Saturday, January 7, 2012

Against the literary persecution of corvids

Kelly Moore: King Crow

I engaged last week in an email exchange with Lew Ellingham upon the unjust representation of blackbirds in European folk-traditions. Upon his suggestion that discriminatory attitudes of this nature are due to the color and not the intelligence of the birds concerned, I wrote:

Hi Lew,

I can only agree that the demonization of the corvid family in the European tradition is due to the associations made with their (so-to-speak) skin color rather than their species behavior, which in the view of many naturalists, as I understand, is quite exceptional.

The traditional antipathy towards wolves seems more intelligible, since they were certainly a menace in the early middle ages (see for example the ninth-century Annals of Fulda). But if blackbirds are to be judged only by their feather color, then we have obviously and prejudicially fallen victim to yet another silly cultural meme, probably on the same intellectual level that assigns purity to white and evil to black.

How arbitrary these correspondences are is shown by the Japanese, who see white as the color of death—because of its alleged ghastliness, I suppose, since their ghosts are also pale like ours—or by the Chinese, who used to build moon-viewing platforms to observe the full-moon because it facilitates Supreme Good Fortune, instead of inspiring lunacy as here in the West.

A broader issue is what good can be found in the forest to begin with, since of course before Petrarch such environs were known to be full of creatures of menace, living and dead, as well as all kinds of potentially lethal botanica: ("This is the forest's prime evil, the murdering pines and the hemlocks....")

My favorite bad-crow poem nonetheless is the popular Scots ballad:

The twa corbies

As I was walkin' all alane
I heard twa corbies makin' mane
The 'tain unto the tither did say,
where sall we gang to din th' nicht?

It's in ahint yon auld fell dyke
I wot there lies a new-slain knight
Naebody kens that he lies there
But his hawke and his hound and his lady faire.

His hound is tae the hunting gane
His hawke tae fetch the wild fowle hame
His lady's ta'en anither mate,
So we can mak oor dinner swete.

Ye'll sit on his white hoose-bane*
And I'll pick oot his bonny blue e'en
Wi' mony a lock o' his golden hair
We'll theek oor nest when it grows bare.

There's many a mon for him maks mane
But nane shall ken whaur he has gane.
O'er his white banes when they are bare
The wind shall blaw forever mair.

I know the traditional melody for this, but have never heard anyone sing it successfully—it really works very much better as a poem, and few folk-singers can resist applying an unwanted measure of pathos.

I don't know how many wives kill off their husbands in the Scots ballads repertory, more often than not with poison. Mariticide (the liquidation of one's husband, a looming double-hazard of gay male marriages) must have been something of a problem, and in this case it is clearly what the poem is all about. As Liza Carthy famously observed, "There's nowt so queer as folk."

Kelly Moore: A Boy and His Crow

In fact this poem isn't about the crows at all, which anyway are unpardonably confused with vultures, nastily engaged in ocular extirpation. Bonny blue eyes may have accordingly been seen as a special gourmet delight for them. These are however very polite crows, conducting a thoughtful dialogue and assigning each other places at the dinner table to forestall any arguments.

But I proceed now to the Safeway with my own dining list, where I shall cheerfully hum to myself: Heigh-ho the carrion-crow as I inspect some dead animal tissues in the meat department.


The crow pictures are from Kelly Moore's website: a murder of crows.

* skeleton

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