‘The Owl Who Was God’ by James Thurber

‘The Owl Who Was God’, as a title, is good enough on its own to qualify as an excellent short story, which is true of many of the choices I’ve made in this selection. A story’s title, maybe given the brevity of the form, maybe given the context in which the decision to read a particular story might be taken (the contents list in an anthology), carries a special force: of course you read the one with the weirdest title first (that or the shortest). For many of these stories, the title feels somehow of equivalent weight to the narrative, as though the story and its title might be interchanged. ‘The Owl Who Was God’, which is accompanied by one of Thurber’s own great, manic illustrations, tells a fable-like narrative about the imputation of enormous gravitas, even godliness, onto the deeply stupid. (Any resemblance to current events is, of course, entirely coincidental.) By asking an owl a sequence of questions it can only answer in its own call (‘“Can you give me another expression for ‘that is to say’ or ‘namely’?” asked the secretary bird. “To wit”, said the owl’), a group of woodland animals are convinced of the truth of the story’s title, with hilariously tragic consequences.

First published in Fables for Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated, Harper Brothers, 1940, and included in The Thurber Carnival, Hamish Hamilton, 1945, and available online here, but without the illustration, so don’t bother