Archives For Birds

C.S. Lewis has introduced me to many fascinating writers. Authors I never would have learned about without Lewis’ reference to them.

Sometimes Lewis praises their work. At other times, being an honest literary critic, he is compelled to provide a less flattering appraisal. He typically offers the latter evaluation with a novel flair.

In my previous post I shared the sad tale of a blackbird tapping at our window. I promised to discuss today some other curious birds. These creatures, in contrast to the forlorn blackbird, arise from the imagination of a Scottish poet named Sir David Lyndsay* of the Mount. He lived around 1490 to 1555.

Lyndsay rose to the ceremonial rank of “The Right Honourable the Lord Lyon King of Arms,” which sounds quite impressive. In that capacity, he compiled 400 Scottish coats of arms, which was quite an achievement. You can download a rare facsimile of that document for your personal library from Internet Archive. The central shield may belong to my wife’s ancestors, “Jhonstoun of that ilke.”

Sir Lyndsay was a tutor to James V and served in his Court after his ascendancy to Scotland’s throne. However, it is for his poetry that David Lyndsay is remembered. Which is precisely why C.S. Lewis included him in the volume he wrote for the Oxford History of English Literature. English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama was published in 1944. While this authoritative volume is certainly not casual reading, it is extremely interesting. Just listen to how Lewis introduces Scottish writers of the “close of the Middle Ages.”

Sir David Lyndsay’s Legacy

This academic work is the place our favorite Inkling introduced me to “the last major poet of the old Scotch tradition.” I was on a quest for something interesting about birds, and I learned of a delightful piece of satire written by this Renaissance “Lion King.”

His works are a beautiful example of the ‘single talent well employed.’ The Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis, which holds an important place among our scanty materials for a history of the allegorical drama in Scotland, will be dealt with in another volume of this series . . . stands apart from the rest of Lyndsay’s output by the looseness of the metre and the general popularity of the style, and that it is rich in pathos and low humour.

In his remaining works he everywhere keeps well within the lines marked out for him by his great predecessors, there is no novelty in them . . . But what there is of him is good all through.

I am quite receptive to satire that skewers hypocritical clergy. That’s why the “episcopal ghost”⁑ in The Great Divorce is my favorite example of someone who has rejected the Truth.

This is what appealed to me about Lyndsay’s satire The Testament and Complaynt of our Soverane Lordis Papyngo.

The Complaynt [an earlier work] records, in a brisk, mocking fashion . . . the marked improvement in social order and general well-being throughout the kingdom, except as regards the “spiritualitie.” On the doings of the ecclesiastics he advises [the young king] to keep a watchful eye, and see that they preach with “unfeyneit intentis,” use the sacraments as Christ intended and leave such vain traditions as superstitious pilgrimages and praying to images. . . .

In The Testament and Complaynt of our Soverane Lordis Papyngo (parrot) he exposed more particularly the corruptions and worldliness of the spirituality, and this in a more comprehensive and scathing fashion than in his two previous pieces . . . (Cambridge History of English and American Literature).

And here are the ecclesiastical nemeses of the poem, “religious men, of gret devotioun.”

Here, also, all is pure satire—much of it of a very clever and trenchant character . . . the wise bird [the king’s parrot] with its “holy executors,” who appear in the form of a pyot [magpie] (representing a canon regular), a raven (a black monk) and a gled or hawk (a holy friar). The disposition and aims of these ghostly counsellors are sufficiently manifest; and they act entirely in keeping with their reputed character.

The poor parrot would have much preferred to have, at her death-bed, attendants of a less grovelling type of character, such as the nightingale, the jay, the mavis [song thrush], the goldfinch, the lark, etc.; but, since none of them has come, she has to be content with the disreputable birds who have offered her their services.

After a piquant discussion with them on the growth of ecclesiastical sensuality and greed, she thereupon proceeds to dispose of her personality—her “galbarte of grene” to the owl, her eyes to the bat, her beak to the pelican, her music to the cuckoo, her “toung rhetoricall” to the goose and her bones to the phoenix.

Her heart she bequeaths to the king; and she leaves merely her entrails, including her liver and lungs, to her executors who, however, immediately on her death, proceed to devour her whole body, after which the ged flies away with her heart, pursued by the two other birds of prey.

I can picture the assembled clergy in their avian forms offering their pseudo-comfort to the dying parrot. In English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, C.S. Lewis describes the misbegotten flock in the following manner.

[The parrot’s] testament is made in the unwelcome presence of certain birds of prey who turn out to be monks and friars of the feathered world. The dying parrot inveighs against their hypocrisy and avarice . . . while they vigorously defend themselves by throwing the blame on the secular clergy.

So far, the satire has been ordinary enough; but we find real satiric invention, and even a strange beauty, when the popinjay, having provided for the poor by leaving her gay coat to the owl, her eyes to the bat, and her voice to the cuckoo, and for herself by committing her spirit to the Quene of Farie, is torn in pieces by her carrion executors the moment the breath is out of her body—hir angell fedderis fleying in the air.

It is not without reason an article in Studies in Scottish Literature opens with this praise:

Lindsay’s concern for morality and truthfulness, in an age when political and religious institutions were notoriously corrupt, earned him a considerable reputation in his lifetime. Indeed for later generations of Scottish readers, Lindsay’s name became a byword for reliability and truthfulness, at times even rivalling divine Scripture.

You can read the original poem, along with all of Lyndsay’s other poetic works, in this 1871 collection.


* Just a caution for those looking for more information about Lyndsay: be aware that his surname is also spelled Lindsay, Lindesay and Lyndesay. Also, he should not be confused with Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie, a roughly contemporary author who compiled The Historie and Chronicles of Scotland. (Robert’s family name is also spelled with similar variants.)

⁑ Lewis’ use of the word “episcopal” here does not refer to a denomination. It suggests a churchly, or more accurately, a high-churchly theologian.

Noble Birds of Aragon, circa AD 1290

My wife and I love birds. Perhaps we enjoy them too much.

I say that because our backyard includes four different feeders. They are different types, and appeal to a variety of species. (We also have a hummingbird feeder on the other side of the house, just outside my office window.)

Blessed as we are to live in the Puget Sound area, we see a variety of avifauna.* Nearly every day we see doves, robins, sparrows, chickadees, juncos, finches, Steller’s jays, thrushes, flickers, towhees, red-winged blackbirds and hummingbirds. Oh, and starlings too, that are the only birds our border collie chases (because of their darting taunts, I suppose).

Occasionally we have goldfinches, quail, band-tailed pigeons, woodpeckers, and various other guests I’m not quite positive about. In the sky, and on the nearby shoreline, we see many seagulls, mallards, great blue herons, Canadian geese, and—particularly during the current season—bald eagles.

As I said, we are definitely blessed to enjoy so many lovely creatures surrounding us. But this post isn’t really about birds; it concerns a particular bird who has recently joined our community. It is (I’m pretty confident) a Brewer’s blackbird.

He boasts magnificent sheen on his jet black plumage. Sadly, though, he appears to be quite unhappy.

His unhappiness is due to unrequited love. A tragic condition shared by many human beings. You see, each morning he comes to a bird bath near our bedroom window where he can perch and view his own reflection on the glass.

Seeing a potential companion, he does a sort of courting dance, which the reflection presumably imitates. He bumps into the glass, often repeatedly. Despite his zealous efforts, he inevitably ends up disappointed. And yet, there he is, the next morning, delighted that his friend is willing to give him another chance.

We Are Like the Blackbird

One recent morning I awoke to his antics, and it struck my waking mind that that poor bird’s futile efforts are a metaphor of our lives.

We perceive idealized reflections of ourselves, so flawless we become enraptured. We think of ourselves as the most important thing in the world. In a sense, we begin to believe the universe revolves around us.

I remembered the Greek story of Narcissus. It is a myth offering many insights, not solely the dangers of unbridled self-love. It was because of his contempt for others that Narcissus was cursed to see in a pool a reflection of the only person he considered worthy of his attention. At first, when he fell “in love,” he did not recognize the image as being himself. The tragedy leads to his destruction.⁑

We too, I think as a I watch that small bird vainly striving to find fulfillment in an illusion, experience only disappointment and ultimate despair.

For days Narcissus knelt by the pool, hopelessly in love with the beauty of his own reflection. Before his eyes he saw the image grow pale and thin, weep tears, stretch out its arms, and look at him. Still he could not hear it, could not touch it, no matter how he implored.

While reflecting on this subject, I found a couple of articles I recommend to those desiring to ponder it further. And, next week we will consider other birds, from another perspective—their use in a Renaissance work of fiction, included by C.S. Lewis in his volume from Oxford History of English Literature.

C.S. Lewis on the Bible: Myth, Truth, Fact, and Genesis” explores C.S. Lewis’ contribution to comprehending the complexity inherent in mythology. He cites the simplistic interpretation of the story of Narcissus as a misleading reduction of the myth’s deeper message.

Understanding and Dealing with Today’s Culture of Narcissism” notes how C.S. Lewis offered a non-narcissian prescription for addressing the “hungry soul.”

Self-Centeredness Isn’t Narcissism’s Central Problem,” discusses the myth and the culture of Narcissism in which we are immersed. Author Angela Franks, a professor at St. John’s Seminary, then moves into a brilliant discussion of Till We Have Faces, which C.S. Lewis considered his finest book.

C. S. Lewis’s unjustly neglected rewriting of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, in his novel Till We Have Faces, provides a profound insight into the narcissistic spectrum. . . .

So it appears [in Lewis’ myth] that the beloved of the gods is not only the beautiful and wise Psyche, but also the tormented and ugly Orual. In the divine plan, the hideous older half-sister suffers in order to aid the beautiful maiden, but the beautiful maiden also goes through the greatest trials in order to purify Orual. The god, it appears, is willing to sacrifice his beloved in order to be united to the one who hates him. “What’s mine is yours!” Psyche and the god proclaim to Orual, but this time not in vengeance; in Lewis’s new myth, just retribution gives way to undeserved love.

To discourage our obsidian-feathered friend from squandering his brief life in pursuit of his own reflection, my wife and I just placed some decals on the window. It appears to have worked.

Would that our own echoes of Narcissus were addressed so simply.


* Don’t feel bad if this word is unfamiliar to you, don’t feel bad. I didn’t know it before I wrote this post. It means “the birds of a particular region, habitat, or geological period.”

⁑ The versions of this myth end in different ways, ranging from his divine transformation into a flower, to his despair and suicide.

Not Quite Christmas

December 21, 2020 — 11 Comments

Sadly, most people miss out on the true meaning of Christmas. But then, there are some people who really miss the mark altogether. That was the case with many Brits during the Victorian era.

Today I read in Philosopher Mouse of the Hedge about Victorian Christmas cards. Phil’s great post was inspired by a BBC article, “Frog Murder and Boiled Children: ‘Merry Christmas’ Victorian style.” As Phil writes, “and you thought that sinister Elf on the Shelf was creepy.”

The card at the top of my post comes from the BBC collection. Pretty morbid. Where does the “Joyful Christmas” enter in? One might think this is the kind of card a passive aggressive victim of ornithophobia might send an enemy—but that was not its original design.

The Robin redbreast is a treasured resident of Britain, as this interesting article describes in detail. Just a few years ago, in fact, “it won a BBC Springwatch poll to choose the UK’s national bird.” The author describes their distinctive association with Christmas, although I am positive he did not have the image of this unfortunate creature in mind when he penned these words.

Another reason we connect robins with Christmas is that the early postmen wore red uniforms, and so were nicknamed ‘robins.’ And, as the cards pop through your letter box over the coming days, note how many feature a robin!

Here’s another peculiar card that has nothing to do with Christmas. At least it simply refers to “the Season,” and doesn’t tarnish the word “Christmas” itself.

Such a modicum of good taste did not deter the creator of the next card from associating robbery and homicide (actually frogicide) with the day celebrating Christ’s birth. One must hope that the grim illustration was originally fashioned for a different context.

C.S. Lewis knew that the British had a problem comprehending Christmas’ meaning. Why, they even twisted things sufficiently to link telling ghost stories to the commemoration of the Nativity.

It may have something to do with a confused relationship between church and state. Nations with “state religions” typically see those religious faiths morph into distortions of their true selves. Thus history is filled with examples of total secularists or hedonists who were the “titular head” of a state church.

Henry VIII set the bar for hypocrisy quite high, with adultery and murder his bywords. C.S. Lewis includes a tribute (of damning sorts) to this despicable ruler in his sequel to The Screwtape Letters, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.” In the address, fictitiously delivered by the devil Screwtape, the Tempter bemoans the mediocre vices of the humans whose anguish provides the main course.

The scene is in Hell at the annual dinner of the Tempters’ Training College for young Devils. The Principal, Dr Slubgob, has just proposed the health of the guests. Screwtape, who is the guest of honour, rises . . .

Your dreaded Principal has included in a speech full of points something like an apology for the banquet which he has set before us. Well, gentledevils, no one blames him. But it would be vain to deny that the human souls on whose anguish we have been feasting tonight were of pretty poor quality.

Not all the most skilful cookery of our tormentors could make them better than insipid. Oh to get one’s teeth again into a Farinata,* a Henry VIII, or even a Hitler! There was real crackling there; something to crunch; a rage, an egotism, a cruelty only just less robust than our own. It put up a delicious resistance to being devoured. It warmed your innards when you’d got it down.

So much for Henry VIII and the peculiarities of Church and State relations in England. Whatever the origin of this confusion about Christmas, it is quite tragic and disturbing.

So, What is the Proper Focus?

For an entertaining take on the proper focus during Christmas, you might want to check out “Martin Luther Yells about Anglican Christmas Hymns.” (Apologies to those who love English hymns for sentimental reasons.)

And now, one final Victorian card which serves as a fitting capstone to today’s conversation. ’Tis innocent mirth that gives Christmas its worth. (Or not.)


* Manente degli Uberti (aka Farinata delgi Uberti, 1212-1264) was an Italian heretic mentioned by Dante in Inferno.

Face to Face with God

October 28, 2013 — 14 Comments

Jesus with animalsA recent letter to the editor of Lutheran Witness includes a delightful example of the wondrous glory of childhood simplicity.

When our four-year-old son . . . saw a bird outside the window, he commented “I wish I were a bird with wings so I could fly up to heaven and talk to Jesus.” [His parents] asked what he would say to Jesus if he were a bird. His simple reply . . . “Tweet, tweet.”

How gloriously innocent. So unpretentious and joyously pure. I think this captures the essence of what Jesus was referring to when he said “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3-4, ESV).

C.S. Lewis discussed the innocence of children in his essay “The Abolition of Man.” He is discussing the monolithic power of society, or government, in reshaping what it means to be human. God preserve us from those who would redefine and eradicate the very qualities of humanity Jesus praised.

Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. The battle will then be won. . . . But who, precisely, will have won it? For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please. . . .

Hitherto the plans of educationalists have achieved very little of what they attempted and indeed, when we read them—how Plato would have every infant “a bastard nursed in a bureau,” and Elyot would have the boy see no men before the age of seven and, after that, no women, and how Locke wants children to have leaky shoes and no turn for poetry—we may well thank the beneficent obstinacy of real mothers, real nurses, and (above all) real children for preserving the human race in such sanity as it still possesses.

But the man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please.

When you and I stand in the presence of God, our adult words will vary. We’ll all drop to our knees—some in adoration, others perhaps in fear—but what will we say?

I can imagine some of the words that will come to our lips.

“Thank you.”

“Why did you allow . . ?”

“I love you.”

“I despise you because . . ?”

“Hallelujah.”

Or, perhaps, “Why did you delay so long?”*

I suspect we will probably be speechless. Certainly, at first. There’s a song that captures well the mystery that awaits us when we find ourselves face to face with our Creator. It’s more in spirit with the response of the young child who simply tweeted out his greeting to God.

Surrounded by Your Glory, what will my heart feel?

Will I dance for you, Jesus? Or in awe of You, be still?

Will I stand in Your presence, or to my knees will I fall?

Will I sing ‘Hallelujah!’? Will I be able to speak at all?

I can only imagine! I can only imagine!

We used to sing this song at chapel services in southwest Asia. I have often thought it would be very meaningful to record this song in my own voice, to be played at my own funeral (should the Lord tarry).

That’s not nearly as morbid as some might think. It’s a song of praise, awe and wonder, in my rendition I would end it with the words “I no longer imagine,” for my faith in God will have given way to sight.

_____
* The answer to that question is actually found in the Scriptures. From the third chapter of Peter’s second epistle:

This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.