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.


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.

Alchemy, Rosicrucianism, and the Grail – Bruce Dickinson’s Take on “Jerusalem”

“Jerusalem” is mostly known as a hymn written by Hubert Parry (1916), a musical adaptation of the verses found in the introduction to William Blake’s Milton: a Poem (1804-11). There are numerous musical variations and re-recordings which are more or less faithful to the hymn. The version I am to discuss today, however, is radically different. And it was intended to be radically different. British singer and songwriter Bruce Dickinson wanted to show what he describes as the true character of “Jerusalem.” He rejects a patriotic reading in favour of mysticism. Dickinson interprets the verses named “Jerusalem” in his song of the same name (The Chemical Wedding, 1998) as part of the mystic tradition, informed by alchemy. (Dickinson, Autobiography, 269-270)

“Jerusalem” is hereby only a small part of a larger project. The Chemical Wedding is a concept album linking concepts of mysticism and occult, such as tarot cards (“The Tower” – the chorus consists exclusively of archetypes taken from the major arcana), or representations of the occult, such as the three witches in Macbeth (“Book of Thel”), with Blakean characters and thought (“Book of Thel”, “Gates of Urizen”) or even descriptions of Blake paintings (“Book of Thel”). The name derives from the third manifesto of the Rosicrucian Order, Chymische Hochzeit Christiani Rosencreutz Anno 1459 (The Chemical Wedding, 1616), a text heavily rooted in alchemy. But, the overarching theme holding it all together is the opposition of Los and Urizen, which Dickinson identifies as two antagonistic forces fighting for the soul of the artist. In this case Los embodies creativity, while Urizen stands for art industry. (cf. Dickinson, Autobiography, 269)

In case of “Jerusalem” he has partly re-written the stanzas and added his own lyrics to flesh out what he sees as its true character. (l. c. 269-270) Which leads us to the question: What is the true character of “Jerusalem?”

Dickinson indeed presents a rewriting of “Jerusalem” that is in no way patriotic. In a last twist, he questions the possibility of recreating “Jerusalem,” because the spatio-temporal surroundings are far from ideal (and this negative description refers to England). This gives “Jerusalem” a very pessimistic ending. Probably it is too late or impossible to recreate “Jerusalem” after all – a notion which sweeps away all heroic notions from the stanzas with on motion of the hand.

To grasp what might be the “true character” of the stanzas referred to as “Jerusalem,” I want to go back to their origin, to the preceding text in the introduction. Blake calls out to his fellow artists, to “painters,” “sculptures,” and “architects”. For once, they should leave aside the “slave[ry] of the Latin and Greek sword,” meaning the legacy of the ancient classics, Homer, Ovid, Plato, Cicero, in favour of the Bible. Secondly, they should put up a “mental fight” against “ignorant Hirelings.” The “fashionable Fools” try to rule the world of art by payment or advertisement. The artist, however, should ignore “Greek and Roman models” and live by “his true Imagination” of “the World of Eternity in which we shall live forever.” This clearly echoes what Dickinson describes as the never-ending dilemma of the artist, the dichotomy between artistic inspiration and commerce of the world of art. This world view is thus clearly something both artists share. But what does it have to do with “Jerusalem?”

The crucial point, in my eyes, is indeed “Jerusalem.” “Jerusalem” commonly refers to the New Jerusalem, or, Heavenly Jerusalem, as described in the Biblical chapter “Revelation.” It refers to the new city that will emerge after the Apocalypse (Rev. 22 NIV). In this case, however, we have a significant addition: the grail. Dickinson points out that the New Jerusalem will be rebuilt in England, but that it will contain the grail. This is physically impossible. As much as you try to built a Jerusalem in England, it cannot automatically contain the grail.

As “Jerusalem” as described here cannot refer to a material city, it is thus something spiritual, something immaterial. The narrator seeks to be able to lay his eyes upon an unspecified object again, which arguably refers to the New Jerusalem, by the removal of scales from his eyes. This invokes the Biblical story of Saulus who is transformed to Paulus by the falling of scales from his eyes to allow him see again. (Acts, 9 NIV) The scales in the song are supposed to be washed off by blood that rains from the sky, which in turn evokes the first trumpet of the Apocalypse. The first trumpet causes fire, hail, and blood to come from the sky. (Rev, 8:7 NIV) The seven trumpets of the Apocalypse precede the coming of the New Jerusalem. (Rev, 8-9, 11:15 NIV) In short, the first trumpet of the Apocalypse causes blood to fall from the sky which washes away the scales of the eyes of the narrator who can then see again, his surroundings in general and the New Jerusalem in particular. So far we are following a thoroughly Biblical narrative.

Yet, the narrator is not so much passively waiting, as fighting. The line in the third stanza “bring me my spear: the clouds unfold!” is exchanged for the exclamation that the narrator will not sleep until the clouds open and thus make it possible for Jerusalem to descend from the sky or for the narrator to see skyward. This change to an imperative not to rest until the task is accomplished adds urgency. The opening of the sky is something he has to fight for, as illustrated in Blake’s original text: “Bring me my bow of burning gold, bring me my arrow of desires, […] bring me my chariot of fire,” and “I will not cease from mental fight, Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand.” I argue, that this is where not only Rosicrucianism comes in, but also Arthurian myth as well as myths about the Knights Templar. It is the Knights Templar who sought the earthly, old Jerusalem. Lore and Mysticism often link them to the quest of quests, the search for the grail, which in turn also evokes the Arthurian knights. Sword, chariot of fire, (mental) fight are all elements which may point to chivalry and so, with addition of the crucial element of the grail, put “Jerusalem” firmly into the context of different discourses of knighthood.

The grail traditionally asks for a true hero, such as Indiana Jones in the rather recent example Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), who must pass several tests or fulfil certain tasks to prove his worthiness of the grail. Whereas these tasks are more like riddles for Jones, they were something as tricky as finding the right behavioural code at court, a question of political correctness, for Percival in the eponymous medieval epic written by Wolfram von Eschenbach (1200-1210). To find the grail is not only a quest in the meaning of physical adventure, it is indeed a process that asks for purification of the mind.

Another seeker who faces such riddles and trials to purify him and improve his wisdom is no other than Christian Rosenkreutz in Chymische Hochzeit. The third manifesto of the Rosicrucian Order is variously seen as an allegory, a text describing a spiritual vision, or a hoax. But, as pointed out above, it is safe to say that this text is heavily rooted in alchemy. Alchemy does not only seek the purification of metal, but also of the mind. Rosenkreutz excels so much in the tasks given that he wins the special favour of the king after the king’s resurrection. I am speculating here, but I assume that this is the king we encounter in the song. Winning the favour and respect of the king is of course another ideal of knighthood, together with carrying king and queen in their hearts.

I think we are thus left with several possible readings of these metaphors of chivalry. In the first reading, the chivalry harks back to the quest of Rosenkreutz and the various knights who seek enlightenment in one way or another. In a second reading, the fight is a fight for Jerusalem. In a third reading, enlightenment and Jerusalem are probably even the same. In the end, we can say that the narrator has adapted the mindset of a knight and is actively fighting to rebuild “Jerusalem”.

I think, that this fight is a metaphor for opposition to conventional ways of thinking and resistance against oppression and suppression of the free development of the mind. The knight-figure must seek his own enlightenment and purification. Here we go back to the beginning to the dichotomy between Los and Urizen as embodiments of inspiration and art industry. If I read “Jerusalem” in its original context, meaning the preceding text of the introduction, these restrictions refer to the aforementioned prescriptions by the art industry. The artist ought to follow the poetic imagination which Blake calls the “Eternal World in which we will live.” This is an accurate description of the New Jerusalem, the city the narrator seeks to see again. This complies with what Dickinson describes as Blake’s “anti-materialistic message.” (Dickinson, Autobiography, 270)

“Jerusalem” is thus the “Eternal World” in the future to come, the paradisiacal city after the Apocalypse, and the poetic imagination alike. (I know, I am claiming here that Jerusalem, the city/person, takes the place of Los, but stay with me.) The last line in Dickinson’s song refers to a destroying of chains – and these chains, in turn, tie indeed the city / person Jerusalem “in the Dens of Babylon” (plate 39). This later quote from Milton follows the recording of the song as a spoken quote, tying the somewhat paratextual verses from the introduction to the body of the work. Now, “Jerusalem” stands for four different objects: poetic imagination, “Eternal World”, city, and person. I argue that these chains are the one thing to be fought; the knight-figure must indeed free Jerusalem. He is to free “Jerusalem” from the chains and thereby recreate it.

So what is indeed Blake’s “true Jerusalem?” I do not think that we can ever truly answer this (as long as we don’t put up a séance), but I say that Dickinsons reading of “Jerusalem” as representing the true artists’ minds is closer to Blake’s original text when compared with the context they originate in than every attempt to use “Jerusalem” as a second national anthem.

Live Performance
See a Live Performance of Bruce Dickinson’s “Jerusalem” featuring Ian Anderson in Canterbury Cathedral:
“Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull with Bruce Dickinson – Jerusalem.” Youtube.com, uploaded by Jethro Tull & Ian Anderson. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YTgZatpr1L8 (21.12.2011) [09.09.19]


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