Matthew Oates’ His Imperial Majesty Book Review
By Emily Seccombe
In ‘His Imperial Majesty’, a book dedicated to the Purple Emperor butterfly, extensive ecological detail is woven into an intriguing narrative around the author’s love for the species. The book imparts a vast amount of knowledge, but thankfully the emotive language prevents it from reading too much like a textbook. I enjoyed how Oates balanced technical content with light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek prose. Oates gives a masterclass in ecological metaphors, employing a different one on seemingly every other page, describing the butterfly as a “monumental wind-up merchant”, a female butterfly as a “giant creature of shadow and darkness” and the caterpillars as “horned gods that rule the sallow trees”.
Overall, the book is not just overflowing with detailed information, but also bursting with joy. A particularly hopeful passage describes the Purple Emperor superyear in 2018 at the Knepp estate, with the number of daily sightings by Oates exceeding 300! The recurring theme of joy and wonder runs through-out the book, and informs Oates’ views on conservation. I found the following quote particularly interesting, and reflective of the authors’ approach: “wake up, nature conservation: the whole show is about love, beauty and wonder, and with the future – as opposed to what might have been in the past”.
Whilst reading the book, I was lucky to see a Purple Emperor myself for the first time. A male flew up out of a water trough, flapped around us and headed for the tree tops. Whilst it was a great nature moment, I’m not sure I can say I caught Purple Emperor fever from my sighting or the book (indeed my favourite butterfly remains the peacock). However, reading the book did make me more contented about my own personal ecological interests, with the knowledge that any eccentricity I may impress upon others is surpassed by that of the ‘Emperorphiles’. The extent to which Purple Emperor enthusiasts go to see the butterflies in all its stages was fascinating. In fact, the behaviour of the enthusiasts is as intriguing as the behaviour of the butterfly itself. I’d recommend the book for either hard-core butterfly enthusiasts, or to those interested in the importance of charisma and personification for a species’ conservation.
One aspect of the book I found really interesting was how the anthropomorphism of the species affects its treatment. I’m slightly cautious of focusing on flashy, beautiful species like the Purple Emperor, out of concern for the species that aren’t so charistmatic – will the ugly, boring, mundane parts of the web of life be sufficiently protected? Or will they be protected as side effects of protecting the flashier ones? The book was very though-provoking with regard to how we talk about species in ecology and conservation.
Oates acknowledges the extent of the anthropomorphism, but in a characteristically tongue-in-cheek style he tautologically blames the butterfly for this. In some places I thought the personification was taken too far, such as in the passages on mating behaviours: “after mating, the male of the species will be the Empress’s fiercest enemy, though he lives ever in the hope that she might need his services again, and never doubts his prowess” and “we felt extremely sorry for the female – and ashamed for our own gender”.
I think the book could have at least acknowledged the linguistic choices for imperialistic language, evident from the title and throughout. The metaphors of the butterfly as some sort of sovereign or ruler, and phrases like: “Emperoring has entered a new and glorious era” felt somewhat out-of-step. This was particular noticeable because early on in the book we are introduced to Heslop, a Purple Emperor enthusiast who was also a colonial administrator in Nigeria from 1929 to 1952. Heslops’ involvement with colonial rule was unproblematically presented and the extent of imperialistic language wasn’t acknowledged.
I definitely felt like the book is written for a certain audience, and perhaps isn’t the most accessible nature book, but it probably wasn’t meant to be. As it is so detailed, its probably not a book to read cover to cover, unless you’re a bona fide butterfly enthusiast, but more to dip into different chapters. It does have lots of useful conservation recommendations for those hoping to attract or support Purple Emperor populations on their sites so would be particularly useful for practical conservation plans.