Owls and Omens

“This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.” 
Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake
Owls don’t generally get a good write up in literature. I cite the owls of The Tower of Flint in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy  devouring Lord Sepulchre, who mistakenly believed himself to be a Death Owl. Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin also got short shrift from his local owl. Readers will recall that Old Brown abducted him in a terrifying episode on Lake Derwentwater. He escaped Old Brown’s house through the attic window, but lost part of his tail  and a great deal of his charm and  chutzpar in the process.

Picture

 Old Brown teaches cheeky Squirrel Nutkin a lesson he won’t forget. 

 

It isn’t surprising then, when I was not only woken but kept awake for some hours last night by an owl hooting in textbook fashion that I immediately wondered if it was some kind of bad omen, possibly a harbinger of death. The Romans thought this, considering the hooting of an owl to indicate someone’s imminent demise. I comforted myself with the thought that I am not Roman and therefore not obliged to invest in their belief systems…

​But why it was so loud and furthermore why it had picked the tree at the bottom of our garden to perch for the night? This morning following extensive online research – reader, I googled it – I discovered it was in fact a tawny owl, that gives a distinctive kweek hoo hoo hoo call. It’s one of the most common owl species in the UK. 50,000 breeding pairs in the UK at the time of writing, since you ask. It was probably a mating call, which explains the volume and the persistence. And if you live at the edge of a nature reserve I suppose these things are to be expected.

In the owl’s defence, there is of course Owl from Winnie the Pooh who was wise, if a little impatient and also Edward Lear’s romantic seafaring owl, who was married to a cat in a service presided over by a turkey on a hill. Go figure.

​Can anyone think of any more owls in literature?


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