Night owls means people who are active at night, the mortal enemies of the early birds. But my trawl through the googlesphere in search of night owl literature has come up short. So I am going to talk about feathery owls and pretend that that is what the theme is.
Owls feature in a fair few novels but they tend to flock to certain genres. There is not a whole lot of romantic fiction starring owls (maybe in some gothic ones). Leaving out the odd owl hooting in a bit of background atmosphere owls mostly swoop into fantasy writing, especially that aimed at young adults.
In, The Once and Future King, (19580 T.E. White’s retelling of the King Arthur story, Merlin has an owl called Archimedes who helps Wart (the young Arthur) learn the secrets of the animal kingdom. The Disney film, The Sword in the Stone, cherry picks the most Disney bits from the first part of the book, leaving out the darker, more disturbing elements, but they kept the irascible, clever owl .
The idea of owls being intelligent goes way back. In
Ancient Greece Athena, goddess of wisdom was often depicted with a little owl (which also featured on some Athenian coins). White’s choice of Archimedes as a name for Merlin’s feathery familiar references this.
A more explicit use of ancient mythology occurs in Alan Garner’s The Owl Service (1967), in this case Welsh. Three teenagers find themselves compelled to re-enact the legend of Blodeuwedd, a woman created from flowers who is turned into an owl as punishment for inducing her lover to kill her husband., from the 12th centuryMabinogion . https://www.globalgreyebooks.com/mabinogion-ebook.html
Owls feature rather differently in Titus Groan, the first volume of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast “trilogy” (the third volume was unfinished and he had planned more). Lord Sepulchrave, losing his wits after his beloved library is destroyed by fire, believes himself to be a “death owl,” perching on the mantelpiece and eating mice, before being consumed by the real death owls in the Tower of Fints.
The last in this quartet of fantasises, Susannah Clarke’s short story, The Ladies of Grace Adieu (2006), pulls together several of the other stories’ themes: the transformation of man or woman into birds of the Blodeuwedd/Owl Service and Once and Future King, the mouse eating of Gormenghast.
The idea of owls being intelligent and wise goes back, as we have seen, to Ancient Greece at the least. It is also widespread, cropping up from Indonesia to Greenland. The other attributes common to many cultures are that they are evil/bad luck or the familiars of witches/wizards/sorcerers.
I have only come across one place where they have been associated with stupidity – Scotland!
The following learned piece is from the Scots Language Centre Website:
“HOULET n owl
This bird was the subject of a humorous allegorical poem, The Buke of the Howlat, written by Sir Richard Holland in the middle of the fifteenth century. It is an interesting poem, not only for the story it tells but also because of its form. It is one of the first Scots poems in the ornate, alliterative, thirteen-line stanzas which remained popular until the late sixteenth century. The houlet, unhappy with his appearance is given a feather by all the other birds so that he is “Flour of all fowlis throw fedderis so fair”, but he gets “So pompos, impertinat and reprovable” that the birds strip him again. Houlets are regarded with distaste. We find the word used insultingly in flytings; Dunbar (a1508) uses it in a simile drawn from nature: “Than fleis thow, lyk ane howlat chest with crawis”, and Montgomery (a1605) attacks Polwart: “Hurkland howlat, have at the!” An entry in the Register of the Privy Council (1663) records some non-poetic but still eloquent flyting: “Calling her ill-faced houlett, lyk that catt, thy sister”. They are creatures of the dark; James Dalrymple in his Historie of Scotland (1596) writes: “Thir traytouris, like howlets, culd nocht suffir to sie the bricht lycht of sa meruellous vertue”. By contrast, we have this character reference from the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch (1891): “There’s a new ane come to the Free Kirk — a douce lad wi’ a daylicht face, they say, an’ nane o’ the hoolit aboot him”. Betsy Whyte uses the houlet as a symbol of stupidity in Red Rowans and Wild Honey (1991): “I scanned his face, then relaxed a bit. His howlet eyes and sticking-out ears, the general look of his face, had told me that his intelligence was rather limited”. ” Odd how one person’s wise old owl is another person’s daft houlet.
Scots Word of the Week is written by Chris Robinson of Scottish Language Dictionarie “
It is worth noting that houlets feature more conventionally in the poetry of Burns. For example in Tam o’ Shanter:
Weel mounted on his gray mare, Meg,
A better never lifted leg,
Tam skelpit on thro’ dub and mire,
Despising wind, and rain, and fire;
Whiles holding fast his gude blue bonnet;
Whiles crooning o’er some auld Scots sonnet;
Whiles glowring round wi’ prudent cares,
Lest bogles catch him unawares:
Kirk-Alloway was drawing nigh,
Whare ghaists and houlets nightly cry.—
The final poem is also in Scots but is not by a Scot.
Humberto Akʼabal, also Akʼabʼal or Akabal (31 October 1952 – 28 January 2019), was a Kʼicheʼ Maya poet from Guatemala. Akʼabʼal wrote in his native language of Kʼicheʼ, and then translated his poetry into Spanish. From Spanish his poetry has been translated into many languages, including Scots.
In the heich oors o the nicht
stars strip aff
and douk in the rivers.
Hoolets grein for them,
the wee feathers on their heids
from Drum of Stone (Kettillonia Press, 2010)
Prompts: You could go conventional with human “night owls” whether others, or yourself if you are one – or go literal with feathery owls, real or magical