Gareth B. Matthews
Review of The Bee-man of Orn by Frank R. Stockton (New York: Harper and Row, 1986). Originally published in Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children 7(3): 1.
In the ancient country of Orn there lived an old man, who, because he inhabited a house full of beehives, was called, quite appropriately, ”the Bee man.” The Bee-man moved freely about his house, ate his meals, and went to sleep, all without the least fear of being stung. In fact, so intimate was he with his bees that he allowed a swarm of them to make a hive in a pocket of his leather coat; he often reached into that pocket and took out a piece of honeycomb for a luncheon snack.
One day a young sorcerer arrived in Orn and informed the Bee-man that he had been transformed from some other kind of creature, though from what kind of creature the sorcerer did not know. Though he didn’t know the Bee-man’s exact origin, the sorcerer was quite sure that the Bee-man should be changed back into his old form, whatever it was. This news from the young sorcerer greatly troubled the Bee-man. He wondered whether he had once been a giant, a prince, a horse, or a fiery dragon. Driven with curiosity, he promptly set out on a great journey to discover his original form. Confident he would recognize his old form by being drawn to it, the Bee-man wandered far and wide to try to find it. On his travels he met an unusual youth, a strange imp, and a ghostly dragon. The dragon was at that very moment preparing to devour a young baby when the Bee man, sizing up the situation, rescued the baby and returned it to its mother.
Noticing that he was drawn to the form of the baby, the Bee-man announced his belief that he had been transformed from a baby and proclaimed his desire to be changed back. The sorcerer willingly satisfied the Bee-man’s desire. The rescued baby’s mother, grateful for what the Bee-man had done in saving her child, happily agreed to take the changed-back Bee-man as her second baby.
Years later the sorcerer, now old, returned to the country of Orn. There he found an old man in a leather coat eating honey. “Upon my word,” the sorcerer exclaimed, ”he has grown up into the same thing again!”
Transformations are hardly unusual in children’s literature. But this story presents us, not with a prince that is transformed into a frog, or a frog that is turned into a prince, but an adult who is changed back into a baby. Certainly, to be changed back into a baby would be quite remarkable. Yet becoming old is in itself, often anyway, like becoming a child again. There are diminished capacities and there is increasing dependence. And there is also, sometimes anyway, a remarkable simplicity and directness in a very old person that makes for a special bond of likeness between, say, a great-grandparent and a great grandchild.
In Stockton’s story the Bee-man become baby again eventually grows up to be the Bee-man again. Is the point of the story that genetics determines all? Perhaps. But maybe the Bee-man was the result of all his free choices and, having no remorse about his choices the first time around, he simply made all, or almost all, the same choices again.
In the story, the Bee-man’s second development is certainly a reaffirmation of his identity as the Bee-man. But then his identity was strikingly singular to begin with. Some people, by contrast, have relatively little individuality. Others seem to have many different identities-successively, perhaps, or even concurrently.
The second life of the Bee-man of Orn invites us to ask of others, and of ourselves, whether we could have turned out very differently from the way we, in fact, are. That question is particularly difficult, perhaps, when we ask it of ourselves.
I don’t have any trouble thinking of myself as speaking another language natively, having quite different friends and having a very different kind of job. But might I have had very different beliefs and desires and a very different character, as well as totally different memories?
Frank Stockton’s Bee-man of Orn doesn’t offer any answer to that intriguing question. But it gets us to ask it, and to reflect on what might help us answer it for ourselves. And that is philosophical contribution enough for a story that, particularly with its memorable illustrations by Maurice Sendak, is as much fun to look at, and to read, as it is to think about.