This is an edited version of last night's talk on Radio 4, which will be repeated at 9.10pm this Saturday on Radio 3. Next Wednesday's lecture, 'Cannibal Tales: The Hunger for Conquest', will be published in the 'Independent' the following day.
Few Elizabethans would have considered themselves kin to a crocodile, or thought of adopting an endangered species to prevent its extinction. In Elizabeth I's time, a courtier, bespattered with blood foaming from the lips of a bear at a bear-baiting session, rejoiced in the sport; the early French rationalist Rene Descartes arrived at the firm analysis that an animal was merely a machine: natural, but lacking a soul.
As we all know, our evolutionary proximity to the apes caused horror in the last century. Adam had been lord of creation in the Bible, and named the beasts; now he was merely one of their kind. The peacock no longer existed simply to delight his eyes, or the pig to fill his belly.
Of course cruelty to animals continues, and identification with them is sporadic and inconsistent. But zoos, where people thrilled to see wild creatures in the last century, are now closing, or turning into show farms with domestic animals. Circuses with animal acts are largely doomed, even when the performers are dogs and ponies; protesters have been injured at hunt meetings; a father has placed his son on the race track of the Grand National to prevent cruelty to the horses; campaigns to save whales, seals, dolphins, spiders - and crocodiles - attract enormous followings, and have had some real effect on hunting and trading practices.
The desire for closeness to animal power may still stimulate the breeding of fighting dogs, but it also drives the rise in the variety of soft toys - not only the teddy bear, but many kinds of reptiles and scary animals too. Even dinosaurs are transformed by plush and stuffing into reassuring, cuddly, domestic gods, nursery talismans.
The symbolic value of wild animals has ancient, tough mythological roots, and these are intertwined with the definition of humanity's virtue - virtue in the sense of both goodness and potency. Even when despised in an anthropocentric world, wild things have offered a standard by which human identity and exploits could be measured: their proximity often proves a legendary hero's strength. The Greek 'Alexander romance', extant since the third century, is a hugely entertaining farrago of history, tall stories and esoteric wisdom. Its exalted hero, the mythic Alexander the Great, has a sequence of confrontations with monsters of the wilds. His heroism doesn't only consist in conquest and extermination, but in taming and incorporation: wild things aren't monsters to the same degree as Medusa or Chimaera - they're barbaric, rather than alien.
The picaresque narrative follows Alexander to the borders of the known world and beyond, from where he writes letters home to his mother:
'We set out and came to a green country where . . . we saw a huge man with hair all over his body, and we were frightened. I gave orders to capture him. When he was taken he gazed at us ferociously. I ordered a naked woman to be brought to him; but he grabbed her and ate her. The soldiers rushed up to rescue her, but he made a gnashing noise with his teeth. The rest of the natives heard him, and came running towards us out of the swamp: there were about 10,000 of them . . . I ordered the swamp to be set alight; and when they saw the fire they fled . . . They had no human intelligence, but barked like dogs.'
Alexander routs the wild men with fir, sign of the hearth and culture, in the same way as Valentine used another symbol of consciousness - the mirror - to prevail over his wild brother.
More familiar heroes who had to contend with - and master - the wild include Hercules, father to many a superman. He overcame the Nemean lion and plenty of other wild creatures. Centuries on and rather closer to home, in Maurice Sendak's exhilarating children's story, Max puts on his wolf suit, visits the land Where the Wild Things Are, joins in their wild rumpus and becomes their king - before he comes back home to his supper and finds it still hot.
Sometimes the distinction between taming the beast and becoming one of them is blurred, as in the case of Max. Many a classical deity or warrior has been raised by animals in the wilds. Zeus was suckled by Amaltheia, a nymph in the form of a she-goat, and fed with wild honey from combs found in the hollow of a tree, as can be seen in a wonderfully vigorous painting in the Dulwich Collection. Poussin's sometimes frozen poetry appears here to be itself molten with sap and sweetness. The healer god Aesculapius was also abandoned, and nursed by a she-goat, too, and guarded by a sheepdog; the legendary founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were rescued by a she-wolf after being exposed on a mountainside; such legends survived in heraldry, and some families claim descent from the union of an ancestor with a wild thing - like the house of Lusignan, who traced their line back to Melusina, a scaly and bat-winged siren, and the Orsini, whose ancestor, as their name suggests, was reared by a bear.
The animal mother breaks the link with human parents, she helps to distinguish her charge from ordinary children, she confers on the foundling a mark of special difference from the human. The she-goat or bear or wolf nourishes the man of destiny with her vitality - presented, in such stories, as somehow more vital than a human mother's milk, as intrinsically natural with a capital N - the forest, not the city; the raw, not the cooked; the wild, not the tame.
While attitudes to Nature historically oscillate in a complex pattern of praise and dread, the mythic hero is often represented as achieving the union of nature and culture in his person, both in his origin and in his exploits. But the difficulty of this synthesis becomes part of the agonistic struggle that the narrative of heroism relates - and sometimes a tragic part.
Metamorphosis out of human shape into another, beastly form, has been used to express a fall from human grace. The first metamorphosis in Ovid's great book picks up on a familiar modern myth that even Plato mentioned, in The Republic. Lycaon, ruler of Arcadia, kills and cooks a hostage. For this lack of hospitality, Zeus turns him into the first werewolf. Calisto is changed into a little bear by Hera in revenge for the love Zeus feels for her; Circe mockingly degrades Odysseus's men when she changes them into swine. Milton, in his play Comus, gives their brutishness the full edge of his scorn:
. . .their human countenance,
The express resemblance of the gods, is changed
Into some brutish form of wolf, or bear,
Or ounce (lynx), or tiger, hog, or bearded goat . . .
And they so perfect in their misery,
Not once perceive their foul disfigurement,
But boast themselves more comely than before,
And all their friends and native home forget,
To roll with pleasure in a sensual sty.
Like beasts, they have no capacity for that self-consciousness which spells human identity.
In parallel, predominantly Christian tradition, such animal mutations were the work of the Devil. Indeed, as fairy-tales often evolve out of religious stories, the defeat of an ogre such as Bluebeard recapitulates many comforting Christian tales about women who unwittingly marry the Devil but with the help of the Virgin Mary free themselves in the end from his binding charms. Even Bluebeard's name contains a memory of the 'shagge-hair'd blue devils' of the Bible, represented in stained-glass windows and on the mystery play stage, where they would caper with firecrackers gripped between their teeth.
St Thomas Aquinas analysed the Devil's tricks and suggested that the animal metamorphoses he performed consisted of three types of illusion: the Devil could tamper with someone's vision so that they saw monsters where there were none; he could fashion an apparition; or third, the Devil could change someone into an animal, such as a wolf or a black cat.
The various beast-shapes which unsavoury lovers take in fairy-tales often communicate women storytellers' jaundiced view of marriage; animal shape denotes animal lust, above all. In 'The Ram' by Madame d'Aulnoy, written at the turn of the 17th century, the princess-heroine simply leaves her husband, the Ram, to die, while she busies herself taking charge of her father's kingdom.
Significantly, another of Mme d'Aulnoy's heroines comes across a whole circle of hell peopled with men in enchanted animal shape, and discovers that they have been punished for various marital crimes, wife-beating, rape, and so forth and that their shape corresponds to these offences.
The forms which the Devil adopted also coincidentally reproduced actual threats to people and livestock in times of famine, when wolves and even bears entered the villages from their lairs in the wild. Tales about such predators did not need to grow in the telling: there is a ring of genuine terror in the report of the Dutch mariners who, in 1597, were looking for the northern passage to China, and found the pack ice closing in and the phantom shapes of polar bears hovering, waiting to pounce on the dying crew.
It is blithely symptomatic of contemporary forgettings that we now find bears sweet. The return to human form used to be the quest, the reward, the reason of the fairy-tale in the first place. But beastly shape is now becoming an appealing alternative, even a prize, a more valuable rather than a degraded state. The beast seems to offer a refuge from the robot. Listen to the scene-setting of a recent video game called Altered Beast:
'It is the time of gods and myths and legends. When men were warriors and courageously fought unnatural enemies in the endless battle of good against evil. It is the time of the Altered Beast . . . Although you were once a brave and awesome Roman Centurion, the rigours of this journey demand a supernatural display of strength. So you are bestowed with the powers of the Altered Beast. The power to transform your being into a part animal, part human creature of formidable force.'
As you advance through the levels and perils of the game, you - the former soldier - mutate into various animals, all of them capable of great mischief: first a Werewolf, next a Were dragon, a Were bear, and at last, a Gold Werewolf, in which guise you can defeat the ogre and rescue Athena - wisdom - whom he has been holding captive.
This load of old cobblers is very interesting because the game's metamorphoses are running counter to the traditional current of Western myth and folklore, in which the human absorbs the animal, by taming it and mastering it. The new myth of the wild calls into question the privilege of being a human at all. The video game catches well the prevailing tendency of mythic heroism: the metamorphoses, all into the beastly, choose exactly the same predators that terrorise the protagonists in fairy-tales such as 'Little Red Ridinghood'.
This new assignation of higher value to wild creatures gains force when there is a woman in the picture. The seductress sets alight inherent sensuality, which in these stories is coded animal. But the value of this animal wildness grows by contrast to the domesticating threat of women's love. For in this type of myth, women represent - most unusually - the domain of culture, and culture becomes the enemy of nature's glorious, powerful, unrestrained energies.
The change of attitude over time to this encounter can be seen very clearly in the different ways in which the ancient fairy-tale of 'Beauty and the Beast' has been told. The Beast presents the major fairy-tale figure of masculine potency, of Eros, and the plots in which he moves offer a blueprint for the proper channelling of masculine erotic energy in society; this alters according to context.
Until rather recently, the Beast suffered from his disfigurement; sometimes it expressed just punishment for earlier bad behaviour. Under the evil spell, the Beast fears that nobody will ever love him in this form and he will never be freed. Even as late as the Jean Cocteau film of 1946, for instance, la Bete feels himself doomed in his beastliness. Against his will, he hunts wild creatures and tears them limb from limb to devour them raw; his great claws and mane smoulder after a kill. He can only speak monosyllabically to la Belle, and his brutishness repels her. La Belle will release him, eventually, from this confining, animal realm through those human qualities of mercy and love.
Enchanting as the film is, and fascinating as the Beast's charms are, Cocteau's film was already quaint in its symbolist allegiance to the redemptive powers of civility - of art and beauty and romance.
Many earlier, popular versions of the story show, by contrast, a marked preference for the beast. And the most familiar and revealing example is King Kong, the monster movie of all time, which was made in 1933 and has proved, alongside The Wizard of Oz, one of Hollywood's highest earners. King Kong gives a new spin to the old tale when it opens with the lugubrious prophecy: 'And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day, it was as one dead.'
The plot unfolds how an intrepid adventurer, Carl Denham, has heard about a prodigious mystery, the 'Eighth Wonder of the World', and has set sail in order to capture it. He will use a woman as bait, a blonde - the actress Fay Wray, who after her performance in this film became the first of the adored 'screamers' of Hollywood - a forerunner of today's shrieking child victims. Everything about Kong places him in direct succession to the monstrous wild men of myth and legend.
The film-makers, Merian C Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, took as their motto 'the three Ds' - 'distance, danger and difficulty'. The pair were air force veterans, later turned mercenaries and buccaneers. Theirs was a Boy's Own ethic, rip-roaring, macho, empire-building, showy: in the famous final scene, when Kong on the top of the Empire State Building is attacked from the air, the director and his producer filmed themselves piloting the planes that shoot at Kong. However, in the film's closing words, the death of Kong is attributed to a different cause: 'No, it wasn't the aeroplanes; it was Beauty killed the Beast.'
The film later turns into an ironical critique of human society, of its cruelty and greed and love of show; the sympathy it displays towards the beast rather than the beauty grows stronger throughout, however illogically, until the climactic end. When Carl Denham first captured Kong, stunning him with gas bombs, he ordered him to be tied up and cried out, 'We'll give him more than chains . . . We'll teach him Fear.' The chains, the fear, mark the end of his wild days; repression, domestication. At one level, the monster represents nature versus humanity; at another, he dramatises a worse danger for men: women. The beautiful woman is held responsible for his undoing. The crushing of Kong becomes just another episode in the long tragic chronicle about male libidos unjustly slapped down.
As Denham says, the story shows Kong 'going soft . . . losing his wisdom and getting licked . . .' King Kong is a bachelor on the loose, the movie a man's movie, endorsing the importance of sexual segregation for the safety of the male species. At the same time, it upholds the terror of predatory male power because that justifies the need for chivalrous vengeance and continual control of women: it's a rescue romance, and there's nothing else for Fay Wray to do but scream like a terrified child.
But even while she screams, she never quite quells the idea that all beauties deep down really want a beast: that Kong might be the monster of her dreams.
The new Disney Beauty and the Beast cartoon film also looks at the magnetism of the wild for the civilised, and offers an interesting popular response. Two suitors are rivals for Beauty in this script by a woman screenwriter, Linda Woolverton. The hunky beefcake Gaston, on the one hand, believes he is God's gift to women, murders quantities of animals when he goes hunting, and wallpapers his haunts with grisly trophies; worse, he stirs up a villagers' lynch party to kill the good Beast, recalling the terrifying mob in the classic 1931 film of 'Frankenstein'. In short, he is the savage, and his savagery is revealed in his enmity to all good wild creatures and his obtuse and unrestrained narcissism (he threatens Belle with a brood of Gaston lookalikes).
A Superman or even Sylvester Stallone lookalike, he is given a spirited and funny song in praise of himself to sing before falling to a horrible death off the precipice at the Beast's castle.
As for the Beast himself, Belle begins his education in proper manliness - he learns to weep, not roar, and wins her through his cultural attributes, especially his amazingly well-stocked library. Splitting the male into the good beast who looks like an animal and the bad beast who looks like a man spurs on the drama; but it also envisions an ideal brand of masculinity, embodied by the Beast. Unlike Gaston, he doesn't go hunting and shooting; unlike Gaston, he is aware of his shortcomings, and grieves like a good existentialist at his condition. Following in the tradition of the fairy-tale's belief in the Beast's intrinsic potential, the film promises its audience that Prince Charming will turn out a New Man, virile yet tender, natural yet cultivated, in touch with his emotions, childlike in the best sense, yet mature and responsible in his attitude. All he needed was the love of a good woman. This is a woman's film: it has in mind an audience of mums and daughters.
Angela Carter wrote several dazzling variations of the 'Beauty and the Beast' tale in her collection The Bloody Chamber. In 'The Tiger's Bride', she turns the traditional ending upside down, and it is Beauty who metamorphoses, shedding her human shape:
'He dragged himself closer and closer to me, until I felt the harsh velvet of his head against my hand, then a tongue, abrasive as sandpaper. He will lick the skin off me]'
And each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world, and left behind a nascent patina of shining hairs. 'My ear-rings turned back to water and trickled down my shoulders; I shrugged the drops off my beautiful fur.'
So, it would be a mistake to dismiss visions of the Beast's newfound nobility as male self-flattery, or even, more seriously, as sentimental justifications of toughness, brute strength, independence - the same stuff of the warrior. The beast issues an exciting invitation to a journey, to pleasure. His domain can't be the exclusive property of one sex.
In modern myth, it's not that the boundary has been eroded between human and animal - rather, the value given to each side in the contrast has changed. And contemporary stories are finding a way to answer the call of the wild.
The full text of the six lectures will be published in book form by Vintage on 21 April at pounds 4.99.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies