Leda & the Swan    

Table of Contents    


Illuminating Manuscripts

About the Author

Novel Thoughts

Leda's Online Library



The Harpsichord

History of Harmony

Johann Sebastian Bach

Man of Genius


Alessandro Scarlatti



A Lecterphile in Florence

Do You Know Florence?


Fine Art

Museo Virtuale

Faces of Leda

Every Vermeer in the World



Illuminating Manuscripts Masthead
Crows and Ravens and Silence
copyright 2000, by Hannah
Thomas Harris makes use of a significant amount of imagery involving crows in Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. I believe that this imagery can be interpreted in such as way as to conclude that the eventual pairing of Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter was planned from the beginning. I have long held this belief, and my interpretation of the symbolism may be colored by this bias. Still, I think that there is at least some basis in the material and shall attempt to set forth some of my reasoning in the pages that follow.

To begin, we must look at the significance of crows in the works in question...

We first see the crow in Silence when Senator Martin intervenes and moves Dr. Lecter from Baltimore to Memphis. Starling is getting ready to meet Crawford in the middle of the night for an attempt at damage control. She flashes back to her childhood, when she was 8 years old. She helped her mother clean motel rooms and there was one particular crow from a local flock who made a point of stealing from the cleaning cart. “It took anything bright.” Harris tells us that it would wait for its chance and then rummage thru the many items on the cart, sometimes soiling the clean linens if it had to take off quickly. One of the other cleaning ladies had thrown bleach at it, but that had not deterred the crow - it had merely mottled it’s feathers with snow white patches. Starling sees the crow vividly at this point for just a moment, so vividly that she raises her hand to shoo it away. She associates this crow with cleaning the motel and that is the setting in which her mother informed her that she would have to go away - sitting on the side of one of the motel beds.

The crow waited for it’s chance to rummage and took anything bright. The snow white patches in its black feathers did nothing to change its true nature. If we wish to be simplistic, we could simply look at the crow as a representation of Lecter himself. While accurate to some large extent, I do not think that this is a complete interpretation.

Starling associates the crow with being sent away from her home as a child. I think she recalls the crow now because she knows that this turn of events will most likely end with her being sent off the case - that is her fear at this point. She also associates the crow with stealing. If we wish to go back and consider the crow as a representation of Lecter and look ahead to Hannibal, we can make the argument that her early involvement with Lecter in a sense stole from her the opportunity to advance normally and have the FBI career she wanted -- especially when it took such an unfortunate turn.

The crow is invoked again when Starling goes to talk to Dr. Lecter in the holding cell in Memphis. He points out to her that, “Dumas tells us that the addition of a crow to bouillon in the fall, when the crow has fattened on juniper berries, greatly improves the color and flavor of stock.”And then asks, “How do you like it in the soup, Clarice?” Indeed, our first glimpse of Hannibal Lecter in Red Dragon finds him “on his cot asleep, his head propped on a pillow against the wall.” Harris tells us that, “Alexandre Dumas’ Le Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine was open on his chest.” This, then is our earliest association with the Good Doctor - one might even say that it is in some way representative of him. Harris invokes it again here. Why? It is an obvious reference to the trouble that Starling finds herself in with Senator Martin, but is there more? Could it be that Lecter’s inquiry has little to do with the obvious and is an assertion of his knowledge that she is his, even now?

We also see the crow in Hannibal. On pages 321-322, Harris discusses Lecter’s addition of a “fat crow which had been stuffing itself with juniper berries” to his stockpot in the preparation of a portion of the deer hunter that he kills. It is over the course of this meal that Lecter decides that it is time to present Starling with his little birthday gift. One could make the argument that there is a connection here with the crow and Lecter “stealing” Starling away from her current home, i.e. the FBI. After all it is during his attempt to deliver her gift that he is kidnapped by Verger’s thugs, which eventually brings her to him. Also, I feel compelled to note that this is the point where we are told that during the preparation of dinner Lecter is listening to Henry VIII’s “If True Love Reigned”, which of course comes up again at the end of the book just before the Doctor and Special Agent Starling share the now infamous meal.

The image of the crow is invoked once again on page 412. Starling is on her way to Muskrat farm to save the Good Doctor. As she approaches her destination, she of course shuts off the engine and...

“With the engine off, she could hear a crow calling in the dark... She hoped to God it was a crow.” It seems obvious here that we hear the crow at this point to foreshadow that she is about to be sent (or stolen) away again - to another life with Lecter. Perhaps she hopes it was a crow because this is what she wants?

The crow is revisited one last time on page 469, at the beginning of the dinner with Krendler. “They talked about the trimming of crow quills and their effect on the voice of a harpsichord, and only for a moment did she recall a crow robbing her mother’s service cart on a motel balcony long ago. From a distance she judged the memory irrelevant to this pleasant time and she deliberately set it aside.” Could it be that Starling decides that the earlier unpleasant memory of being sent away from the life that she knew at the age of eight has nothing to do with “this pleasant time” because in this instance, the new life that awaits her is something that she wants as opposed to something that she fears?

Looking outside of the books themselves for some significance, the Cassell Dictionary of Superstitions has a good deal to say about the crow. Among other things, it states that, “The death-black coloring of the crow, in combination with it’s intelligence, has led to the bird being regarded as one of the most ominous of all creatures... Once considered a messenger of the gods..., the crow is now viewed as a harbinger of disaster...” In short, the crow is considered to be an omen of evil. Another source describes crows as “extremely intelligent, quite possibly the most intelligent of all birds.” They are considered to be “smart , ingenious,... full of engaging play... and curious birds that incite intelligence.” They “... seem to have a thirst for knowledge, always testing out new things for advantages and efficiency.” I need not mention the parallels here with the Good Doctor. Interestingly, a flock of crows is referred to as a murder.

Given such obvious similarities between the nature of the crow and that of Doctor Lecter, let us take a closer look at the crow itself. The crow is a member of the Corvidae Family, along with the Raven. The genus is Corvus. Corvids, in general, are top of the line in avian evolution. They have the flexibility and adaptive skills to thrive almost anywhere. Their preferred diet is carrion, much like the Doctor himself.

Incidentally, the Corvidae Family belongs to the Order of birds known as Passreformes. This is the same Order that encompasses the Sturnidae - or Starling - Family. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes the mynah - closely related to the starling, being in the same family of birds, as being ‘crow-like in appearance.’ Perhaps the starling and the crow have more in common than one might initially assume?

It may be interesting to note here that the African Starling, a cousin to the European or Common Starling, is strikingly beautiful and, coincidentally, known to be easy to tame. “ Well you’re far from common, Officer Starling. All you have is fear of it.” Lecter makes more than one reference to Starling’s beauty, and he obviously has some notion that he can ‘tame’ her or win her over, if you will.

Just as the crow and the starling have at least a faint link through belonging to the same order of birds, so Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter are linked in name through that of a historical figure called Hannibal the Starling. It would be quite fascinating if all of this were simply a coincidence - particularly given Mr. Harris’s penchant for detailed research and his obvious abundance of esoteric knowledge.

In ‘The American Crow and Common Raven’, L. Kilham asserts, “To get at the mind of a crow is a great challenge, but to get at the mind of a raven... is an even greater one. Ravens are... at the top of the avian pyramid in mental attributes.” Given Lecter’s advanced mental capabilities, perhaps it would not be out of the question to make a bit of a leap here and suggest that the raven, and not its cousin the crow, might be the Corvid most representative of the Good Doctor. The raven is larger and more powerful than the crow, a more efficient predator. Ravens can have up to hundreds of different vocalizations. We know that Lecter is fluent in several different languages. Both crows and raven are omnivores, but crows tend to be less discriminating. I would cite here the Doctor’s refined tastes. I would note here that the raven is drawn to carrion, particularly sheep. Bernd Heinrich in ‘Ravens in Winter’ suggests that ravens may recruit others to a food source. His theory being that by sharing in this way, a raven may gain a future mate. Need I invoke Krendler here? Incidentally, Corvids mate for life.

On a more whimsical note...

If we accept that the raven might be representative of Lecter in light of the arguments presented above, then it could be an entertaining exercise to look at Edgar Allen Poe’s poem of the same name with an eye towards Mr. Harris’s work.

While I most certainly do not mean to assert that I believe Harris had Poe’s poem in mind when he conceived Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that he could be aware of the similarities. After all, Harris obviously possesses a good deal of eclectic and perhaps somewhat obscure knowledge...

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore -

Perhaps we might look at this a bit more closely...

When we first see, Starling she is going through her paces as just another grunt at the FBI Academy when suddenly fate intervenes in the form of a special assignment to interview Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

So she sets off to interview Lecter in his basement cell at the Baltimore State Hospital. At first, he frightens her...

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me - filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before

... but then she finds her footing, and the ‘dance’ begins.

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer...

He sees into her easily, but offers little in return.

... here I opened wide the door;
Darkness there and nothing more.

Over the course of their encounters, she is drawn in farther, becomes more intrigued with him, yet he remains largely a mystery to her.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token.

The final descent into that basement in Baltimore is to barter for information with the experiences of her own life.

Back into that chamber turning, all my soul within me burning...
...Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore.”

“Teach us to care and not to care, teach us to be still”

It is in Memphis that she finally gives him her most intense memories in exchange for the case file, which holds the final clues that she needs. In short, she finally lets him in far enough to satisfy him, so that he will tell her what she wants to know.

Open here I flung the shutter, when with many a flirt and flutter
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore

(It is worth noting here that the Raven in the poem perches on a bust of Pallas - Palla Athene being the Greek Goddess of Wisdom - which could represent Lecter’s wisdom, the knowledge that Starling seeks.)

She obviously respects Lecter, values his knowledge and insights - she has even come to like him a little at this point, I believe.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore.<

He makes her work for her answers, even after the considerable price she has paid for them - his lessons are cryptic.

Though its answer little meaning - little relevancy bore

“What did anything mean that Dr. Lecter said?”

Lecter’s final act before his escape from Memphis is to help her, lead her to the answers she seeks even after this avenue has been abandoned by official channels. As she has shared with Lecter during their exchanges, she knows abandonment well.

Till I scarcely more than muttered, “Other friends have flown before.
On the morrow he will leave me as my hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said, 

And in fact, he will not truly leave her. The implications of this are as yet unclear, but the reality of his impact on her is undeniable.

What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”
This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the foul whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core

“Don’t you feel eyes moving over you...?”

“It was easier to think about Dr. Lecter’s statements when she wasn’t feeling his eyes on her skin.”

Indeed, he will be there for her seven years hence when she is betrayed by the FBI. He will risk his own freedom to come to her. Neither knows this at their parting, but he will be her ultimate redemption when she finds herself in disgrace.

“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee by these angels he hath sent thee.

She goes to him initially as a source of knowledge...

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!  Prophet still, if bird or devil! -
Whether Tempter sent or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore
... Tell me, I implore!”

“Can you stand to say I’m evil...?”

... unaware that this meeting will in large part determine the course her life will take going forward. Her involvement in this case overshadows the rest of her FBI career and is the instrument by which she makes an enemy of Paul Krendler, which is in large part responsible for her lack of success as that career progresses. I would also assert that her rapport with Lecter on some level lessens Crawford’s confidence in her.

“‘You’re the one he talks to, Starling.’ Crawford looked so sad when he said, ‘I figure you’re game.’”

The Doctor’s influence over her life is strong, even though it is not immediately apparent for some time. When she returns to his former cell in Baltimore to seek his medical records, Harris tells us that “Here she had had the most remarkable encounter of her life... Here she had heard things about herself so terribly true that her heart resounded like a great deep bell.” Lecter has seen her, recognized something in her She realizes that indeed Lecter is the only one who has “ever recognized her”. She and Lecter are somehow bound together. He tells her at the end of Silence that “Some of our stars are the same.” , acknowledging - perhaps foreshadowing? - the overlapping of their individual lives over the course of what is to come, even as he assures that he has no plans to call on her.

“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting -
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! - quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

And the raven never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted nevermore!


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