany; trans 1937) by Hans Fallada (1893-1947). Effective "bird-bride" stories include Tchaivoksky's ballet Swan Lake (1877) and the proto-feminist allegory Angel Island (1914) by Inez Haynes Gillmore (1873-1970). A traditional swan-maiden is ironically featured in James Branch Cabell's Figures of Earth (1921); a non-sexist version of the theme is Nicholas Gray's The Seventh Swan (1962). Birds of ill-omen are memorably featured in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1798), Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" (1845), W H Hudson's "Marta Riquelme" (1902), Walter de La Mare's "The Bird of Passage" (1923) and John Collier's "Bird of Prey" (1941). Among many tales of talking birds gifted with intelligence are Dudley and Gilderoy (1929) by Algernon Blackwood, Clovis (1948) by Michael Fessier and A Fine and Private Place (1960) by Peter S Beagle. Birds are not often featured in Animal Fantasies, but two exceptions are Satyrday (1980) by Steven Bauer and Callanish (1984) by William Horwood.

Fabulous birds invented by modern fantasists include the Feng in Helen Beauclerk's The Green Lacquer Pavilion (1925) and the gazolba in Clark Ashton Smith's "The Voyage of King Euvoran" (1933). Significant tales involving avian Theriomorphy include the allegorical Lilith (1895) by George MacDonald, "The Albatross" (1931) by Hector Bolitho (1897-1974), the parodic Gentleman into Goose (1924) by Christopher Ward, When the Birds fly South (1945) by Stanton A Coblentz (1896-1982) and (in its final cruel twist) The Lost Traveller (1943) by Ruthven Todd (1914-1978). A chimerical birdman is featured in Blaedud the Birdman (1978) by Vera Chapman. There are several old literary works in which a man stands trial for the crimes of his species before a court of birds, the best-known being States and Empires of the Sun (1662 France; trans 1687) by Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655); Cock Robin is the likely underlier. The motif is occasionally echoed in modern fantasy, but it is more common nowadays to find birds playing a prominent part in rebellion-of-nature stories, as in Frank Baker's The Birds (1936) and Daphne Du Maurier's "The Birds" (1952), both of which are bases for Alfred Hitchcock's movie The Birds (1963). [BS]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.