When I was in elementary and middle school, certain '90s book series passed in and out of fashion, just like sneaker styles and TV shows. One year, it was the Royal Diaries; another, it was the American Girl tie-in books. A particularly popular series was the Warriors books, which were about clans of anthropomorphic cats duking it out in the woods. At the age of 10 or 11, talking cats seemed like a perfectly reasonable subject for a young adult book...but, on closer inspection, there was a lot of weirdness going on with the Warriors books. Writing about that series got me thinking: what about Guardians of Ga'Hoole ?
This series told the story of young owls who get abducted and brainwashed by a bizarre owl cult, then eventually escape so they can save the world. They were another favorite that came into vogue when I was in fifth grade. My friends and I would pass the books back and forth, depending on who had read the farthest in the series, so that we could all make do with the school library's meager supply of Guardians of Ga'Hoole novels. We were entranced by the tale of the barn owl Soren and his daring adventures.
But, just like the Warriors series, Guardians of Ga'Hoole books were pretty freaking strange. Granted, it's hard to suspend your disbelief any time you get your hands on a book about talking animals, but Guardians of Ga'Hoole outdoes itself. Here are some of the strangest aspects of another beloved book series from my youth.
Barn owls: the cutest birds of prey out there.
1. Death is Everywhere
We all know that young adult novels can be pretty dark, but Guardians of Ga'Hoole is on a whole new level, at least in terms of its death count. In the first book alone, five owls (five!) meet bloody and violent ends. When Soren's villainous brother, Kludd, pushes him out of the nest, Soren is "rescued" by owls from St. Aggie's, an institution for orphaned owls. (Soren should have known this was coming, though, because his brother is named Kludd, which, seriously? That's on par with Scar and Maleficent when it comes to evil-sounding names.) St. Aggie's turns out to be more of a cult than an owl orphanage, and all the owlets become "moon-blinked," or hypnotized, when they're forced to sleep under the full moon. Soren's friend Hortense tries to smuggle out kidnapped eggs, and when she's discovered, she's pushed off a cliff (!!!). Hortense is also an owlet, which makes her the owl equivalent of a six-year-old. So that's messed up.
But it doesn't stop there! Soren and his pal Gylfie beg Grimble, one of the St. Aggie's grunts who turns out to be on their side, to teach them how to fly. When Grimble is found out, the St. Aggie's leaders straight-up murder him. Soren and his band retaliate by killing Jatt and Jutt, two St. Aggie's patrol owls.
Oh, and and as if that's not enough, Jatt and Jutt kidnap Digger, a member of Soren's band of renegade owlets. They carry Digger away to St. Aggie's, but they eat Digger's brother in front of him.
2. Snakes Play Harps
In the first book, The Capture, it's established that blind snakes work for owl families, living safely in the nests of barn owls in exchange for watching over the owlets and keeping the nest free of parasites. While this is outlandish at first blush, it's actually backed up by fact: screech owls have a symbiotic relationship with blind snakes. New owl parents snatch them up and deposit them in the nest so that the snakes eat harmful parasites. Soren's family employs Mrs. Plithiver, an elderly and trusted snake who witnesses Kludd pushing Soren out of the nest. She later reunites with Soren and becomes a side character when he and his band reach the Great Ga'Hoole Tree. There, she joins the snake harp guild, like any respectable empty-nester (which she literally is, since Soren and his siblings have all learned to fly).
Except she doesn't have any fingers. Or any other appendages with which to play the harp.
Oh, and have I mentioned that she's a blind snake?
3. St. Aggie's Is Seriously Screwed Up
Upon arriving at St. Aggie's as an owlet, Soren is told to forget his past and never ask questions, since the motto of St. Aegolius Academy is "Where Truth is Found, Purpose is Revealed," and apparently questions are pesky little nuisances that get in the way of truth. All the owlets are assigned numbers, by which they are referred instead of their names. That's some real Jean-Valjean-in-Les-Mis crap.
Then, they're put to work in one of St. Aggie's work chambers, which include the eggorium, the inventorium, and the pelletorium (not ominous at all). They spend all their time laboring in these rooms and are never told why. Eventually, Soren discovers that the real aim of St. Aggie's is world domination — no biggie — and that St. Aggie's leaders are using kidnapped owlets as slave labor.
This is a nightmare. I had nightmares about being forced into some kind of similar situation.
4. Owls Have A Parliament
Did you think that being a kickass owl fighting against the forces of evil meant you were exempt from the decisions of legislative bodies? Think again! The Great Ga'Hoole Tree, which is where the Guardians of Ga'Hoole live, plays host to an owl parliament. The parliament functions more or less the same way as the real-world Parliament, except with less serious men in suits and more owls looking majestic in the wind.
I'd vote for him. #thisbird2016
The use of "parliament" is undoubtedly a sly reference to a group of owls. You know how a gaggle of crows is called a murder and a bunch of hens is called a brood? More than one owl is a parliament.
Cutest parliament ever, right?
5. Owls Fly with Fire
In the later books, once Soren and his band have reached the Great Ga'Hoole Tree, they each join a chaw (sort of like a profession). Soren is tapped to join the colliering chaw. What is colliering, you may be asking yourself? Well, colliering is carrying coals through the air from a forest fire so that the owls can use them. Sounds incredibly farfetched and also dangerous, right? It is.
This owl is shocked at the colliers' disregard for proper fire safety protocol.
The colliering owls bring their live coals back to the Great Ga'Hoole tree, creating the worst fire hazard I have ever heard of. These books may teach preteens valuable lessons about loyalty and bravery, but they certainly don't teach fire safety.
6. Owls Are Capable of Advanced Blacksmithing
The reason why colliers bring back coals in the first place is so that the blacksmithing chaw can perform incredible metalworking feats...which require a fire. Owls who are tapped as blacksmiths learn how to make armor, weapons, pots, pans, and other useful items for living in the Great Ga'Hoole Tree. In other words, these owls have developed technology on par with medieval Europe, despite the fact that they don't have hands.
You may be thinking, "Come on, Elizabeth! It's a series about talking owls! Get over it!" And I'm not saying that the owls' blacksmithing skills make the books any less enjoyable. But in addition to the no-hands thing, your average barn owl weighs 20 ounces. That makes blacksmithing...well, let's just say difficult.
Yes, owls can apparently do this.