Some Evil Thing

James Davidson

  • No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock by Marina Warner
    Chatto, 435 pp, £25.00, October 1998, ISBN 0 7011 6593 6

Marina Warner’s No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock is an impossible book. It circles around monsters and the frightening of children, but it also has chapters on the heavenly host, bananas and birdsong. Its material includes nursery tales, Greek myth, Shakespeare and Keats, autobiography, film and pop culture. It draws on the work of entomologists, etymologists, musicologists and historians. It is neither comprehensive, congruous nor conclusive. It is, on the other hand, fascinating, clever and original.

It begins with Goya’s Cronus eating his son, or is it his rosy-bottomed daughter? From there the main theme of the first section is eating and being eaten, the appetite of Scylla, babies and the mouth of Hell. After 1945, Catholics were strenuously encouraged to allow the host to melt on their tongues and swallow it whole. Warner wondered if by biting it she would make it bleed. ‘Scaring’ ends with a discussion of playing at monsters, masks and saying Boo! The startling OO marking that targets the wings of moths and butterflies might well be an image, long-exposed through natural selection’s unblinking lens, of dinosaur eyes looking for lunch.

The section on lulling begins with Caravaggio’s pigeon-winged angel playing a love-song for Mary, who sleeps. But what is the Coventry Carol doing in the Coventry play (renamed the Hegge or N-Town Cycle)? Why are women singing lullabies at Christmas? To keep their ‘little tiny’ children safe from raging Herod and his massacring henchmen, of course, to keep them camouflaged in silence. Some lullabies are sweet and sickly; others are full of dreadful fates. But the rhythms and tones are similar the world over and infants are blissfully unaware of the horrors being sung to them. Warner has enjoyed telling them: ‘my informants were startled when they stopped to consider the meaning of words that had hitherto been an unexamined childhood memory.’ This leads into a discussion of the splitting of sounds and sense. Is the nightingale merry or mournful? We listen to her (in fact it’s a him and he’s singing from sheer testosterone) like infants, and like infants we haven’t a clue.

Fee Fie Fo Fum. Finally, we come to what I had imagined the book was all about, ogres and giants and monstrous amalgams of fantastic fiends. But this part is called ‘making mock’ and its subject is luxury, lust and laughter, the beast in man and Circe’s men into beasts, the dangers of irony, the fragility of the framing voice and the pleasures of Musa sapientum. For, in the days of imperialism, man-eating ogres withdraw from Europe and appear in lands where bananas grow. Bananas symbolise both monkey manners and a life of paradisical ease. By making a belt of them and showing her breasts, Josephine Baker was too confident of keeping the joke under control. A luscious fruit, much depended-on and desired, the banana also resembles a body part. In part, therefore, when eating one, man eats himself. It is the most likely candidate for Adam’s Tree of Good and Evil. ‘In the 17th century, when savants were equally keen on gardening and the Bible,’ most would have agreed. And have you ever tried holding a fig-leaf on? From the leaves of the banana you could make a perfectly acceptable three-piece suit. We think bananas came from nowhere, waiting for us in the New World, but they were in Africa long before and came originally from India or China. A myth from the Celebes tells of a stone that came from the sky on a rope. The first couple disdained it so God took it back and gave them bananas instead. They welcomed this, but they made the wrong choice, for the life of a stone is immortal. Bananas by contrast flower and die and flower and die: ‘It embodies the lesson in time and death that Cronus is forced to learn when Zeus overcomes him and he has to relinquish power to the future generation.’

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