Parliament of [F]owls

Geoffrey Chaucer meets Atlanta parade artist Chantelle Rytter

If there was ever a time to speak of love – love of each other, of nature, of country – that time is now. Geoffrey Chaucer, one of the first poets to write in English (rather than the elite Latin or French), shows us a way to speak of it in Parliament of Fowls, his exquisite tribute to love and mating.

I was reminded of Parliament early one morning last year while driving through my neighborhood with the windows rolled down.  A raucous chorus of birds called out, and I turned to see a crowd of them gathered on a lawn as if holding a meeting of some kind. The fact that it was near Valentine’s Day made it all the more fitting.

Pauleen Eccles, A Parliament of Rooks (licensed for reuse by Creative Commons)

Chaucer’s poem celebrates birds of all kinds who gather annually on Saint Valentine’s Day in the garden of the Goddess of Love’s temple to pick their mates.

On this occasion 3 male eagles vie for a female formel eagle, which the Goddess of Nature is holding, each wooing her with their best arguments. Meanwhile the other birds wait increasingly raucously for their turn to choose mates. After listening, the formel eagle requests from the Goddess, and is given, another year to decide.

Gold Parakeets (licensed for reuse by Creative Commons)

Chaucer’s fourteenth-century Middle English lies between Old English and Modern English and incorporates both French and German. Oberlin College students like myself who learned it in the ‘80s from the animated, eccentric and intimidating Peruvian-born professor Joaquin Martinez-Pizarro (whose lectures from those days you can find described online as “intellectual sex”) felt like we had entered a secret society. Occasionally we have the thrill of reading it aloud to someone:

Parliament stanzas

J.B. Bessinger, Jr. reads a full version of the poem.

Chaucer’s lists of trees and birds are arias of love. However, he also noted the world order of his time – a hierarchical one, with the birds of prey (e.g., eagles, owls) at the top of the hierarchy of birds and seed fowl (e.g., pigeons) at the bottom). Human virtues are personified and also occupy the garden. The story is told within layers, in which a naïve young man who has no experience of love outside of books stumbles upon it in a dream. This part is quite funny.  Someday, we will hope, the poor narrator may find love himself.

14th century Codex Manesse (Cod. Pal. germ. 848, f. 249v). Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, CC BY-SA
14th century Codex Manesse (Cod. Pal. germ. 848, f. 249v). Universitaetsbibliothek Heidelberg, CC BY-SA

SPREADING THE LOVE IN ATLANTA, the community artist Chantelle Rytter led the joyous Parliament of Owls Midtown Lantern Parade on August 3, 2018. In Modern English, a group of owls is called a parliament, just as a group of dogs is a pack and a group of lions is a pride. Enchanted by the expression but noting that owls do not actually flock, Chantelle says, “I think they should.”

She designed an ensemble of owls and, like Chaucer, reveled in their naming.  Six large feathered globe heads that spin completely around, with an opening for the face (see the one she is holding in the photo below) comprise the “Council of Owls.” Six backpack puppets animated by rods (see large structures behind her, which are lit with blue lights at night) are “Flyers” and are named Miriam and Webster, Galileo, Darwin, Confucious, and Rachel Carson.  In the weeks leading up to the parade, people could come by the Owl’s Nest (her studio in downtown Atlanta) to either purchase a lighted owl globe in three species she created (the Southern Urban Forest Owl, the Crested Creeper, or the Starred Bard Owl) or make a free paper mask with two additional species: The Eastern shriek Owl and the Sugar Magnolia Owl.

Chantelle Rytter
Chantelle Rytter at the Owl’s Nest studio

At sundown (8:30 p.m.) about four hundred owls wearing black (with white heads) gathered in Promenade II in downtown Atlanta. Chantelle lead the ensemble wearing a three-foot long top hat, followed by the exhuberant Black Sheep Ensemble, belly dancers, the Council of Owls, the Flyers, and the rest. It was breathtaking to see the flyers’ wings beating against the backdrop of the skyscrapers. Half an hour later they took flight, flying north to the plaza between Woodruff Arts Center and the High Museum, and then took to Peachtree Street, finally roosting at The Castle.

The Parliament gathers
The Parliament gathering (Courtesy of Steve Eberhardt)
The parade
The parade (courtesy of Steve Eberhardt)

“I call it a love bomb, my event,” Chantelle said. “It’s a feeling that I came to know in the parade culture in New Orleans. Doing creative things in the street in the public space is a really, really good feeling.  It reaffirms the extraordinary nature of our collective character. I think that it makes us love each other and our public space more than we did the day before.”

You can next see the owls at the Atlanta Beltline Lantern Parade on September 22, 2018. Under consideration by Chantelle: a new Flyer called “Chaucer.”





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Ann Vandenberg

I have a PhD from The Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts at Emory University. I live in Atlanta.

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