Written by Leah Park
The ability to move freely through the air, to see the world from a different perspective; the exhilaration of the wind rushing past your face, the power to carry yourself so far from the ground that once entrapped you on this earth: winged flight has always enraptured the human imagination. From the Greek tales of Daedalus and Icarus’ winged escape to the beautiful, powerful sextuple-winged seraphims found in many religious texts, humans have often revered the ability to escape the wretched binds of gravity. It is due to this inherent reverence that wings (and their ability to give the power of flight) have been used to symbolize an inhuman power or a transcendence of the human condition. A Biblical verse I have often seen adorned upon family friends’ living room walls or stitched into upholstery in furniture stores – it’s even captured on a statuette by my grandfather’s bathroom mirror – describes the very act of the Christian Lord carrying believers up on said wings:
“…but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles.”
Isaiah 40:31, NIV
In modern culture, wings are still very much present in literature and film. Disney’s Maleficent and Falcon from the Marvel Cinematic Universe are both winged characters who use their wings (natural or mechanical) as symbols of transcendence, Maleficent being a powerful sorceress and Falcon using his wings to become a hero for the masses. Wings often lift a character from the general populace, transcending them and empowering them into a symbol of maturity and power. However, not unlike any device explored in literature, there is an alternative viewpoint — wings as oppressive or empty instruments, rather than ones of transcendence.
The subversion of winged imagery in modern literature is evident in young adult literature, notably in James Patterson’s Maximum Ride. The young adult series focuses on the ventures of a group of mutated children led by the title character, Maximum Ride. The members of the group were each genetically fashioned with a pair of large, feathered wings in a laboratory focused on the furtherment of human evolution. Despite this angelic figure, they are far from your typically powerful, angelic archetype. These children are messy, rowdy, and all-in-all very much regular young adults. One of the characters is even called the “Gasman” due to his constant flatulence, a very human debasement. They are very much just human children (with the addition of wings fashioned upon their backs).
These children are not considered by the readers (or even the characters themselves) as “transcendent” from the human race, nor are their wings considered empowering. Maximum in particular considers her mutation a stressful burden, as she states in Angel Experiment, “In the dictionary, next to the word stress, there is a picture of a midsize mutant stuck inside a dog crate.” The group of mutants not only perceive themselves as ostracized from society, but are fearful of the human society that created them. This is evident from the beginning of the first novel, which opens on a morning routine that shows the characters’ isolation from the outside world in a household on the outskirts of human civilization. Even during their interactions with society, they often use fake identities, unable to satisfy many of their needs legally due to their inability to procure money. One such moment is when the group enters a fast food establishment for a meal and Max remarks that “[they have] Dumpster-dived for lunch on many occasions….” and that “the Castle Room would have been neat, if [she] didn’t hate crowds, sticking out, grown-ups, feeling paranoid, and spending money.” Maximum is acutely aware that she and the rest of the winged children “stick out,” and she is constantly paranoidly looking over her shoulder for members of society that seek her wings. The characters’ seclusion from the rest of humanity is not voluntary and even trademarks of their characterization – like the strong bonds they have formed with each other – are only products of their constant persecution from the scientists who target the wings on their back.
Paradoxically, although these characters feel ostracized by humanity and experience the need to isolate themselves for their own safety, they still consider themselves human and try to become like the society that spurns them. One such example would be their names, which each character chose for themselves in rebellion against the numbers they were assigned in the laboratory. Another example would be their birthdays and ages. The scientists never told each child their real age and birthdays so the children fashion themselves their own – another way to assign themselves marks of humanity. Due to their wings, these children were never truly a part of society, and despite their angelic appearance they were treated poorly by the very humans that created them.
Because of these wings, the main cast serves as a hyperbolic example of label-seeking youth and the way in which young people try to place themselves in society. Patterson uses the wings as a vehicle to symbolize the ostracization that young adults feel during this period of their lives and the ways they self-assign labels and seek those like themselves. Wings, in this way, symbolize not empowerment but a burden of growth and evolution, a difference that causes a group of young adults to create their own mechanisms to fit themselves into society. Instead of the expected empowerment of winged beings, Patterson displays, instead, winged beings seeking out the “normalness” of human society – an inversion of a well-established trope.
This subversion of wings is no new concept. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Gabriel García Márquez similarly explores the ostracization and burden that wings can bring for the characters who own them. This story tells of a couple who finds a dirty, senile old man with large wings during a long rainstorm. Convinced that the old man is an angel who has come to take away their sick child, they keep him in their chicken coop, using his unique appearance and the superstition around his angelic form to earn money from curious onlookers. Eventually, his novelty fades away and he is forgotten, left in the rotting chicken coop as the villagers move on with their lives and their attentions are diverted elsewhere. For a while, he seems close to death, but the old man finds his strength once more and grows new feathers. The story ends as he flies away, becoming “an imaginary dot on the horizon of the ocean.”
The old man serves as a subversion of the typical angel, being old, parasite-ridden, and unable to speak Latin – the apparent language of God. It is due to this off-kilter appearance and his appetite for “eggplant mush” (which he prefers over the recommended “angel food” – mothballs) that many are later convinced that he is no angel, but merely an old man who happens to have wings. It is widely accepted by both the villagers and, indirectly, the reader that the old man’s wings signify no apparent social clout.. They merely serve as almost dead-weight upon the old man’s back, not empowering him nor lifting him above the village in any bigger way. The oddity of the wings also lead to the man becoming a sideshow for the couple that keeps him, and pilgrims come from across the lands to come see this supposed angel. When visitors see that the old man is unlike the angels they have been taught to expect from their beliefs, they quickly mistreat him, plucking his feathers and branding him before eventually forgetting him in favour of a travelling oddities show and the spider-woman they keep. The old man isn’t even afforded a name (further demoting him on the social scale) and he definitely isn’t paid for his service to the couple. The chicken coop he sleeps in allegorizes his role as the couple’s metaphorical domesticated animal, whose existence is meaningful only for what it brings his owners. The wife, Elisenda, is extremely annoyed when the old man wanders into her house — despite the fact that it is due to the old man that the couple could afford the house in the first place. As the story progresses, he is continuously dehumanized, removed from society and treated as less-than because of his wings. His angelic appearance loses its worth when society realizes his wings do not provide the man with any power. The old man’s wings thus act as a symbol of ostracism, rather than being a connection to angelic transcendence or power.
The old man is not unlike the young adults of Patterson’s novel as he invokes angelic imagery while subverting the human expectation of the grand angels from Biblical imagery. His winged yet unangelic disheveledness leads to society ostracizing him by making him a spectacle, the couple taking advantage of this to earn money. The contradicting religious reverence yet spectacle-making awe of humankind makes the old man an outsider, and the old man cannot escape until he goes through a “molting” stage – he essentially loses his feathers before regrowing them and only then is strong enough to fly away. The old man’s wings do not serve as a way for him to become the bigger-than-human religious figure that the pilgrims and villagers seek. In fact, it is due to these wings that he finds himself trapped in a chicken coop in the first place. The old man’s wings serve not as an image of frightful religious power, but instead leads to his use as livestock and his designation as an outsider. In the end, the only power the old man had had – his ability to take children- is thwarted as well when the couple reveal that they have built a house “with iron bars on the windows so that angels wouldn’t get in.”
Marquez goes as far as to directly reference the empty symbolism of wings – at one point, the priest delivers a sermon ro remind the villagers that the devil often tricks the unwary and states that “if wings were not the essential element in determining the difference between a hawk and an airplane, they were even less so in the recognition of angels.” The old man’s angelic imagery, then, has the ability to be… empty. His wings are useless, serving no greater purpose to him or those around him. They did not empower him – in fact, they remove the village’s fear of winged idols and angels and eradicate the reverence that the village and pilgrims carried for wings. His wings are like those of any other winged beast – his feathers can be plucked (without him exacting punishment) and he will grow them back. The appearance of wings is subverted so they become the thing that readers can pity the old man for, instead of serving to symbolize transcendence. It is these very wings, at the end of the short story, that carry him away from society instead of serving as a tool that lifts him to an elevated status among the villagers. Like Patterson’s children, he is most comfortable fleeing the oppression of society.
James Patterson and Gabriel García Márquez both, at different periods of time, explore the topic of winged humans and how wings contribute to not transcendence but rather their ostracization from society through Maximum Ride and “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” Rather than using wings as a positive symbol of empowerment, they are ostracizing to the characters that possess them. Patterson uses wings as to represent the turbulent and ever-changing growth that the group of young adults leading the novel are going through. The old man with large wings in Márquez’s short story, on the other hand, represents the negative aspects of the old man’s religious novelty and the possible emptiness of winged imagery. Both literary works utilize and subvert the symbol of wings and the invoking of angelic imagery. Many symbols in literature can often find this duality in their metaphor. Rain can be the harbinger of renewal and new life, and yet also of melancholy and mourning. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter the innocuous red letter upon Hester’s breast bears a symbol of martyrdom and sacrifice, despite its original symbolism of adultery and scorn. Wings can thus serve to symbolize not just power or transcendence, but of ostracization and alienation. It is this duality that had Icarus’ wings carry him at first to his freedom, only to have him plummet from that great height to his demise. While our society may remain obsessed with ideas of escape and angelic imagery, it would serve us well to keep in mind that wings are a double-edged sword to those who possess them.