Short stories can be very interesting because many different things occur and develop in such a short piece of writing.  Every word seems to have an important meaning and all the material is dense.  It is amazing how authors can develop great stories in just a few pages.  The short story “Magpies” by Thomas King is different from the norm and a very interesting tale. 

King’s native background is influential on his writing, and this story is a prime example of it.  He takes a different approach through his story telling and the reader is brought right into the community.  The birds play a crucial and versatile role in this story.  They play different characters, show many characteristics, and denote separate things.  

There are numerous objects and things throughout the story that at first glance seem to be nothing but really symbolize a lot.  King mentions rivers and trees which symbolize so much more than one would notice from the beginning. 

They symbolize eternity, and renewal, and fit perfectly with the plot of the story.  In the short story “Magpies”, King uses his aboriginal heritage to tell a great story, to show the versatility of birds and the power of archetypes and symbolism.

“Magpies” is uniquely narrated, and the influence of King’s native heritage is evident.  The majority of stories are written either in the first person, using I, me, my, or in the third person.  This story has a combination of both first and second person. 

The story ends with the narrator saying “you”, which means that the narrator was telling this story to someone.  It gives the reader a sense of the story being told directly to them, as if they are sitting around the fire together hearing this story as a member of the community. 

The native way of life is exemplified through this narrative and the reader learns about the importance of promises.  In their culture, a promise is as legitimate as a written contract and is therefore very sacred.  The differences between the modern world and their world are clear in this story, and the importance of a promise is just one example. 

They believe in the honor system and the significance of giving one’s word.  In both the way the story is told, with native words scattered throughout, and the power of promise, two main themes are examined in this story.  Promises are evident from the beginning of the story and stay right to the second last line. 

The plot is focused on the final promise Ambrose makes to Granny, and how far he will go to keep it.  The aboriginal theme is tough to ignore and King has it working perfectly.  Both themes help develop the story and make it unique.

Magpies are mentioned from the beginning and exemplify, and lead to numerous things throughout the story.  One device that King uses from the beginning is personification.  The narrator defines the magpies as, “good gossips, good jokes, talking, telling stories.”  If someone was to read those actions and characteristics one would think of a human, and not a bird. 

It is particularly interesting when the narrator calls them good gossips.  Every community has gossipers, and in this story, the narrator calls them magpies.  The storyteller blames the magpies for telling Wilma of Ambrose’s plan.  Along with the birds being personified, they were also juxtaposed with Ambrose. 

There were many similarities between the characteristics of Ambrose and the magpies.  Granny said, “They smell death, those birds, just like you smell chokecherries on the boil.”  Ambrose also cries when he hears of Granny’s death, “hoo hoo hoo,” which sounds very similar to bird noises.  And lastly, magpies are known to make false holes to deceive other birds into thinking there’s food in there, which is exactly what Ambrose did with Granny.  

At first glance, Ambrose and the birds seemed to be different, but in actual reality, there were many similarities.  The magpies helped develop Ambrose’s character and showed his transformations.  Magpies are very interesting birds, and there is a sense of duality with them.  They have a negative connotation because they are members of the crow family, and are known for being vicious. 

They peck out the eyes of baby animals and are sometimes found to be very bold with humans.  There is duality among them because magpies are also beautiful songbirds, and live monogamously.  Magpies have very many specific and interesting characteristics that make this short story that much more fascinating and entertaining.

In “Magpies” many objects are used as symbolic and archetypal means and help develop the story.  Different archetypes are used in numerous stories, and in this one, the archetype of the wise old woman is used.  Granny plays this role, and she is the typical elder who knows and follows all of the aboriginal traditions and is against anything modern. 

Granny will not conform to the new ways, though people in her community do.  Her own daughter Wilma has already conformed.  She’s changed her religion and is changing everything for the worst in Granny’s eyes.  An example of Granny holding onto her old ways is when she does not want to be buried but rather put into a tree or mountain. 

Many stories have the wise old woman to show the old way of life and share wisdom.  People in the community looked up to Granny.  Another archetype in this story is the birds.  Generally, birds symbolize heaven and are mediators between heaven and earth.  Since the magpies play such an important role in this story they are archetypal, though magpies symbolize things very different from the archetypal thought of birds. 

As stated previously magpies are known for being bold and vicious, and for pecking out the eyes of baby animals and stealing shiny things.  Duality occurs again in this situation because all of the above characteristics are opposite from what birds symbolize.  It is interesting how the author chose magpies as the birds with the opposite characteristics that they have. 

Along with the two main archetypes, there were was much symbolism in the story.  Granny tells Ambrose that when she dies she does not want to be buried in a whole but put in a tree, river, or mountain.  Holes symbolize darkness, opening, and departure into the unknown, which was the opposite of what Granny wanted.  She wanted to be placed in a tree, river, or mountain. 

All of these places symbolize rebirth of life, transition, and renewal, and joining of heaven and earth.  At first one would not think that a deciduous tree symbolizes immortality and rebirth, but it fits perfectly with the story, and that is what it symbolizes.  Granny’s description as to where she wants to be put when she dies helps develop the setting of the story. 

It gives the reader a great sense of atmosphere, both physical and emotional.  In “Magpies”, there were numerous examples of symbolism throughout and it gave the tale a deeper meaning.

In the short story “Magpies”, the importance of King’s heritage is predominant and illustrates the duality among birds and the importance of archetypes and symbolism.  The story takes an abnormal approach in narration and has two main themes. 

King’s native background gives the story a type of community feel, followed by a theme centered around promises.  Both are significantly apparent from the beginning and are there until the end.  Birds are also evident from the beginning.  There is a duality with the birds, specifically the magpies, with the contrasting characteristics of the bird. 

The birds are also personified throughout the story.  Many short stories, along with “Magpies” have numerous cases of symbolism.  All of the places that Granny does not want to be buried and the places that she does want to be placed in when she dies have very significant symbolic meanings.  Granny’s character, along with the birds in the story are also archetypal. 

“Magpies” was a different and somewhat difficult story to read at first.  It did not follow the normal patterns that most short stories do.  Short stories are always interesting to read, but likely a challenge to write as the author must be concise and still entertaining.  Each one covers a lot of information and applies to many different audiences. 

They give readers something different than novels do, and will always be popular.

author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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