So far, Strange New England has brought you stories of the weird, the dark or the magical. Misplaced viking coins, mysterious sources of untapped energy and head-hunting sorcerers have all found a place on this blog.
But don’t let the Owl picture fool you. This is not a story of late night terrors or mad science. The theme of this story, however, is as old as fear and discovery:
The Owl Husband didn’t have scary supernatural powers. He looked frightening, but his appearance belied a gentle, devoted nature. His only magical power was that he could change himself into a human, but the rest of his magical repertoire only came about with gifts and lessons from his aunt.
According to this Passomoquoddy love story, The Owl Husband had his work cut out for him and a good reason to want to find his true love.
He was a very lonely magical owl. Depending on which version you find, there are different reasons why. In the versions that I have seen, the people were frightened by their appearance and by the aunt’s magical powers.
In the version written by Joseph Bruchac in his book “Return of The Sun”, the owl man and his aunt were simply the only members of their kind that they knew. They were not acquainted with other members of their kind and this meant that the owl man of this story had to look for his potential wife in a village of humans.
Both versions agree on one thing: the single woman that the owl man chooses happens to be difficult. She does not want to marry any of the men in her village. Her father, however, must practice politics with the rest of the village, who are not happy about his daughter’s reluctance to marry. So to preserve the family’s reputation and make his daughter look more appealing, he comes up with a seemingly impossible challenge: her future husband must be able to make a fire flare up when he spits in it.
In both retellings, the owl aunt comes to the rescue, either with a magic potion or with pine pitch. After taking on the appearance of a handsome man, he spits into the fire and it rises up almost to the roof of the dwelling. Impressed and relieved, the girl’s father marries his daughter off. But on the morning after their wedding night, the girl sees some of her new husband’s true colors: pointy ears and wide yellow eyes that don’t always open all the way. She runs away screaming from the wigwam back to her parents, terrified at the owl husband’s frightening appearance.
Although heartbroken, the owl husband doesn’t give up on his new bride that easily. After a waiting period, he takes on the appearance of a different handsome man and brings home to his wife’s village several deer and moose he has killed. He shares this bounty with everyone long into the night and soon, everyone starts to tell stories.
When it is the girl’s turn, she wishes to tell everyone about the strangest thing that has ever happened to her. But there is a condition to hearing her story: everyone must uncover their ears behind their long hair so they may hear her whisper. The owl husband declines to do so, knowing that he can’t hide the tufts of his feathers/ears except behind long black hair. Everyone insists despite his protest that he is the founder of the feast. But being alone in his argument, he reluctantly obliges to this request.
This time, after revealing his pointed, tufted ears, everyone screams and runs away, not just the girl. This leaves the hard working and twice hearbroken owl husband alone with his overabundance of venison and moose meat.
Now, the two versions that I read differ from this point on in their telling. In the online retellings that are out there, the owl husband is given a magic flute and a magic potion by his aunt. Once he has these gifts, he sits in a tree with his flute. It just so happens that the girl who is his true love rests at the tree’s base. He begins to play this flute. The melody is so marvelous, the girl can’t help but be enchanted by it. The moment the music begins, she is determined that the musician who made it is her true love. Then the owl husband and human wife are reunited, with the girl no longer afraid of her owl husband.
But the Bruchac telling has more melancholy to go with it’s happy ending. Both the owl husband and the girl are resigned to a lifetime of loneliness. After the incident at the feast, the owl husband is sure that he’ll die a lonely bird bachelor. The girl, meanwhile, starts to have second thoughts about her fears towards her only partially human partner. She reflects on how good looking he is and is sure she will never see him again.
The owl husband decides to express his sadness through a flute he made for himself. As he plays the sad but beautiful melody, the girl hears it and is instantly drawn to it. Partially out of awe at the music’s beauty and partially out of loneliness, the girl decides that she simply must marry this musician. Just like in the other version, husband and wife reunite.
Personally, I like Bruchac’s version more. This is because the owl husband uses no magic or trickery anymore, but is honestly expressing his feelings. By doing this, the girl who he loves is drawn to him by this loneliness they share. By both realizing that they share loneliness in common, neither one feels so alone anymore.
This romance has it’s share of subterfuge, intrigue and misunderstanding. Unlike some romance stories, however, there is no love triangle, tragic death or jealousy. Instead, the original storytellers whose names are lost to antiquity kept their tale simple. They decided to keep it simple and focus only on the misadventures of two protagonists, whose very human faults get in the way with family members desperate to have their relatives married.
The girl is frightened by the owl husband’s appearance while the owl husband works to marry her despite her fear. Some might even see the owl husband’s choice of a wife as silly. There was probably more than one eligible bachelorette in this small village, but the owl husband chose the girl who was the hardest to win over. It seems that by making his daughter hard to court and tricking the village youths with an impossible challenge, the girl’s father may have excited the interest of a suitor that he never expected at his doorstep.
Meanwhile, the owl aunt herself may be interpreted as a deceiver who uses magic to influence the free will of others. That is the end goal of love magic, in fact. Yet one thing that readers should consider is that the owl aunt may have resorted to magic in some versions because she was fed up with her nephew. Loneliness can cause some of us to drive people crazy, and the owl aunt may have had more than enough of her forlon nephew, whose anxious behavior might have ruffled her feathers so much that she would use any magic trick she knew to get some peace.
I am looking too much into this, of course. It is a simple story, after all. Yet like most simple stories, a lot could be going on. Whether you are merely happy with this story being a simple one or you like to imagine that there is a little more happening that is not described is up to you. Either way, you have a simple and sweet romance about a couple whose journey into love is not blocked by a rogue, an evil magic user or despondent parents. Both the girl and her owl husband are stumbling along based on their own misplaced feelings and misconceptions.
While Oscar Wilde may not have ever heard this story, he did say something that could stand as the moral of this simple romance:
“Love is a misunderstanding between two fools.”
Return of The Sun: Native American Tales from The Northeast Woodlands by Joseph Bruchac