For the Birds Part Deux: A Meadowlark and a Roller Pigeon




Those who know me well are aware that I am a huge nerd.  I see literary and film references everywhere, especially in places which seem entirely unrelated.  Rereading and rewatching Outlander has me seeing birds everywhere. Diana Gabaldon has turned me into a bird brain.  Thanks, girl!

In researching birds for my previous article, I found such rich meat to feast on that I had to cut out half of the references I had planned, including the one that initially struck me hard between the eyes as one of the most obvious external thematic references which, I'll grant you, is most likely simply a beautiful bit of coincidence.

The Meadowlark



So naturally, this reference comes in the form of the only notable song from a failed Broadway musical by none other than Stephen Schwartz (of 'Wicked' fame). The song is called 'The Meadowlark' and is performed so often that on the strength of it, alone, Trevor Nunn spearheaded a drive to stage a London revival which, though a critical success, still managed to fail after only 56 performances.

The story takes place in provincial France.  The titular Baker, aptly named Amiable, and his much younger wife, Genevieve have a safe but uneventful marriage.  When courted by the much younger chauffeur, Dominique, Genevieve at first resists him, but, after reciting an allegory about a Meadowlark wooed by the God of the Sun, she decides to run away with him, to the despair and disbelief of Amiable.  Things turn sour and she returns to her husband, who refuses to admit she ever left him in the first place, insisting that she had only just returned from visiting her mother.  Instead, he unleashes his anger at the cat for "chasing after some Tom who looked good in the moonlight", but in the end, he gives the animal a saucer of milk, demonstrating his forgiveness of Genevieve.

The problem with this is that no one ever runs away simply because a carrot is dangled in front of them. You don't run to something unless you are running from something else.  Forgiveness is great, but nothing has been resolved.

For anyone familiar with the Outlander series, this should need no further exploration, but not everyone has seen the whole road-map and, while avoiding spoilers, lets just examine the lyrics of the song 'The Meadowlark', a song so apropos to Claire's dilemma that, if Outlander were ever a musical (yes, I know one exists, but, much like Anne of Green Gables 3, I pretend it doesn't) she could've sung it at the stones.

The Meadowlark
By Stephen Schwartz

When I was a girl I had a favorite story Of the meadowlark who lived where the rivers wind Her voice could match the angels in its glory But she was blind The lark was blind An old king came and took her to his palace Where the walls were burnished bronze and golden braid And he fed her fruit and nuts from an ivory chalice And he prayed: 'Sing for me, my meadowlark Sing for me of the silver morning Set me free, my meadowlark And I'll buy you a priceless jewel And cloth of brocade and crewel And I'll love you for life if you will sing for me' Then one day as the lark sang by the water The God of the Sun heard her in his flight And her singing moved him so he came and brought her the gift of sight He gave her sight And she opened her eyes to the shimmer and the splendor Of this beautiful young god so proud and strong And he called to the lark in a voice both rough and tender: 'Come along! Fly with me my meadowlark Fly with me on the silver morning Past the sea where the dolphins bark We will dance on the coral beaches Make a feast of the plums and peaches Just as far as your vision reaches, fly with me' But the meadowlark said 'No' For the old king loved her so She couldn't bear to wound his pride So the Sun God flew away And when the king came down that day He found his meadowlark had died Every time I heard that part, I cried And now I stand here starry-eyed and stormy Oh, just when I thought my heart was finally numb A beautiful young man appears before me Singing 'Come...oh, won't you come?' And what can I do if finally for the first time The one I'm burning for returns the glow If love has come at last it's picked the worst time Still I know I've got to go Fly away, Meadowlark Fly away on the silver morning If I stay, I'll grow to curse the dark So it's off where the days won't bind me I know I leave wounds behind me But I won't let tomorrow find me back this way Before my past once again can blind me Fly away And we won't wait to say goodbye My beautiful young man and I


For the purposes of this metaphor, Frank is the old king.  He clearly loves Claire, our meadowlark, but he doesn't really understand what she needs.  He "rescues" her from her rootless life, only to put her in the gilded cage of "the Don's wife"(thank you, Alastair Stephens).

She steps through the stones, meets 'The God of the Sun', Jamie, and her eyes are opened.  We even have this line from the book:

"Suddenly the inn door opened, and the sun came out, in the person of James." - Outlander, Chapter 14 (A Marriage Takes Place), Diana Gabaldon

She is then finally given the choice . . . go back to Frank, safety, and her wedding vows or stay with Jamie in a dangerous past with an uncertain future, but with the chance to live passionately with someone who really understands who she is and what she needs. When she makes that choice at the stones, she does so with full knowledge of the wounds she is leaving behind.

For all of the dissenters out there, this is why we need Frank's story. This is why the book was slightly the lesser for the lack of it. Yes, yes . . . we are firmly entrenched in Claire's POV and this was not possible with the book's narrative structure, but we aren't bound by that structure in the show, so when we, along with Claire, are confronted with the choice, we do so with our eyes fully opened.  You may not like Frank, but I'm sure you respect Claire enough, as a character, to trust she would not have married a monster.  She married a man she loved, at least as well as she could with the knowledge she had of herself at the time.  There's no real choice to be made if you can only clearly see one of the options.  You fully see both men and so you get to choose with Claire and, if the choice had been an easy one, it would not have made for compelling television.

There's a wonderful passage in the book:

"'I wish I could have fought him for you,' he said abruptly, looking back at me.  His blue eyes were dark and earnest.
I smiled at him, touched.
'It wasn't your fight, it was mine.  But you won it anyway.'  I reached out a hand and he squeezed it." - Outlander, Chapter 25 (Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch to Live) Diana Gabaldon

For those arguing that Frank's story comes at the expense of Jamie's, well . . . that's a whole separate article, and it's coming, I assure you, but in choosing to show Frank's parallel timeline, the Outlander creative team has allowed us to actually see Jamie fight for Claire.

It's enough, at this point, to know that she chooses to stay, because if she had gone back to the old king with her eyes fully opened, she would've seen her gilded caged and grown to curse the dark.  It's a stunningly perfect allegory.


The Roller Pigeon



The second external reference comes from another unlikely place and was actually, initially, a mistake.  The first time I watched 'The Devil's Mark', I was so struck by the starling murmuration, that my brain flashed sideways to the film 'Hannibal', and I mentally linked Clarice Starling to the starlings in Outlander. In truth, the reference still works because Claire and Clarice are incredibly similar creatures, a supposition I'll defend in just a moment. 

First, though, I'll give you the actual reference . . . of roller pigeons, not starlings:

"We were talking about inherited, hardwired behavior," Barney, one of Lecter's attendants at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, tells Starling when she asks what Lecter thought of her. "He was using genetics in roller pigeons as an example. They go way up in the air and roll over and over backwards in a display, falling toward the ground. There are shallow rollers and deep rollers. You can't breed two deep rollers or the offspring will roll all the way down, crash and die. What he said was: 'Officer Starling is a deep roller, Barney. We'll hope one of her parents was not." - NYT pull-quote summarized from the novel, 'Hannibal' by Thomas Harris





Clearly, Claire is also a deep roller . . . and so, too, is Geillis Duncan, but what about the parallels? 

For those not familiar with Clarice Starling's backstory as detailed in 'The Silence of the Lambs', (get on that right away if you're not!) Clarice was essentially orphaned at the age of 10.  Her father, a town Marshall, is killed in the line of duty and her mother can't afford to take care of her, so she sends her to live with her uncle on a sheep and horse farm in Montana. Her uncle . . . who tends lambs. Are you starting to see the threads come together? She hears the spring lambs being slaughtered one night (the screaming of the lambs) and at first attempts to free them and, failing that, decides to run away.  Her uncle is furious with her when he finds her and sends her to live in an orphanage, where she spends her remaining years as a minor.  After graduating from the University of Virginia with degrees in psychology and criminology, she joins the FBI and becomes a successful field agent.

So . . . she is rootless and an orphan, like Claire.  She is also highly capable and used to being alone. Both Claire and Clarice had parents who died suddenly and eventually found themselves thriving in male-dominated professions.  They are strong, sharp, opinionated and brave and often plunge head-long into the fray without thinking of the consequences.  I think one of the reasons I love Claire so much as a character is that I first loved Clarice Starling.

Geillis Duncan, too, fits this profile.  The backstory we are privy too thus far paints her as a lone zealot, purposely traveling through the stones and through time on what is tantamount to a suicide mission, funding the treasonous Jacobite uprising in support of Charles Stuart, the pretender to the English throne.  She is obviously far more morally compromised ("Nice to meet you, Morally-Compromised") than either Claire or Clarice, but she more than matches them in dogged determination.

So there you have it . . . two external sources which pretty perfectly dovetail (ha!) with Outlander's themes.  And that's it for my bird references, though book-readers will know there are a ton more throughout the series.

What are your favorites? Do you also annoy your friends with endless film analogies? Have you picked up on Outlander themes in strange places? Wanna yell at me for defending the Frank parallel timeline? Bring it! I'd love to hear your thoughts!

9 comments

  1. I always look forward to your posts-deep and incisive. I still have to mull over the things you wrote about..WOW!!

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    1. Thank you so much, Sara! I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. :)

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  2. The book had enough back story of Frank to make Claire's decision to stay in the past a painful but necessary choice for her. DG tells us that Frank is a well-educated, sophisticated college professor, historian and writer who has been separated from his wife by the war when he was posted as an intelligence officer. In the early days of their marriage, Claire had lived a nomadic life with Frank, going to conferences with him and moving from one college teaching position to another. When he started Officers Training and intelligence work, she started nurses training and eventually did hospital work and then battlefield work in France. When the book begins, they are in Inverness to re-kindle their marriage after a five year separation, but also to give Frank the opportunity to research one of his ancestors, Jonathan Wolverton Randall. DG shows how scholarly Frank is by having him explain ritual sacrifice and lapse into academic meditation about paganism and ancient festivals. While there is no doubt that he loves Claire, Frank is not a romantic man. He is a bit self-serving and precise in his personal and professional life. He is also suspicious of the stranger he sees looking up at Claire in the window, and perhaps he is a little jealous, enough so that he questions her about her behavior during their time apart. The second honeymoon becomes a mini sabbatical for him with his wife as a complementary addition. And while Claire loves Frank, she is not prepared to be a typical housewife. Her interests and childhood experiences with her Uncle Lamb prepared her to work and pursue her interests in botanicals and the healing arts.

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  3. I don't believe Frank fits the metaphor of the old king for several reasons: he's not old (maybe 38/39), he's not desperate for love or companionship, he has no need to be "set free," there is no evidence that he "took" her from a life she didn't want; in fact, I can imagine that Claire was fascinated by him as he sat talking with Uncle Lamb about ancient religions and she pursued him; though he was a don and his lifestyle was staid, restrained by tradition, Frank did not restrict Claire's independence and interests. In fact, she was left to entertain herself while Frank indulged in his research and he encouraged her to go back to the stones in search of the flower. It is fairly obvious that Claire will not be happy if she cannot pursue her own interests or profession, and once Frank has begun his tenure at Oxford, I imagine she would go back to nursing.

    The meadowlark sings beautifully; Claire doesn't sing, but she IS beautiful and intelligent, sensual and caring. Had she not fallen through the stones and met Jamie, she may very well have continued married life (cage) with Frank, but she would have to create her own career and "sing" for herself. If she could not bear children with Frank, DG makes it clear in the beginning that Frank would not consider adoption, a rather selfish position to take. Claire isn’t blind or helpless (lark), but she does have a sense of duty and loyalty. Whatever shortcomings her life with Frank may have, she would find a path for herself.

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    1. Yay! Thank you for your thoughts! Just a few things: the Old King is not depicted as desperate, and Frank's probable age puts him at least 10 years older than Claire. The song doesn't talk about the lark being stolen away by the king, rather she is enticed by the trappings the king provides with her limited knowledge of anything else. In the musical, itself, Genevieve is married to a middle-aged man who is so kind to her (his name is Amiable, for pete's sake!) that he can't even outright accuse her of cheating when she comes home from her love nest. The cage is metaphorical and the keeper of the key is the lark, herself. That's the whole point. We choose our own cages out of fear. Claire, too, had limited knowledge of relationship possibilities at the time she met Frank. She had experienced a variety of cultures to be sure, but it is made quite clear that she had zero notion of real family. Real roots. In regards to her own heart and what kind of love she could hope to find and, she was well and truly blind. Blind doesn't mean helpless. The meadowlark had the choice to stay or go. She doesn't choose to stay out of fear, she stays out of compassion and obligation.

      Jamie certainly opens her eyes to the possibility of passion. Had she known the true depth of love that a soul-mate brings, she never would have married Frank.

      I could speak to personal experiences which have lead me to this insight, but it would be unkind. Needless to say, I was the meadowlark at one point, but I opened my own cage.

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  4. Jamie as the Sun God (Apollo) fits nicely because like Apollo, he values truth, he fosters the healing arts by sustaining many injuries, he is poetic being learned in Greek and Latin, German and French, he is a leader of men, and he is a warrior and master of animal husbandry. Jamie offers Claire freedom, passion, and infinite love, qualities that only a very rare, god-like man could do. He is landed gentry, he is religious with a strong moral code, he is honorable, courageous, and self-sacrificing. He fosters children, he adopts children, and he provides them an education. He possesses a sense of humor, a love of tradition, and a willingness to learn and to change. Furthermore, he is charismatic. With little effort on his part, he is loved, respected and followed by both men and women. His charm is so magnetic that he is pursued by two men, one who seeks to love and destroy him, the other who wants to love and be loved by him. Now, with the heroine Claire and this magnificent male character, Jamie, DG has found enough material to write eight very lengthy novels, covering a marriage of some thirty-five years. Why would it be necessary to expand the background of the Old King (Frank), when the Meadowlark (Claire) will choose the Sun God (Jamie) even though it (lark) knows that the Old King (Frank) will experience pain and disappointment. Frank is a secondary character, important to Claire’s history, just as Dougal and Murtaugh are important to Jamie’s history, but he doesn’t need more time on-screen to show that importance. Dialogue would do just fine.

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    1. I have a particular issue with the notion that any man who offers "freedom, passion and infinite love" must be rare and god-like. I don't find that to be true at all and it's why all of Jamie's flaws get glossed over. If Jamie does it or says it, it must be just, right and true because Jamie is 'The King of Men'. Show me a good husband with a happy wife who DOESN'T offer her freedom, passion and infinite love and I'll show you a pretty bad husband.

      Good men are far less rare than much of Hollywood or even literary or genre fiction would like us to believe. These men are not gods. They are nuanced and flawed, but beautiful and strong, all the same.

      I still do find the book lacking in so far as taking away any fault from Claire's decision to stay. Father Anselm seems stuck in there at the end as a sort of Dues Ex Machina, telling the female readers that it's all okay. Claire did nothing wrong. She "probably" couldn't have gone back through the stones. She married Jamie because she "had" to.

      Let's ponder this for a quick sec . . . if Claire had fallen through the stones and it had been Jamie she left behind, forced to marry Frank out of necessity and then she was finally giving the choice to leave . . . would the possibility of death have stopped Claire from trying to make it back? No way! So why is that a reason for absolution in this case? She chooses to stay and abandon Frank. Were they right for each other? Of course not. Is that any different than a husband falling in love with a colleague and running off with her because she "get's" him? Not at all. It's certainly less exciting, but the same vows are broken in both sets of circumstances.

      I like seeing more of Frank's story because it shows Claire in an honest light. Frank's pain at losing Claire in the first book isn't just a bit abstracted, it's completely non-existent. There are NO consequences for anyone other than Claire. The only heartbreak we see is hers and that's just not the reality.

      My theory on the Frank hate is that precisely because his pain and loss is so glossed over that when we finally do see his acting out from bitterness and heartbreak, it seemingly comes out of nowhere. Look at all she's been through and this is how he treats her? That's because we've had blinders on as readers.

      Anyway, that's just my opinion. I'm vastly in the minority, I get it. :)

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    2. Kendra, you are not in the minority; rather, I think I am. But on a personal note, I have had two bad experiences and that pretty well sealed any effort on my part to find "happily everafter." I have friends who have celebrated their 50th anniversaries, and I'm happy for them. Awed might be a better word. That aside, I do not hate the character of Frank. I just find the character of Jamie so multi-faceted, so intriguing, and wonder how DG created a man so compelling. There were so many scenes in the first book that I wanted to see, but of course, were not part of the show because of time and story arc(s). I know that every moment in the book could not be translated to the screen, but creating scenes that didn't exist seemed unnecessary to me. I look forward to season 2 because I admire the actors and the story, no matter what changes occur. I just don't see the necessity for adding more of Frank's character to the exclusion of scenes that forward the Paris story. We must agree to disagree, I think, but we can still have friendly discourse.

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    3. Of course we can! I love nothing more than a friendly debate. :) And I do love the character of Jamie, I just glory in the gray areas, as well.

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