There is no trait more valued in the world of fairy tales than kindness. If you share your last crumb of bread with an elderly beggar, they will turn out to be a fairy intent on assisting you with your quest. If you spare the life of some random fox out in the wilderness, it will not only be fluent in human speech, it will also be incredibly well-informed and offer excellent advice at key moments in your life. This Australian Aboriginal legend, from CollinsDove’s 1994 collection This Is the Dreaming, is a cautionary fable about what happens when you forget that. And let me warn you, it is not going to be pretty.
One day during the Dreamtime, when the children of the Worona people are playing by the river, one boy finds a strange new bird in the bush and calls everyone else to come and see. It is an owl – the first owl ever, in fact, and a messenger from the god Wandjina besides. It has been sent down as a kind of aviatory civil servant, to see if there is anything that needs to be done to help Wandjina’s favourite people. When the owl sees a crowd emerging from the bush to gather around under his tree, he’s startled, but also gratified. A welcoming committee! You shouldn’t have!
Only it is not a welcoming committee. Instead of taking him gently from the tree and back to the camp, he is thrown to the ground, his wing breaking on impact and leaving him helpless. The children then decide to play with him, tossing him in the air, letting him fall, tossing him again, until he is so broken it is remarkable he’s still alive at all. And no one stops them. No one protests at all. When the children grow tired of throwing the bird, they start pulling out his feathers, while their parents watch on and laugh. Then one boy comes up with a new torture. “We can’t have a bird without feathers,” he jeers. “So let’s give him some new ones.” Following his lead, the children begin to pierce the owl’s battered body with the blades of spinifex grass. Then they throw him one last time.
They laugh, expecting him to fall, but then the laughter stops. Because he is not falling. Somehow, the owl manages to move his broken wings, getting stronger and stronger with each flap until he disappears from sight into the clouds. A roar of fury breaks free from the sky. Wandjina may have saved his messenger, but he’s seen the true nature of his favoured people and is sickened by them. So he does the only thing gods know how to do in such circumstances: he sends a flood. His storm rages for days, swelling the river with rain until his once beloved people are swallowed into raging waters. Only two survive, a man and a woman who manage to cling to the tail of an escaping kangaroo. (Yes, the kangaroo makes it. This is a flood aimed quite specifically at humans. I’d like to think all the animals got away…) The price has been paid for one terrible act of cruelty. Now the last two members of the Worona people must remake their home, in the knowledge that all life must be treated with respect – or you will lose it.
This is one of the strongest messages against animal cruelty I’ve ever found in folk lore and is, necessarily, also one of the most graphic. It is, admittedly, more mythology than fairy tale, but it shows the same compassion towards what is different, and what is helpless. Be it from a fairy, a little grey man, or a god, the message is the same: kindness matters.
And so do owls.