The William Blake Blog

“And all must love the human form”: Empire, London, and Islam in S.F. Said’s Tyger
While long influenced by William Blake, S.F. Said’s latest novel is his most Blakean yet.

In his 2009 essay, “‘A wise tale of the Mahometans’: Blake and Islam, 1819-26”, Angus Whitehead observes that as well as being able to encounter the Koran as translated by George Sale and republished by Blake’s sometime employer, Joseph Johnson, in the 1790s, “Blake may also have heard passages of the sacred book recited in Arabic in the streets of London”, as during a “Mahommedan Jubilee” recorded in the May 1805 edition of the Gentleman’s Magazine.While Blake’s direct references to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad are rare in his poetry and art, including a notorious allusion to “a loose Bible” given to the prophet in The Song of Los (1795) and an ambiguous illustration of Muhammad in Dante’s Inferno, he is also - as Saree Madkisi observed - almost unique among the Romantics in not indulging the orientalist excesses of his peers and, according to Whitehead, may have had considerable access to a number of Islamic texts and traditions.

Islam and the role of Muslims in the imperial city of London is one of many themes winding their way like the lost tributaries of the Thames in S.F. Said’s latest novel, Tyger. Published by David Fickling Books and wonderfully illustrated by Dave McKean, it is set in a fictional alternative world, one where the Empire has never died, slavery never abolished, and immigrants are closely corralled in a London ghetto, part of a dreary status quo where nearly all wild animals have been destroyed in the pursuit of profit and pleasure. It is in this world, on a suitably unsublime garbage heap, that the hero of Tyger, a young boy called Adam Alhambra, discovers the eponymous creation, a magical beast that is being hunted by Sir Mortimer Maldehyde who runs a cruel menagerie in which the few remaining wild creatures are imprisoned.

Blakean motifs were clearly evident in Said’s last novel, Phoenix, but they are fundamental to Tyger, not least in its invocation of Blake’s most popular poem. One of the most prominent interventions is the city of London itself: of course, there have been plenty of others such as Shakespeare, Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle who have made the city a principal character, but the London of Tyger is what happens when the dark Satanic mills of Blake’s century are projected forward into our own time. At times, it would perhaps be more accurate to decribe the city as a London where Blake has not lived and written, but Said’s debt to Blake is always evident, as when Adam is sent on a task that takes him to the workhouse:

He passed through Trafalgar Square on his way to the workhouse, and gazed at the grand art galleries by Nelson’s Column. He wished he could go in and see their pictures. But only lords and ladies were allowed in there.
- S.F. Said, Tyger, chapter 18.

We are here firmly among the “charter’d streets” of Blake’s other famous Song of Experience, “London”, and elsewhere Adam’s journeys through familiar steets and locations such as Highgate, Tottenham Court Road, and Oxford Street evoke Los traversing Albion’s city of dreadful night in Blake’s epic poem Jerusalem. Like Blake, Said is a Londoner through and through: as one character, Solomon, remarks - “I am a Londoner… it is my home now.”

The counterfactual, imaginary city of Tyger is reminiscent of another location by a Blakean author, Lyra’s Oxford in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and Said lets his imagination play with a recreation of London as much as Pullman does with the university city. In the London of Adam, slaves are still bought and sold while foreigners are confined to slums, unable to explore what in our world is the most multicultural of British cities. The comment by Solomon, father of Adam’s partner in his adventures, Zadie (or Scheherezade, from the ‘Alf Laylah wa-Laylah, or One Thousand and One Nights) is pertinent: Solomon was brought to London a slave yet accepts the city as home; Said, born in Beirut, celebrates the city that has been his home since childhood. 

And this city is a city of Muslims (as well as Christians, Jews, and, presumably, heathens). This is the first time that Said has portrayed his main character as Muslim, and the sources for Tyger are as much Scheherezade as William Blake:

“It is known in English as The Arabian Nights… although it is a collection of tales from all over the Muslim world, not just Arabia. My wife and I grew up reading it, as many Muslims do. She lived it so much, she named our only child after its narrator, Scheherazade - the greatest storyteller of all time.”
- S.F. Said, Tyger, chapter 11.

And it is the spirit of The Arabian Nights that infuses the central character of the novel, for the eponymous tyger is as much a djinn liberated from a bottle (or rescued from a rubbish dump) as the creature forged in distant deeps or skies in Blake’s poem. A talking immortal, she - and it is one of many strokes of genius in the novel that it is a she - opens the doors of perception and imagination in Adam and Zadie, preparing them for the conflict that will take place between the protaganists and the forces of Sir Maldehyde, explicitly named by her as Urizen. Indeed, as becomes clear throughout the novel, the London in which the tyger is currently trapped owes much to the dark, closed-off world created by the fallen demiurge in Blake’s The [First] Book of Urizen, one which is ultimately doomed to destruction unless the lost rivers of London are - like its inhabitants - freed once more. Against the soulless, unimaginative, Urizenic forces of the Empire will be ranged all those human forms divine - heathen, Turk or Jew - where mercy, love, and pity dwell.

Throughout Tyger, Blakean motifs echo repeatedly - one of my favourite being the lamb of the Londoners outside the city who are fighting to preserve the last of the common land: the appearance of the lamb is Said’s definite answer to Blake’s original question, “Did he who made the lamb make thee?” The answer is a profound yes, but this god is not the Urizen of Maldehyde and his empire. My final comment, however, is how Blakean this novel feels in terms of its design: thus far I have concentrated on S.F. Said’s storytelling, but the art of Dave McKean - and the layout of the novel as a whole - makes this a particularly engrossing novel. For the first few chapters, we are treated to many delightful illustrations of Adam, London, the Tyger itself, but it is towards the end that the printed page finally liberates itself in terms of design - just as the tyger sees the hope of liberation. Some of these wonderfully illustrated pages will be familiar to readers of comics and graphic novels, but they remain far too uncommon in more conventionally printed books. They do, however, have one great exponent, and if Tyger shares many allusions with William Blake’s poetry it also invokes his spirit in the art of the book.

Tyger by S.F. Said is published by David Fickling Books and is available from all good book stores now, RRP £12.99.

1. Angus Whithead, “‘A wise tale of the Mahometans’: Blake and Islam, 1819-26”, in Blake and Conflict, eds. Sarah Haggarty and Jon Mee (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2009), pp.27-47.