The Teraun’s Treasure

Since I released Yelkouan Spell, I’ve had a varied range of responses—all valid and affirming in their own ways, and all revealing different personal perspectives. There’s a school of literary theory which says a reader’s response to a text is part of that text’s meaning—whatever the response and however different from other readers’ responses.

Even if you disagree with this and discount all reader responses as distorted interference over a clearly broadcast statement of authorial intent, you still have to deal with the complications of psychology. For instance, I’ve often heard writers talk in terms of learning things about their own stories years after they were written, as if there were subconscious elements expressed in the text that the writer had not been aware of at the time of writing.

The feedback from readers is therefore exciting for anyone who writes: an insight into the mind of each reader, and sometimes even new perspectives on the text. It is fitting therefore, that the author too should add something new to the views already expressed.

On the surface of it, Yelkouan Spell is the story of a girl who finds an egg which hatches into a reptilian animal. They become such close companions that Yelkouan is heartbroken when it goes missing one day, and she sets out into the forest to find it. Throughout her long and eventful quest a winged beast known as the Teraun is a constant peril. Eventually the Teraun captures her, but rather than killing her it returns her to her home, at which point she understands the Teraun was actually her lost friend all along.

The important themes here are of love, loss and hope, but there is also another, more cryptic, layer of allegory beneath the narrative.

As a young boy I used to collect eggs and feathers (ornithology is something of a family tradition so I suppose I was encouraged in this direction, but for me it did become an early passion). My father’s generation would actually climb trees and cliffs in order to steal the eggs from birds’ nests. For all its puerile barbarism I can still see the appeal of this adventurous hobby; but I was part of a different generation (I was born just one year before Greenpeace was formed), so we were reduced to collecting and identifying the remains of eggs that had already hatched.

Ever since these early childhood days, I’ve been captivated by the beauty of birds’ eggs. They have come to represent that mysterious potentiality which seems to be the essence of nature in all its ever-changing diversity. And it was from this feeling that the story emerged: a young girl and a mysterious egg.

In beginning to write the story, I had the same question as Yelkouan herself: What will hatch from the egg?

new egg

It needed to be something that was emblematic of nature as a whole, a kind of leitmotif for the natural world. The egg had served as a symbol of nature’s mysterious origins and potential; now I needed an animal that would embody the evolutionary process!

Being a kind of fairy tale, I was guided to a certain extent by genre conventions: the obvious choice would have been a dragon. And the Teraun does in fact share certain characteristics with dragons – it lays eggs, it flies and it is a ruthless predator. However, there are some very important differences, none of which is accidental or without its import for the story and its allegorical content.

First of all, the Teraun does not breathe fire. Now, as far as we know, no living creature has ever breathed fire. This characteristic of dragons is entirely fantastic. By contrast, I wanted the Teraun to be as natural an earthly beast as possible—something that made sense from the point of view of natural history—a feasible fantasy, if you will. This authorial desire was in keeping with the spirit of the whole story, which involves no supernatural occurrences, no actual magic.[1]

hatching

The key to this riddle, was metamorphosis of course. With metamorphosis I could have an animal that undergoes evolution in timelapse as it were. So now I needed an animal that emerged from an egg, which was reminiscent of a fairy-tale dragon and yet which underwent metamorphosis into its adult form. As it happens I already had the template for exactly such a creature. Let me explain…

I was lucky enough to grow up right on the edge of the London green-belt. If you walked out the front door and headed North-West you passed through suburban residential estates, major roads and urban sprawl on your way into central London; but if you headed due South you were immediately in dense woodland populated by foxes, badgers, owls and woodpeckers. The ponds were full of carp, perch and pike, and sometimes even fallow deer would pass through. Then you would follow a footpath crossing fields, passing farmhouses and villages, until you came to a bend on a country lane where stood a white house that used to belong to a man with a beard who liked to pace around his garden in deep thought. I never actually met him (he died long before I was born) but I’ve always known what he looks like from photographs. You probably know what he looks like too, because in 1859 he published a book that changed the world forever: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. The idea of nature as something to be observed and understood was never an obscure concept for me; Natural History was inscribed into the very landscape of my childhood roamings.

At the nexus of my early interests (in natural history and ornithology) lies one of the great debates in evolutionary theory. How did birds evolve? Or, more specifically: How did feathered flight evolve in dinosaurs? Without going into the fascinating history of the scientific discoveries and all the various theories that have accompanied them, I want to talk about one particularly iconic ‘missing link’, the Archaeopteryx.

Beginning with the discovery of a single fossilized feather in 1860, and followed by the revelation of several complete skeletons in subsequent years, the Archaeopteryx was spectacular evidence for the evolution of birds from dinosaurs about 150 million years ago (in Germany, where these fossils were found, it is known as the Urvogel: The Original Bird). In fact, if you ask a modern paleontologist what the sparrow on your bird table is, they can legitimately reply that it’s a small coelurosaurian theropod dinosaur.

As you can probably make out from the fossil pictured below, the Archaeopteryx looks a bit like a bird—it has feathered wings—but it also has sharp teeth, a hyperextensible ‘killing claw’, a bony tail and other features that put it somewhere between non-avian feathered dinosaurs and modern birds.

All I had to do is compress the evolution – from reptilian to avian – into one lifeform that undergoes metamorphosis and I had my Teraun, a creature that was an emblem for Nature itself!

archaeopteryx

Now compare this fossil with the illustration below and you will see my thought processes as I was writing Yelkouan Spell.

Teraun

In fact, I have always found the archaeopteryx fossils very aesthetic in their own right. There’s something strangely communicative in the dramatic poses of so many dinosaur and bird fossils—something there that reminds us of our own physicality perhaps.

We know for example, that this posture (known as ‘the opisthotonic death posture’) is common in human drowning victims and there are a number of theories as to what causes it in so many dinosaur fossils, including rigor mortis after death, brain damage before death, the effects of drowning etc.[2] Of animals now living it is thought that ‘opisthotonus’ only occurs naturally in birds and placental mammals (as a result of various syndromes, seizures, poisonings and brain damage), so for many reasons it is a posture that strikes a chord with us humans and is expressive of a state that might vaguely be described as in extremis. You only have to look at choreography – the balletic leap with head thrown back– to see its artistic potential as an expression of either agony or ecstasy.[3]

That, then, explains the appearance and development of the Teraun from egg to adult. But what of the name?

Well that’s much easier to answer: ‘Teraun’ is an anagram of ‘Nature’.

By Nature, I mean more than just ‘natural’ though. The idea of Nature that the Teraun represents is the biggest definition of it possible: everything from the Big Bang and the creation of the Universe, down to the meanest little cancerous tumour.

Clearly there is a limit to the correlations involved in any metaphorical or allegorical exercise, but it was clear from the outset that the Teraun would have to be an ambivalent agent in the story, contradictory even. It had to somehow encapsulate both helpless innocence and murderous ferocity, and it had to elicit a number of different responses from the human characters: love, trust, devotion, sadness, fear, anger, hatred, rebellion, acceptance, awe and inspiration. A tall order you might say, but I am certainly not the first to have attempted such a thing.

At the age of ten I was made to learn a poem by heart and recite it in front of the whole school. The writer of the poem, William Blake, had lived not so far from the school Assembly Hall where I nervously walked up to the lectern that morning. Blake, a true Londoner, wrote The Tyger at the end of the eighteenth century in the Romantic era, whereas I was a middle-class suburban kid reading it in 1980 at the beginning of the Neoliberalism era! Having said that, The Tyger did communicate something to me. I felt great sympathy with its tone – that questioning mixture of fear, reverence and awe for the exquisite, ferocious tiger.

M_-The-Tyger

In the years that followed I learned about Blake’s concept of ‘contraries’ as played out both between the two collections, the Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience, and also between the two sister poems, The Lamb and the The Tyger. I also learned about the Biblical allusion, the references to the Industrial Revolution, the American and French Revolutions, and Greek mythology; the kind of textual detail beloved of people who have studied literature and taken on board years of pedagogical effort to contextualize and tie it in with the social history of the period. Of course all of that is in there too, but the main thrust of it could not be more simple, profound or true.

It is about Nature. It goes beyond the dualities of even Blake’s own theorising and renders useless the polarities of religious doctrine. It offers questions, not answers, and its music approaches a mystical, pantheistic appreciation of Nature in all its terrifying implacability and sublime glory. And even a ten year old can get some of that from the poem.

The Teraun owes something to The Tyger then, but Yelkouan’s journey from innocence to experience is all her own. To begin with, she relates to the newly hatched Teraun in an unselfconscious, childish way. While sometimes irritated and angered by it, ultimately they develop a strong bond, which remains intact even after they are physically separated.

There’s no point getting bogged down in cod psychology here (I am simply relaying my influences and intentions at the time of writing) so suffice it to say that the loss of the Teraun is symbolic of ‘growing up’ for Yelkouan. As she leaves her swing and heads into the deep, dark wood, she is leaving behind the unreflective simplicity of her idyllic childhood.

Her journey into adulthood involves the influence of three main archetypal characters that she meets along the way, all of whom have a different take on the Teraun’s significance:

1. Religion and the Mytho-poetic

The first person Yelkouan comes into contact with is the Wood Witch, someone who basically has a religious understanding of the Teraun, mediated as it is by a set of parables and allegories[4]. Sat round her campfire in the forest, the Wood Witch tells Yelkouan a story about an ancient Knight who tries to defeat the Teraun in battle in order to protect his city from its attacks. Of course the Teraun overpowers the Knight, but then surprisingly it spares him, allowing him to sail away, or so it seems… because actually the Teraun changes form, becoming a violent storm that wrecks the Knight’s boat and leaves him for dead. So the Knight is now bleeding in the smashed remains of his wrecked boat which has been washed ashore. He drifts in and out of consciousness, so we cannot be entirely sure if he’s hallucinating when he sees the broken mast of the boat beginning to sprout, growing into a magnificent pine tree which catches the breeze like a mighty sail and sends him back out onto the pacified ocean.

Through this parable, the Wood Witch intimates to Yelkouan that the Teraun is not something you can fight for long and that her destiny is inextricably bound up with the Teraun. This is part of the Wood Witch’s faith, and it is founded on a basic truth about Nature (Genetics alone is proof enough that Nature shapes our lives), even if she makes the mistake of taking her religious parables and allegories too literally (the unshakeable belief in the supernatural has always struck me as the strangest feature of religious people. I speak as someone who would gladly step into Middle Earth if it actually existed, but the religious seem to have made a conscious decision to permanently suspend their disbelief, like people who have got so involved in a role-playing game that they start wearing strange garb on a daily basis[5]).

The Wood Witch’s parable also has implications at the global level. The Knight totally underestimates the Teraun’s all-encompassing power; just as any over-zealous attempt to control, tame, placate or defeat the forces of Nature is likely to end in our own undoing somewhere further down the line. Nature, like the Greek God Proteus, takes all forms and resists containment.

attack

Finally, when it comes to the death of the Knight, the Wood Witch’s story contains echoes of both monotheistic and pagan beliefs, hinting at the organic continuity of the seasonal cycle and a more figurative resurrection. I don’t want to say too much about this, because there is too much to say! The Wood Witch herself leaves the question of the Knight’s death open. We last see him floating off towards the horizon on a boat with a pine tree as a sail. We don’t know if he is hallucinating all this due to his injuries and weakness or whether this departure is actually his death. We cannot be sure what the Wood Witch herself believes; but one way or another the story strongly suggests a continuation beyond death.

Belief in an afterlife (be it purely spiritual or some form of reincarnation) is a big part of most religious outlooks, and without wishing to get into metaphysical debate, let’s just say that religious faith in spiritual survival beyond death is also a reflection of something deeply ingrained in human psychology. The human psyche is a unique emanation of mammalian biology, the product of millions of years of brutal survival and social cooperation; it is itself part of Nature, sharing in its protean subtlety.

2. Rationality and Science

The next archetype that Yelkouan comes into contact with is the practical rationalist. We see him using levers and pulleys, so we know he understands maths and the laws of nature[6]. He also has an empirical scientist’s understanding of nature and has no need for supernatural explanations.

For Tohba then, The Teraun is completely devoid of mystical or metaphorical significance. It is Tohba who suggests physically removing the threat by trapping the Teraun once and for all. Furthermore, he has the practical know-how to accomplish this task.

Yelkouan finds great consolation in Tohba’s practicality. He is the antidote to the romanticism and sentimentalism that sometimes threaten to overpower her in her grief at the loss of her friend. By encouraging her to face up to the physical reality of the situation – the fact that nature is red in tooth and claw and that we will all die one day – he gives her greater perspective and rekindles a desire to act for herself again.

By this point in the story she has also convinced herself that the Teraun is responsible for the death of her lost companion (not realising yet that the Teraun IS her lost companion) and so she jumps at the chance to get her revenge[7]. She even helps Tohba to build the huge trap (and in so doing learns some practical skills, such as tying the knots which will enable her to mend her swing at the end of the story).

So again, Yelkouan benefits from this character in many ways, but Tohba’s approach is certainly not portrayed as being superior to that of the Wood Witch. Both of these archetypes are depicted as having an important but limited perspective in the final analysis. We see, for example, the way that Tohba’s trap for the Teraun involves tethering a goat to a stake as live bait. There is no insinuation that any cruelty is intended by Tohba, far from it, but this does highlight that tendency of well-intentioned but untempered rationalism to drift into the utilitarianism which, in our own world, has led so logically to factory farming and nuclear deterrents.

3. Empathy and the Arts

And talk of the tethered goat, brings us to our final archetype: the musician. Kubilaye is perhaps the most ambivalent figure in the story. We learn that his mother was killed by the Teraun, and yet we also see him making music for the Teraun as if it were his Muse. Likewise, it is Kubilaye who frees the tethered goat, a compassionate act which is also one of great foolishness, nearly ending in his own death and leading directly to Yelkouan’s capture by the Teraun.

It is as if he were always acting on impulse, rather than principle or belief (amoral as opposed to immoral). This tendency for personal expression to emerge spontaneously from a well-spring of feeling is a characteristic not just of musicianship but the arts generally. His behaviour is not conditioned by the norms of society or any particular religious code or philosophical belief system – he is what, in common parlance, might be described as ‘natural’.

It is therefore no surprise to find he has such a close bond with the Teraun, or that via the convoluted path of the narrative it is the Teraun which leads Yelkouan and Kubilaye towards the realisation of their own natural compatibility.

blessing

As a final note (and in the hope that one day my own daughter will come across this) I just want to add what must be obvious to anyone who has read the book already: A schoolkid who reads Yelkouan Spell as the story of someone who loses what they love most but finds their way through grief back to joy and hope, has understood all that is most important in it. 

[1] The only supernatural elements occur within a myth narrated by the Wood Witch, so none of the actual events of the narrative—nothing that actually happens to Yelkouan—involves the supernatural. This was of crucial importance to me, believing as I do that the reality of the physical world has plenty of enchantment of its own. BUT, this desire to avoid the fantasy of the supernatural should not be confused with the very real ‘magic’ of literature, of music and art, and of romance as represented by the Wood Witch’s story, Kubilaye’s music, the ‘magical realism’ of the illustrations that accompany the story and the relationships between the characters in the story.

[2] The post-mortem rigor mortis theory was discredited recently; first by Padian, K. & Faux, M., who in their 2007 article, “The Opisthotonic Posture of Vertebrate Skeletons: Post-mortem Contraction or Death Throes?’ [Paleobiology 33(2) 201-226], point out that opisthotonic seizure results from brain damage, tetanus and poisoning; and following a 2012 study by Reisdorf, A. G. & Wuttke, M., it is now believed to be the result of suspension in water actually during death allowing for contraction of the Ligamentum elasticum [“Re-evaluating Moodie’s Opisthotonic-Posture Hypthesis in Fossil Vertebrates Part I: Reptiles—the taphonomy of the bipedal dinosaurs Compsognathus longipes and Juravenator starki from the Solnhofen Archipelago (Jurasic, Germany)”. Palaeobiodiversity and Palaeoenvironments, 92(1) 119-168.]

[3] I recently saw a photo of Misty Copeland—in mid-flight— during her 2015 New York debut as lead ballerina in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and was instantly reminded of the Teraun. She was playing the role of a character who has been turned into a swan which then drowns itself in the tragic ending to the ballet—in other words, she plays a bird that drowns! What could be more apt in the context of the avian opisthotonic death posture!?

[4] Ok, with all this talk of witches and visionaries like Blake, you are probably beginning to wonder just where I stand on religion. Let me make it crystal clear. I see religion as man’s imaginative attempts to come to terms with impersonal Nature and the inevitability of death. That might sound like an attack on the validity of religious faith, but I see religious texts as historical treasure-chests of ancient self-analysis and aspiration. This much is reflected in the narrative: without having to take anything she says literally, Yelkouan does actually learn some important truths from the Wood Witch’s parable of the Knight and the Teraun.

This is Richard Wagner, from his 1880 book Religion and Art: “One could say that when religion becomes artificial it is for art to salvage the essence of religion by construing the mythical symbols which religion wants us to believe to be literal truth in terms of their figurative value, so as to let us see their profound hidden truth through idealized representation. Whereas the priest is concerned only that the religious allegories should be regarded as factual truths, this is of no concern to the artist, since he presents his work frankly and openly as his invention:”

[5] If I have characterized religious belief as ‘the permanent suspension of disbelief’ then I must also remark on the sobering fact that our scientific world-view is often proved to be radically wrong as scientific progress is made. The Copernican revolution, for example, shows how our beliefs about the nature of reality can be completely overturned by scientific paradigm shifts (if you haven’t read it yet, then you should get hold of Thomas S Kuhn’s seminal 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.)

[6] It was Archimedes, the ancient mathematician, who said ‘Give me a place to stand, and I shall move the earth with it,’ and Tohba too has a masterful understanding of the lever and the compound pulley (both things that Archimedes explained). Like Archimedes, Tohba is also an ingenious inventor… In fact, if you read Yelkouan Spell, you might find a hidden ‘Stomachion’ in one of the illustrations. And if you do find it, let me know: I will send an original illustration from the book as a prize to the first person who spots it!

[7] I should probably say something about Yelkouan’s regular exhortation to those she meets along the way: ‘I hate the Teraun! I wish it was dead!’ Well, for this allegory to work properly, the Teraun also has to represent our deepest frustrations and sorrows in this world as well. It is the reason we are dissatisfied with our bodies; the reason children are born with disabilities; the reason the people we love get terminally ill; the reason tens of thousands of innocent people are killed overnight in an earthquake; and in its widest sense it is also the reason for all our personal, social and political problems too. Yelkouan is understandably angry with the Teraun for killing her beloved friend, but as it turns out, her anger at nature is as misplaced as ours!

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