June 25, 2012

The Talking Skull, By Jennifer A. McGowan

Editor's note: This winning poem grabbed my attention in a big way. While based on a folk-tale rather than a fairy tale, it honors the fairy-tale tradition by having elements of wonder and transformation -- of a rather dark sort. Jennifer adapted it from a Nigerian folk tale.

A hunter
in search of food for his family
walked and walked
but found no prey.
The plains stretched on
and the sun beat
and even he was weary.

There was one tree
that stretched its branches
and he sat beneath it.
Propped his feet
on a white rock
and drank.
When he was rested, he noticed
the rock had two eye-holes
and teeth.  Alone
in the vast expanse
except for the sky,
he addressed the rock
in a casual fashion:
“What brought you here, my friend?”
Then he laughed,
grateful no one could hear him.

So perhaps it is to be forgiven
if the hunter jumped
when the skull fixed him
in its empty gaze and said,
“Talking brought me here!”

Food and family forgotten,
he ran to the king
to tell him of this wonder
and the king
and all his attendants
went in stately fashion
to see the talking skull.

The plains stretched on
and the sun beat
so it is perhaps to be forgiven
if the king was weary
and rather hot and bothered
when at last they reached the one tree
that stretched its branches.

The king ordered the hunter
to show him the wonder
and the hunter found the skull
and addressed it in a friendly fashion:
“Greetings again!  Please tell my king—
what brought you here!”

But the skull
was silent.

For a long time
the hunter pleaded and implored
questioned and queried
but the skull
might well have been
a white rock to prop his feet on
for all the good it did.

The king was angry.
He had come a long way
and had expected wisdom from beyond the grave
or at least a miracle
that befit his station.
He had his champion
lop off the hunter’s head
and began the long trip home.

Beyond the one tree
the plains stretched on.
Beneath the tree
the skull rolled grinning
over to the hunter’s head and asked,
“What brought you here, my friend?”
And the hunter’s head said sadly,
“Talking brought me here!”
And underneath the shaded earth
the other skulls set up a clattering.

Jennifer A. McGowan lives near Oxford, England, and has published widely on both sides of the Atlantic.  For more poetry, info about her first collection, and for samples of her medieval calligraphy, visit http://www.jenniferamcgowan.com



Teresa Robeson said...

Weird and wonderful...I love it! Now I want to read more Nigerian folktales. :)

Lissa said...

Great story!

spacedlaw said...


Unknown said...

This is the sort of poem that gives monarchism a bad name. ;-)

Jeannette Jonic said...

I loved this poem. The motif of "talking" resulting in such a terrible situation was so clever! It certainly made me curious to know what happened to the first skull, and by the time we get to the end, I loved the "Aha" moment the poem gave me. Thank you very much for sharing!

Laura B. said...

One of my favorite short tellable stories and I love the way that she has adapted into such a clever poem! Excellent work!

Haley Baker said...

This poem seems to explain a moral. The skull the hunter found basically told him talking will get you killed. The hunter completely ignores the skulls advice and tells the king all about the talking skull, and talking is what he was told not to do. The hunter’s death is a result of his actions, he should not have ignored what the skull said to him. We can take from this poem that we should really listen to what we are told, it may sometimes be good advice. If the dead could actually talk, and told us what it was that got them where they are, or what killed them, wouldn’t we not want to do what they did? The problem is that hearing a skull talk would most likely shock anybody. That shock may get in the way of a person’s thought process. The hunter’s actions are careless; if he really thought about what the skull told him, maybe he wouldn’t have died.

Haley Baker

Anonymous said...

There is definitely a moral to this poem, considering the fact that if someone didn’t read between the lines and put effort into understand it, it would be a pretty weird story. However when I think of skulls I think of death or simply just trouble, and this is basically what the story focuses on; a skull. Even though the skull had told him, and basically warned him that talking gets you killed, that is exactly what he went and did. Told the king everything and had him go look at this talking skull for himself, which evidently brought him to no good. Take driving and texting for instance, there have been signs, and people who tell you to not do it, yet many people text and drive anyway. Millions of people get killed every year because of it, and for some reason it doesn’t seem to faze many of us. Listening to others and taking into consideration what others have to say can serve for our own benefit instead of getting ourselves into trouble, or in this story-killed.

Diana H.

Adam B. said...

The ending here made me chuckle a bit. I like dark comedy, and I thought this story is a perfect example of that. I found the hunter's demise funny probably because the hunter's response to the skull's question read out like a punch line to a joke. It was a little reminiscent of a typical episode from the 1990's "Twilight Zone" which I also found the endings to be comedic in a dark twisted way. This poem has got me curious about Nigerian folk lore and would like to read more, especially if they have the "Twilight Zone" flavor. I also liked the flow of the poem. I usually avoid poetry because it can be so deep and very hard to interpret, but this poem rolled right of the tongue (mentally) and so I enjoyed reading it. I would like to know what folk tale this poem is written after if anyone knows.

Adam B.

Anonymous said...

At first I was going to mention how the hunter sounded a lot like me by the fact that I can go out hunting and not see a single living thing, and then I got to the part with the skull and thought this was going to get interesting. I figured the skull was going to talk at some point in the story and I was right when it talked to the hunter. That is when I got to my first disagreement with the poem. If I had a talking skull I would either continue talking with it or leave it and never tell another living soul about what I saw because I would consider the talking skull a bad omen. Then when the hunter told the king I figured something good was bound to happen to the hunter only to find out his head gets lopped off by the king's champion because the skull wouldn't talk. I did find it funny that this was an ongoing gag for the skull and all his buddies, but it leaves me wondering two things. First how did the hunter not notice all the skulls around the tree, and secondly which skull started the ongoing gag of freaking out people to get them to bring some authority figure to come out and lop off their heads.

Anonymous said...

There definitely seemed to be a moral to this poem, but what exactly is this moral? Could the moral of the story be simply to keep what you see to yourself? There seems to be several under lying messages that could be taken from this poem. What I thought to be quite interesting is the hunter had just happened upon this talking skull and didn’t notice anything about it until he had rested and why would he even want to run immediately to tell the king? Wouldn’t he just continue hunting to find food for his family and just tell them of his discovery when he returned? Many questions could be asked of this poem. All in all I believe the moral is simply that talking will get you killed. Sometimes it is best just to keep your mouth shut, whether it is about something you have heard or something you have seen. Ignorance is bliss as they say.

Brandon Dell

Jasmine W said...

This story was confusing at first but after rereading it and reading other peoples comments, I slightly understand it better. I do agree that skull represents death and the fact that the skull was quiet showed that talking would have gotten it into trouble. This goes with the saying that some things are better off not said. Sometimes you have you to keep quiet if you want to survive. He warned the hunter and still he went and told which led to no good. I have learned that talking does not always help out with a situation especially if you are trying to get out of it. In life, we know that some things are not good for us, but we proceed to do it anyways thinking that it could possibly result in something better this time. It’s funny that sometimes we want to be optimistic at the wrong times. I believe that learning when and when not to speak is a life lesson that everyone needs to learn.