From the lone shieling of the misty island Mountains divide us, and the waste of seas -- Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is highland, And we in dreams behold the Hebrides. Canadian boat song (Anonymous)
Except to a child, E.T.'s desperate homesickness in Steven Spielberg's recent film is a passion alien to modern sensibilities, a poignant quality of childhood, or faithful pets, or migrating birds -- something we "grow out of" or suppress in our mobile, technological society. The engines of progress still the immigrant's longing, comfortable uniformity dims his heritage, and his descendants have no name for the restless craving they inherit.
William Horwood's new novel bestows a commanding dignity on homesickness. From the perspective of this century's end, "The Stonor Eagles" chronicles the development of James MacAskill Stonor from his childhood in southern England in the 1950s to his emergence as an internationally acclaimed artist by the mid-1980s. The works that initially drew international attention to Stonor are dominated by the imagery of eagles, in particular the magnificent white-tailed sea eagle (kin to the American bald eagle) that abandoned the British Isles during World War I. Revisiting the strange, powerful works of his "eagle period" in a retrospective exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1998, Stonor confronts again the obsession bequeathed to him by his homesick, derelict father, Liam Hugh MacAskill.
It is Liam -- outcast husband, absentee father, combat veteran, exiled Scotsman -- who spins the mythical tales of the sea eagles during furtive visits with James, his youngest son. The tales begin as wild fantasy, a vivid concoction of ornithology, Celtic and Norse myth and evolutionary geology. Inspired by the attentiveness of a small boy, the tales become an allegory for Liam MacAskill's life in the saga of Cuillin, the last sea eagle in the British Isles.
Liam MacAskill was the last human to see Cuillin alive before she disappeared from her home on the Island of Skye. Shell-shocked and emotionally wasted by his experiences on the front lines in France and Belgium during World War I, Liam has retreated from humanity and the "Doom" he sees hovering over his race. Unable to fathom the quirk of fate that left him alive in a field of fallen comrades, he links his guilt and horror to the fate of the eagles, for whose extinction he feels responsible. He banishes himself from Skye, as in his tales Cuillin herself takes wing, braving the dark sea in a heroic flight to Norway to find others of her kind. Through his portrait of Cuillin, reciting her memories of Skye and litany of beloved place names to kindle in her children the dream of returning home, Liam betrays his own longing for a place he will never see again. In Cuillin's uneasy destiny -- that she alone may somehow avert the unnameable "Doom" prophesied for her race -- lie Liam's own tattered hopes for redemption.
The career launched by James Stonor's eagle sculptures begins with the death of his father, leaving Stonor the burden of completing Cuillin's tale. His grief swells into rage at the wanton forces that broke his father's spirit and threaten the sea eagles with a "Doom" now defined -- the slow extinction of their race by oil spills, war, shotguns and unseen poisons that erode the fertility of each successive generation. Abandoning a successful advertising career, he embarks on his eagle sculptures, desperate "to invest the wings and head and feathers . . . with that eternal loss that lies in any vagrant heart, eagle or human."
Unexpectedly, the powerful works inspired by his grief and rage attract international attention to the plight of the sea eagle, and protective measures reverse their slow decline. As Cuillin's descendants wing their way back over the sea to Skye, Stonor's despair is fused with love -- for his father, for the channel town of his own childhood, for the birds that sustained his father's marred courage and purpose, and for Judith, long cut off from him by his obsession with the eagles. "Myth" and "reality" flow in a kind of tidal equipoise, each directing the course of the other. The parallel courses of Stonor's life and the eagles' saga converge in the actual return and successful breeding of sea eagles on the Island of Skye, where he carves the last of his eagle sculptures on a pilgrimage to his father's ancestral home.
William Horwood's novel is a singular study of the unpredictable sources of creativity and faith. In "Duncton Wood," Horwood's first novel, a colony of moles (reminiscent of the intrepid rabbits in "Watership Down") provide entertaining fantasy, but except for predators, they are portrayed in isolation from the vast web of life, like flowers cast in lucite. "The Stonor Eagles" transcends such artifice, deftly weaving the epic history of a nonhuman species into the context of palpable human experience. The fate of the eagles is inextricable from the fate of the individual and humanity; they share the same destiny, and the same "Doom" hovers over both with the "staring eyes of fire" that stunned Liam MacAskill on a muddy battlefield in Belgium.
Horwood is generous with his characters, both eagle and human. Evil is not personified, and with loving detail he sketches Stonor's family and the small-town individuals whose warmth and fallibilities define home for him. It is Liam MacAskill, though, who dominates the book. He is both seer and messenger, powerless either to complete his tale or to comprehend its import. An aging, homesick relic of a distant battle, he is somehow all fathers, all veterans -- comfortless and alone, a stranger to his children. But his love -- for a home lost, for eagles and soldiers slain, for the son he cannot hold -- transfigures him through his tale of Cuillin, wildly lilting over the crags of Skye and the dark sea.
"It wasna a story. It was never a story," Liam says on his deathbed. William Horwood's exceptional novel is more than a story. "The Stonor Eagles" is a statement of faith in humanity's capacity to redeem its blunders, and in the power of creative intuition to command human destiny.