Several people are kept in a cave. They have lived in the cave their entire lives, chained to the ground, watching blurry shadows dance on the stone wall in front of them. They think that this is all there is to the world. But one day, one of the captives breaks free of his bonds and leaves the cave. He is amazed by all he sees outside, but when he returns to tell the other prisoners of his findings, nobody believes him. Instead, they kill him.
This story is known as the allegory of the cave. Plato, an ancient Greek philosopher, wrote it in reference to his teacher, Socrates, another Greek philosopher. Socrates was sentenced to death and made to drink poison for “corrupting the youth” with his new ideas. But what would have happened if Socrates was not killed but exiled? And what if he returned one day, years and years later, to teach others about the wonders he discovered while banished? And what if Socrates and the other Athenians were not humans but seagulls? Okay, the last question probably sounds extremely weird, but this is basically the plot of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a novella written by Richard Bach and first published more than fifty years ago.
At the start of the story, a seagull named Jonathan feels incomplete. Unlike the rest of the flock, he yearns for more than food. He wants to learn more about flight. He keeps experimenting, and one day learns how to fold his wings, using only his wingtips for maximum speed. After he bursts through the flock at terminal velocity, he is called forward and banished for disrupting his community. He lives a quiet, peaceful life on the Far Cliffs for many years, and then he goes to the next stage of his existence, in which he realizes his true purpose: to return to the flock and teach them the wonders of flight.
I was apprehensive at first about this novella, because it starts off slowly and the action only gradually builds up. But once I warmed up to the story, I saw that it was written wonderfully, with many sensory details. I could feel Jonathan’s heartbreak, his fear, and also his euphoria whenever he discovered a new flying trick. Readers will also learn a lot about amazing aerial acrobatics and flight mechanics from the author, Richard Bach, a pilot who has written many fiction and nonfiction books about flying. Even though I am not a flight expert, I could still picture Jonathan’s aerial whirls and spins in my mind’s eye. I also enjoyed the black-and-white photographs of seagulls in flight, taken by Russell Munson, which illustrate my copy of the book. I would recommend Jonathan Livingston Seagull to eight-year-olds and up.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach. Macmillan Publishers, 1970. Buy the book here and help support Stone Soup in the process!