In March 2006 my wife and I flew over to Dublin, Ireland for the first time in either of our lives as guests at the third annual Phoenix Convention (or P-Con, as most people know/knew it). The guest of honour that year was Susanna Clarke – author of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell which had, at that point, already been out for eighteen months and won a Hugo Award. I, a chronically slow reader at the best of times, had not yet started reading the 800ish page novel, and I think that Leah was only part of the way through it. Nevertheless, we found that we got on well with Susanna and her partner, sci-fi writer Colin Greenland – who were both lovely, charming and funny – and the brief time we spent together over the course of the con was very enjoyable. It was perhaps two years later that I finally finished reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I have on only a couple of occasions in my life finished a book and at once turned to the front to begin reading it again. I thought about doing that with Strange & Norrell but I am, as I have said, a very slow reader. Instead I immediately downloaded the thirty two hour long audio-book version which to date I have listened to perhaps three or four times.
In a piece entitled “Why I Love Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” published on the Guardian website recently, Neil Gaiman recalled writing to the book’s editor to say that it was, in his opinion, “the finest work of English fantasy written in the past seventy years“. I am not so widely read as Mr. Gaiman and I don’t pretend to be an expert in such matters, but what I can say with certainty is that I, like Neil, love Strange & Norrell. The blend of alt. history and fantasy, the handling of Englishness and of English Magic, of otherness and madness, the subtly, the comedy, the eeriness, the epicness – in every sense; all these factors combine to make Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell a work which does not so much stand apart as it does occupy a space that seems no other work could ever fill. It is as though a Strange & Norrell sized gap waited hungrily on some shelf in the realm of forms up until a decade or so ago.
Today, in 2015, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has been adapted into a seven part television series for the BBC and as I type we are three episodes in here in the UK. With Clarke’s wonderful world of magicians theoretical, practical, and street being beamed into living-rooms across this scepter’d isle, now seems like an ideal opportunity to pluck out some of the more easily disentangled fragments of folklore, magic, and the like and take a closer look at them.
All posts in this series:
- Strange and Norrell I – The Language of Birds
- Strange and Norrell II – On Fairies and Witchcraft
- Strange and Norrell III – Away with the Fairies
- Strange and Norrell IV – Magic and Madness
- Strange and Norrell V – The Raven King
I. The Language of Birds
We are, at the opening of Strange & Norrell, introduced to the Learned Society of York Magicians, all of whom are theoretical magicians. As their president Dr. Foxcastle explains it:
“[Theoretical] magicians study magic. The history of magic. We do not perform it. We don’t expect an astronomer to create stars, or a Botanist to invent new flowers”.
The York Magicians are gentlemen historians, antiquarians who would never dream of casting a spell of their own yet they have studied, discussed, and wrote upon the subject. The precious few texts the York Society have to examine are chiefly those deemed unworthy to reside within the prodigious library at Hurtfew Abbey belonging to Mr. Gilbert Norrell.
Susana Clarke provides extensive footnotes (near two-hundred in total) throughout her book, outlining an entire fictional history and corpus of magical scholarship. She divides what we may think of as Magic Books into two broad categories: Books of Magic and Books About Magic. The former were largely written pre 17th century during the era of the potent Golden Age magicians. The latter mostly dating post 17th century, written by the less accomplished (sometimes wholly powerless) Silver Age magicians and those who followed them. Books of Magic are of the greatest interest to the practical magician, leaving only Books on Magic (and precious few even of them) for theoretical magicians to study.
More than thirty Magic Books (and papers) are mentioned in Strange & Norrell. Several, such as How to putte Questiones to the Dark and understand its Answeres and Gatekeeper of Apollo, are mere titles but we do get considerably more detail about a handful of others. One of the most intriguing of these is Treatise concerning the Language of Birds by Thomas Lanchester upon whose possible contents and origins it might be fun to speculate a little here.
“There is nothing else in magic but the wild thought of the bird as it casts itself into the void. There is no creature upon the earth with such potential for magic. Even the least of them may fly straight out of this world and come by chance to the Other Lands. Where does the wind come from that blows upon your face, that fans the pages of your book? Where the harum-scarum magic of small wild creatures meets the magic of Man, where the language of the wind and the rain and the trees can be understood, there we will find the Raven King.”
– from Treatise concerning the Language of Birds by Thomas Lanchester
In Kabbalah, Renaissance Magic, and Alchemy, the language of the birds was considered a secret divine language and the key to perfect knowledge. In this context the language of birds was also sometimes also referred to as the langue verte, or Green Language.
In Norse mythology a taste of dragon’s blood could grant the consumer the gift of understanding the birds as, according to the Poetic Edda and the Völsunga saga, it did for the hero Sigurd. Sigurd’s story is also depicted in the eleventh century Ramsund carving in Sweden.
In the old folk tales of Wales, Germany, Greece, and beyond there is a long tradition of protagonists being granted the gift of understanding the birds by some magical means. The birds then invariability go on to inform or warn the hero about some danger or hidden treasure following the same patten as the stories of Sigurd (see Russian folk tale The Language of the Birds for an example).
In writings by and upon the ancient Greeks the ability to understand birds is often attributed (though perhaps metaphorically) to real people such as the philosophers Democritus, Anaximander, and Apollonius of Tyana, as well to mythical figures like the soothsayer Melampus.
“Most wonderful is that kind of Auguring of theirs, who hear, & understand the speeches of Animals, in which as amongst the Ancients, Melampus, and Tiresias, and Thales, and Apollonius the Tyanean [Apollonius of Tyana], who as we read, excelled, and whom they report had excellent skill in the language of birds: of whom Philostratus, and Porphyrius [Porphyry] speak, saying, that of old when Apollonius sate in company amongst his friends, seeing Sparrows sitting upon a tree, and one Sparrow coming from elsewhere unto them, making a great chattering and noise, and then flying away, all the rest following him, he said to his companions, that that Sparrow told the rest that an Asse being burdened with wheat fell down in a hole neer the City, and that the wheat was scattered upon the ground: many being much moved with these words, went to see, and so it was, as Apollonius said, at which they much wondered.”
– from De Occulta Philosophia libri III by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, 1533
“Tiresias was one of the most celebrated soothsayers of the early ages of Greece. He lived in the times of Oedipus, and the war of the seven chiefs against Thebes. He was afflicted by the Gods with blindness, in consequence of some displeasure they conceived against him; but in compensation they endowed him beyond all other mortals with the gift of prophecy. He is said to have understood the language of birds. He possessed the art of divining future events from the various indications that manifest themselves in fire, in smoke, and in other ways but to have set the highest value upon the communications of the dead, whom by spells and incantations he constrained to appear and answer his inquiries and he is represented as pouring out tremendous menaces against them, when they showed themselves tardy to attend upon his commands.”
– from Lives of the Necromancers: or, An account of the most eminent persons in successive ages, who have claimed for themselves, or to whom has been imputed by others, the exercise of magical power by William Godwin, 1834
The belief that the vocalisations and behaviours of birds are indicators of things yet to come runs deep. In England we have the tradition that if the Tower of London ravens (once wild birds attracted by ready supply of carrion supplied by executions, now tame corvids with clipped wings) leave, the Crown will fall and Britain with it. The the 18th century One for Sorrow rhyme is another example, still recited by many upon sighting a gathering of magpies (which is, after all, called a tiding). Birds do speak, of course, and there are still those who understand them.
A study conducted in Yellowstone National Park in 2002 recorded ravens socializing with wolveseven when there was no potential prey or carrion present. The ravens were seen swooping down to pull wolves’ tails, interacting with wolf pups at den sites and engaging in playful chasing. Bernd Heinrich, author of Mind of the Raven, Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds, and advisor on the study, also frequently observed ravens hunting with wolves. This relationship between the two species was deemed especially interesting considering that wolves were absent from Yellowstone National Park for nearly seventy years until their reintroduction in the mid-1990s.  Our own bond with the ancestors of today’s domestic dogs began during the Stone Age, when humans were hunter gatherers working with the canines to secure food for the two species, just as the ravens and wolves still do. Tales of hunting interaction involving wolves, ravens, and humans figure in the storytelling of Tlingit and Inuit Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Some of these stories describe the birds tipping in flight, effectively pointing with their wings, to direct hunters to caribou.
In Africa today there are fifteen species of honeybird and, as you might deduce from their name, they’re quite interested in bees and their nests. In truth it is not so much the honey the birds are after as the larvae and wax contained within the hive. Breaking into a nest to get at the honey comb is a nigh on impossible task for these relatively small birds which is why they talk to humans. First formally studied in the 1980s, the nomadic Boran people of Kenya have a longstanding agreement with the honeybirds of that region.
“Each partner knows how to get the other’s attention. To attract the birds, the Borans call them with a penetrating whistle (known in the Boran language as Fuulido) that can be heard over a distances of greater than a kilometer and that is made by blowing air into clasped fists, modified snail shells, or hollowed-out palm nuts. Comparably, hungry honeyguides flag down humans by flying up close, moving restlessly from perch to perch, and emitting a double-noted, persistent “tirr-tirr-tirr-tirr” call.” 
The bird flies along then perches on a branch waiting for the human to catch up, then flies on again leading the would be honey gatherer on toward the nearest hive. The behaviour and calls of the honeybird (or honeyguide as they are also known) also indicate other factors like the distance of the hive from the current location. Arriving at the nest (which is still often unseen by the person following) the honeyguide gives a new call and once again modifies its behaviour.
“This call differs from the previous guiding call in that it has a softer tone, with longer intervals between successive notes. There is also a diminished response, if any at all, to whistling and shouting by humans. After a few indication calls, the bird remains silent. When approached by the searching gatherer, it flies to another perch close by, sometimes after circling around the nest. The resulting flight path finally reveals the location of the colony to the gatherer. […] After using smoky fires to reduce the bees’ aggression, the Boran honey gatherers use tools or their hands to remove the honey comb, and then break off pieces to be shared with their honeyguide partners.” 
In so many of the old stories the idea is that, through the power of flight, birds could travel vast distances, see things no human eye could, and report back to one who spoke their language. One could argue that, in the 21st century, drones are beginning to practically fill the role of Odin’s legendary Hugin and Munin. Yet drones are mindless, soulless things, alien invaders in any natural landscape, whereas birds have been here far, far longer than we humans.
No longer, as in my youth, do we describe the dinosaurs as having died out – not completely, at least – because birds are now classified as modern theropod dinosaurs. In a paper published only last month scientists reported a new fossilised specimen of a previously undiscovered feathered bird species, Archaeornithura meemannae, which lived roughly 130.7 million years ago in north-eastern China.  That is 128 million years older than the oldest human remains which were discovered in Ethiopia recently.  Their ancestors were the closest things to dragons that ever lived, soaring high above everything while our shrew-like furry forbears squeaked and scurried for cover. We must have looked up into the sky in fear at first but over time, generation after generation after generation after generation, that fear turned to awe. How did they move through the air? Forces and powers we could not comprehend, things outside of our own nature and experience. Magic. What did they see? What did they know? If only, thought the hominid, we could speak the language of the birds.
 Isack, H., & Reyer, H. (1989). Honeyguides and Honey Gatherers: Interspecific Communication in a Symbiotic Relationship Science, 243 (4896), 1343-1346 DOI: 10.1126/science.243.4896.1343.