What if Thel Was Male? – Bruce Dickinson’s “Book of Thel”

Bruce Dickinson at the Unveiling of Blake’s Gravestone 12.08.2018 Courtesy of The Blake Society

Despite the use of almost the same title, I claim that William Blake’s “The Book of Thel” (1789) and British singer and songwriter Bruce Dickinson’s “Book of Thel” (The Chemical Wedding, 1998) are completely different narratives. In fact, I claim that Dickinson has turned the virgin Thel, who fears death or motherhood, depending on the interpretation of Blake’s version, into a male character. As I show in the following, Dickinson’s narrative mirrors the original, but turns the imagery on its head. Exchanging one sex for another (I refer here to sexes instead of gender roles because both texts implicitly talk about reproduction and roles are thus very clear-cut) generates a new narrative as well as a new context. So, what if Thel was male?

“Book of Thel” is part of the album The Chemical Wedding (1998), a concept album linking the occult to Blakean thought, paintings, and characters. I have explained it in more detail here.

Blake’s “The Book of Thel” deals with a variety of female gender roles as well as with questions of a meaningful life and mortality. Different personnel discusses with the young Thel their respective world-views of (heterosexual) relationships, parenthood, the (lack of) love, self-sacrifice, and duty. Malgorzata Luczynska-Holdys points out in her essay “’Life exhal’d in milky fondness’—Becoming a Mother in William Blake’s The Book of Thel” that

Courtesy of The Blake Society

the chief question, then, is what it would mean for Thel to enter this world, Blake’s realm of Generation, or Experience. Entering it may be understood as a conscious decision to grow up and to assume the social roles prescribed for a woman in the adult world—primarily the role of mother.

The most prominent role has hereby the Clod of Clay who confronts Thel with the infant – worm and grants her permission to enter her realm with the opportunity to return unscathed. Yet this realm does not only represent the world of adulthood, but also the world of the dead. This world is clearly a graveyard:

She wanderd in the land of clouds thro’ valleys dark, listning
Dolours & lamentations: waiting oft beside a dewy grave
She stood in silence. listning to the voices of the ground,
Till to her own grave plot she came, & there she sat down. (Plate 6)

Thel visits the land of the dead and sits on her own grave. She does not get a glimpse of motherhood, but of death. Yet both readings converge in the image of the infant-worm. When Thel asks if she will become “food of worms,” (Plate 3) this may serve as memento mori as well as a reference to pregnancy. In case of a pregnancy, the infant-worm would feed of Thel, in its role as an embryo and later as an infant by breast-feeding. When confronted with the infant-worm, Thel spreads her arms, driven by sympathy. However, her attempt at motherhood is short-lived and will ultimately fail when confronted with her grave.

The Book of Thel, Copy O, Object 5 (c.1818) The William Blake Archive www.blakearchive.org

In Dickinson’s song we meet a narrator who uses a generalising “you.” I argue that he must be male because he is referring to a family tree which does require two different sexes because there is no progression without contraries. What is more, the narrator uses curse words to describe feminine gender roles. This alienated view on femininity paired with open contempt and hatred hints at a male view.

I also argue that he is Thel because, he, in turn, is courted by females as a partner, namely a priestess, a virgin, a serpent, and the female who betrayed him. Whereas all of them are definitely sexual partners, I think that two roles can be applied to the priestess. The priestess may take the role of the Clod of Clay as a gate keeper. She seems to be responsible for the opening of The Book of Thel, hereby creating a mise en abyme. To open the The Book of Thel hints at evoking the respective narrative. I think the priestess may be the character that invited him to get a glimpse of her realm, holding up her arm up in invitation like Thel does to the infant-worm. But the priestess is way less honest than the Clod of Clay. The priestess has lied about an unharmed return.

The priestess is not only the gate keeper, but also the birth-giver. I argue that all female gender roles are in fact one character that appears in different shapes. We are told that the serpent and priestess are one and the same character. I argue that the remaining roles, the virgin and what he calls a prostitute, are the same character, too. When Blake’s Thel talks to different entities to acquire different viewpoints, male Thel talks to one entity that appears in different (Blakean) shapes.

She appears, rather logically, as a weeping virgin, echoing both Thel and the “fair-eyed dew.” (Plate 3) But this virgin finds sexual fulfilment, implied by a line playing on the double meaning of “cry.” It can be decoded as a sexual reaction when seen in context – it is linked to joy. (Another hint that may have coined my conclusion is Dickinson’s ever ambiguous slogan and trademark “Scream for me.” (cf. http://screamforme.com))

The serpent echoes Genesis and the seduction of Eve. Serpents curled around bodies are a common and recurring motif in Blake’s paintings, as Jared Powells points out in Hell’s Printing Press | The Blog of the Blake Archive and Blake Quarterly, hinting at sex, sin, and seduction. The serpent is also a recurring motif in Dickinson’s work, mostly carrying the same connotations. It is linked to a kissing female in “Revelations” (Iron Maiden, Piece of Mind, 1983), it is kissed in “The Magician” (Accident of Birth, 1997), and becomes a symbol for the immortal evil in the human heart in “Believel” (Tyranny of Souls, 2005). Dickinson uses the serpent almost as frequently as a symbol for sin and seduction as Blake did, with the only difference that at least in the first example the serpent is definitely female (the exception of the rule being “Welcome to the Pit” (Accident of Birth, 1997) in which the viper and the snake are a phallus). This reinterpretation of the serpent as representative of the female sex implies a convergence of the serpent and Eve. In Genesis Eve seduces Adam to eat the forbidden fruit; Eve can thus be seen as victim as well as agent of seduction respectively. As the serpent in “Book of Thel” is female as well (because she is also the priestess), I say that in consequence she is Eve bringing doom on Adam. The weeping virgin who mirrors Blake’s rather hapless or at least harmless Thel has suddenly become Eve seducing Adam, causing the permanent loss of Paradise. This was never meant to end in an unscathed return on side of male Thel. The serpent turns this into a case of Paradise Lost. Male Thel falls to temptation, looses his “innocence,” and is damned.

In Blake’s illuminated book, the serpent appears in the last illustration in a situation which may well imply that it is a phallus; the serpent is ridden by a young woman and children. If we accept this reading, which implies that Blake offered us two endings and the illustration is an alternative outcome of the narrative, as Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick and Joseph Viscomi observe, here too it is the serpent which brings the sexual union and the change of narrative.

The Book of Thel, Copy O, Object 7 (c. 1818) The Blake Archive www.blakearchive.org

In a last step, the virgin who has become the seductress / serpent becomes a mother. The women he calls a prostitute is the one who gives birth, as inclined by the use of vocabulary. But, the mother figure in Blake’s poem is the Clod of Clay, earth itself and the keeper of the dead, her realm a graveyard. Dickinson’s song combines motherhood and death (as they have already been combined in the imagery of the infant-worm in Blake’s poem) and links them to the realm of the Clod of Clay. The motherly character of the Clod of Clay who cares for the infant-worm in Blake’s poem is now giving birth herself. And she gives birth to death, which is, in my eyes, considering that she is mistress over a graveyard, a very logical conclusion. This birthing of evil is announced with a Shakespeare quote taken from Macbeth “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” (IV, I, 44-45)

Up from here, the song is open to two different interpretations. In a first reading, the narrator does actually die. His union with the virgin leads to a quick end, which may be another sexual pun or the indication that he does indeed die. After all he is meant to enter the graveyard world Thel enters. Whereas Thel walks to her own grave and sits on it, male Thel has the “marriage hearse” of Blake’s “London” at his disposal to take him to a funeral (which is most likely his own). This imagery of a pairing in death also harks back to the chorus of the title song “The Chemical Wedding” in which a couple is united in the grave, a union which becomes their wedding (which in turn mirrors the manifest Chymische Hochzeit Christiani Rosencreutz Anno 1459 (The Chemical Wedding, 1616) in which three couples are killed to be reborn as the king and the queen).

In a second reading, I argue that the narrator is doomed. He is talking about a destroyed family tree and that he has to relive his tale. He has been marked, a process that is irreversible. He has been seduced to spawn evil and now he is caught by what he has done. The pairing of lamb and wolf (which echoes The Lamb and The Tyger) may suggest that male Thel, the victim, was targeted from the evil forces right from the beginning.

Be that as it may, the outcome of Dickinson’s “Book of Thel” is the exact opposite of Blake’s The Book of Thel. As the seduction takes place, the whole narrative changes (and it changes for the worse), arguably because Thel was tricked and betrayed by the gatekeeper. The crying Thel has indeed become a very classical femme fatale who brings death.

Dickinson has turned the hapless Thel into a monstrous female, monstrous in the meaning that she is an evil seductress who intends and brings doom, but also in the meaning that she is linked to death and gives birth to evil. This constellation is very befitting for the genre of heavy metal as it tells a horror story. These changes may thus be seen as a logical step considering the target genre Blake’s text was adapted for. But, it also casts a new light on Blake’s text. If we follow the Biblical narrative of Eve having seduced Adam, the consequential punishment is death. The fact that the priestess / serpent / virgin has seduced male Thel, also leads to death. Weeping Thel who refuses motherhood has been exchanged for the first femme fatale, the seductress Eve; the rejection of motherhood has been turned into the birth of evil. What if Thel was male? He might succumb to the seductive power of Eve / the serpent and witness the birth of death (the Fall). In a clever twist, swapping the sexes has turned The Book of Thel into Genesis.

Author’s Note
Another song slightly hinting at The Book of Thel is “Accident of Birth,” stemming from the album of the same name which precedes The Chemical Wedding. Here, the narrator points out that dying actually means returning to the womb, a narrative which also turns Blake’s The Book of Thel  on its head. Whereas Thel enters the world of death and returns to her world; the dying person in the song returns to the realm of death where he originally came from. Now the world of the living becomes the visiting space. Birth, dying,  and the realm of death converge again.

Sources

Andreae, Johann, Valentin. Die Chymische Hochzeit des Christian Rosenkreutz Anno 1459. Translated by Walter Weber. Stuttgart: Freies Geistesleben, 1957.

Blake, William. The Book of Thel. The William Blake Archive. http://www.blakearchive.org/work/thel (2019) [15.11.2019]

Blake, William. “London.” William Blake. Songs of Innocence and Experience. The William Blake Archive. Copy AA, 1826 http://www.blakearchive.org/copy/songsie.aa?descId=songsie.aa.illbk.46 (2019) [15.11.2019]

Bruce Dickinson. The Chemical Wedding. Sanctuary, 1998.

Dickinson, Bruce, Z, Roy. “Accident of Birth.” Bruce Dickinson. Accident of Birth. CMC International, Duellist Enterprises, Abril Music, 1997.

Dickinson, Bruce, Z, Roy. “Believel.” Bruce Dickinson. Tyranny of Souls. Sanctuary, 2005.

Dickinson, Bruce, Z, Roy and Eddie Casillas. “Book of Thel.” Bruce Dickinson. The Chemical Wedding. Sanctuary, 1998

Dickinson, Bruce, Z, Roy. “Chemical Wedding.” Bruce Dickinson. The Chemical Wedding. Sanctuary, 1998

Dickinson, Bruce. “Revelations.” Iron Maiden. Piece of Mind. EMI, 1983.

Dickinson Bruce, Z, Roy. “The Magician.” Bruce Dickinson. Accident of Birth. CMC International, Duellist Enterprises, Abril Music, 1997.

Dickinson Bruce, Smith, Adrian. “Welcome to the Pit.” Bruce Dickinson. Accident of Birth. CMC International, Duellist Enterprises, Abril Music, 1997.

Eaves, Morris, Essick, Robert N. and Joseph Viscomi. “Explanatory Notes”. Blake, William. The Early Illuminated Books.  ed. by David Bindmann. Vol. 3. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998. Google Books. https://books.google.de/books?id=Z9sXWEQT2-4C&printsec=frontcover&dq=early+illuminated+books&hl=de&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjxk7iy8PHlAhVF-yoKHf-gDdQQ6AEIKzAA#v=onepage&q=early%20illuminated%20books&f=false [17.11.19]

Malgorzata Luczynska-Holdys. “’Life exhal’d in milky fondness’—Becoming a Mother in William Blake’s The Book of Thel” Blake / an Illustrated Quarterly. Vol. 46, no. 4, 2013. http://bq.blakearchive.org/46.4.luczynska?fbclid=IwAR18lSfLDmEGLL5YJHl4OLzRkGexH0NzlhtT4ZM8wrez6DlEYDTME7U9Zlc [15.11.2019]

Powell, Jared. “Exploring Blake’s Satanic Serpents” Hell’s Printing Press | The Blog of the Blake Archive and Blake Quarterly. https://blog.blakearchive.org/2019/08/26/exploring-blakes-satanic-serpents/ (26.08.2019) [15.11.2019]

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. ed. by W. J. Craig. London, Henry Pordes, 1984.

The new Blakes at the Tate: prequel

Here are notes I put together in 2007, when the “new Blakes” (then still in private hands) were first displayed at Tate Britain.  I hope these notes may prove useful or at least encourage discussion when the “new Blakes” go back on display in July 2010. [Notes newly corrected 12 July 2010.]

The latest [November 2007] Tate Britain display in their Blake room is entitled:  “William Blake: ‘I still go on till the heavens & earth are gone’”.  A group of newly-discovered prints, apparently once bound up as a book, like a Small Book of Designs now in the British Museum, is displayed alongside a print from the Tate collection which possibly formed part of the same set.

The eight new prints contain just the illustration part of a few pages from three of Blake’s illuminated books—without the accompanying text that is present in the usual full version of the illuminated book.  Instead they have just a brief inscription handwritten beneath the image, yielding a total of thirteen lines of text that have been unknown until now.

Tate Britain provides no fuller discussion of the new images.  There is just a brief mention on the gallery website: “a highlight is the private loans of recently discovered works which have never before been exhibited”.  I list the prints in the sequence in which they are displayed on the walls of Tate Britain, left to right.

The First Book of Urizen, plate 2.
Image only (no text), surrounded by black ink framing lines.  Colour-printed from a relief-etched copper plate and finished with watercolours and pen and black ink on wove paper.  3 stitch-holes in left-hand margin.
DATE Dated 1794/1796 by the Tate curators.
INSCRIPTION Inscribed by Blake below the framing lines: “Teach these Souls to Fly.”
NUMBERING Paper has been cropped to a roughly square format removing any numbering.
COLLECTION Tate (N 03696)

The Book of Thel, plate 7.
Image only (no text), surrounded by black ink framing lines.  Colour-printed from a relief-etched copper plate and finished with watercolours and pen and black ink on wove paper.  3 stitch-holes in left-hand margin.
DATE Dated 1780/1796 by the Tate curators.
INSCRIPTION Inscribed in Blake’s hand below the framing lines: “Doth God take Care of These”
NUMBERING Numbered in pencil, outside framing lines, in bottom right corner: 5 (or 3?)
COLLECTION Private Collection (X 23184)*
* This is a running “Accession Number” given to all works loaned to the Tate.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, plate 16.
Image only (no text), surrounded by black ink framing lines.  Colour-printed from a relief-etched copper plate and finished with watercolours and pen and black ink on wove paper.  3 stitch-holes in left-hand margin.
DATE Dated 1790/1796 by the Tate curators.
INSCRIPTION Inscribed in Blake’s hand below the framing lines: “Who shall set”/“The Prisoners free”
NUMBERING Numbered in pencil, outside framing lines, in bottom right corner: 4
COLLECTION Private Collection (X 23185)

The First Book of Urizen, plate 7.
Image only (no text), surrounded by black ink framing lines.  Colour-printed from a relief-etched copper plate and finished with watercolours and pen and black ink on wove paper.  3 stitch-holes in left-hand margin.
DATE Dated 1794/1796 by the Tate curators.
INSCRIPTION Inscribed in Blake’s hand below the framing lines: “I sought Pleasure & found Pain”. / “Unutterable”
NUMBERING Numbered in pencil, outside framing lines, in bottom right corner: 9
COLLECTION Private Collection (X 23171)

The First Book of Urizen, plate 11.
Image only (no text), surrounded by black ink framing lines.  Colour-printed from a relief-etched copper plate and finished with watercolours and pen and black ink on wove paper.  3 stitch-holes in left-hand margin.
DATE Dated 1794/1796 by the Tate curators.
INSCRIPTION Inscribed in Blake’s hand below the framing lines: “Everything is an attempt” / “To be Human”
NUMBERING Numbered in pencil, outside framing lines, in bottom right corner: 6
COLLECTION Private Collection (X 20172)

The First Book of Urizen, plate 12.
Full-page image surrounded by black ink framing lines.  Colour-printed from a relief-etched copper plate and finished with watercolours and pen and black ink on wove paper.
DATE Dated 1794/1796 by the Tate curators.
INSCRIPTION Written in an unknown hand and within the outer framing lines: The floods overwhelmed me
NUMBERING Numbered in pencil, outside framing lines, in bottom right corner: 10
COLLECTION Private Collection (X 23173)

The First Book of Urizen, plate 17.
Full-page image surrounded by black ink framing lines.  Colour-printed from a relief-etched copper plate and finished with watercolours and pen and black ink on wove paper.  3 stitch-holes in left-hand margin.
DATE Dated 1794/1796 by the Tate curators.
INSCRIPTION Inscribed in Blake’s hand below the framing lines: “Vegetating in fibres of Blood”
NUMBERING Numbered in pencil, outside framing lines, in bottom right corner: 8
COLLECTION Private Collection (X 23181)

The First Book of Urizen, plate 19.
Image only (no text), surrounded by black ink framing lines.  Colour-printed from a relief-etched copper plate and finished with watercolours and pen and black ink on wove paper.  3 stitch-holes in left-hand margin.
DATE Dated 1794/1796 by the Tate curators.
INSCRIPTION Inscribed in Blake’s hand below the framing lines: “Is the Female death” / “Become new Life”
NUMBERING Numbered in pencil, outside framing lines, in bottom right corner: 1
COLLECTION Private Collection (X23182)

The First Book of Urizen, plate 23.
Image only (no text), surrounded by black ink framing lines.  Colour-printed from a relief-etched copper plate and finished with watercolours and pen and black ink on wove paper.  3 stitch-holes in left-hand margin.
DATE Dated 1794/1796 by the Tate curators.
INSCRIPTION Inscribed in Blake’s hand below the framing lines: “Fearless tho in pain” / “I travel on”
NUMBERING Numbered in pencil, outside framing lines, in bottom right corner: 7.
COLLECTION Private Collection (X 23183)

The Small Book of Designs is a sequence of 23 quarto pages formerly bound into a book.  Each page is numbered—which may represent Blake’s original sequence.  It is now in the British Museum (disbound and the pages separately mounted).  The designs derive from Blake’s works in Illuminated Printing but the texts associated with the designs have been blanked out in printing.

Linked to the BM set (“Copy A”) are a number of single prints which may be pages from a second copy of a Small Book of Designs.  This is sometimes referred to as Copy B.  Some of these “Copy B” prints carry inscriptions—cryptic, allusive—which suggest that Blake intended to create an emblem book on the lines of his intaglio-engraved The Gates of Paradise, but in rich colour.  The newly-discovered designs are on apparently untrimmed numbered quarto pages with stitch marks indicating they were once bound together.  This confirmation of a set sequence of images with inscriptions further supports the idea that the pages were intended as an emblem book.

As the table below makes clear, there appear to be just two printings of each image.  The newly-discovered prints nicely fill the gaps in the sequence of known pages from Copy B.  The two exceptions are pages which are not represented in Copy A.  Could indeed the supposed Copy B prints from Urizen plates 9, 12, 13 once have formed part of the Copy A sequence?  The problem with that suggestion is that none of the Copy A prints carry inscriptions whereas Urizen 9, 12, 13 are inscribed in ink, some possibly in Blake’s hand.  Further checking for stitch-holes, and measurement of the gaps between holes, might clarify what belongs in what sequence.

The images in the Small Book of Designs, copy A, are colour-printed—that is printed from coloured inks painted on to the copper plates—with little additional work after printing.  My knowledge of the BM prints derives mostly from reproductions, but it seems to me that the new prints are not so heavily printed; the images have been substantially reworked and strengthened in watercolour and with pen and ink work.  This suggests that the new set consists of second pulls from the same inking as the BM set.

Source Copy A (No) Copy B (No) New Set (No)
Urizen plate 1 British Museum (1) No inscription Keynes “Which is the Way” | “The Right or the Left”  
Marriage plate 11 British Museum (2) No inscription Princeton “Death & Hell” | “Teem with Life”  
Urizen plate 17 British Museum (3) No inscription   Private Colln (8) “Vegetating in fibres of Blood”
Marriage plate 16 British Museum (4) No inscription   Private Colln (4) “Who shall set” | “The Prisoners free”
Marriage plate 14 British Museum (5) No inscription Rosenwald (9) “A Flaming Sword” | “Revolving every way”  
Marriage plate 20 British Museum (6) No inscription Anonymous Colln “O revolving serpent” | “O the Ocean of Time & Space”  
Urizen plate 23 British Museum (7) No inscription   Private Colln (7) “Fearless tho in pain” | “I travel on”
Urizen plate 24 British Museum (8) No inscription    
Urizen plate 3 British Museum (9) No inscription KeynesOh! Flames of Furious Desires  
Thel plate 2. British Museum (10) No inscription    
Urizen plate 27 British Museum (11) No inscription    
Urizen plate 2 British Museum (12) No inscription Tate “Teach these Souls to Fly.”  
Urizen plate 8 British Museum (13) No inscription    
Urizen plate 19 British Museum (14) No inscription   Private Colln (1) “Is the Female death” | “Become new Life” 
Urizen plate 10 British Museum (15) No inscription Yale (20) “Does the Soul labour thus” | “In Caverns of The Grave”  
Thel plate 6 British Museum (16) No inscription    
Visions plate 3 British Museum (17) No inscription Keynes (22) “Wait Sisters” | “Tho all is Lost”  
Urizen plate 7 British Museum (18) No inscription   Private Colln (9) “I sought Pleasure & found Pain”. | “Unutterable”
Urizen plate 11 British Museum (19) No inscription   Private Colln (6) “Everything is an attempt” | “To be Human”
Visions plate 10 British Museum (20) No inscription    
Urizen plate 5 British Museum (21) No inscription Yale (19) “The Book of my Remembrance”  
Thel plate 7 British Museum (22) No inscription   Private Colln (5) “Doth God take Care of These”
Thel plate 4 British Museum (23) No inscription    
Urizen plate 9   Princeton (13) “Eternally I labour on”  
Urizen plate 12   Pierpont Morgan I labour upwards into |  futurity | Blake Private Colln (10) The floods overwhelmed me
Urizen plate 13   Joseph Holland “Frozen doors to mock” | “The World: while they within torments uplock.”  

Link

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2007/nov/11/artnews.poetry