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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #218: The Owl who was God


I have enjoyed James Thurber's fables since I was a boy, as well as his perfectly simple sketched illustrations. (His depiction of Longfellow's Excelsior! is a personal favorite.) The fables are cutting satire full of wisdom and lessons, using animals to represent human folly and frailty like a modern Aesop. Many have stayed with me throughout my life, but none more indelibly than 1940's The Owl who was God.

The tale is a brief three paragraphs. The animals of the forest misinterpret the owl's cryptic cries as wisdom, anoint him their leader, and swiftly elevate him to godhood. Any skepticism at his divinity is met with scoffs and then violence. The animals form an unquestioning cult, follow the owl into the road, and are run down by a truck. Thurber's pointed moral is: "You can fool too many of the people too much of the time."

In this overheated election season, it's not difficult to see who might be the owl. And yet, Thurber's narrative makes no judgment, overt or implied, on the owl. Rather, it is the other animals, the panting and zealous idolaters, who are the target of our scorn. And yet that's us. We're the animals. We're the moles who raise up the owl and follow him (or her) blindly, tearing apart those who would ask questions, demand proofs, or suggest any possible imperfections. We crave leadership, and in its absence we invent it, and then deify it. We yield up our critical thinking and independence, seek and find belonging and reassurance in allowing some fellow human we have placed on this pedestal of infallibility to do our thinking for us.

The owl might be a person, or might be a political party or news outlet. Whatever it is, there are too few red foxes among us, seeking merely to ask questions, and too many moles, ready to willingly walk into the path of the truck.

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