He That Hath Wings–Edmond Hamilton

Back in 1978, Ballantine Books released a collection of short stories and novellas called Best of Edmond Hamilton. Most of the stories were from his planet-busting hey-day, full of Flash Gordonesque adventures with planets moving from their orbits, scientists discovering accelerated evolution (a real classic) BUT, what sparked my imagination was the cover: it featured a man, with wings, flying naked (but delicately blocked by his wings) over patchwork farmland.

That was great, because at that time, I wanted nothing more than to escape, and it was books like this, with covers like this, that illustrated my need to project myself into a life other than my own. I was in Junior High in the late seventies, so that explains it.

The story the cover illustrated was called He That Hath Wings, and per my usual method of getting into these stories, I pushed aside my desire to want a lead who was more like me. Oh, David, the main character, I could relate to in a few ways. After all, he was born with, and found complete joy being above in the skies, flying and living with no reference to anyone else. That, I could relate to UNTIL I reached the point in the story where the hero meets a young woman, falls in love and divests himself of his wings. It’s not that he had them surgically removed simply because he was in love–no, it was more than that. He removed his wings because that was the only way Ruth, the girl he was in love with, would accept him. Keeping in mind that the story was published in the late 1930s, that’s to be expected. I guess. It didn’t seem to occur to the naive and simple David that perhaps there were *other women* who would adore him as he was.

So, the hero weds Ruth, who promptly becomes pregnant and later delivers a boy. Meanwhile, David works at his father-in-law’s office, becoming an office drone. More and more he misses his carefree life in the sky when he was beholden to no one. Shortly after his son is born he notices that his wings are regenerating. And they do. He doesn’t tell his wife. Unable to resist the call of the wild (as it were) he flies up into the sky, abandons his wife and baby only to sink into the ocean on his stunted regrown wings and drown.

Although I can’t find the text online, you can read the story on the “His Name Is…” blog [blog since removed]. It’s a faithful rendition of the short story. The characters look like they’re from 1973, but it doesn’t make a difference. Attitudes may have been in the flux of change (that was the era of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, and others) but not that much in the conservative SF and Comics industry.

What Edmond Hamilton, and other male writers of that era of SF from the thirties onward, failed to recognize was that perhaps the women who tempted the Davids of the world into marriage (seemingly against their will) and tamed their wild sides…well, maybe those young women had wings of their own, or wanted them, and the last thing they wanted was to have a man latched onto them, and were as trapped by societal expectations as any male was. More, even.

David is shown as conforming uncomfortably to society’s expectations. He gets a job through his father-in-law. He dresses in a suit and tie. He drives a car to work everyday. He lives the perfect suburban life. And he has a beautiful wife and child who depend on him. While I may agree that the culture shown in the story (and comic book) was as stultifying as they come, what I do and did up resenting, even back in the 1978, was how his wife is the personification of Society and Expectations and Domesticity. She’s his golden prison. And as perfect as she is in her role, it’s still not enough to keep her husband from following his real desires–freedom from that culture, freedom from those expectations, and freedom from her requirements of normalcy. Never is it suggested that she wants anything else. The story ends with David’s plunge into the ocean. The reader is meant to assume to that Ruth’s daddy will take care of her now: David was never really needed to complete the picture.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s when I devoured SF/F a book a day, sometimes two, I had to settle for stories that told about the experiences of invariably white, middle class to rich men or boys, even if the books were written by women. After all, that’s what sold, right? To me, this Edmond Hamilton short story represents all of the attitudes that I and many other girls and women of the day, had to push aside or ignore in order to enjoy what were otherwise pretty damn good tales. It’s still a problem in today’s fiction. Fortunately, there are many more women writing SF/F than in those days, and they’re able to sidestep or avoid the type of old-fashioned attitude displayed by Hamilton (but which never went completely out of style). There are more choices. And that is a good thing.


  1. The OTHER Maria says

    stories like that ALWAYS made me mad! women were always treated as a burden or an obligation, not agents in their own right. :6

  2. says

    The caveat being that “in those days”, especially in the pulp SF days, the audience was assumed to be Men and Boys, while women and girls were content to read about domestic contentment in Redbook or Cosmopolitan.

    A while ago I found an old old magazine (I think it was one that’s still in print-Redbook? something like that) and you know what? Aside from the details, the magazine was EXACTLY the same. Covered the SAME topics, had practically the SAME tone–it was amazing. Even the short story in the magazine was pretty much *exactly the same* as one of the current magazines, except that cars had changed and people used dishwashers in the new editions.

    It’s startling.

    SF/F in the pulp days. I had a lot more fun reading it when I was younger. I still read fiction that has a male viewpoint (it’s still the default, it seems) but recently, with the advent of Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance, the female POV voice is gaining ground. That’s a good thing.

  3. Greybird says

    Thanks, belatedly, for your commentary on Hamilton’s story. I was as intrigued as you were, some 30 years ago now, by that same Del Rey paperback cover of the Hamilton anthology. (Edited, speaking of women in SF, by his wife, Leigh Brackett, pulper herself and scenarist for “The Empire Strikes Back.” But I digress.)

    I devoured that story, but more from a lifelong passion for all things winged. Special thanks for your saying that “perhaps there were *other women* who would adore him as he was.” You make a perfect echo of my own thoughts (and hopes!), then and since.

    Even circa 1980, for this then college-age male, the domestic expectations of the woman and the self-effacing efforts of the winged man (to the point of his mutilation) bothered me. This middle-aged obsessive may yet do a rewrite {rueful smile}

    Hamilton was part of a more stultifying time, though, one that had minds soaring through SF plot mechanics, yet were bound to Earth by mundane assumptions about personal roles. It wasn’t limited to male writers, either. Inez Haynes Gillmore, his near-contemporary, wrote nearly a mirror-image story about de-winged women in her novel Angel Island.

    I’ve benefited from and enjoyed the points of view of many female SF writers, starting with Ursula LeGuin, and commentators thereupon, such as Betty Jo Dobbs, one of my long-ago history professors at Northwestern University. (Wrote my best senior thesis for her, comparing three SF dystopias.)

    The ferment continues in both genders, getting far beyond the classic pulps. Perhaps it’s all too self-aware to let loose with the sheer riotous fun of those vigorous plots … but, ultimately, we may be seeing more that has resonance and staying power.

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