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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]
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