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.’

A sequence which so deliberately confounds expectations inevitably provokes a reader to speculate on the roads not travelled, to anticipate alternative routes and slightly different tracks. In one direction it does not look scary at all. For alongside the images of man-eating horrors are tropes of magical plenitude and wonderful fertility. At this point Warner turns to historical context, listing the bill of fare at Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital – lots of gruel, porridge and potatoes – but the Gingerbread House which traps Hansel and Gretel seems to have deeper roots in the imagination than hunger and a dull diet. It belongs to the same imaginative zone as the Cloudland at the top of the ever-growing beanstalk, where a goose is ever-laying golden eggs. Going back to antiquity, the Cyclopes too, as it happens, live in a land of milk and honey: ‘Unsown, unplowed, the earth teems with all they need ...’ And the Age of Cronus is not a primitive epoch of savagery and infanticide, but Hesiod’s Golden Age, a time of preternatural plenty, when crops produced themselves without tilling and fish fried themselves on the skillet and saltimbocca-ed down throats, a life of ease which persisted still in a small corner of the world, long after Zeus had taken over the rest of it, with the old paedophage enthroned in paradise, sovereign ruler of the Isles of the Blest.

It is not too difficult to discover the kinds of logic which place monstrosities in El Dorado. Most economically, neither monsters nor utopias exist and must share therefore the marvellous margins of the world, bounty and evil side by side. There is also a kind of realism infiltrating the land of dreams, implausible prosperity possible to imagine only behind insurmountable obstacles, sequestered by impassable guards, Jauja at the heart of cannibal country. One ancient comic playwright had an even more simple explanation. Giants are the natural products of a diet produced by lands of supernatural abundance: ‘And men were fat then, monsters of men, giants,’ says a character describing the Age of Cronus, in all likelihood Cronus himself.

But monsters reflect fecundity in more ways than by feasting off it. From the earliest times, teratologists were concerned not only with where monsters lived, but where they had come from, what produced them in the first place. Ancient writers loved to tell how the Minotaur was mothered: Daedalus invented a cow-like contraption into which Pasiphae slipped, a pantomime cow with a pantomime passion for Poseidon’s favourite bovine. The result of this alliance is shown on an Italian vase, a bull-headed baby dandled lovingly on his mother’s knee, unaware of the maze prison that awaits him when Minos finds the embarrassment too much to bear. Hera, on the other hand, was not about to break her marriage vows in some bestial adventure. Her unnatural passions were jealousy and rage: ‘Beware now lest I devise some evil thing for you hereafter,’ she whispers, furious that Zeus had managed to pull Athena out of his hat without her assistance. She withdraws her sexual services for a year, conceiving the monster Typhon unaided, product of a woman’s womb-envy. ‘And this Typhon used to do many wicked things amongst the famous tribes of men,’ says the Homeric Hymn to Apollo. The production of monsters interweaves a whole range of fecundities and creativities, the painter of the baby Minotaur emulating Daedalus’ famous ingenuity, Hera’s obstetric intrigue and Pasiphae’s fertile womb: conceiving the inconceivable.

It is not only the obvious inventedness of their incongruous superhuman forms which connects monsters to creativity but the fact that they often seem to come from nowhere, generated spontaneously out of the artist’s imagination, out of Hera’s desire for revenge or out of the soil itself. Gaia, the Earth, has a claim to be the mother of all monster mothers. The original hundred-handed Giants, who reveal their parentage in their massive forms, were her children, as were the Titans. It was because her offspring were so monstrous that her husband the Heaven, Uranus, wanted them well out of sight, provoking Gaia to generate a sickle of adamantine and a Cronus to cut off his balls. These events belonged to the earliest times, but she was liable at any moment to produce further fantastic beasts including, ultimately, the Athenians. Plato indeed thinks his fellow citizens should be particularly proud of Attic soil because ‘at a time when the whole earth was sprouting, creating diverse animals, wild and tame, she, our mother, was free and pure from savage monsters, and out of all animals selected and brought forth man.’ Plato is glossing over the fact that the first autochthonous Athenian, Cecrops, was only half-human, his torso tapering into snaky coils, and even the second attempt, Erichthonius, had a residual tendency to assume a serpent form. He reminds us, however, of the deep creative links between giants and beanstalks, bogeymen and bananas, Eden and Adam, the fertility of fields and of the imagination, monsters, earth and men. When the mountains are in labour you can never be quite sure what will sprout forth.

The ancient stories of spontaneous generation in the Golden Age used to remind me of the cine-films taken by my father on holiday. Although they compressed a fortnight into a few minutes there always seemed to be plenty of footage of picnics and the picnics inevitably included bananas. Inevitably, too, these were the scenes that got played backwards so we could see the chicken-legs reconstituted, the bananas disgorged and zipped up cleanly, something made out of nothing. It had seemed a peculiarly modern perspective, but Plato was already thinking along similar lines long before cameras and film, explaining the stories of the ‘automatic life’ of the Age of Cronus by the fact that for a time the universe revolved in the opposite direction and things happened in reverse. The creatures generated spontaneously from the soil are in fact the dead resurrected by turning the clock back.

The gods, he says, presided over these happy humans like shepherds over their flocks, supplying their every need. Christians are apt to think of the Lord Our Shepherd as a kindly creature, forgetting that shepherds, too, have to eat, but in another of Plato’s reflections on the Golden Age the sinister hints become more obvious. Socrates has been describing a rather minimalist Eden in the early years of humankind, our gentle ancestors picking up acorns and other provisions offered freely from nature’s open hand. ‘Acorns!’ exclaims his interlocutor, disappointed that paradise could not be a little more comfortable, ‘it sounds like you’re fattening up a city of pigs!’ At this point we recall Hansel in the Gingerbread House and all those other conjunctions of being fed and being eaten. We might also recall Caravaggio, for the automatic earth features in The Rest on the Flight into Egypt. While the Holy Family is fleeing, the Gaza Strip is transformed into the land of Cockaigne. Trees bend down to offer their fruit and miraculous fields of wheat spring up to hinder the pursuers. Baby Jesus, conceived spontaneously and born in a cattle-stall, is being fattened up nicely, later to melt on Marina Warner’s tongue. From this perspective Caravaggio’s fair angel looks like an anaesthetist, his song a sedative dose.

Some modern scholars have tried to separate the Golden Age Cronus from the Cronus who eats his young, as if two distinct deities had been confused, but for the Greeks of the historical period, the happy and the horrific Cronus were one and the same. We cannot get around the incongruity, either, by assuming that his crimes against children were long behind him. Child sacrifice was still practised in some parts of the ancient world and seems to have flourished in Carthage right up until its destruction by Rome. In one notorious incident at the end of the fourth century, hundreds were said to have been burnt alive to avert an invasion from Sicily. The only burnt babies discovered by archaeologists were in the sanctuary of Tanit, a goddess usually identified with Hera. The Greeks, on the other hand, automatically assumed another recipient: ‘In former times they had sacrificed to Cronus the best of their sons, but more recently they had taken to buying children in secret, nurturing them and then sending them to sacrifice ... There was in the city a bronze image of Cronus, stretching out its hands towards the ground with palms upturned so that when the children were placed on it they rolled down and fell into a kind of chasm filled with fire.’ Such historical Hansels are rare, however, and could hardly sustain the persistence of stories which link unworked-for abundance to anthropophagy. Perhaps they reflect a latent vegetarian tendency in farming communities, drawing parallels between the nursery and the sty, as if tales of cannibalism in the Golden Age reveal a profound envy and a sympathy for the lot of domestic animals, living the life of Riley until they’re fat enough for market, pig heaven for Piglings Bland, reminders that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. On the other hand, we could read accounts of the Age of Cronus as a consolation, an advertisement for human destiny and an honest life of toil and death. There is probably a sign on the Pearly Gates advising entrants to abandon cynicism, but if ever you find yourself in Paradise just ask yourself: why is God being so nice?

In an epilogue Marina Warner tries to draw out a message or a theme for her book, that by putting wild things where the wild things are we are making the home more cosy. Whether home has any right to be cosy is a question that is raised but only half-answered. Paedophiles are the modern bogeymen and not all of them are strangers. But putting an epilogue where a conclusion might be provokes another question. Openness and ambivalence are tricks of literature’s trade and, if historians sometimes close their texts more hesitantly now, it is normally not too difficult to say what the book has been about. Here Warner conspicuously fails, drawing attention to her own incongruity. What kind of strange beast is she? What kind of book has she produced? Is she an academic in fabulist’s clothes or has the novel eaten non-fiction?

Certainly, given the journey we have embarked on, she seems the perfect guide. There is nothing amateurish or dilettantiste about her work. On the contrary, there is evidence of rigour, recent research and good sense on every page. The academics and professional theoreticians who lurk in the footnotes and on the page seem not only more heavy-handed, which is what you might expect, but also more flighty and speculative. Warner wraps herself in a protective layer of inverted commas, without always nodding agreement. On the other hand, no academic would ever have set off on such an expedition in the first place and that is surely the point. Academics prefer to define a territory, chart it and master it section by section, leaving the reader with an impression of some kind of finality or fullness. One could imagine some of Warner’s previous subjects, the cult of the Virgin or the Woman as Hero, treated to such systematic analysis, but No Go the Bogeyman mocks such dreams of conquest. Any attempt to draw lines would cut the connections and leave the scholarly cartographer with only an archipelago, islands of Circe, islands of the Cyclops and Calypso, a banana republic or two.

You could always, therefore, treat the book as a series of discrete essays, a collection of folklore, ideas and pop culture into which to dip. But one of its main pleasures is following the thread, anticipating where you might be going and having your expectations wonderfully defeated. The savage tale of The Juniper Tree, for instance, leads to Philipp Otto Runge, the source for the Grimms’ Pomeranian version of the tale, and a portrait of his grim parents and saccharine children on the opposite page. The fantastical beasts lead not into freaks and portents, but to the singing cricket, El Grillo, Plutarch’s talking pig and the animal abstractions (grilli) of Hieronymus Bosch.

It takes wide-ranging reading to pull off such leaping feats, but it is curiosity rather than erudition that emerges most forcefully. Rather than mere literariness, it is the fine, metaphor-like connections, the changes in meaning through text and time, the surprises and frustrations of expectation, the shifts of focus between the real and the represented, the well-disciplined and inexorable movement, the fondness for words, that remind us we are in the presence of a novelist, although a novelist would never get away with such a remarkably serendipitous narrative line without sacrificing some sense of plausibility.

In the end, the history of monsters turns out to be much more resonant than you might at first expect. I am still not at all sure what a monster is and whether incongruity, excess, anthropophagy, terror or portentousness are the defining characteristics, but at the end of No Go the Bogeyman I found myself reflecting on very large questions through colourful and vivid exempla: the nature of mortality, infinities and human existence, artistic creativity, food, sexuality, sacrifice, tyranny, God. The only criticism, perhaps, is that Warner does not take monsters seriously enough and moves too quickly to expose the mummery and explode our fears with laughter without first frightening us sufficiently or explaining the demons’ power. It is hardly a surprise, however, that a book with ‘bogeyman’ in the title treats monsters as made-up. All Warner’s fiends are really chimeras, and this incongruous book deconstructs itself as a natural history of fictions. The most telling moment in this respect is a story about a modern mother who finds her daughter traditionally worried about someone or something under the bed. The mother pretends to find the intruder, extract him, haul him down the stairs and out the front door, a drama which does nothing to console the child, who asks, of course: ‘Was there really somebody there?’