On Owls

I Heard The Owl Call My Name was a bestseller in the 1970s, alongside such now neglected titles as Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance. What all three had in common was a concern with the ultimate meaning of existence, or at least the meaning of existence in the specific context of blissed-out self-obsessed post-hippy North America. I actually read the latter two titles, in my misguided teendom, though thankfully I seem to have recovered from the experience with no ill effects. But I never got round to I Heard The Owl Call My Name, and thus it continues to intrigue me. Well, not to a debilitating extent. I do not wake up every morning fretting about it, nor have I sought to obtain a copy. What intrigues me is the title.

The book was written by Margaret Craven. Now, over the years I have listened to numberless owls, and not one of them has ever uttered the cry “Margaret Craven”, nor any sound remotely akin to it, no matter how strangulated the voice in which we pronounce it in an attempt to mimic an owl. Aha!, I hear you say, but I Heard The Owl Call My Name is a novel, is it not?, so perhaps the name the owl calls is that of a fictional narrator, rather than of a non-fictional author. This is a persuasive argument until one does a spot of research and discovers that the book concerns a dying Anglican vicar named Mark Brian. Again, “Mark Brian” is not by any stretch of the imagination the sort of sound made by any owl it has ever been my pleasure to hear, as I crunch through the duff on the forest floor in the dead of night, my lantern occasionally picking out the fugitive sight of a small scurrying mammal, its heart pounding in terror. It is in such a place, at such a time, that one is likely to hear owls hooting.

We use the onomatopoeic word “hoot” to represent the call of an owl, or, if we are writing a children’s book, we might deploy “too-wit, too-woo”. We will not, ever, use “Margaret Craven” or “Mark Brian”, and if we ever had a dramatic brain-embranglement and did so, we would befuddle our readers utterly, to the point where they would probably toss our book aside in exasperation, and who would blame them for so doing?

Now as I say, I have not read the book, so there is every possibility that perhaps the dying vicar has a parishioner named Biff Hoot or Ted Toowit or Sacheverell Toowoo, and it is this person who hears their name called by the owl, while crunching through the duff on the forest floor in the dead of night, their lantern occasionally picking out the fugitive sight of a small scurrying mammal, its heart pounding in terror. Biff, or Ted, or Sacheverell then scampers to the church to tell the vicar of this exciting turn of events, and to seek his judicious religious advice on what it might portend, in terms of the meaning of existence, only to find the vicar sprawled on the floorboards in front of the altar, dying.

Why is he dying? Has he been attacked by owls, pecking at him with their beaks and slashing at him with their talons? Owls are more likely to set upon the small scurrying mammals in the nocturnal forest, rather than a human vicar in a candlelit church. So what might account for such a palaver? It could be that, rather than being a stereotypical beardy Anglican vicar, Mark Brian is an effeminate cross-dressing vicar who bears a startling resemblance to Tippi Hedren. In this scenario, the owls would simply be attempting to reenact a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s documentary The Birds (1963). Or we might posit that, on the other side of the forest there is a sinister military-industrial hazchem facility, leakage from which the owls have been exposed to, transforming them from common or garden owls to science fiction monster owls of unbridled savagery.

His life ebbing away, the vicar moans weakly for help, at which point Biff or Ted or Sacheverell comes scampering up the nave. He cradles Mark Brian’s torn and bloody head in his arms, and whispers, “I heard the owl call my name”. The vicar’s eyelids flutter and his breath rattles. Does he still have strength enough to speak, and to reveal to his needy parishioner the ultimate meaning of existence? We would hope so, this being a 1970s bestseller.

I Heard The Owl Call My Name (1967) predates both Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1970) and Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974). Could it be that both Richard Bach and Robert M. Pirsig were shameless plagiarists? Is the wisdom in their books lifted wholesale from Margaret Craven, who has the dying vicar vouchsafe to Biff or Ted or Sacheverell what it all means?

“You say the owl called your name?”, he gasps, “It is a sign. I understand the language of owls, and I think I know what it would have said next had you stayed to listen, instead of sprinting pell mell out of the forest and through the village and into the church and along the nave to come and cradle me in your arms in my dying moments.”

Biff or Ted or Sacheverell dabs at the vicar’s brow with a dampened rag, trying his best to comfort him, desperate to keep him alive long enough that he might impart the wisdom of the owl.

“You must repair your motorcycle,” groans Mark Brian, “And you must zoom upon it down to the seaside. There you will find a different form of bird life, seagulls rather than owls. The seagull will not call your name. It will swoop and scavenge and soar. Watch it carefully, in the dappled sunlight. Then…”

But before he can complete the sentence – and thus divulge the ultimate meaning of 1970s existence – the vicar collapses and dies.

I hope this is an adequate summary of a book I have never read. If it isn’t, it damned well ought to be.

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