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  • 20. The Moth and the Star and 21. The Owl Who Was God

    By James Thurber

    No story last week can mean only one thing—two stories this week!

    Keith Olbermann, of MSNBC’s Countdown, has been offering stories by James Thurber on his Friday night programs, in tribute to his late father—and Mr. Thurber’s estate has kindly offered to allow us to share them, in print form, with our readers. Here are two of his most recent entries, a pair of fables in which the author appears to comment wryly on our times
    as much as his own.

    A young and impressionable moth once set his heart on a certain star. He told his mother about this and she counseled him to set his heart on a bridge lamp instead. “Stars aren’t the thing to hang around,” she said; “lamps are the thing to hang around.” “You get somewhere that way,” said the moth’s father. “You don’t get anywhere chasing stars.” But the moth would not heed the words of either parent. Every evening at dusk when the star came out he would start flying toward it and every morning at dawn he would crawl back home worn out with his vain endeavor. One day his father said to him, “You haven’t burned a wing in months, boy, and it looks to me as if you were never going to. All your brothers have been badly burned flying around street lamps and all your sisters have been terribly singed flying around house lamps. Come on, now, get out of here and get yourself scorched! A big strapping moth like you without a mark on him!”

    The moth left his father’s house, but he would not fly around street lamps and he would not fly around house lamps. He went right on trying to reach the star, which was four and one-third light years, or twenty-five trillion miles, away. The moth thought it was just caught up in the top branches of an elm. He never did reach the star, but he went right on trying, night after night, and when he was a very, very old moth he began to think that he really had reached the star and he went around saying so. This gave him a deep and lasting pleasure, and he lived to a great old age. His parents and his brothers and his sisters had all been burned to death when they were quite young.

    Moral: Who flies afar from the sphere of our sorrow is here today and here tomorrow.

    *

    Once upon a starless midnight there was an owl who sat on the branch of an oak tree. Two ground moles tried to slip quietly by, unnoticed. “You!” said the owl. “Who?” they quavered, in fear and astonishment, for they could not believe it was possible for anyone to see them in that thick darkness. “You two!” said the owl. The moles hurried away and told the other creatures of the field and forest that the owl was the greatest and wisest of all animals because he could see in the dark and because he could answer any question. “I’ll see about that,” said a secretary bird, and he called on the owl one night when it was again very dark. “How many claws am I holding up?” said the secretary bird. “Two,” said the owl, and that was right. “Can you give me another expression for ‘that is to say’ or ‘namely’? asked the secretary bird. “To wit,” said the owl. “Why does a lover call on his love?” asked the secretary bird. “To woo,” said the owl.

    The secretary bird hastened back to the other creatures and reported that the owl was indeed the greatest and wisest animal in the world because he could see in the dark and because he could answer any question. “Can he see in the daytime, too?” asked a red fox. “Yes,” echoed a dormouse and a French poodle. “Can he see in the daytime, too?” All the other creatures laughed loudly at this silly question, and they set upon the red fox and his friends and drove them out of the region. Then they sent a messenger to the owl and asked him to be their leader.

    When the owl appeared among the animals it was high noon and the sun was shining brightly. He walked very slowly, which gave him an appearance of great dignity, and he peered about him with large, staring eyes, which gave him an air of tremendous importance. “He’s God!” screamed a Plymouth Rock hen. And the others took up the cry, “He’s God!” So they followed him wherever he went and when he began to bump into things they began to bump into things, too. Finally he came to a concrete highway and he started up in the middle of it and all the other creatures followed him. Presently a hawk, who was acting as outrider, observed a truck coming toward them at fifty miles an hour, and he reported to the secretary bird and the secretary bird reported to the owl. “There’s danger ahead,” said the secretary bird. “To wit?” said the owl. The secretary bird told him. “Aren’t you afraid?” said the owl. “Who?” said the owl calmly, for he could not see the truck. “He’s God!” cried all the creatures again, and they were still crying, “He’s God!” when the truck hit them and ran them down. Some of the animals were merely injured, but most of them, including the owl, were killed.

    Moral: You can fool too many of the people too much of the time.

    *

    © James Thurber. From the collection The Thurber Carnival, available here!

    Visit the world of James Thurber!

    And watch Mr. Olbermann himself give his rendering of these two stories, along with a bonus!

    Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy



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