An Eco-narratological Analysis of Kyuka Lilymjok’s The Lone Piper and the Birds’ Case

Sunday Agbaji Otse


The overarching sensibility of this work is etched on eco-narratology, midwifed by the surrealistic framing device in the novella’s plot structure. The importance of surrealism as a literary technique is in its loose latitude for an endless and extensive correlative application and relevance. The author’s use of a fairy tale to illustrate the sorry fate of wild life daily devastated by the wanton adventurism of ‘capitalist’ man is a bold literary statement that indicts man as a destroyer of fellow biotic members of the ecosystem. Nature is thus typified as a muted victim. One thesis of the novella is that nature when molested could hit back at its molester. The unity of birds, their political sensitization and mobilisation for consensus reprisal as demonstrated in the novella is hence a metaphor of nature hitting back at its molester. The paper has an introduction, synopsis, theoretical framework, textual analysis and conclusion, bringing to the fore silent as well as salient cautions against despoliation of nature. This sits well with the 21st century global campaign against degradation and pollution of the environment. It blends well with the global case for preservation of wild life for a harmonious universe.


The strong point of The Lone Piper and the Birds’ Case is its unmistakable surrealistic posturing interspersed with a compelling aura of fabulous under-currency that endears it as an enthralling 21st century allegorical masterpiece.  There is a near inevitability of eliding the inseparable intersections inherently manifest between its character types, and between plot development and the imperative of surrealism in galvanizing a community of birds caught in a web of ecological annihilation. The expressive capacities of birds especially, evoke the muted loquacity of molested nature to speak and act in opposition to man captures the surrealistic underpinning of the narrative. Thus, between characters and characterization, assigning of roles to birds characters explains surrealism as an enabler; a hallmark of the literary device that gives voice to nature making it speak back to all agencies of human despoilers of the environment in particular and nature in general. The perceptions of birds; their reactions to perceived provocation cannot be anything artistically meaningful if they do not play the roles assigned to them in the text as a science fiction or surrealism.

There is an imperceptible hint that is foregrounded in the title of the novella “… the birds’ case” which foreshadows invariably a case against injustice, else what case or cause could birds conceivably advance? The birds’ case is indeed a case of injustice to nature by the adventurism of men, who not only fly their airplanes over Kirkina savannah where birds live in a serene habitation but who make the savannah a dumping site of very harmful chemicals that disgraces birds before killing them. Literary textualism is not skewed to answer questions extraneous to a text created world; instead it is skewed to tell a story as the writer tells it.  The “birds’ case” remains the touchstone on which the narrative interestingly enters the ‘conflict zone’ that helps in shaping and sustaining its plot development. The seeming unresolved conflict between man and bird is Kyuka’s story of the unending conflict between nature and its exploiters. The sustained attack on airplanes is imperceptibly nature’s way of retaliation against the excesses of its exploiters. Everywhere, especially in Africa nature is exploited without conscience and without reparation.

The birds’ case is a journey of revenge embarked upon by perceived helpless victims who in a rare unity of purpose are able to confront a supposed invincible strongman. The characters in the novella, the setting, and the phenomenon of man cohabiting with birds have endless possibilities of conjectures and semblances. This chapter, as an eco-narratological slice of the novella, is intended not to stretch the story to have correlative human characters nor link it to a socio-political human society. The chapter rather takes a narrow view of the text from a subjective eco-narratological standpoint – where inquiry into nature’s destruction by man as well as nature’s form of retaliation is examined.

Synopsis of The Lone Piper and the Birds’ Case

The chief protagonist, the Lone Piper, a black-crested bird who assumes leadership position after the death of Welom proves to be a charismatic leader, not only as he plays the pipe to the admiration of all birds, but as he mediates between black-crested birds and fire-crested birds when they have quarrels in Kirkina savannah. Suddenly, the ancestral savannah, hitherto a haven of tranquillity, is restive because airplanes flying over it are suspected of dropping hazardous chemicals that humiliate and disgrace birds before killing them. The chemicals humiliate and disgrace birds by making them lose their beaks and kill them when they can no longer eat because they have no beaks to peck food.

As a charismatic leader, the Lone Piper champions a fact-finding mission on the possible causes of birds’ humiliation and death. Upon discovery that chemicals dropped by aeroplanes flying over the savannah are responsible for the strange disease and death of the birds, the Lone Piper embarks on self-taught aerobatic training that provides him with skills and expertise for birds to attack both flying and stationed airplanes. On a set day, selected ‘minta’ birds visit Bozuwa International Airport and defecate in the engines of some passenger airplanes very harmful chemicals which eventually lead to the failure of some planes’ engines midair (37).  In furtherance of their retaliatory mission on humans, the birds visit the crash site in search of the black box and there attack humans  also searching for the black box of the crashed aeroplane, killing the pilot of the helicopter that brought the human search-team to the crashed site and removing the eye of another member of the human search-team. Besides the first attack, the birds embark on several guerrilla actions on flying planes, causing more crashes. The birds do this to avenge the killing of their members by the dumping of hazardous chemicals by aircraft flying over the savannah.

Theoretical framework

The paper adopts eco-narratology as its theoretical framework.  Eco-narratology is a relatively new lexical introduced into ecocriticism by James Erin who coined the term “eco-narratology” in her Storyworld Accord.  According to Erin, “eco-narratology embraces the key concerns of each of its parent discourses [ecocriticism and narratology] – as it maintains an interest in studying the relationships between literature and the physical environment, but does so with sensitivity to literary structures and devices that are used to communicate representations of the physical environment to each other via literary narratives” (qtd. in Astrid Bracke 2).

According to Astrid Bracke “[a]n eco-narratological approach to genre does two things. First, it leads to a more thorough understanding of a genre and its mechanics; secondly, it enables a more thorough reading of the text and consequently a fuller understanding of how narratological elements shape depiction of nature” (2).  The essence of eco-narratology is the use of text and literary discourse to communicate and represent nature or the physical environment.  In corroboration, Erin holds that,

[for] literature and the environment to embrace complex narratological taxonomies, and traditions and for narrative theorists to consider environmental issues alongside textual analysis […], to highlight the auspicious timing of an eco-narratological mode of reading. […] [an] engagement with story worlds can help us overcome the cross purposes to which we often speak when we talk about the environment, as narrative reading stands to play an important role in the transnational environmentalism that modern environmental  crisis demands. (4)

According to Erin, the idea of narrative scholarship in Scott Slovic’s view emphasises the importance of storytelling within ecocritical scholarship itself, with the intent that, discussions of the physical environment that are largely missing from narratology are revised (4).  The fact that nature, and by extension ecology and the environment at large are highly suberternised, readily makes a case for the mainstreaming of eco-narratology as a handle for speaking for the general wellbeing or welfare of mother earth against diverse environmental injustices. According to Sunday Otse, “…while the narrative of subaltern tilts towards a historiography of self-assertion, that of eco-narratology is in essence a narrative strategy that thematises the environment as its subject matter [first and foremost in its own right]” (35).

The essence of eco-narratology in literary analysis is to among other things fill the gap created by mass media under reportage of environmental problems in society; and to bring to the fore, the centrality of nature as a narratological aesthetics.  Thus, ecocritics deploy eco-narratological devices to convey the monumental effects of environmental degradations in society. C. C. Onyema sees eco-narratological literature as a veritable ally the mainstream media can use to advance the frontiers of subalternised people and environment. He advocates for attention to be given to environmental right challenges through deliberate depiction of environmental degradation to counter hegemonic information in global media (np).  By this, eco-narratology, remains a literary attempt aimed at bridging the gap created by under reportage of the environmental/ecological issues in conventional and social media, by bringing awareness on the environment to the public domain.

Eco-narratology can be in the form of political activism and literary commitment to the promotion of the environment first for its own sake.  The literary eco-narrator is known for his dogged stance in combating elitist biases and narratives that often suppress the appeal for the “weeping voice of nature.”  As an ideal, eco-activism is unflinchingly committed to the protection of the environment for its own sake and not because man will draw a benefit thereby. Eco-centrism and bio-centrism are the pervasive spirit of eco-activism, not apocentricism. According to Serpil Oppermann,

[t]he verbal constructions of nature, either in its romanticised, idealised form, or as hostile wilderness, especially in poetry and fiction, usually lead to a binary way of thinking that justifies the present catastrophic abuse of nature. To counter this logocentric approach, ecocriticism embarks upon the project of re-conceptualising nature, not as an object of observation or interpretation, but as an active agency in its own right. (4)

Oppermann observes however that dialogue with nature is not possible in linguistic terms, but constructing a new mode of understanding and perception that surpasses, if not eliminates, nature/culture dichotomy.  An ecocritical attempt at deconstructing the privileged human subjectivity in its dialogue with nature might create a sustainable ecological vision in the reading and writing of literature (4-5). It is this interest of the environment for its own sake, well-articulated in literature that is capable of raising nature or the environment to the lofty height of the sublime. The appalling conditions of the environment get more depressing on daily basis as man continues to exploit the environment without a corresponding return to boost the revival of exploited nature. Consequently, human lives become more susceptible to environment-related hazards like epidemic and water borne diseases and ailments.  Ron Nixon is apt when he calls this phenomenon, “slow violence:”

… a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all. Violence is customarily conceived as an event or action that is immediate in time, explosive and spectacular in space, and as erupting into instant sensational visibility. (2)

The deployment of the dialectics of eco-narratology is an attempt to break the silence of non-human subjects in literature as an impetus for mainstreaming nature in literature and mitigating the subalternised state of ecology.  This may inform why James Erin submits that:

…when we read [ecocritical] narrative texts, we imaginatively transport ourselves to virtual environments that may or may not reflect those environments in which we read. Beyond the simple pleasure of such virtual travels, this process of imaginative transportation promises to help us understand the environment from the perspective of others, and thus experience the world according to alternative environmental imaginations. (1-2)

In agreement, Oppermann argues that “…the true concern of ecocriticism ought not to be with obsolete representational models, but with how nature gets textualised in literary texts to create an eco-literary discourse that would help produce an inter-textual as well as an interactive approach between literary language and the language of nature” (3). In corroboration, Christopher Manes, argues that knowledge about nature is always conditioned by historical and social formations of power. In this respect, what William Rueckert calls, “literary ecology” inquires into the ways in which nature is marginalised, silenced, or pushed… “into a hazy background the rational human subject struts upon (qtd. in Serpil Opermann, 16).

Textual Analysis of The Lone Piper and the Birds’ Case               

A surface view of The Lone Piper and the Birds’ Case will suggest the novella is only a rich literary recipe for children and young adult readers of fairy tales. A deeper view however will show the novella is a still flowing river capable of many possibilities in its fantasized literary dream-like experience of birds and human characters interspersed in a make-believe world.  The story has a linearity of plot in which actions that begin innocently by birds over times gradually build up in acquiesces and squabble first amongst birds; then war between birds and men, reaching a climax and a somewhat inconclusive resolution of the conflict. 

The allegorical tinkering of the novella very well helps transports nature to the realm of the sublime in retaliatory intimation and communion with its human decimators. The sheer allegorical framing of plot structure cannot be successfully sidestepped by the weighty logic of its prominence, namely that such a fairyland could scarcely exist outside the realm of imaginative writing or fiction. The artful creation of the plot structure and the driving sensibilities of the novella underscore the limitless latitude allegory rather than realism fosters utopia inclusivity of social interactions between man and animals. Aside crafting plot structure within the ambit of allegory, certain literary creations will be lacking in verisimilitude as the hallmark of art therefore is clearly impossible even in the realm of fiction.

The novella is a viable piece, layered in rich tapestry of structure and moving thematic substance served in fabulous fantasies that symbolically speak for nature’s wellbeing. The essence of art is hence to espouse, make tangible and real what might look obscure and ordinary, and to substitute fleeting sensory feelings with lasting fantasies. We cannot therefore escape allegory entirely, despite the eco-narratological under-wired aesthetic of the work. 

Literary style in The Lone Piper and the Birds’ Case 

The Lone Piper and the Birds’ Case, though short, is episodic, written in a linear plot and simple diction devoid of ambiguity that sometimes arise in narrative style. The story progresses from the beginning when birds are naïve, to middle when the same birds go through learning processes and enlightenment, and reaches a climax in the birds’ insurgency.  Through all these, the reader goes along with the birds seeing them undergo their metamorphosis from naive, easy-going creatures to enlightened, belligerent and vicious terrorists to survive in a progressively polluted world that spares no sympathy for any creature that cannot fight for itself.  Separate incidents in the novella are woven together into a unified whole not just by the logic of a cementing plot; but by the sheer magic of a narrative device inspired by surrealism which makes everything unquestionably possible and attainable.                                                          

The language of the text is simple, eloquently dramatic that keeps readers hooked. The hallmark of the novella is an ecological masterstroke that first espouses the concept “ourcide” against several other familiar terms like ecocide, homicide, and genocide which have become more or less hollow clichés.  Although the term “ourcide” refers strictly to the killing spree between black-crested and fire-crested birds, the term is the most relevant term in recent efforts at depicting the deadly effects of environmental pollution and degradation caused by few but shared by many if not all. Unlike genocide, which excludes the killer from those killed and homicide which, for its lack of clear separation between subject-object (performer or receiver) of the action of killing is somewhat semantically problematic in this context, “ourcide” is clearly totalizing as an expression of the fact that whatever form of environmental pollution or degradation is caused by people at different times and in different places end up beinging detriment to everyone. For instance, though global warming is caused by industries and automobiles emitting greenhouse gases, everyone is suffering its deadly consequences. The Lone Piper reiterates the need for a law against “ourcide” rhetorically:  “why then should we do this to ourselves! We must have a law against “ourcide” – killing ourselves.  Even primitive humans who got the idea of flying from us have laws against “ourcide.  We should do better than them” (21).

The core thrust of the thesis of the novella is on the need for the preservation of nature particularly wild life with global importance or relevance. The international outcry against ozone depletion detrimental to the preservation of nature and all species of wild lives is necessary for continuous harmonious working relationship and sustenance of human life, plant and the entire ecosystem. The novella captures the extent man’s pollution and degradation of nature can result in some form of nature protest from a combative survival instinct in the latter.

Evidently the economic fortunes of bird worsens as the environment gets polluted. Their current precarious circumstance caused by environmental pollution when compared with their secured pristine past in which they cared less for basic necessities of life incensed them to insurgency. Birds’ apprehension of their current predicament is echoed in a poem recited by the Lone Piper:

In those days of ease and plenty all that a bird needed was by his nest worms to eat, water to drink, grasses for the making of nest were all within the ease of birds […] were reports of the smiles in their hearts today the things birds need no longer abound within their ease fear, toil and care are now by the side of every bird now birds smile with their beaks when their hearts are aching with worry and fear birds have lost the touch of fellowship which a bird shared with his fellow bird [….] (25)

From the rumination of birds seen above, it is evident that ecological degradation often comes with falling fortunes. Falling fortunes can lead to conflicts as again seen in the text.     

The Novella as an Ecological Fairy tale

As a fairytale, The Lone Piper and the Birds’ Case possesses the attributes of imaginary, mythical, fabled, fabulous and make-believe literary works. In Kirkina savannah, some forms of relationship exist between man and animals which gives way to mutual suspicion, hatred and war when man crosses his bounds to tread on the corn of the birds.  The ensuing carnage in the text brings to the fore the inevitability of revenge by historical and cultural underdogs when the limits of their patience and endurance is exceeded by repeated oppression from insensitive overlords and oppressors. 

Ravaged by environmental pollution and degradation, birds’ consensus is “[w]e must attack those attacking us. Those killing us we must kill. We were in the air before they intruded into it. We can exclude them from it and we will exclude them from it.  We will start the war against all aircraft in the airport” (36).  Birds’ attack on man in Kirkina is a sure reprisal-valve response to forestall continuous violation.

Prior to its invasion by man, Kirkina savannah was a Garden of Eden of sort. The Lone Piper recollects the good old days before the invasion by man thus:

One day we were sitting in the quiet of the bushes no one knew we would be visited by the merciless guest of tears that came riding a pale horse on the cracked leave of the dry season our eyes without blink stared in fear at the end of all promises coming towards us our blood mixed with the fire from his breath […] (7)

The above reminiscences of the Lone Piper points to an era predating man’s unfortunate adventures, when nature was king, adored and preserved. Here the author holds the screen in cinematic display of man’s violation of nature. There is equally a discernible sense of tragedy in the divisive hatred that first existed between black-crested and fire-crested birds which the oppressor could have exploited if it was not voided. The Lone Piper in a long oration says “fire-crested birds who are our brothers from distant lands did not bring the strange disease afflicting us in this savannah, but the disease was dropped here by ungood human beings in an aircraft” (7). Similarly, a bird by name, the Drummer, in reaction to the ecological disturbances of Kirkina alerts others:  “[w]e have been visited by visitors we did not invite and they have come with a disease that removes your mouth before it kills you” (11). 

Birds’ Homicide as Allegory of Disrupted and Displaced Nature

In John Bunyan’s text The Pilgrim’s Progress, for instance, virtues are embodied by characters that behave to types. In that light, characters are essentially representatives of ideologies and views. Thus, ecological injustice is not limited to injury done by man to nature alone but also damage caused by one aspect of nature on another.  Commenting on ecological justice, Hart & Slovic maintain that “Environmental Justice reflects justice not only in human communities but also towards other species, ecosystems, landscapes, and environment as a whole […]” (qtd. in Smita Sahu 548).

The Lone Piper and the Birds’ Case unfolds with sceneries of the oppressive relationship that exist between man and birds, using the genocidal mission on planes as a retributive justice mechanism for the pollution of Kirkina savanna and decimation of the birds’ population. Man and bird have lived for ages as friendly neighbours until the wind of man’s so-called civilisation began blowing over man’s society pushing him to invade birds’ territory in furtherance of his quest to dominate the earth. Nature represented by the birds turns to insurgency to survive in a world of survival of the fittest.

In The Lone Piper and the Birds’ Case insurgency is used as a bargaining power of the voiceless and oppressed. By it the birds wish to make man reckon with them and cease his violence against them.  With insurgency in mind, birds embark on sustained attacks on airplanes that result in series of crashes and human casualties.  Man is consequently taken aback by the sophistication of the birds’ strategy and unity of purpose, because it is unimaginable that birds could muster such courage or have such deft organisational skills. In a meeting of all birds held sequel to birds’ attack on planes, the Lone Piper submits that “[h]umans flying in aircraft over our beloved savannah have been the cause of our sickness and death by toxic substance they dropped in our precious savannah” (34). 

Even without the dropping of hazardous chemicals on the savannah, the birds see the flying of aircraft over the savannah as pollution of their pristine environment. Particularly annoying to the birds is knowledge that the skies are made for birds not for man; yet man is taking over the skies and excluding birds from them. (35). 

In a summoned meeting, the Lone Piper tells other birds how man has brought human flu to the savannah. Human flu we know is the most deadly disease” (34).  Like the Lone Piper, other birds are excited by the prospects of aerobatics as the means of combating the menace of aircraft in the sky. The Lone Piper enthuses, “in no distant time, we will be suicide bombers” (43).

As a community of creatures that are unheard and not reckoned with, the symbolic community of birds resort to insurgency as a means of articulating their corporate disenchantment with the actions of man in the skies. The Lone Piper pipes, “… I asked you to lend me love/[b]ut you lent me hate/ I asked you to lend me life/ [b]ut you lent me death/ Now is the time for payment of debts/and you are demanding/that I pay you love…” (52).

It must be stressed that Insurgency is not necessarily synonymous with subalternity. Buttressing this view, Ranajit  Guha states that “…the consciousness of the rebellious peasant seems to have received little notice [.…] as historiography has been content to deal with the peasant rebel merely as an empirical person or a member of a class, but not as an entity whose will and reason constituted the praxis called rebellion” (qtd. in Chakrabarty 19).


What appears to be the thesis statement of the novella is a blistering condemnation of pollution in all its shapes and proportions.  Birds’ insurgency is to say the least, a reaction aimed at putting a stop to a threatening genocidal mission against wild life and nature in general. The surrealist context the story is set lends the narrative greater latitude as an extended metaphor for speaking for nature that is daily under attack. The preservation of plants, animals, water, land and the atmosphere on which life on earth depends for sustenance are being threatened by man. The text provides a window for contemplating a number of other degradation/pollution related cases against wild life, the environment and nature generally that must be resisted. 

Works Cited

Lilymjok, Kyuka. The Lone Piper and the Birds’ Case. Ibadan: Polygraphic Ventures     Limited, 2012.

Bracke, Astrid. “Knowing Genre, Knowing Nature? Econarratology, Genre and Climate Fiction” University of Amsterdam. Being a Paper Presented at the 2015 ASLE ‐ UKI Conference in Cambridge, 2 September 2015.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “Minority Histories: Subaltern Pasts.” Postcolonial Studies, 1.1(1998): 15-            2.

James, Erin. The Storyworld Accord: Econarratology and Postcolonial Narratives. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015. Print.

Kocher, Matthew Adam. “War in the Hamlets: Human Ecology and the Vietnam War.” np. 5 Aug. 2016. Web. 9 Dec. 2016. PDF file.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2011. Print.

Onyema, C C. “Alternative Press: Implicating Subaltern Discourses in Ogaga Ifowodo’s Ecological Poetry” AFRREV LALIGENS. 10/10/2015.

Oppermann, Serpil. Ecocriticism: Natural World in the Literary Viewfinder. 1999.4. Web. 12 April 2014.

Sahu, Smita. “The Emergence of Environmental Justice in Literature” The Criterion: An International Journal of English. 5.2(2014):548. 28 April 2014. Web. 10 Nov 2014.          PDF file.

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