First, let me make this clear. There is no legitimate connection between this story and Terry Bisson’s Bears Discover Fire. Galloway even admitted, in an interview I can’t find anymore, that she had already written this story before Bisson’s publication. The title was solely an attempt to ride on the coattails of Bisson’s multi-award-winning work.
This was, in my opinion, unnecessary. The two stories are profoundly different despite their seeming similarity in subject matter. In Bisson’s story it is the humans who are at the forefront. The bears discovering fire is a literalization of the forces of change affecting the protagonist, not a hard-SF account of ursine sociobiological development.
Whereas in today’s story there is only one human character who doesn’t even turn up until the second half. The focus is on a group of bears: “Three, to be precise. And while bears do not have names, the family unity is such that the labels of Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear are appropriate.”
The first part of the story follows the bears’ conversation shortly after their waking from hibernation. Upon seeing the wonders of a forest in spring the talk turns philosophical, musing on the concept of things greater than them. By using arguments familiar to Aquinas and Anselm they discuss the possible existence of a creator figure without once using the word ‘god’.
They keep talking as they’re walking through the forest. Papa Bear scouts ahead for food while Mama Bear tries to explain the finer points of the Ontological Argument to Baby Bear. There is the sound of a gunshot, Mama Bear and Baby Bear flee, but Papa Bear does not join them.
When they finally return to the site they find his skinned body, lying with legs straight and arms outstretched. “He sacrificed his life so we could flee,” says Mama Bear, “and for this we should venerate him.” She sketches the shape that Papa Bear’s body is lying in, and tells Baby Bear to draw this sign so that they might remember Papa Bear always.
Yes, the bears have essentially created their own version of Christianity from first principles.
This comes at the halfway point of the story. Religion has so far been treated as positive, natural and so fundamental to existence that even bears can realize it. And then in the second half Galloway decides to deconstruct all this by having the Pope turn up.
As you might have guessed, the first half of the story has been an examination of the old rhetorical question “Are bears Catholic?” The second half opens with the other side of that rhetorical question, and the story then devolves into, as Galloway puts it, “the defecatory habits of papal figures in arboreal environments.”
And, with the embodiment of Catholicism present to discuss religion with the bears (claiming all popes can speak bears thanks to the Assisi Dictionary), the bears are somewhat disillusioned by the reality of religious belief.
Not many stories can survive such a dramatic shift in tone from serious philosophising to hilarious surreality, but Galloway pulls it off with aplomb. I look forward to finding more stories by her in the future.
Bears Discover Catholicism by Edith Galloway
Availability: print only
Word count: 10,400
First published: The Old Amsterdame, 1 April 1991
Where to find it: The Trollops of the Sierra Madre and Other Exotic Delights, collection, 2000, Barely Respectable Books
A History of Mountweazels, edited by Edith Galloway & Judith Galloway, 2005, Abandon All Hope Press