Saturday, April 13, 2013

Shakespeare, Ibsen, The Last Unicorn, and a Big Red Rag...

[Updated August, 2017]

I used to wonder, when I was in Mr. Fischer’s English 12 class, studying Shakespeare… When we do literary analysis on the works of long-deceased authors, how do we know what these authors really meant?  Maybe all of the pretension that we heap posthumously on their work is just that – pretense, and representing nothing more than a generations-long collective best-guessing effort, that through transmission, becomes fossilized into quote-unquote scholarly analysis.  Maybe Shakespeare was just writing some cool, edgy stuff to sell tickets?

My mind goes back to my early undergraduate years at Cornell.  The year was 1988, maybe 1989.  I was up late one night, studying, in an unoccupied room in stately Goldwin Smith Hall.  As fatigue, boredom and frustration closed in on me from all sides, I took up a piece of chalk and set to declaring my frustration, in the way that only the 17 or 18-year-old I could, in the form of a colorful metaphor, possibly involving a bodily appendage not traditionally used for or while studying.  It was silly, random eruption of angst.  At some point, I left the building.
Sometime later that week or month, I happened across a copy of The Big Red Rag, at the time a feminist newspaper on campus.  (I think the title has remained, but it’s now an arts and entertainment publication.  Someone correct me if I am wrong?)  As I was flipping through its pages, I came across a graphic, in the middle of which was prominently displayed the very sentence I had written, and one of the Rag’s staff writers - actually a girl who had been in one of my Freshman Writing Seminars the previous year, I recognized the name - had performed an impressive deconstruction/analysis, word-by-word, of how the sentence spoke to my massive insecurities (and my attempts to compensate for them), my mommy issues, my desire to rule the world, and how I was undoubtedly a physical incarnation of the malevolent wave of misogyny that held sway in the world as she perceived it.  It was an impressive display of skillful and erudite analysis being guided by (since the original author, moi, was unavailable for comment) the desires of the analyst to conclude what she wished to conclude.  (Anybody remember Charles Manson’s “selective” interpretation of The Beatles’ “Blackbird?”) It could have been satire, I suppose.  It’s hard to tell.  If it was satire, it was artfully done.  Bravissima. If it was serious, well…

Which brings me back to Shakespeare.  How do we know that the interpretations of events we teach/learn are definitive?  How do we know what the artists intended?  How do we know what was going the mind of The Bard?  Or John Donne?  Or Edgar Allan Poe?  Or James Madison?  (What was the intent of the Framers with regard to the Second Amendment? That debate has been making the rounds lately, and I’m sure to tick off more than a few gun nuts and Libertarians when I publish my grammatical interpretation of what the Second Amendment really means…) I even read an analysis of Robert Frost’s “Birches” once that claimed that the up-and-down movement of the Frost's birch tree is a metaphor for nothing more profound than sex, or perhaps onanism. (You look the word up yourself, this is a G-rated article.) The link to that original article is now dead, but it is referenced here.

I have erstwhile written about my feelings about the “inflation” of the importance of the verse of Tupac Shakur, and don’t even get me started on the pretense heaped on certain celebrated practitioners in the art world. But I’ve always considered myself to be cynical and inquisitive enough of a critical thinker not to be sucked in by the alluring complacency of the surety that I know what’s what.  Still, when I read Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (in translation), and found a quote I recognized from a much later work, I thought I had made the discovery of the century.  In the play, Peer, the title character, embarks on a surreal set of adventures – rather like Huck Finn crossed with Odysseus – during one of which he meets with a “Voice from the Darkness,” the great Bøyg:
PEER   [tries to force a passage at another place, but strikes against something]. Who are you?
THE VOICE   Myself. Can you say the same?
PEER   I can say what I will; and my sword can smite! Mind yourself! Hu, hei, now the blow falls crushing! King Saul slew hundreds; Peer Gynt slew thousands! [Cutting and slashing.] Who are you?
THE VOICE   Myself.
PEER   That stupid reply you may spare; it doesn't clear up the matter. What are you?
THE VOICE   The great Bøyg.
PEER   Ah, indeed! The riddle was black; now I'd call it grey. Clear the way then, Bøyg!
THE VOICE   Go roundabout, Peer!
PEER   No, through! [Cuts and slashes.] There he fell! [Tries to advance, but strikes against something.] Ho, ho, are there more here?
THE VOICE   The Bøyg, Peer Gynt! the one only one. It's the Bøyg that's unwounded, and the Bøyg that was hurt, it's the Bøyg that is dead, and the Bøyg that's alive.
PEER   [throws away the branch]. The weapon is troll-smeared; but I have my fists! [Fights his way forward.]
THE VOICE   Ay, trust to your fists, lad, trust to your body. Hee-hee, Peer Gynt, so you'll reach the summit.
PEER   [falling back again]. Forward or back, and it's just as far;- out or in, and it's just as straight! He is there! And there! And he's round the bend! No sooner I'm out than I'm back in the ring.- Name who you are! Let me see you! What are you?
THE VOICE   The Bøyg.
PEER   [groping around]. Not dead, not living; all slimy; misty. Not so much as a shape! It's as bad as to battle in a cluster of snarling, half-wakened bears! [Screams.] Strike back at me, can't you?
THE VOICE   The Bøyg isn't mad.
PEER   Strike!
THE VOICE   The Bøyg strikes not.
PEER   Fight! You shall
THE VOICE   The great Bøyg conquers, but does not fight.
It’s that last line that struck me. One of my favorite novels is Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. (TLU was made into a Rankin/Bass animated feature film in 1982, screenplay by the author, starring the voices of Alan Arkin, Mia Farrow, Angela Lansbury, Rene Auberjonois, and mega-geek-cred actor Christoper Lee. Beagle earns extra geek cred for having written and directed the Trek: TNG episode “Sarek.”) In the novel, the pathos-ridden ageless and timeless Schemndrick the Magician befriends the last unicorn in the world.  Together, they travel far and wide, and eventually run up against the Red Bull, the creature responsible (sort of) for the disappearance of all the other unicorns.  Of the Bull, Schmendrick says, “The Red Bull never fights....He conquers, but he never fights.”

My brain exploded.

The Bøyg is a mysterious creature who exists outside what might be considered space-time.  He is part Tom Bombadil, part Yog-Sothoth.  I’ll let that sink in.

The Red Bull, too, “appears” from seemingly nowhere; it is unclear whether he has any real physical form, or if the Bull assumes physical form only to interact with the characters.  The caverns beneath the castle of wicked and broken King Haggard, who has more than one major secret, are said to be where the Bull’s lair is, but it is unclear who is master and who is servant.  The Bull may even be Haggard himself, somehow. 

They both conquer, but do not fight.  I became instantly certain that Beagle’s usage was a deliberate homage to The Bøyg.  I was absolutely sure of it.  How could it not be so?

Then I looked him up. Beagle, not the Bøyg or the Bull. (Living authors are a great treasure!)  And I asked him directly, via electronic message:
Hi. I'll try not to geek out too much. Huge TLU fan, and a high school English teacher in NY who is using TLU in class. I noticed that the words "he conquers but does not fight," used to describe the Red Bull, are also the words used by Ibsen (in translation) to describe the beast (The) Bøyg in Peer Gynt. I can find no scholarly mention of this curious connection, not even on fan-sites and other delicious outposts of good-natured geekery. Is the Red Bull an homage to the Bøyg? (And if so, I'm going to really have to give the Ibsen a closer read...) Thanks!
And he responded (in part):
I hate to admit this, because it reflects badly on my magpie education, but while I know a number of Ibsen's plays, I don't really know "Peer Gynt" well enough to quote from it. (Fats Waller throwing in left-hand licks from "In The Hall Of The Mountain King" for his own amusement is about as far as I get....)
If the Red Bull represents anything at all, it's the utterly unreasoning fear that I've seen take over entire populations over and over: having grown up during the Red Scare of the 1950s, I'm now seeing exactly the same blind panic in the face of the supposed World Jihad. As a Kentucky friend of mine used to say, "Some things'll scare you so bad, you'll hurt yourself." I think that's what the Red Bull's really about.

But I love even being thought of in the same breath with Ibsen. Thank you!
So much for my theory.

Tolkien was famous for not fessing up to who or what exactly Tom Bombadil is: Is he a nature spirit? A Vala? Eru Ilúvatar himself?  When someone who is not J.R.R. Tolkein (as we all, by definition, are not) makes his or her claim, however well-defended a thesis, is it really anything more than a best guess that “seems to fit the facts?” 

In the end, who are we to say definitively what character x in short story y represents, or what poem a by poet b means, or what artist p was feeling or intending to communicate when s/he painted abstract canvas q?  The secret, unless written down by the author, dies with him or her, at which point everything is more or less conjecture, isn’t it?  Put another way: is the message-directionality of expressive art forms from the writer to the reader or from the reader to the piece?  Or both? Put yet another way: from the perspective of the author (poet, playwright, lyricist), is there one “correct” interpretation of a piece, and everything else is “incorrect?” or do such creators surrender their pieces to the minds of the masses? 

If the latter is the case, then maybe that girl back at Cornell was right about me, and maybe Frost just liked to… you know (don’t make me go there).


  1. Very cool post! I think with any sort of art, what really matters is what we get out of it. The Last Unicorn can take on a different meaning for each viewe The same with Peer Gynt. Each person takes away a different emotional experience from a Beethoven string quartet. I think when it comes down to it, that is more important than the author's or composer's "intent." Of course, many of my college music teachers would flame me for this...

    - Paul

    1. My emotional response from a Beethoven string quartet is to want to turn on some Rush. :-)