The princess Canace, in Chaucer’s “Squire’s Tale,” is
one of several medieval heroines given a ring that bestows
the power to communicate with birds. In Chaucer’s words, its
facets let someone listening to a bird knowe his menyng openly and
pleyn/And answere hym in his language ageyn. Wearing her ring,
the tenderhearted Canace sees a beautiful falcon beating herself
bloody in a tree, all but expired from her self-inflicted injuries.
The princess begs the bird to tell her story, and the falcon reveals
that a handsome tercel has betrayed her. Chaucer never finishes
telling Canace’s own story. But the falcon’s grief provides the
princess with what, in the context of the tale, seems to be a vital
moral stricture. Though of a ripe age for romance, she is left with
a deep mistrust of human men. And because she never wants to
let herself be hurt as the falcon was, she shuts it in an elaborately
decorated cage by her bed, after healing its wounds. Its presence
serves as a physical reminder of the lesson Canace has learned.
Islamic and Judaic traditions hold that Solomon the Great
was not just wise because of being learned in the ways of men;
he also understood the language of the birds and of the beasts.
Some legends explain that Solomon obtained this power when
the angels blessed him with a magic ring, like the one Canace
had; others say that it came directly from God himself. There
are many stories about Solomon and the birds, stories that turn,
like keys, on secrets the king hears from the raven and the dove,
the swallow and the nightingale. In one, an eagle gives Solomon
instructions for entering a magnificent palace, full of treasures,
that has no visible door. In another, the lapwing acts as his spy,
bringing news of faithless, faraway Sheba, who will not bow
down to Allah but exalts her own god.
Consider the warrior prince Sigurd. He is both good and
fearless, and he slays the dragon Fafnir. Now, Sigurd has a brother
Regin. Hearing that Sigurd has killed Fafnir, Regin selfishly asks
for the dragon’s heart to eat. (As far as I can tell, this is because
a dragon’s heart is like some kind of enormous, bloody portal to
wisdom. To get the one, you must consume the other.) Sigurd, all
trust, all love, agrees. But as he roasts the heart, he accidentally
tastes a single drop of Fafnir’s blood. Immediately his ears break
open to the language of the birds; at that moment, he hears a
flurry of chirping from the roof of the cave where he is sitting.
Some versions say the voices belong to two woodpeckers, some
say six titmice; either way, they say the same thing: How terrible
it is that Regin plans to murder Sigurd! What a betrayal that will be!
And do you know what Sigurd the brave, Sigurd the noble, does
with this secret truth? Promptly rises, decapitates Regin, eats
the dragon’s heart entire, and then—some say drinks, some say
bathes in—both Fafnir’s and Regin’s blood.
Anyone who understands the language of the birds, these
narratives contend, has access to a powerful source of knowledge
and wisdom: perhaps even a direct line of communication to the
gods. The idea is seductive. The stories are satisfying. But they
are also oddly trivial. This secret, numinous language is used to
deliver personal warnings, instructions for achieving riches and
success, moral guidance, and military intelligence; the messages
it conveys always seem to relate to petty human intrigues.
Birds, the myths seem to believe, are mostly preoccupied
with people. In one Hindu folktale, a Brahmin who can
understand the language of the birds is driven from his home by
quarreling wives. He passes through a town ravaged by illness,
and is sitting woefully under a tree when a vulture becomes so
concerned about him that she refuses to feed on the bodies lying
all around. Instead of carrying out their natural roles in the
world, she and her mate busy themselves advising the Brahmin
on how to find a good bride.
Meera Lee Sethi is a curious human being about whom you already know too much. In 1998 Meera moved from Singapore to the U.S. and began falling in love with science slowly and inconveniently, while earning degrees in the humanities. Any errors of fact or judgment here were committed by her; any beauty has been borrowed from the people, land, and birds of Sweden. Her current internet incarnation is under construction, but many previous versions of her are still online for the finding. To learn more about Mountainfit, go here.