Oracles of change, other ways of being, by Andy Hedgecock
artwork by Claire Massey

In the afterword to Parzival and the Stone from Heaven, a remarkable retelling of one of the most enduring European stories, Lindsay Clarke (2001,pp.207-209) explores the contemporary resonances of the quest for the Grail undertaken by King Arthur’s holy fool. Clarke believes the version of the Parzival story that speaks most strongly to a contemporary audience is that of the Twelfth Century storyteller Wolfram von Eschenbach. Wolfram’s Parzival is ‘like all true myths, […] a lively oracle of change.’

Parzival begins the story as a wild, innocent and carefree creature of woodland glades. Later, the perilous and ambiguous adventures and ordeals of his quest foster an understanding of the darker side of experience and, finally, knowledge and grief bring wisdom and compassion. For Clarke, Parzival’s psychic transformation is one all of us need to recapitulate, at the personal and social level. 

It’s not about lashing out on expensive personal development programmes that promise ‘a new you’: it’s about developing a new consciousness that shifts from self obsession to self discovery, from competition to co-operation and, as Clarke puts it, ‘from egocentrism to ecocentrism’. A personal and social metamorphosis more closely aligned with ecosocialist writings of Joel Kovel than the ‘business mastery’ programmes of self-help guru Tony Robbins.

I’m not conceited enough to suggest I’ve experienced the sort of transcendent journey of self discovery envisaged by Lindsay Clarke. But tales of transformation and metamorphosis have played an important part in determining the way I’ve come to look at the world, so I’d like to share my enthusiasm for some of the most engaging and influential.


The Age of Possibility
The earliest encounter with shape shifting I can remember was the transformation of the greedy Eustace into a dragon in C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader. But listening to this being read in junior school wasn’t half as exciting as delving into the goings on in Norse and Celtic mythology Doncaster Central Library. John Pazdziora discusses the resonance of the magical chase in the tale of Taliesin and the trials of Janet, lover of the faerie knight Tam Lin, elsewhere in Paraxis 03, and these strange and stirring stories – retold by Barbara Ker Wilson and Barbara Leonie Picard in the 1950s and 1960s– were those that ignited my interest in the myths and folktales of Britain. 

Another tale that burned its way into my memory 40 years ago was ‘MacColdrum of the Seals’, a story of a skin shedding ‘selkie’ for whom the call of the sea is more powerful than the plangent wailing of her children as she swims out of their lives. Just as unsettling – and exciting – were the Norse tales in which the trickster god Loki takes on the form of women (young and old), mares, seals and insects.

The attraction of these protean characters has itself been transformed over the years, but for a pre-adolescent reader these stories were about escapism – freeing oneself from the shackles of quotidian reality. As an adult the residual appeal of freeing oneself from all constraint – the notion of physical and psychological freedom – led me to Pierre Albert-Birot fast-paced, surreal, anarchic and erotically charged stories of the shape shifter Grabinoulor (1986).  


The Dark Age: the gorilla in the cellar
A hero of mine, the clinical psychologist and political activist Don Bannister described Sigmund Freud's view of the human psyche – with its competing aspects, the Id, ego and superego. The Freudian idea of mind, suggested Bannister, was that of ‘a battlefield… a dark cellar in which a well-bred spinster lady (the superego) and a sex-crazed monkey (the id) are forever engaged in mortal combat, the struggle being refereed by a rather nervous bank clerk (the ego).’

Bannister’s intention was satirical in intent, but it does capture aspects of Freud’s thinking that remains relevant and vital: there’s the notion of the psyche as a dynamic and complex system, and the acknowledgement that the unconscious mind is the repository for our darkest and most dangerous impulses.  

And as I entered my teens, my interests shifted towards rather more edgy and stygian forms of transformation. It was almost inevitable that my inchoate interest in psychoanalysis, based on some pretty desultory reading, would lead me to Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The jury is out on the interpretation of novella’s iconic transformation scene as an allegory of humanity’s dual nature, and the battle between conscious and unconscious minds, but there’s no doubt that the story taps into the dark side of the male psyche and uneasiness about male sexuality.   

It was around the same time, while being force-fed John Keats in O Level English Literature, that I came across the Lamia, a Freudian nightmare of a creature from Greek mythology.  Keats’ ‘Lamia’ (1884) is a beautiful woman whose lover Lycius dies of a broken heart when she reverts to her natural state – that of a serpent.  One of Keats’ concerns was the extent to which our obsession with science and reason might destroy emotion, sensuality and our sense of wonder:

Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine -
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.

Keats’ poem inspired a number of riffs on the original myth, including a song on the 1974 album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, by Genesis. These days I can’t be doing with the band’s ‘prog rock’ instrumental meanderings, but Peter Gabriel has always been an interesting lyricist. Here’s his take on the skin-shedding creatures that inspire revulsion and passion by turns:

Each empty snakelike body floats,
Silent sorrow in empty boats.
A sickly sourness fills the room,
The bitter harvest of a dying bloom. 

Keats’ poem also provided inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe’s sonnet ‘To Science’.  And talking of Poe, one of his strangest stories is ‘William Wilson’, which involves the grotesque transformation of a corrupt and dissolute character into the doppelganger he murders. A double who represented the better version of himself.

It was also in my teens that I came across what is arguably the strangest transformation in literature. It wasn’t Franz Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’, although the ‘body horror’ central to that story had a certain appeal at a stage in life crammed with anxieties about physical change and development. Much weirder is the gradual metatextual erasure of Tyrone Slothrop from Thomas Pynchon’s postmodern masterpiece Gravity’s Rainbow. A poignant disappearance that appealed to a teenager with a degree of melodramatic angst about his own invisibility.    


The Age of Dissent
Just after my 19th birthday the world changed utterly. Margaret Thatcher led the UK into the age of corporate capitalism triumphant – an era characterised by diminishing liberties, rampant greed, the commoditisation of culture and a sense that keeping up with the Joneses was more important than making any kind of connection with the Joneses. Tales of transformation remained important to me, but now I was looking for work with a radical edge. 

There were the novels and stories of Angela Carter who confronted indolent assumptions about the boundaries of women’s roles, behaviour and sexuality in her novels and stories (see particularly The Passion of New Eve, 1977; and The Bloody Chamber, 1979). 

The ironically satirical stories – the author prefers the term pasquinades – of Michael Moorcock became more important to me. For me, his tales of the protean twentieth century everyman’ Jerry Cornelius, were a natural development from the author’s more traditional fantasies.  Throughout this massive story cycle, Cornelius changes race, runs a transmogrification service, returns from the dead, develops and abandons various forms of polymorphous sexuality, lurches across time zones and ultimately, flits between fantasy worlds and a quotidian, if metatextual, reality. On one level the Cornelius chronicles represent a psychic battleground: Moorcock isn’t concerned with the id and superego slugging it out in Don Banister’s dark cellar; instead he focuses on the social and political conflicts between coercion, corporate power, imperialism, racism and sexism on one side of the battle lines and liberty, feminism, mutual aid and the left-leaning strand of anarchism on the other. In the underrated novella, The Alchemist’s Question (1984), a tale mired in political pessimism, with Jerry’s longstanding adversary Miss Brunner standing in for Thatcher as a totalitarian British Prime Minister hatching up neo-imperialist foreign policy adventures with fascistic allies, plotting a return to medieval values and seeking to bring about a new ice age. The book ends with a glint of hope involving a pitch battle between the forces of liberty and oppression and an alchemical transformation at the heart of Glastonbury Tor.                        

Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (1967), which, along with many other story strands – including the crucifiction of Christ and his relationship with Pontius Pilate – concerns a visit to Stalin’s Moscow by Woland (Satan) and his retinue. The novel is freighted with transformations of many kinds. On the night of Satan’s Ball, women are transformed into beautiful witches and a man is transformed into a pig. And there are other vivid metamorphoses, involving the punishment of greed and vanity of middle class theatregoers and the reclamation of a manuscript destroyed by fire. The Master and Margarita is a powerful socio-political satire on the conflicting relationships between repression and art, between coercive power and the imagination to resist it. In the end, Bulgakov’s many metamorphoses reflect the tenacity of his belief in the transforming power of art itself.                                                 

Another politically engaged tale of transformation is Neil Astley’s dazzling and scandalously overlooked The End of My Tether (2002). It is angrier in tone than Bulgakov’s masterpiece, but adopts the same playful, celebratory tone to the notion of shapeshifting. It concerns a mystical and, it turns out, quasi-mythical) police officer, Inspector Kernan, who battles against the forces of agribusiness, corporate greed, political wheeler-dealers and bent coppers. Overflowing with mythic and literary archetypes, the book is sprinkled with folk tales, songs, woodcuts and almanac-style snippets of folklore. Several characters undergo spectacular metamorphoses and the author’s ambition is to facilitate a profound transformation in the way the reader thinks about growth (fiscal and spiritual), our relationship with the natural world and sustainable – and life affirming – ways of being.    

*

It’s not for me to say whether my fascination with tales of transformation has had a positive impact on my sense of well being or the way I engage with the world. It’s possible that the foregoing is simply a Desert Island Discs style catalogue of memorable metamorphoses. But it feels like there has been something psychologically nourishing about these stories. Talking about her adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the American writer and theatre director Mary Zimmerman suggested that her source material ‘makes it easy to enter the heart and to believe in greater change as well... that we all can transform’ (Moyers, 2002).

References
Clarke, Lindsay, 2001, Parzival and the Stone from Heaven. London: HarperCollinsPublishers.
Ker Wilson, Barbara, 1954, Scottish Folk-Tales and Legends. London: Oxford University Press.
Moyers, Bill, 2002, Interview with Mary Zimmerman, Now with Bill Moyers. PBS, 22 March 2002.
Picard, Barbara Leonie, 1966, Hero Tales from the British Isles. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK: Puffin.


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