The Bird Meme: Day 20

Day 20: Favorite bird in a book

Common Raven

Though movies have offered me a limited set of choices for good birds, books are another matter altogether. And no, I won't take the cheap way out by picking a field guide or something similar, nor will I take the cheapest way possible and choose a bird from one of my own books. I'll even go so far as to stipulate that this bird will be from a work of fiction. But which work of fiction? Ah, there's the difficulty.

I've long enjoyed birds in works of fantasy, whether they've been vengeful human-armed ducks (Roald Dahl's The Magic Finger), nihilistic ravens (Hugi in Roger Zelazny's The Courts of Chaos), or helpful talking owls (Glimfeather in C.S. Lewis' The Silver Chair). Still, I don't think I'd add Gwaihir the Eagle from The Lord of the Rings or Hedwig from the Harry Potter series simply because neither shows much personality; they're far more important to the plots of their respective books than to the richness of characterization therein.

By contrast, I think Archimedes, Merlyn's owl in T.H. White's The Once and Future King, is a delightful character, and one who strikes a believable balance between reticence and friendliness. I certainly enjoyed Polynesia, Dr. Doolittle's parrot, though I don't remember her well, and I'd have to say the same about Kaisa, the grey goose daemon of Serafina Pekkala in Philip Pullman's wonderful His Dark Materials series. I'm somewhat surprised that I haven't been able to recall a bird character in any of Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, though it's certainly possible that I've missed one. But all in all, I don't think any of these candidates measure up to my true favorite.

Perhaps the reason Matthew the Raven is my favorite bird is because he's not purely a bird; he's a former human being, and one from a beloved comics series at that. For reasons that writer Neil Gaiman never gets much into, Matthew was allowed to spend his afterlife as a raven in the service of Dream, a/k/a Morpheus, the protagonist of Gaiman's masterful comics series The Sandman. Before that, Matthew was originally a government agent investigating the "death" of Alec Holland in the original 1972 Swamp Thing series, though also he popped up in Doom Patrol on one occasion. When Alan Moore took over the reins of Swamp Thing in 1983, he put Cable through the wringer, eventually leaving him in a vegetative state, but a few years later Moore's successor, Rich Veitch, finally allowed the hospitalized Cable to die a merciful death.

At that point, in a scene that never actually appeared in Sandman, Dream apparently tapped Matthew to join his service as a raven. Though it was clear Matthew was a former human being, his specific identity was at first only hinted at, with comments such as "I don't like hospitals." He served as a helpful spy for Dream, using his innocuous appearance to gather information, which he reported back to his rather stuffy superior in a manner that usually came off as not-quite-deferential-enough. Matthew fully accepted his new avian lifestyle, including his newfound enjoyment of carrion, and became a friend to both his boss and to the other entitities in Dream's service, such as the librarian Lucien and janitor Merv Pumpkinhead. 

By the end of the series, he was even tasked to assist the Corinthian, one of the nastiest nightmares in Dream's kingdom, in investigating a crime, making for one of the more bizarre buddy-movie-based sequences I can recall in a comic. Though he was sometimes used as comic relief, Matthew was always a character with a bit of an air of tragedy about him, and his long, tortured history became part of the canon, he became increasingly sympathetic. As the series moved toward its grand conclusion, Matthew's honest and straightforward nature helped ground the story's potential excess, and the ending was all the more poignant for having him there. Here he is talking to Dream in a panel from the book's penultimate story arc, "The Kindly Ones," with art by the brilliant Marc Hempel:

matthew sandman.jpg
After Gaiman brought The Sandman to a conclusion, I understand that many of the characters from the book were used in a spin-off series, The Dreaming, but I've never picked up an issue. I can't imagine that it would be satisfying to see Matthew or his fellow dreams in any future incarnation, but I suppose it might happen; I'm sure someone said the same thing when he died in Swamp Thing, and look how well that turned out. It was, in fact, good being Dream's raven.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on October 6, 2017 4:37 PM.

The Bird Meme: Day 19 was the previous entry in this blog.

The Bird Meme: Day 21 is the next entry in this blog.

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