Sunday, February 24, 2013

Alchemical Framework and Imagery in Beauty and the Beast

 I just finished reading and watching a few different versions of the Beauty and the Beast tale and could not help but see some alchemical imagery and meaning in the tales. Once again, John Granger is the person to turn to for a full discussion on what literary alchemy is and how it applies to popular texts like Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games series, and Rowling's Harry Potter series. To begin exploring some of the alchemical ideas in Beauty and the Beast, here is an outline of the basics from John himself:
"Alchemy is a three stage work in its simplest outline...with each stage represented traditionally by a different color and set of meaningful images. In the first, the person to be enlightened is broken down, shattered really, to their core idea or ‘prime matter.’ ...The second stage is one of purification or cleansing. The shattered survivor of the [first stage] here is washed and restored in preparation for the chrysalis of the remaining stage...The last stage is red ....The end-color of the alchemical process is gold, the illumined metal or ‘solid light,’ which represents the enlightened person who has achieved something like divinization or union with the ‘Light of the World.'" 
- From Unlocking 'Mockingjay': The Literary Alchemy 
  In a series of three stages then, the hero -like the alchemist and his base metal- is transformed from lead into gold. It's impossible to say whether the original writer or teller of the Beauty and the Beast tale intended an alchemical reading of the story. I don't think so- rather, I think the story, in all its different forms, seems to touch upon alchemical stages through similar imagery and themes. The physical and mental transformations of the characters and the wedding of opposites (we'll get to that later) makes it ripe for an alchemical retelling, and I think storytellers have picked up on that. I won't be discussing any and all versions of the tale, however. I'll just stick to three: De Villeneuve's original, Robin McKinley's Beauty, and the Disney film, Beauty and the Beast. I do so mainly because these three are a bit more popular than others and these are also the ones I have most recently read. If anybody has anything to add to the discussion about other versions, I'd be delighted. So, to begin:

  The first stage that John refers to above is called the Nigredo Stage, or the Black stage. Here “the body of the impure metal, the matter for the Stone, or the old, outmoded state of being is killed, putrefied, and dissolved into the original substance of creation, the prima materia, in order that it may be renovated and reborn in a new form” (Granger quoting from Lyndy Abraham). In an alchemical story this is marked by the hero having his world shattered, or by the hero being in intense hardship. Its imagery involves darkness and (of course) the color black. Both de Villeneuve's original and Mickleny's Beauty start out in this Nigredo stage when Beauty and her family are struck by sudden misfortune. In the original tale, the family house burns down (creating black ashes), and then--in both versions--Beauty's father's luck in business drops altogether and the family goes from living a rich and luxurious lifestyle to a incredibly simple one in the country. The whole story hinges on this breakdown: Beauty and her family have been literally stripped away from the all that is unnecessary and begin "living in the simplest way" (V, 2). 

  The second stage is called the Albedo, or the purifying White stage. Now that the material or character has been broken done to its base material, it is now to be purified and cleansed (source). Images in this stage of an alchemical novel include water, silver, the moon, and whiteness. The most prevalent image in all three versions of the Beauty and the Beast tale is easily snow. Each version differs slightly on their treatment of snow, but in all three there is snow, snow, snow right up to the doors of Beast's castle. In the original it is "deep snow and bitter frost"(4) that prompts Beauty's father to enter the Beast's castle and its a track "presenting itself only as a smooth ribbon of white" (65) that leads the way to the castle in Beauty (In the Disney film, the father is chased by white wolves in white snow right up to the castle's gate). 
    However, it's the Disney film and Mckinley's Beauty that have my favorite albedo imagery. In Beauty, the Beast's castle acts as a sort of shelter from outside and there's hardly a day that goes by that's not filled with nice weather. The first time it rains, however (and remember water is an important image here) the weather prompts Beauty and the Beast to spend time together inside rather than outside. With not much else to do, the Beast introduces beauty to the library, the one place above anywhere else in the castle that eventually brings Beauty and Beast together. The library not only makes Beauty's time in the castle more enjoyable, but it also sparks a new friendship between her and the Beast. Beauty narrates, "most days after that we took turns reading to each other. Once...he did not come in one day, and I missed him sadly"(159). The library not only establishes a friendship, but a trust as well: after the Beast introduces her to his favorite books and authors, Beauty decides to introduce him to her beloved horse in return (149). In the weather- sheltered world of the castle, rain plays an important role in bringing the two characters together, in cleansing their relationship. 
There are also two similar Albedo scenes in the Disney film. When Belle runs away from the castle (after going into the Beast's 'forbidden room') she mounts her horse and rides away into the thickest snowstorm yet. She is soon attacked by a pack of wolves and rides her horse deep into a frozen lake (becoming drenched with water). Barely making it out of the lake before the wolves, Belle is then saved by the Beast, who comes out from nowhere and drives the them away. This marks the first change in their relationship: the Beast saves Belle and she, instead of continuing to run away from him, brings him back to the castle and tends to his wounds. After some sideline scenes with Gaston and her father, the film then returns to Beast showing (and then giving) Belle his library. Afterwards they play like children in the snow and they become literally covered in whiteness. The whole time they do so they form new ideas about each other (highlighted by the song "There's Something There" playing in the background). 

In all three versions then, the color white serves to illuminate their feelings towards one another. Snow and water play an important role in beginning and cleansing Beauty and the Beast's relationship, in bringing them closer to understanding and trusting one another. 

Before the last stage (which we'll get to- I promise!) it's important to know that in an alchemical framework there is what John Granger calls the"resolution of contraries," or the Alchemical Wedding. Scholar Erin N. Sweeney writes, "In alchemy the polarity of masculine and feminine is united to make a whole through a process called the alchemical wedding...the major part of the work of alchemy is the union of yin [feminine] and yang [masculine]" (Harry Potter for Nerds, 180). 
The very title of Beauty and the Beast tells us that this is a story about the coming together of two opposites. Any and all versions of the tale will be about the resolution of Feminine Beauty (the moon, silver, cool, wet, the Soul) and the Masculine Beast (the sun, gold, hot, the Spirit). 
In a very long story made short (a story I think I'll forever be unraveling), an alchemical wedding involves the masculine spirit (the sun) passing above from within to unite with the receptive feminine soul (the moon)  The spirit thus descends to to join the soul, and the soul must ascend to meet the spirit (Sweeney, 193).
I think the contraries in the Beauty and the Beast tales are obvious enough, but each version deals with it a little differently. The Disney version does a particularly wonderful job illustrating this meeting of contraries alchemically. I pull the following quote from the wonderful blog Tales of Faerie about the clothing of the characters:
"In the words of Art Director Brian McEntee, 'Beast starts out in very dark colors; Belle starts off in very cool colors. As the film progresses, her wardrobe warms up and his cools down. When you get to the ballroom, she's in gold, and he's in blue: they're falling in love, so they're at the same place.'"
If that doesn't scream alchemical wedding, I'm not sure what does. The imagery surrounding Belle goes from cool soul to warm spirit. Likewise, Beast goes from warm soul to cool spirit. There's a couple of other "meeting in the middle" imagery in the film as well:

*When Beast tries to eat in a more human like manner (like Belle), he can't help but make a mess. So delicate Belle meets him halfway by eating in a more animalistic way (like the Beast). Then in harmony, their bowls meet each other in the middle of the table as a sort of "cheers" (you can watch this exchange in the beginning of the 'Something There' video link posted above).

*At the end of the film, Gaston attacks Beast at the top of the castle. As Beast falls further and further down the castle turrets, Belle runs up the staircase to meet him. Bell arises and Beast descends and they meet in the middle right before the Beast's transformation and right before the third and final alchemical stage.

While its definitely most prevalent in the Disney film, the original story is not without this alchemical wedding. In alchemy the pair of opposites are also called "the quarreling couple" and though the couple in the original never outwardly argue, every night they disagree. Each time the Beast asks Beauty for her hand in marriage he is hoping for a "yes," yet she always tells the Beast a solid "no." Her final "yes" at the end of the story marks the end of the 'quarreling couple' and the beginning of their resolution.

The third stage, then, is the golden-red Rubedo stage. The matter has been broken down to its base material, has been washed and purified. The contraries have been married and the material is ready to be perfected, to be transformed into gold. Unsurprisingly, this final stage of the alchemical work is signified by splendrous light and by red and golden colors.
  In the original, when Beauty finally agrees to marry the Beast golden colors and glowing imagery abounds: "As she spoke a blaze of light sprang up before the windows of the palace; fireworks crackled and guns banged, and across the avenue of orange trees, in letters all made of fireflies, was written: Long live the prince and his bride" (25).
   In Robin Mckinley's Beauty Beauty is trying to return to the Beast, but gets lost in darkness in the forest. She doesn't find him until a full day and night of riding and when she does, it is "nearly dawn" (237). Light is returning and she notices "The Beast was wearing golden velvet...instead of the dark brown I had last seen" (237). When she tells him she loves him and wants to marry him, "there was a wild explosion of light, as if the sun had burst...I was buoyed up by light and sound" (239). After the Beast has his transformation (still wearing his gold vest), Beauty looks into a "mirror with a golden frame" (242) and has a realization that she's had her own sort of transformation as well into a beautiful girl with "copper red hair" and "amber" eyes. Finally, as they leave the castle together and as the novel ends, "thousands of candles in the crystal chandeliers blazed in greeting, till they rivaled the light of the sun" (247).
   The Disney film's version is also steeped in golden and light imagery. (Watch the Beast's transformation here.) There's not only falling light as the Beast transforms, but golden fireworks as the two embrace and a golden falling light that transforms the whole castle back to its more lively and purified self.

Alchemy is about transforming both an external material and one's internal self. Likewise, the Beauty and the Beast tale is never about just one transformation, but two: the Beast's external transformation and Beauty's internal one. In the end, both have been cleansed and purified. Through their relationship, both ultimately come to a deeper understanding of the world and of the transformative power of love.

*   *   *

What do you all think? Is this a classic case of "too much analyzing" or could these storytellers (and story re-tellers) have alchemy in mind? What do you make of elements of the story I didn't go into, like the rose?
As you can probably tell, I've only just scratched the surface of describing what alchemy really does. Finding alchemical imagery is easy enough, but the rest continues to boggle my mind. While I will try my hardest to answer any question you have about alchemy, I will not pretend to be any expert in the field. Thus, while I urge you to of course leave questions and comments, I'd also have you check out the following books and websites if I have piqued your curiosity:
Anything John Granger (this is a great resource)
The original Story
Beauty by Robin Mckinley
Disney film
Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Tale of Sweeney Astray: Poetic Lament and Liberation

Art: Shmeeden
“My curse fall on Sweeney
for his great offense
... it will curse you to the trees 
 bird brain among branches” 
     Based on the earlier Irish folktale Buile Shuibhne, Seamus Heaney's Sweeney Astray tells the story of young king named Sweeney, who was cursed by a saint to become a bird. Much of the story follows Sweeney and the resulting madness endured from the transformation. The association with the bird is meant to bind Sweeney to an inhuman way of life, and it certainly does so. But the curse also gives Sweeney a bird-like liberation in flight and song and throughout the story, Sweeney find's solace and identity through poetry and song.
   The story itself (both versions) is a mix of poetry and prose. Interestingly, Sweeney's physical transformation is written in one stanza and the poetic form of this scene allows images to flicker between his loss of and liberation from humanity. As his mind turns away from humanity to become “revolted by the thought of known places,” he also “dreamed of strange migrations”(9). Similarly his body rejects human workmanship as “weapons fell from his hands” but he soon “levitated in a frantic cumbersome motion/like a bird of the air” (9). Sweeney is thrust from his familiar world of humanity, but the poetic form highlights his simultaneous acceptance into a new world. As Sweeney will spend the rest of the tale both lamenting his past and celebrating his place in the wilderness, this moment is important in establishing poetry as a means for Sweeney to understand his place in the world.
     Throughout Sweeney Astray, poetry shifts from a reflection of Sweeney's madness to a means to find his identity. Sweeney's madness is derived not from his current state in the wild, but by continually remembering his past. Sweeney's early poetry is an outlet for obsessively reflecting upon his former “good luck and kingship” (18) and for lamenting his fall “from noble heights” (16). But poetry soon becomes a means to explore and praise his current condition. He begins his exile by proclaiming:
I am the madman of Glen Bolcain,
wind scourged, stripped
like a winter tree
clad in black frost
and frozen snow (17).

  The poetic form, calling for metaphor, prompts Sweeney to compare his deprived state to that of a winter tree. Although Sweeney does so in order to describe his condition as miserable, we see the beginnings of Sweeney using poetry to discover his relationship with nature. Even in initially identifying himself as a madman, he identifies his tie to the land “of Glen Bolcain.” Though this early poem associates nature more with his state of madness, Sweeney eventually uses poetry to identify the tranquility found in nature.
Art kluzehellion
   Sweeney's “ bird brain” ultimately allows him to both physically and poetically leave his former world and accept a new identity in the wild. In the middle of his chase with the hag, Sweeney is so moved by hearing a hunted stag in the woods that he makes “a poem in which he praised aloud all the trees of Ireland, and rehearsed some of his own hardships and sorrows” (36). This poem, the longest in the tale, is not the bitter reflection of the past of his former poetry, but a form of catharsis in which he praises nature and reveals his affinity with living things, stating that the bellowing stag ”startles my heartstrings”(36) and “the alder is my darling”(37). Sweeney's former life is both removed and replaced as he crowns the birch tree “queen of trees”(38) and proclaims his preference of the“rhapsody of blackbirds /to the garrulous blather/of men and women” (43). No doubt, this sort of exile and exclusion from the social world is what was meant to send Sweeney mad. It is however, in his exile that Sweeney turns to poetry, and in using poetry to find a peace and kinship with nature, ultimately finds peace within himself. For in nature, “what enmity is possible?”(62).  

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

On Tolkien, Beowulf, and Tragedy

Artist Anke Eissmann
It is well known that the early medieval poem Beowulf was an influential work for Tolkien. It might be somewhat lesser known that Tolkien had an equally, if not more, important role in shaping modern Beowulf scholarship.  In his essay, The Monsters and the Critics, J.R.R. Tolkien defends Beowulf as a poem and as a tragedy, arguing, “He is a man, and that for him and many is sufficient tragedy” (18). This poignant response is aimed to critics such as W.P. Kerr and Raymond Chambers, who believe that there is “nothing much in the story” (10) and that “the poem puts the irrelevances in the centre and the serious things on the outer edges” (11). 
The “irrelevances” Beowulf critics point to are the three episodes in which Beowulf fights monsters. W.P. Kerr compares these episodes with the exploits of traditional heroes of tragedy saying, “there are other things in the lives of Hercules or Theseus besides the killing of the Hydra or of Procrustes” (10). The monster battles in Beowulf are certainly the bulk of the poem and some are even told twice (once by the poet narrator and then again in dialogue). And while it is true that little else happens to Beowulf besides these adventures, Tolkien argues against their belonging in “the outer edges.” He states, “the monsters…are essential, fundamentally allied to the underlying ideas of the poem” (19). And for Tolkien, Beowulf’s most significant underlying theme is the idea that “lif is l├Žne” (life is loan) (19). Nothing illustrates this more than the three separate encounters with monsters, for each fight focuses on the tragedy of the life cycle and of human mortality. 
In his first battle with Grendel, for instance, Beowulf is a man in his prime. He is not merely fit and able, but a man with extraordinary strength and seemingly endless endurance. Grendel knows immediately “he had never encountered, in any region/of this middle-earth, in any other man/a stronger hand grip” (Beowulf lines 751-3). Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother further proves he is an exceptionally strong youth. These scenes illustrate Beowulf’s strength as a man and highlights what Tolkien calls his “first achievement” (28). But they also hint at the tragedy of man because Beowulf fights not for his love of life, but for fame and to be remembered: the poet tells us “So must a man/ if he thinks at battle to gain any name/a long living fame, care nothing for his life” (Beowulf lines 1534-6). Beowulf fights because his life is loaned and he wants to be remembered after death.
In Beowulf’s third encounter with a monster (this time with the dragon) the tragedy of “being man” comes to the forefront. Tolkien states that in this episode, “Disaster is foreboded. Defeat is the theme” (30). The fight with the dragon does not only mark Beowulf’s death, but the end of his life. By now, Beowulf is an old man and his kingship and life is coming to an end with or without the dragon. Where the first two fights represented Beowulf’s crowning achievements and seemingly endless youth, this last fight represents his final battle and, as Tolkien states, the “inevitable victory of death” (30). Thus Beowulf does not need to be more like the hero of a traditional tragic epic to be a tragic figure. His tragedy, like the ordinary man, is in life; it is ultimately living and fighting and dying that is “sufficient tragedy” for everyone.

Artist Unknown

  Thanks to the Mythgard Institute and Verlyn Flieger's Tolkien's World of Middle-earth course for initiating these thoughts- in the form of an exam no less!

Friday, February 1, 2013

C.S. Lewis Read Along: Edmund and Narnia's Transition From Winter into Spring

 Book review blog, Pages Unbound is hosting a month long C.S. Lewis Read Along!  I am somewhat new to their blog, but everything I've read so far has been insightful, thoughtful, and engaging and I recommend you check them out and participate in their read-alongTo kick things off, I'd like to look at The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, particularly (and since some of us are in the middle of this anyway) Narnia's transformation from winter into spring:

Artist SnowWhite3684
Our first introduction to Narnia's winter is wondrous, soft, and delicate. You'll remember Lucy does not just open the wardrobe door in one world and immediately enter another. She walks slowly through the wardrobe, going "further up and further in," if you will, and gradually enters Narnia. Throughout that time the winter of Narnia- the cold air, the bare trees, the powdery snow- are a quiet indicator of magic and otherworldliness. Once Lucy arrives in Narnia we're told "something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she as standing in the middle of a wood at night time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air" (6-7). Rather than walk into an alarmingly and bitterly cold scene, Lucy enters a beautiful one. Winter, when it naturally occurs, can be delightful, elegant and purifying. And, though Lucy's journey through the wardrobe and Narnia itself is supernatural, the reader and Lucy alike assume the Winter is natural to the land. Thus Lucy walks into Narnia, "a little frightened but...inquisitive and excited as well" (7).
     Our second impression of Narnia is through Edmund, whose experience with winter is more harsh right from the start. Even inside the wardrobe, Edmund's journey to Narnia is stressful and claustrophobic where Lucy's was enchanting and curious:
"He began feeling about for Lucy in the dark. He expected to find her in a few seconds and was very surprised when he did not. He decided to open the door again and let in some light. But he could not find the door either. He didn't like this at all and began groping wildly in the dark..." (25).
David Shaw
Soon enough, he finds himself in the middle of Narnia's wood. Here, Lewis does something very interesting. As we move out from Edmund and into the wider world of Narnia, the sky and trees become beautiful and serene:
"There was crisp, dry snow under his feet and more snow lying on the branches of the trees. Overhead there was a pale blue sky, the sort of sky one sees on a fine winter day in the morning. Straight ahead of him he saw between the tree trunks, the sun just rising, very red and clear. Everything was perfectly still." 
 We glimpse the parts of Narnia that the winter cannot touch- the light of the sun, a beautiful morning. This is a moment even more beautiful than the one Lucy first encounters. But notice the sudden turn as we narrow back on Edmund:
"Everything was perfectly still, as if he were the only living creature in that country. There was not even a robin or a squirrel among the trees, and the wood stretched as far as he could see in every direction. He shivered." (26). 
 The stillness of winter is no longer serene, but eerie and uncanny. Even the bright, red sunrise cannot keep Edmund from shivering. Narnia is "a strange, cold, quiet place"(26) for him, and rightly so. As Mr. Tumnus tells us, the White Witch keeps it "always winter and never Christmas" (16). Keep in mind, however, that the 'never Christmas' remark means much more than merely not receiving presents. In a relevant post on The Hog's Head John Patrick Pazdziora says, "The White Witch keeps Narnia forever in the darkest night of all the year. It is a time of hardship and peril... but without the consolation and grace of the solstice and Christmas." Christmas and Father Christmas have a presence in Narnia that is much more real and natural than we would expect (when we meet Father Christmas, for instance he is described as being the real Father Christmas, of which our own world can only emulate). The stillness and strangeness that Edmund feels in Narnia is the effect of an unnatural winter. Narnia is both literally and figuratively frozen and Edmund, who is certainly the 'coldest' Pevensie, is both less able to notice Narnia's goodness and more sharply aware of its evil.

Artist Unknown
When Aslan returns to Narnia the Witch's magic begins to weaken. Winter in Narnia slowly comes to an end. But the wonderful thing about the transformation from winter into spring in Narnia is that it happens simultaneously with Edmund's own transformation from a selfish and proud person into a humble one. As Edmund travels with the Witch the snow becomes unbearable, "oh how miserable he was!" (110). Even when it eventually stops falling the snow underneath the sled is "everlasting" and doesn't let up until Edmund witnesses the Witch's evil firsthand:
"She had waved her wand and where the merry party had been there were only statues of creatures (one with its stone fork fixed forever half way to its stone mouth) seated round a stone table on which there were stone plates and a stone plum pudding...And Edmund for the first time in this story felt sorry for someone besides himself" (113). 
and then, immediately, the snow lets up, Narnia warms, and life returns:
"And soon Edmund noticed that the snow which splashed against them as they rushed through it was much wetter than it had been all last night. At the same time he noticed that he was feeling much less cold...A strange, sweet, rustling, chattering noise-and yet not strange, for he knew he'd heard it was the noise of running water...chattering, murmuring, bubbling, splashing..." (114)
Edmund warms up from the inside out. Once he feels empathy for others, he is no longer alone. And the land that had seemed so endless and eerie to him before is now beautiful and in harmony with the natural forest:
"Soon wherever you look you saw dark green of firs or black prickly branches of bare oaks and beeches and elms. Then the mist turned from white to gold...Shafts of delicious sunlight struck down onto the forest floor and overhead you could see a blue sky between the tree-tops. Soon there were more wonderful things happening..." (116). 
Edmund is not just witnessing the coming of spring, he is truly enjoying it. He, like Narnia itself becomes rejuvenated and enlightened.

Artist Voroindo

Lewis, C.S. The Lion, the Witch and the WardrobeNew York: Macmillan Publishing Company. 1950. Print