The Parable of Aepyornis Island

It is a shame that the short stories of H.G. Wells have been largely forgotten.  For they showcase his keen interest in science and technology, along with a burning sense of moral passion quite unbecoming in an author of “scientific romances” (as he would say).  I have so loved many of Wells’s writings.  Long concerned with the creation of earthly utopias through socialistic experiments and universal educational advancement, he nevertheless died a disillusioned man, convinced that humanity would be unable to cope with the challenges of modern society.  In Wells’s view:

Man +  technology = 0

Meaning that when you mix humanity with advancement, you get a negation.  You get nothing but self-destruction.  Annihilation, basically.  Wells died a pessimist because he persisted in scouring the earth for Fabian socialist utopias:  in Russia, in England, anywhere.  And he never found them, of course.  He could never quite accept the fact that man is human, with all of his attendant foibles, warts, messes, and sulphur-fumes.  Could not accept it.  Why couldn’t he accept it?  In some men, the ideal just dies hard.


His 1905 story Aepyornis Island highlights this inner, unresolved conflict.  The plot:  a biologist exploring remote regions in Madagascar hunts for evidence of an immense, long-extinct flightless bird called Aepyornis vastissimus. Never seen by European eyes, the bird stood nearly fifteen feet tall and supposedly died out in the 1400s.  The biologist chances upon a preserved nest of melon-sized eggs in a jungle swamp, protected for centuries by some freak of climate and soil, and takes them away in his boat.  The boat becomes wrecked soon after, and the biologist finds himself marooned on a deserted island with a monstrous Aepyornis egg.  The egg hatches, and out comes this feathered anachronism after hundreds of years of hibernation.  It is very cute, at first.  The biologist showers it with love, attention, and care.  All seems blissfully wonderful.  Idyllic.  And all is rivers of honey and gum-drop trees.  On a deserted island.  And our biologist is enraptured.

And then things turn sour.

As the Aepyornis reaches adulthood, the biologist becomes uncomfortably aware that the animal is not a precious snowflake.  It has a nasty and foul temper.  It is greedy.  And cruel.  Soon enough the colossal bird attacks him, delivering sledge-hammer kicks that leave him swollen and bloody.  And then it is all-out warfare.  The once loving couple now stalk each other over the island, with savage bloodlust, in a vicious fight to the death.  In the last scene, the biologist grapples furiously with the bird by the shoreline, sawing at its neck with his rusty knife in a murderous rage, hot blood spilling over the pure white sand.  One is reminded of the desperate struggle in Jack London’s Love of Life, where a starving man and wolf shadow each other across a frozen wasteland in a horrifying duel to the death.


What, then, are we to make of such a story?  Is it just another variation on the “be careful what you wish for” cliché?  Or is there something darker, something deeper?

Consider the bird.  Is he a symbol?  Of course.  But of what, exactly?

He is a symbol of our innermost, deepest Wish-Fulfillment.  Our deepest Blood-Desire.  And man, like the biologist in the story, is required to chase down and possess this deepest Wish-Fulfillment.  Required to:  if we are to be men.  Nothing optional about it.  We nurture this wish, covet it, and care for it, as the biologist did with his precious ancient cargo of eggs.

And then:  chase it down, and hunt it down.  And kill it.  Possess it utterly.  And this is never a pretty sight.  For the process of hunting down and possessing our deepest desire is never as clean and easy as your typical springtime Easter egg hunt.  One never emerges unscathed.  It can be a ghastly, brutal process.  And yet a necessary one.   It is a cathartic, violent process.  For it is only in this way that man can advance, grow, and move forward:  much like being reborn.  And this is why Wells was wrong in his belief that man and his implements of technology cancel each other out.  The true moral equation should be:

Man + technology = MAN

I wish I could write it larger than that.  MAN.  That is, man and his tools—even if he wields only a rusty knife—are enough for him to master his environment.  We—our tools and ourselves—don’t negate each other: we complement each other.

I am a man, and I am master of my environment.  Here I stand.  With only a rusty knife in my hand.  I am a man!  And in the right hands, my dull, rusty knife here by my side is enough.  It can slice through any Gordian knot I desire.  We need only the will to use it.  I am the captain of my ship, I am the master of my soul.  I am the artisan of my fate.  I.  And only I.

And that is why I, unlike Wells, am an optimist.  I know our Great Day is coming.  You can just feel it.  Because there is no other way, really.  If we are to move forward to our own Great Day as men, we must go through this mortal hunt.  This chasing down.  Of our innermost Blood-Being and Blood-Desire.  Even if it means we must grapple with our own inner, prehistoric monsters, and fight them to the death.  With blood bubbling into our clean white sand.  It must be done.


And there is no going back:  for any reversion, any volte-face, would be the death of us, by gradual decomposition, as men.  A real spiritual abandonment, and a corresponding degeneration of us, as men.  We just can’t go back.  For our souls would decompose.  The biologist couldn’t go back, you can’t go back, and I know that I couldn’t go back, either.  So it is only forward, forward, forward.

And once we accept this, we can approach the dawn of our own Great Day.

Read More:  The Long March Home

27 thoughts on “The Parable of Aepyornis Island”

  1. “War of the Worlds” . . . one of my defining moments of me as a MAN — loving science fiction. 🙂

    1. Same here. I’m also a big Jack London fan. But he was also a great social commentator, historian, and critic. He’s fallen out of fashion in recent decades, but I think that his concerns and overall ethic have much offer. If you liked this, check out “In the Valley of Spiders” and “The Diamond Maker”…..

      1. Wouldn’t surprise me. They were both, in their own way, concerned with moral and ethical questions.

    2. The film version of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” starring Kirk Douglas was quite good. At least when I was 5 it seemed so.

  2. That’s rusty knife paragraph reminded me of The Rifleman’s creed.
    “THIS IS MY RIFLE. There are many like it but this one is mine. My rifle
    is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I master my life.
    My rifle, without me is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless. I must
    fire my rifle true. I must shoot straighter than any enemy who is trying
    to kill me. I must shoot him before he shoots me. I will….
    My rifle and myself know that what counts in this war is not the rounds
    we fire, the noise of our burst, nor the smoke we make. We know that it
    is the hits that count. We will hit…
    My rifle is human, even as I, because it is my life. Thus, I will learn
    it as a brother. I will learn its weakness, its strength, its parts, its
    accessories, its sights and its barrel. I will keep my rifle clean and
    ready, even as I am clean and ready. We will become part of each other.
    We will…
    Before God I swear this creed. My rifle and myself are the defenders of
    my country. We are the masters of our enemy. We are the saviors of my
    life. So be it, until victory is America’s and there is no enemy, but

  3. Sounds like an episode of the old Twilight Zone series. A quick internet check shows that Rod Serling counted HG Wells as an influence.

      1. No, but the story could also represent the idealization of having children and the joy of watching it grow up, followed by the teenage years of its underappreciation for your parenting and all your sacrifices.

        1. Oh sure, I believe you. It’s the first thing anyone would think of. Anyone not on this site I mean, for whom the natural answer would be ‘hypergamous, grasping Amwrican female’.

  4. The “chasing down” you mention is that journey about which man is constantly reminded in popular culture. Life is supposed to be about the journey, the struggle, and not the destination.
    I hope I can break it gently to my children that it this ” . . . ghastly, brutal process . . . ” will be worthwhile!
    Interesting read.

  5. If there was some way to tame one, it would be an interesting thing to ride. I’ve heard of people riding ostriches. Riding an Aepyornis would be more impressive than owning a zebra.

  6. Man + technology may = MAN, but technology + society = a steady degradation of that societies morals and gender roles.

  7. The “chasing down” you mention is that journey about which man is constantly reminded in popular culture. Life is supposed to be about the journey, the struggle, and not the destination.
    I hope I can break it gently to my children that it this ” . . . ghastly, brutal process . . . ” will be worthwhile!
    Interesting read.

  8. I think what he really meant by man + tech = 0 is that humanity + science = 0.
    More technologically advanced we get, more we stop needing each other directly and become more atomized.
    ie: Brain is the opposite of Heart.

  9. Ooooor, the giant bird could be a symbol for Women. The biologist, like a player, spends his whole life studying it. He desperately wants to have one. In fact, he changes his whole life around to get it. Moves into the city, gets perfect logistics, learns preprogramed routines that work on women, I mean giant birds.
    When he starts to get the sexy time he’s always craved, everything seems wonderful. Then, the truth about the bird comes out. It is a wild, ravenous beast that wants to kill all of him. To keep having the sexy time, he’ll have to keep changing himself to match the whims of the giant bird, to put on the appropriate airs.
    Finally, he decides it isn’t worth it anymore. His whole identity is being swallowed up by his desire for the bird. He isn’t going anywhere or doing anything of worth because he is always trying to find a way to bed the bird. He gives up his addiction to the slutty party bird and kills it with a rusty knife.

    1. Ah, and now we come to the payoff. Now we’re really on to something. Exactly. Our deepest Wish-Fulfilment truly is love. Is it not? That is, our desire to possess another being. Possess it utterly, as it were.
      But you see, that really is the paradox of love. You have these two separate creatures, man and woman, each one striving for the essential spirit in the other. Each one wanting to map out and possess the essence of the other. The two spirits mingle, mingle, and almost come together. But not quite. Never completely Together, as with a capital T.
      Because too much of a coming Together would violate one of the basic rules of life, which is: thou art alone in thy soul, and shall remain so. Love can bring together a man and woman, but they can never fully, totally fuse together. There’s always this thin sort-of membrane that separates us. Always will be. Because the perfect relationship is that which leaves large swathes of land unknown in the other. My woman cannot complete me. And it is unmanly, even obscene and blasphemous, to ask her to complete my masculine purpose. Because this would mean the death of each, the decomposition of each.
      There must remain a natural polarity in the order of things. Man must remain man, and woman must remain woman. And when this law is violated–witness modern American society–a great crime is committed against Nature. Man must seek his essential spirit in the achievement of goals, a transcendent purpose, and the interminable quest. It has always been so. Woman finds her Wish-Fulfillment in receiving love. In opening up to receive love, and manage domestic affairs.
      For as Sir Thomas Browne said: life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible sun within us.

      1. Please don’t quote Sir T.B in order to validate your reactionary beliefs. Whatever does ‘Man must remain man, and woman must remain woman mean ?’ who are you to say, or hilariously ‘too much of a coming Together would violate one of the basic rules of life’, also meaningless twaddle I fear. I doubt if you remotely understand Browne’s alchemical maxim of an ‘imago Dei’ either.

  10. what a start to the week. thanks quintas. of course campbells power of myth echos here. that we are defined by a pursuit, a structure that informs our otherwise forlorn existence. frost’s escapist never, “His fear is not behind him but beside himOn either hand to make his course perhaps/ A crooked straightness yet no less a straightness.” the mythical (now) Aepyronis defines the biologist, until death. and Sinclair’s There WIll be Blood. and again Frost with Nothing Gold Can Stay.
    to avoid cannibalizing that which we love, perhaps extends the allusion until it is us that is consumed.

  11. our frailties
    and our appetites
    will never go away
    and will never allow utopia.

  12. Brutal that seeing our deepest dream come to fruition almost kills us. Why does the bird turn on man? Was it hungry or just in it’s nature to do so?

  13. Thanks for bringing the stories, especially the short ones, of H.G. Wells back to life. Bringing their analogies of technology to teach and remind us of technology’s follies. I for one am a believer in it and have hope, but agree, for the moment, there is a great cause for concern and we must really keep asking ourselves more than ever, if things are really improved. Though, I am not sure if we are yet a master of our environment. We are not even classified as a Class I civilization, which is one that controls at least our world; we are still stuck in fossil fuels and ruining our environment from it and we certainly have not been able to get away from this primitive energy source nor control its effects on our environment. We have had some spiritual leaves, but agree, sometimes our spirit may be decomposing into an environment we only think we can control. We ran out of such great birds and do certainly hunt the rest down and possess them entirely, but I fear, we are also predators and doing the same to our own. Cannibalizing ourselves and our world.

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