Review: ‘Aepyornis Island’ by H. G. Wells

‘Aepyornis Island’, often styled as ‘Æpyornis Island’, is an 1894 short story by H. G. Wells (1866-1946). The story was first published in the Pall Mall Budget on 27 December 1894. In many respects it is a Robinsonade in that it features a man marooned on a desert island.

‘Aepyornis Island’ takes the form of a framed narrative, which lends credence to the central story and makes it sound more authentic. The narrator gets chatting to a scarred man about orchids, and from there, their conversation turns to the matter of an extinct flightless bird named the Aepyornis.

The scarred man, whose name is Butcher, tells the narrator of how he undertook an expedition to a remote island in the Indian ocean, and was left alone on the island by the natives who had taken him there. He shot one of them with his revolver and the man fell overboard, and then swam out to the canoe and drifted along in the boat with the surviving man.

However, he falls asleep and wakes to find the native man dead in the canoe, so tosses him overboard and then drifts along on the ocean for ten days in the blazing sun. He survives by eating some biscuits and drinking from the supply of water in the canoe, and by eating one of the Aepyornis eggs he had found on the island.

Eventually, Butcher drifts to an atoll and paddles ashore onto one of the islands. After finding a spring that contains fresh water, he quickly grows bored of his surroundings. A thunderstorm sweeps over the island, destroying his canoe. Butcher fashions a storm-shelter from its remains.

And then the last remaining Aepyornis egg hatches.

Butcher welcomes the arrival of the bird, which is about the size of a hen at first. He names the Aepyornis ‘Man Friday’, in an allusion to Robinson Crusoe. He also writes out the name he has given to the island, ‘Aepyornis Island’, in shells and sea-urchins, at various points around the island, and watches as the bird grows. He is happy living in this ‘idyll’, with the only thing missing from his life being a bit of tobacco to smoke.

However, this idyllic life doesn’t last, and the Aepyornis grows discontented when food grows scarce. Then the bird lashes out at him, creating the scar that the man still bears on his face, and chasing after him. Bruised and bleeding, Butcher swims across a nearby lagoon and climbs a palm tree to escape the bird.

In the end, he devises a way to capture the wayward bird and toss him into the lagoon. He then saws at the creature’s neck with a knife to kill it. The bird’s carcass is then devoured by the fish, so there’s nothing remaining of him except the bones. A yacht then comes by and Butcher is rescued from the island.

Butcher tells the narrator that he sold the bird’s bones to a man named Winslow, and the species was named Aepyornis vastus.

‘Aepyornis Island’ is often compared with the other great island narrative Wells produced in the 1890s, namely his 1896 novel The Island of Doctor Moreau. As well as sharing an island setting, both narratives also collapse the hierarchy between men and animals. ‘Aepyornis Island’ does this by having the formerly extinct bird hatch and pose a threat to its human cohabitant.

Flightless birds on islands – most famously, the Dodo – often have gone extinct after humans arrived on those islands’ shores and hunted them. The same fate awaits the sole representative of its species, the Aepyornis, but not before it has attacked and wounded Butcher (whose name can be interpreted as ironic in this connection, or, alternatively, as ultimately appropriate, given his slaughter of the bird). The point is that, whilst Butcher may reassert man’s primacy over other animals at the end of the story, the bird does represent a serious threat to him before he uses his ingenuity to ensnare it:

However, I hit on a way of settling him at last. It is a South American dodge. I joined all my fishing−lines together with stems of seaweed and things, and made a stoutish string, perhaps twelve yards in length or more, and I fastened two lumps of coral rock to the ends of this. It took me some time to do, because every now and then I had to go into the lagoon or up a tree as the fancy took me. This I whirled rapidly round my head, and then let it go at him. The first time I missed, but the next time the string caught his legs beautifully, and wrapped round them again and again. Over he went.

‘Aepyornis Island’ might be compared with another Wells story published just a few months before, in August 1894: ‘In the Avu Observatory’. Although the setting of that story is an observatory in Borneo, the setup is similar: one man finds himself alone in exotic surroundings and is attacked by a mysterious creature, against which he must fight for his life.

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