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Literature / Jonathan Livingston Seagull

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Lost on a painted sky
Where the clouds are hung
For the poet's eye
You may find him
Neil Diamond, "Be"
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Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a novella by Richard Bach published in 1970. It is a fable about a seagull who dreams of more than a dreary day-to-day life of squabbling for food and teaches himself to fly farther and faster than any bird could imagine. He suffers terribly in the course of his journey of self-discovery: both physical trauma from the stresses that he puts on his body and ostracization from the Flock, who cannot begin to understand the idea of a seagull who just wants to fly.

Dying on the wing after a long life of isolation, he ascends to a higher level of spiritual existence and discovers that he's not the first to do so. Unlike his new peers, however, he chooses to return to the mundane world to teach others to follow in his path.

The book was adapted into a feature film in 1973 with an award-winning musical score by Neil Diamond. Bach would continue the themes of reincarnation, transcendence, and higher realities in Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah; both novels were highly influential in the spiritual movements of The '70s.

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Tropes:

  • All-Loving Hero: Jonathan. Even after his exile, he mantained a kind-hearted and serene nature, going so far as forgiving his flock.
  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: Jonathan dies of old age on the wing, and his spirit finds itself transcending mortality. He learns that he's not the first to have done so, and that it is the destiny of every seagull to share in this journey.
  • Forgiveness: Jonathan's second transcendence comes only when he learns, at last, to forgive the Flock for their transgressions against him and his disciples.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Downplayed. While Fletcher is not a complete Jerkass, he's quite hot-tempered, cynical and unable to let hold grudges go. Despite of this, he's very loyal and caring towards Jonathan and his students, when he becomes a teacher after Jonathan's death.
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  • Messianic Archetype: Jonathan returns to the mortal world to teach others what he's discovered and builds a small cult of followers who attempt to learn flight in the same way that he did. They are ostracized by the Flock just as he was. When he finally achieves his goal of passing on his knowledge, yet another ascension awaits.
  • No Animals Were Harmed: Roger Ebert was disturbed that this appeared not to be the case in the movie, which used real-life footage of wild seagulls, sometimes in peril.
  • Refusing Paradise: Jonathan declines to remain in the transcendent world because he laments the plight of his fellow seagulls and wants to help them realize the truth. The more advanced spirits tell him that he's wasting his time, but they understand that he has to make the attempt in order to advance in his own journey of enlightenment.
  • Reincarnation: Seagulls that die are reborn into new bodies in an eternal cycle until they learn to transcend their banal existence. Those that do, like Jonathan, move on to a higher state of being.
  • Shown Their Work: Unsurprisingly, as the author is an accomplished aviator from the age of 17 and was a respected aviation technical writer before becoming a novelist, the novel contains a detailed amount of exposition on the aerodynamics of seagull flight.
  • Sliding Scale of Animal Communication: Seagulls can all speak intelligibly with one another. There is no indication that this ability is shared across species, and there are no humans in the story at all.
  • Species Surname: All seagulls apparently have the last name "Seagull".
  • Tall Poppy Syndrome: Jonathan at first, and later his disciples, are savagely ostracized and even attacked by the Flock for daring to claim that they should strive for a more meaningful existence.


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