As the Crow Flies powerfully presents some of Clarke’s major themes: the conflicts of good and evil, of Christian doctrine, and the amorality of nature. The three clerics represent three distinct modes of being: Manus, practical, unimaginative, imperceptive; Aengus, innocent, curious, vulnerable; Virgilius, experienced, confident, scholarly, but limited by the blinders of Christian teaching. Appropriately, Manus never hears the voices of the mythical animals and senses nothing of their drama; his confinement to the physical world is ironically underscored when he observes of the despairing Eagle at the end, “She must be wounded in the breast.” Aengus, a sensitive young monk eager to know the world, hears the animals most fully, and is terrified by the Salmon’s cynical message—dramatized by the Crow’s evildoing—that neither reason nor a benevolent God prevails in the universe. Father Virgilius also hears the pagan mythic voices but insists that they are demoniac delusions sent to test faith.
The animals represent pagan consciousness, nature untouched by Christianity. Each presents a different—and ancient—truth. The Stag of Leiterlone, forever wary, has been “pursued/ With pain and terror” by hunters for centuries. The Blackbird of Derrycairn embodies ecstatic natural joy, in opposition to the constraints of the Church, and by singing repeatedly its song of “knowledge . . . found among the branches,” attempts to carry out its mission to tell “why men must welcome in the daylight.” Neither of these creatures—nor the Eagle of Knock, whose main theme is heroic mother love—is old enough to remember a violent storm to compare with the present night’s fury; those who do have such memories have significantly bleaker views of Creation. Evil, guileful, remorseless, rapacious, the Crow of Achill is said to have torn the eyes from the dying hero Cú Chulainn. The Salmon of Assaroe, incarnation of the antediluvian Fintan, has seen all the layers of natural truth, and his knowledge of “chronicles of war, greed, slaughter” brings him madness. The terrible storm that dominates the play becomes a symbol of the irrational violence of the universe, underscoring the Salmon’s despairing message about the “unchanging misery of mankind.”