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14 September 2010 @ 09:54 pm
"He That Hath Wings"  

From the July 1938 issue of WEIRD TALES, this is a haunting little fable by Edmond Hamilton. Even though most of the stories in WEIRD TALES were gruesome enough to satisfy any horror fan, there was always room for a beautiful tale like Seabury Quinn's "Roads" or this story about a man born with the gift (or curse) of wings.

The story starts with a woman dying shortly after giving birth to a boy, David Rand. Both parents had survived a massive electrical shock in a subway a year earlier, and it seems the voltage has caused a strange mutation in the unborn child. (Yes, long before radioactivity and genetic engineering were used to rationalize monsters and marvels, electrical shock and unknown chemicals served the same purpose.) At first, the doctor thinks the unfortunate newborn has a hunchback deformity, but an X-ray reveals something stranger... beneath the two smooth bumps running down the baby's back are wings, still developing.

Hamilton develops the side effects of the mutation very convincingly, having evidently given the matter serious thought. Little David has hollow bones, like those of a bird, and his skeleton is different in other ways; he weighs only a third of what might be expected. His heart beat is faster and his blood hotter than normal (carrying more oxygen?). "And his shoulder-blades jut out into bone projections to which are attached the great wing-muscles." Soon enough, the skin breaks and the wings sprout like the first teeth of an infant.

Some of the supporting evidence Hamilton uses to reinforce the concept is not really necessary for today's reader, but then super-powered mutants were less common in 1938 fiction. As the news inevitably gets out, David is such a sensation that the hospital is besieged and, knowing the winged infant will never be left alone, Dr Harriman has himself made the child's legal guardian and retires to a secluded island to raise the boy and study his development. (This is a bit hard to accept, though; it seems likely that the AMA or federal government would step in and take custody of such a unique case.)

By the age of seventeen, David Rand has grown into a tall, slim heartbreaker with blond hair and blue eyes. ("His wings had become superb, glittering, bronze-feathered pinions that extended more than ten feet from tip to tip when he spread them, and that touched his heels with their lowest feathers when he closed them at his back.")
Hamilton expresses beautifully the freedom and joy of flight in David's idyllic life; but soon he starts to feel strange yearnings and wonders why the wild birds migrate when their time comes.

After the doctor passes on, David starts to wander far and wide, becoming what today might be called an urban legend. Shortly, he comes in contact with people after being wounded by a gardener who takes him for a hawk (!). And when he meets the nubile young Ruth Hall, he tumbles even harder than when he was literally shot down. He wants to do the right thing and marry her, but Ruth just isn't open-minded enough for a winged husband and she sets the inevitable ultimatum. If he wants life with her, the wings have to go.... (Haven't we all been through something similar?)

Earthbound, landing a good job in the business owned by Ruth's father, awaiting the birth of their first child (who will be completely normal), the lovesmitten David Rand should be completely happy. And yet, there are those stubs left on his back where the wings had been amputated and he still remembers how, for most of his young life, he could feel a freedom no other human knew. Then he notices the wings are starting to grow back....

"He That Hath Wings" builds to a bittersweet, touching close. I wondered at first why no one in the story suggests David's gift could be put to good use in rescue work, exploration, photography or ornithology; but then, this isn't a practical tale but a fable. The story can be taken in so many ways... as an explanation for the legends of angels and harpies of ancient times, as an allegory on how settling into society usually requires sacrificing what we love most, as an evocation of the mystery of flight. From any angle, it's a fine story.

And of course, there is Marvel Comic's character the Angel to consider. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had both read far more than their fair share of pulp fiction and they drew freely on that when creating the first generation of Marvel superheroes. The Angel, who debuted in the first X-MEN issue in 1963, had so much in common with David Rand (including the hollow bones and the way the wings were inconspicuous when folded tight) that it seems possiblw Stan and Jack had this story in mind.
Erik Allan Johnson on September 15th, 2010 12:36 pm (UTC)
Reocurring Theme
Hm. Seems to be a reoccurring theme in fiction, a boy growing wings. I remember in the 6th grade reading a book called "Wings" (by Bill Brittain, published 1991, as the title "Wings" is incredibly popular) about a pre teen boy who grows bat-like wings, runs away to live on a farm with a girl with six fingers on one hand, and at the end has them amputated in a way that I always thought was a cop out.

However, one quick look at Amazon.com reveals this isn't the only such story, as "a boy growing wings" appears to be a very popular plot. It is interesting how this story tries to provide some sort of explanation on how such a winged person would be structured, as if to convince the readers "This could happen!", compared to later books with the same story were audiences were more aware of the trapping of fantastic stories and could share in the characters own bewilderment.
dr_hermes on September 15th, 2010 11:15 pm (UTC)
Re: Reocurring Theme
I would imagine it's a deep-seated theme found in many cultures throughout history. Icarus comes to mind. And Hawkman of course. Angels, harpies, Tinker Bell.