Wednesday, October 30, 2013

30 Days of Halloween - Day 29: The Rule That Gives Room For Good Things To Run Wild (Towards a Theology of Transmogrification)


Every one, as you ought to know, has a beast-self—and a bird-self, and a stupid fish-self, ay, and a creeping serpent-self too—which it takes a deal of crushing to kill! In truth he has also a tree-self and a crystal-self, and I don't know how many selves more—all to get into harmony. You can tell what sort a man is by his creature that comes oftenest to the front.

-George MacDonald, Lilith: A Romance (1895)

Today let's talk about the magical-monstrous animality of men and women made in the imago Dei.  George MacD. is my go-to guy on this topic.  The little soliloquy on beast-selves above is given by a Mr. Raven, who himself frequently transmogrifies from man to raven and back again in MacDonald's phantasmagorical novel (and Mr. Raven is a good character, a spiritual guide and theological interpreter to the protagonist). Indeed, that whole book is sewn with frequent transmogrifications, chiefly from two leopardesses that are also princesses.  These shape-shifters transform themselves with a strange and beautiful fluidity that MacDonald evokes with dreamlike economy.  This continuum of beast shapes that each person inwardly takes is a central theme of MacDonald's body of work.
In his 1883 children's novel The Princess and Curdie (the lesser known sequel to MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin), the boy Curdie is followed around by a band of grotesque monsters who aid him in his exploits because he has compassion and hope that they will be restored to their original forms.  Curdie takes this gracious view of the deformed creatures because he has been invested with the power to tell what kind of beast an otherwise normal-looking person is inwardly turning into when he shakes his or her hand (e.g. he might feel a bird's talon or a snake's underbelly or a dog's paw).  He is not fooled by appearances and he knows that every one of us has monsters inside, beast-selves, which are either corrupting us or ennobling us depending on whether they are harmonised and harnessed by Christ's good rule in our hearts.
Critters - The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald, 1942
He slid into the passage in safety - The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald, 1942
He took the paw in his hands - The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald, 1942
Lina - The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald, 1942
He sat the child on Lina’s back - The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald, 1942
(illustrations of The Princess and Curdie by Dorothy P. Lathrop - found HERE)

MacDonald also has several short stories that feature she-werewolves ('The Gray Wolf' and 'The History of Photogen and Nycteris') which showcase yet more of his pleasingly creepy transmogrification scenes.  The opening of the latter story has always been one of my favourite images of this theme:

Her name was Watho, and she had a wolf in her mind. She cared for nothing in itself--only for knowing it. She was not naturally cruel, but the wolf had made her cruel.

She was tall and graceful, with white skin, red hair, and black eyes, which had a red fire in them. She was straight and strong, but now and then would fall bent together, shudder, and sit for a moment with her head turned over her shoulder, as if the wolf had got out of her mind on to her back.
(includes MacDonald's 'The Gray Wolf' - image found HERE)

Tolkien and Lewis both acknowledged MacDonald's seminal influence on their own mythopoeic works and this can be seen as regards transmogrification in Beorn the Were-Bear in The Hobbit (a good and heroic, if terrifying, shape-shifter) and the Talking Animals of Narnia.  (Lewis seems mainly to have used shape-shifting itself as a symbol of curse, as in, for example, Eustace's transmogrification into a dragon and also in the fact that Narnia features only evil werewolves.  But Lewis clearly relished the wisdom of exploring the human-beast continuum as evidenced by his constant portrayal of anthropoid intelligent beasts, not least his Messiah figure, the Great Lion Aslan.)

Charles Williams too featured lycanthropy in his Arthurian cycle of poetry (at one point Merlin and Lancelot each drop into wolf form and charge each other for battle if I recall correctly) among other transmogrifications in his works.  I think every one of the other theological writers of the dark and fantastic that I've featured on this blog also at various places in their works include shapeshifters (including Flannery O'Connor by her use of bestial metaphors for characters).

Now, is this a biblical idea that George MacDonald and the rest have gotten hold of?  I think they're on to something. Just consider for a moment animals in Scripture.  The Bible's pages teem with animal life, and as often as not animals are used as metaphors for spiritual truths about both humans and God.  In the richly ecological imagination of the writers of Scripture men and women are likened to trees and other plant life, to meteorological phenomena such as clouds and mist, and to many different animals (not just sheep!), even being given by the Lord cloven hooves with which to climb on heights and wings with which to soar. (They are likened to animals in more hideous ways as well, often portrayed in their sinfulness as skulking wolves or fanged and bloody snakes and lions and the like.)  God likens even himself to gentle and ferocious beasts depending on the message his people needed to hear - lion and bear or hen or lamb.  (And of course the holy angels are portrayed in beast-human terms.)

In the New Testament we are mostly the Plant People, languishing or growing, bearing various kinds of fruit. But it's fascinating that the Son of God is birthed among farm beasts and tempted among wild beasts and he directs his followers to the habits of foxes and birds and other animals for lessons in trusting their Heavenly Father.  Jesus, of course, remains both the Lamb of God and Lion of Judah in the New Testament.

Throughout church history theologians and communities have continued to tie human spirituality closely to beast metaphor, so these theological fantasists are simply innovators in a long and rushing stream of imaginative tradition reaching back to Bible times.  Christians today neglect such resources to the detriment of their worship and witness.
(image found HERE)

Add to all of the above that a phantasmal and majestic hybridity of human-bestial imagery is present even in apocalyptic visions of heaven’s throne room (e.g. Ezekiel and Revelation) and that human-animal shalom features in prophetic visions of a New Earth (e.g. Isaiah 11:6-9).  Surely MacDonald is right that we are meant to experience an inner and outer ecology ruled by the ferocity of the Lamb of God and the tenderness of the Lion of Judah.  When we are on the road to being restored from our deformities, then the continuum of beast-forms our souls may take unto the glory of our Maker and Redeemer are myriad and magnificent. It is as Chesterton said in his book Orthodoxy (1908):

And the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.

And this harmonisation of inner beast-selves is not optional – as if we need be monstrous shape-shifters only if we feel like it.  No.  The monstrous beasts are already within you and you have a responsibility to integrate them under the Maker, not to let them rule over you, nor to attempt the impossible task of extracting or exterminating them.   As R. A. Lafferty said in his novel Fourth Mansions (1969):

There is a holiness in a whole person or a whole world... The veriest monsters inside us may be sanctified. They were put there by Him who is 'Father of Monsters' also. What right have we to cut them out of us? Who are we to edit God? We cut strong things out of ourselves and suppress them, and the rocks and clouds will give birth to them again. We dry up our interior fountains and they gush out again, exteriorly and menacingly. We cannot live without monsters' blood coursing through us. Only to the whole person is life worth living and death worth dying. Here in Fourth Mansions we must be whole or we must be nothing.
 
(Japanese edition - image found HERE)

A regular commenter on my Lafferty blog pithily summarised it this way:  we must exercise our monsters, not exorcise our monsters.

(Obviously what I've written here are mere notes toward a theology of transmogrification.  It's a deep subject that will require much more rumination.)

Halloween is tomorrow night and it is a chance to play at shape-shifting, a time to unleash our inner monsters for their rampant and righteous exercise.  And so I say to you, on tomorrow eve:

Brothers and Sisters, Transmogrify!

(image found HERE)

(image found HERE)

(image found HERE)

Charles James Folkard - The Princess and Curdie by George Macdonald 22
(Curdie and his monster band by Charles James Folkard - image found HERE)

(image found HERE)