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Bright Beast, Patient Beast

Dreamed c. 1920 by Edwin Muir

Source: The Story and the Fable by Edwin Muir (1940), telling his childhood on the island of Wyre in the remote, timeless Orkney Islands off Scotland, then suddenly being orphaned and struggling to survive in Glasgow. By story Muir means the events of the material world; by fable, his inner or spiritual life.


[This dream] points back to Wyre... I set it down to show how early impressions may grow and take on the form of myth.

One day when I was about five or six my Aunt Maggie pointed at a gleaming grey bird standing on the farther edge of the pond below the house, and cried, "Look, there's a heron!" As she pointed the heron rose in the air and effortlessly flew away on its wide-spread wings. I was filled with fear and wonder at the slow winging of the great bird, and its very name, the 'heron,' seemed to have a strange significance.


I was walking with some people in the country, when I saw a shining grey bird in a field. I turned and said in an awed voice, "It's a heron." We went towards it, but as we came nearer it spread its tail like a peacock, so that we could see nothing else. As the tail grew I saw that it was not round, but square, an impenetrable grey hedge of feathers; and at once I knew that its body was not a bird's body now, but an animal's, and that behind that gleaming hedge it was walking away from us on four feet padded like a leopard's or a tiger's.

Then, confronting it in the field, there appeared an ancient, dirty, earth-coloured animal with a head like that of an old sheep or a mangy dog. Its eyes were soft and brown; it was alone against the splendid-tailed beast; yet it stood its ground and prepared to fight the danger coming towards it, whether that was death or merely humiliation and pain. From their look I could see that the two animals knew each other, that they had fought a countless number of times and after this battle would fight again, that each meeting would be the first meeting, and that the dark, patient animal would always be defeated, and the bright, fierce animal would always win.

I did not see the fight, but I knew it would be ruthless and shameful, with a meaning of some kind perhaps, but no comfort.

--Edwin Muir


I find this simple dream weirdly moving. I recognize these two creatures; they war patiently inside me too. Inside evolution itself. Survival of the fittest? But two models of "fitness" lurk inside that simple-sounding word: competition or mutual aid. Tooth and claw, or compassion. In Edwin Muir's terms, Story or Fable, matter or spirit, Yahweh or Jesus, justice or love.

I'm still rooting for a different outcome. Not for defeat of the Bright Warrior, whose fiery pride builds excellence. No, I want peace. We need them both.

--Chris Wayan

LISTS AND LINKS: competition - sharing - violence - stubbornness and perseverance - evolution - uplift - animal people - birds - dogs - empathy - more Edwin Muir -

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