More Were-Owls in Fantasy

I’ve left this site fallow for a while, as I’ve been focusing on my poetry and divorce movies and–oh, yeah–my day job. I’ve got a few fantasy items in the hopper, but let me get back to things now with some were-owls.

I recently finished Tad Williams’s epic fantasy trilogy Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, first published in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I would have appreciated it more had I read it in my early teens when I was happy to grab most any fantasy epic to satisfy my Lord of the Rings cravings. I picked it up belatedly to see what I had missed, and because the writer Jonathan Geltner once mentioned it to me in connection with a piece I wrote five years ago about were-owls. Geltner said he read Williams’s series as a lad and recalled that it contains a were-owl. (By the way, I highly recommend Geltner’s brilliant debut novel Absolute Music, a realist novel that meditates profoundly on fantasy literature.)

Williams’s were-owl is a forest witch named Geloë. Ancient and wise, she is the only character who moves easily between the various cultures and races of Williams’s fantasy world, respected or feared by all, belonging to none. There is a nod to the Slavic folklore figure of Baba Yaga in the character, but she is mostly sui generis within the books, which draws on a range of other cultures and mythologies. At various points Geloë turns into an owl, and can also communicate with birds. She plays a key role as advisor and occasional rescuer to the good characters.

In a 2018 column for the Jewish Review of Books I wrote a little about were-owls and owls in fantasy, particularly Metunshemet (Owled), an Israeli fantasy novel for younger readers, written by Noa Greenberg and about a sixth-grade girl living in Kfar Saba who turns into an owl at night. (See featured image.) “Metunshemet,” I wrote, “is a tender dramatization through fantasy of the isolation, secrecy, and conflicted desire for independence and reassurance that are the lot of many a tween girl.”

I connected the book with a longer history of human fascination with owls, citing as one example Rashi’s commentary on the unkosher birds listed in Leviticus. “Rashi explains which Hebrew terms correspond to the French hibou and chouette (owls both): ‘They cry out at night and have the facial structure of a man’—that is, their eyes are in front, like humans, not on the sides like most birds.”

Screech owl.

I continued: “In some medieval Christian bestiaries, owls represent Jews, since both love darkness and inhabit ruins. During the same period, the Sefer hasidim warned Jews about strias—the term derives from the Latin for ‘owl’—women who drink human blood and can fly when they unloose their hair.” (I may have transliterated the term wrong, as I see it elsewhere as estries.)

This creature and its name derive from the strix of antiquity, a kind of bird that drank blood and attacked infants. It is also connected or identified with witches and vampires, an etymological stamp that runs in multiple languages and into the modern period. Strigoi, for instance, are Romanian vampires, and Stryx was the name of an improbable late 1970s Italian television show featuring topless performers, demonic and Boschean imagery, and disco numbers by pop stars such as Patty Pravo and Grace Jones. (Whether satanism or a whole lot of cocaine was the greater factor here is unclear: beware.)

When I wrote my were-owl column, though, I hadn’t yet read Owl in Love, and so didn’t make the obvious connection between that 1993 American novel and the 2017 Israeli Metunshemet. Both are YA novels about socially unhappy schoolgirls who turn into owls. Owl in Love has a far more risqué premise, with a 14 year old protagonist in love with her 40 year old science teacher, spying on him in his bedroom at night while she is in owl form. While most of the book that follows is actually far from sexualized—the girl’s concerns are more about how to hide her diet of live mice from friends—and she eventually shifts her attentions to her teacher’s more age-appropriate son, it is perhaps not surprising that Owl in Love, which won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature in 1995, has since dropped off the radar. Both Owl in Love and Metunshemet play out the pains and anxieties of girlhood and, in one case, adolescence, but end by returning their shapeshifting protagonists to the care of the family nest.

Another instance in fantasy literature of were-owls and their connection with femininity and witches is the title story in Susanna Clarke’s collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu. The story takes place in the same universe as Clarke’s magnum opus Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and is written in its Jane Austen style. Jonathan Strange even makes an appearance. In “The Ladies of Grace Adieu” the point, however, is that the male magicians Strange and Norrell are no match for women when it comes to magic—at least no match for the three women in the story, who turn into owls and devour boorish male visitors whom they first turn into mice. We learn that, much as swans for the real-world British monarch, “owls are the possessions of the Raven King,” the figure in Clarke’s novel who represents primal magic and literary power itself. The fantasy of late 18th century English women having magical powers that enable them to achieve the independence from men denied them by their society is less subtly or effectively realized than Clarke’s novel, though.

A final etymological aspect of the owl is the frequent translation of the Hebrew lilit, in Isaiah’s depiction of the landscapes devastated by God’s judgement, as a type of owl. For instance, the King James version:

The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow; the screech owl [lilit] also shall rest there, and find for herself a place of rest. (Isaiah 34:14)

This suggests a connection between the owl and the demoness Lilith, which is how some commentators understand the term lilit here, rather than as a bird. (Rashi again, in his commentary on the verse above: “Lilit. The name of a female demon.”)

And so, to return to the Tad Williams trilogy and its were-owl Geloë that I began with, it seems no accident that Geloë cares for a young girl, largely a cypher yet whose innate magical abilities ultimately transcend even Geloë’s. The girl’s name is Leleth.

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