F4 Commentary: Big Ol’ Birds and Penguin Pilgrims

In F4: The Main Island of Sheridan the tour hikes around the mountainous main island. In the end Jay continues hiking to the monastery of Virgil Blue, joining only the oldest birds still climbing through their life’s journey. In this commentary I’d like to talk briefly about the birds, their life-cycle, and the religion I built around them.

Real-world birds migrate. They have wings and eat bugs, so they’d might as well live anywhere they want. And somehow they know exactly where to go! Seeing migration through the lens of religion, birds are pilgrims who travel long distances guided by their faith.

At the same time, some birds have cultural significance. Owls are called wise even though they barf up bones. Eagles and hawks are honorable and patriotic. The Sheridanian Big Birds aren’t really so dignified, as they look like plump penguins, but penguins have good press lately. People like penguins because they’re devoted parents who protect their eggs at all costs, trudging miles across Antarctic ice. Wizened old tropical penguins would be the perfect pilgrims. The Sheridanian Big Birds spend their whole lives on their feet, starting from birth.

As far as I know no bird requires religious adoration to lay fertile eggs, as Michael describes, but it’s convenient from an allegorical standpoint. Taking successive islands of Sheridan to represent gradations of spiritual truth, the birds are so pure they can only be born on the second island. There the fledglings enjoy a lengthy, cherubic adolescence. When they grow large enough they swim to the main island to lounge on the beaches, mating.

They’re the only birds who mate for pleasure, joining humans, bonobos, dolphins, and I think elephants. (As an aside, how do people tell whether animals mate for pleasure? Every time I ask a wolverine I just get bit.) When the birds mate they begin with spread tail-feathers and a coy, knowing glance. They also pair off “mate to mate” and “egg-layer to egg-layer,” without concern for reproductive capability, and in a squawking heap, without shame.

I hope this reflects Paradise Lost, John Milton’s vision of humanity’s first sin; before temptation, Adam and Eve mate in a ‘pure’ and ‘innocent’ way. Here’s a passage from book four:

…So spake our general Mother, and with eyes
Of conjugal attraction unreprov’d,
And meek surrender, half imbracing leand
On our first Father, half her swelling Breast [ 495 ]
Naked met his under the flowing Gold
Of her loose tresses hid: he in delight
Both of her Beauty and submissive Charms
Smil’d with superior Love, as Jupiter
On Juno smiles, when he impregns the Clouds [ 500 ]
That shed May Flowers; and press’d her Matron lip
With kisses pure: aside the Devil turnd
For envie, yet with jealous leer maligne
Ey’d them askance, and to himself thus plaind…

Here’s a little more, where Milton explains why he thinks Adam and Eve had sex in Eden:

Strait side by side were laid, nor turnd I weene
Adam from his fair Spouse, nor Eve the Rites
Mysterious of connubial Love refus’d:
Whatever Hypocrites austerely talk
Of puritie and place and innocence, [ 745 ]
Defaming as impure what God declares
Pure, and commands to som, leaves free to all.
Our Maker bids increase, who bids abstain
But our Destroyer, foe to God and Man?
Haile wedded Love, mysterious Law, true source [ 750 ]
Of human ofspring, sole propriety,
In Paradise of all things common else.
By thee adulterous lust was driv’n from men
Among the bestial herds to raunge, by thee
Founded in Reason, Loyal, Just, and Pure, [ 755 ]
Relations dear, and all the Charities
Of Father, Son, and Brother first were known.

The birds are meant to echo the purity of sex in paradise. Until the birds give up their days of frolicking, they mount each other as they please and lay infertile eggs.

(The spread tail-feathers of the mates are “like a flaming curtain.” This is like a mandala, a pattern often placed behind Hindu and Buddhist icons. The more pseudo-religious imagery surrounding these birds, the better.)

When the elder birds tire of mating and decide to climb the mountain, their real pilgrimage begins. They hike until they die, the lifelong pilgrimage marked by a porcelain egg beside the trail. When a tour passes by, the birds hide behind trees, which strikes me as a humbleness in their devotion. Above the treeline the surviving birds can’t hide like this, so they must be fearless and unabashed in their conviction.

I think that just about covers it for birds. I’ve got one final note on pilgrims: one of the first instances of the English novel is The Pilgrim’s Progress, detailing a man named Christian on his way to the Celestial City. It’s an excellent instance of allegory, even with its heavy-handedness: Christian (get it?) meets characters like “Evangelist,” “Pliable” and “Obstinate,” “Legality” and “Civility,” “Ignorance,” and my personal favorite, “Mr. Worldly Wiseman.” Compared to these, “Faith Featherway” isn’t so ridiculous, is it?

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