Reading and clucking

From Jenny – MacDonald’s hen with attitude – to Chanticleer, cock of the roost plagued by visions of doom, we seem to be moving in the realms of fantastical fowl these days! Whether you’re charmed by chickens or inclined to give them a wide berth, they are interesting markers for the different transformations that the fantastical elements of these tales perform. Jenny fulfils the function of witch’s familiar, albeit in a cleaned-up, ‘white’ magical kind of a way. And in this she is participating in a tradition which, while it may seem fantastical to us, had at one time real and unpleasant consequences; possession of a familiar, as Thomas A. Donaldson’s interesting essay points out, was one of the markers of a witch in late sixteenth-century trials (read it here). And apparently chicken-familiars were certainly as distinctive as Jenny: Donaldson’s research reveals that “in the Warboys trial, a witness was questioned about a chicken suspected of being a familiar: “Being asked whether it was a naturall chicken, she saith it was not, she knoweth it was no naturall chicken”.’

We, of course, don’t mind that Jenny is an ‘unnatural chicken’. The story has already placed us in a world where fairies are apparently ‘natural’ and thus disrupted our sense of the order of things. The protagonist, Colin, has been established as the hero, and since the woman and her hen come to his assistance we are relieved of our doubts about witches and familiars. The woman slips into the role of ‘wise woman’ rather than ‘witch’ and her advice enables Colin to undertake the tasks he needs to do and reshape the environments in which his tests take place. And the text encourages us not to indulge any ideas we may have about the source of her wisdom and the nature of her strangeness; Colin’s punishment for his forbidden glimpse of her is a kind of temporary blindness, combined with the withdrawal of the familiar, Jenny. He has to relearn how to find things through being lost – how to find the familiar through the unfamiliar – and how the old woman’s influence can protect him.

Chanticleer, however, is a cockerel of a different sort, both in his fabled form in the Nun’s Priest’s account in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and in his human form as Hope Mirlees’s protagonist: the apparently conventional Nathaniel who ‘masquerades’ as a stranger to himself and his own social norms. In the former, Chanticleer is the talking creature which fables allow; his story is designed to teach a moral lesson. Yet he is also an ‘unnatural chicken’ in terms of his dreams, his high-minded (if rather misguided) discussions, and his eventual ability to outwit the fox, usually figured as the most cunning of animals. While his triumph is presented as the inverse of the fox’s pride and folly, it is by definition out-of-step with the natural order of things, even for a talking chicken. The tale gets its force from the unexpected reversal of control from fox to cockerel.

Nathaniel, for whom the family name Chanticleer provides this complexly layered backdrop, is an unnatural citizen of Dorimare – one who feels ‘nostalgia for what was still there’: an impossible condition to be in since nostalgia is, by definition, a feeling experienced in relation to what is past and lost. Like Chanticleer the cockerel, Nathaniel lives the present in a state of anxiety related to future disaster and loss, and has to find some way of acting against his own nature in order to overcome that state. He eventually achieves this to some extent by assuming a series of other roles, from private investigator to questing hero, but is only freed up to take this step by the ceremony imposed upon him in which he symbolically dies to Dorimare and all that it represents. And he has also to overcome his fear: to prove that he is not in fact, in this respect at least, chicken.

I’ll leave you to fill in all the proverbs about fine feathers, appearances, vanity and so on, not to mention all the other famous chickens of literary history, natural and otherwise! I hope, though, that even this small and rather light-hearted beginning shows how much can be perceived through the cultural contexts of elements in fantasy texts and the ways in which they relate to the fantastical.

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