Monday, August 3, 2009

A Fable for our Times

This is my own recollection of (and re-working of) a James Thurber story called "The Owl who was God". I first encountered it in my first year of University. It applies, I would have thought, to politicians and leaders of every age, ilk and kind. But in South Africa, I think it applies particularly, at a time like this and I offer it to our new batch of Ministers and officials, as I did to those which preceeded them.

Once upon a time, all the animals of the forest gathered together to elect a leader for themselves. They were all in a very excited state and the forest resounded with the cries and twitterings of animals and birds engaged in very important business.

“Ahem!” said the Secretary Bird, in a very important sort of way, “Shall we begin?”

The animals all agreed that they should, and the Giraffe, being the tallest, began to make something of a speech, saying how glad he was to be there and how important an occasion it was and how grateful they all were to the Secretary Bird for being willing to be both Chairbird and Secretary Bird at the same time. And although the Secretary Bird would have liked this accolade to have gone on a little longer, business really was pressing.

“Well”, said the Secretary Bird, “any proposals?” There was a very definite silence in the forest. Then a buzzing noise from one of the Bees. And then silence again. In fact quite an embarrassing silence.

“Er, excuse me”,said the Fox.

“By all means!” said the Secretary Bird, a little suspiciously. “I propose the Owl”, said the Fox.

Well, with that, all the animals of the forest went into a bit of a tizwoz.

“The Owl!” one and all were heard to cry, “Why on earth the Owl?”

“Because”, said the Fox, restoring a little order, “Because he can see in the dark and answer any question.”

The animals thought about this for a while.

“We would need to put this to the test, said a Lizard, “But I’ll second the proposal”.

That done, all the animals of the forest gathered around the largest Oak tree where the Owl was standing above them with large glowing eyes.

“How many fingers am I holding up?” asked the Secretary Bird.

“Twoo” said the Owl.

“Why does a lover call on his love?” asked the Secretary Bird.

“To Woo” replied the Owl.

“What is the name of a very famous Anglican Archbishop?”

“Too Too” said the Owl.

“What is another word for ‘that is to say’ or ‘namely’?” asked the Secretary Bird.

“To wit” replied the Owl.

The animals were most impressed. It was very dark and quite impossible to see at any distance, but the Owl really did seem as though he could see in the dark and answer any questions put to him.

“Can he see in the daytime too?” asked a timid little Dove.

The animals all laughed at this ridiculous suggestion and brushed it aside with the contempt it deserved. “Of course he can see in the daytime!” bellowed the Elephant.

“Of course he can!” shouted all the other animals.

The next day, all the animals were marching behind their newly elected leader. The Owl, puffed up with great importance, stared around him with large, unseeing eyes.

“To wit” he said periodically.

“To woo!” came the enthusiastic response.

The Owl began to start up the highway. When he bumped into things, the animals all bumped into them too. Everyone was happy. How clever of them to have elected a leader who could see in the dark and answer any questions. Indeed, without any doubt, the Owl was the wisest and most experienced and … Oh! They couldn’t find enough words to describe his virtues!

As the animals were walking up the highway, and bumping into things the Owl bumped into, a Hawk flew over their heads shrieking loudly.

“There’s danger ahead. Something is coming along fast!”

“To wit?” asked the Owl.

“It’s a truck travelling at 160kms an hour and you are all in its way!”

“Whoo?” asked the Owl, seeing nothing.

And the truck came along and ran over all of the animals and they lay in the road, quite, quite dead.

MORAL: If you can’t see in the daytime, or heed the voice of foresight, don’t lead people up the Highway.

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