From human to beast: transformations in literature

August 12, 2015

Richard John Davis

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One of the most famous on-screen transformations in film is the first such scene in ‘An American Werewolf in London’.

 

A still from ‘The Company of Wolves’ (1984)

 

The film, from 1981, is one of the few to successfully hybridise the genres of comedy and horror and this is effectively exemplified in this set-piece sequence. Bobby Vinton’s ‘Blue Moon’ plays – soothingly – while the film’s protagonist experiences an agonising transmogification. During this he shouts, “I didn’t mean to call you meat loaf, Jack”, referring to an earlier scene involving the return of his dead – and decaying – friend from the dead.

One hundred years ago, Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis dealt with a similar transformation in quite a different way. In the short story (which some view as a novella), the change is dealt with using an economy that is both staggering and somehow perfectly apt, in the context of the narrative. In one sentence, Kafka describes how Gregor Samsa awoke to find himself transformed into a giant insect. Some translations use the term vermin, but most are agreed that some sort of beetle is involved – most probably a cockroach.

This, being the first line in the story, sets it up. But it also gradually becomes the least interesting aspect of it, as Gregor deals with mundane reactions from his family, as well as their insistence on carrying on as usual.

One of the earliest illustrated printed editions of Ovid, La Métamorphose d'Ovide figurée, from 1583, on display in Animal Tales at the British Library

One of the earliest illustrated printed editions of Ovid, ‘La Métamorphose d’Ovide’ figurée, from 1583, on display in ‘Animal Tales’ at the British Library

Transformation as a literary theme has a long tradition, as alluded to in Kafka’s title. Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses collected ancient myths and unified theme behind the theme of transfigurement, as well as one of the transformative capacity of love.

Angela Carter also dealt with human-to-beast transformations – often man or woman would change to wolf. Her collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber, took ancient fairy tales and gave equally dramatic transformations to them, introducing themes of identity and female empowerment. Some of the stories in this collection were adapted into a single film, which took its name from one: The Company of Wolves. Its director, Neil Jordon, went on to direct another gothic horror adaptation, Interview with the Vampire. The film version of The Company of Wolves was also noted, like An American Werewolf in London, for its spectacular transformations.

The concept of metamorphosis is one aspect of Animal Tales, a new exhibition in the British Library’s Entrance Hall Gallery, which asks why animals have come to play such an important role in literature  with a variety of editions and manuscripts from the library’s collections.

Matthew Shaw, lead curator, said: “From their central role in children’s literature to more recent explorations of love and loss, animals offer a way to reassess what makes us human. As nature writing has had a dramatic rise in its popularity in recent years, Animal Tales offers a chance to look at some of the history and background of that genre, and perhaps to think about some of the reasons for its success.”

Other, less directly animal in origin, but no less atavistic, transformations exist in literature. Some focus on the internal struggle between our better angels and darker, primal forces.

Dr Jeckyll’s rearrangement into his beast-like alter-ego Mr Hyde has been played and replayed in the culture in various adaptations and variations, perhaps due to its author Robert Louis Stevenson’s inclination within the novel to remind humanity that its animalistic propensities are never too far away.

Animal Tales runs until 1st November, 2015.

 

 

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