The Virgin Thel Weeping for Fear of Dying and the Birth of Death: Swapped Gender Roles and Zombies

It is quite easy to relate “Book of Thel” (The Chemical Wedding, 1998) to the (art)work of William Blake, simply because one of his works goes by the same title (1789). That is probably where the easy part finds its sudden end, because at a first glance the two pieces do not seem to have much in common.

The Blakean “Book of Thel” is about the girl Thel who mourns her own mortality. She is offered to talk to diferent entities of nature to comfort her in her grieve (a flower, a cloud, a worm, earth itself) and as it all is of no avail, she is further offered to enter the realm of the dead for a preparatory visit. Yet, she finds this world so terrifying that she flees back to her realm. What exactly her realm is not clear because this girl is not a human. She is one of the shepherd girls of “Mne Seraphim” and is called “virgin of the skies”.

In the song, we meet quite different personnel. We meet a priestess and a snake. Although we meet the threat of death here, too, the approach towards it is quite different. There is no consoling talk about it. What is more, instead of consolidating the narrator, the priestess and the snake (which are the same entity anyway, as we learn later) have a hand in it. But, what I would consider the most important change here: now, our narrator, the equivalent to Thel, is male. The threat of death is represented by womanhood and birth. The weeping virgin, a hapless and powerless victim to her fate, has been turned into the threat itself, a woman (well, the wording is less politically correct) giving birth. I will show in the following how the imagery of Blake has been turned on his head and why “The Book of Thel” is not an adaptation in the classical sense, but rather a contrasting adaption. Plus the addition of some zombies.

Female Thel and Male Thel

The “male Thel” does not tell his own story directly. He hides behind “you”. He is either talking to the listener directly or he is talking about a common issue, using “you” as an equivalent for “one”. So, how can I say that he is male? I argue that the narrator is male because the songs focuses on female archetypes (priestess, virgin, womb) and most of them appear sinister or threatening. To a female narrator, another female, this would all look familiar instead of threatening. Further, he mentions a family line which implies to me a male narrator simply because only male and female can produce a family. Most of all, I simply go by the alienated perspective on womanhood to say that the narrator is male.

As I will explain in the following, the female characters are either responsible for betrayal, seduction, and the birth of something very bad. The priestess harks back to “The Tower”, although she is way less threatening here. But, “The Tower” is mostly an enumeration of tarot cards and the “priestess” is simply one of them. Thus I do not give too much to her reappearance.

Another proof that the female characters are evil can be found in the mentioning of lamb and wolf. These two figures more or less represent the probably most famous pair of Blake’s poems in Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794): the lamb and the tiger. The first represents gentleness and childlikeness (and of course, Jesus Christ), whereas the latter is its opposite, the threat, the predator.  Here, the lamb is most likely the narrator, male Thel, and the wolf / tiger seems to be the serpent / priestess.

These evil female characters are contrasted by Blake’s Thel. She is a virgin, a character representing innocence. She knows that he time will end and that she will cease to exist. But she does not find herself under any threat. She represents a weak female at best, a creature of beauty who has realised that beauty must fade (so something like the embodiment of cosmetic industries who tell women exactly the same). The male narrator, however, tells a quite different tale. He talks about corruption, something bad has happened and cannot be reversed. He talks about betrayal. Ironically enough he is the only one to be corrupted, because female Thel makes an appearance in the song as well as a weeping girl who gives a blissful cry. I would say that things do not go too bad for the female Thel in here after all (this if of course the end of her existence as the “virgin of the skies”).

I am actually not sure if female Thel, serpent, and priestess are not all the same character. The priestess is standing in the temple, alluring; the snake lies on the altar and has curled around the narrator; the virgin gives her happy cry. Taking together these sentences form a narrative and it is not the virgin who finds her doom. The serpent is probably the key here, because it links this short narrative to Genesis. Eve is seduced by the serpent and in consequence seduces Adam. As serpent and priestess are the same character, Eve and serpent may have been merged to one bad (female) character. Whereas Eve was only seduced by evil, she now becomes evil itself.

In a last step I would say that the last remaining character, the woman described as a prostitute is the same character, too. She has kept a secret from the narrator. Something evil will happen, announced by a Shakespeare quote “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes” (Macbeth, IV, I, 44-45) . The narrator concludes that the family line has been ended. The priestess will not give birth to life. She gives birth to death.

The Imagery of Motherhood and the Realm of the Dead

Here I have to go back to Blake’s poem. In the poem, motherhood is connected to selfless, unconditional love. It is represented and explained by the clod of clay, its infant being a worm. The clod of clay is a recurring character in the work of Blake, it also appears in the short poem “The Clod and the Pebble” (Songs of Innocence and of Experience) where it explains its idea that love “for another gives its ease” and in Milton: a Poem it is pressed into a diamond because of its good qualities. The clod explains that despite the lack of a loving husband, something it will never know: “yet I live and love”. To Thel it explains that “Oh beauty of the vales of Har, we live not for ourselves”.

This rather harmonic dialogue is of course utterly dark in its very bone. What the clod wants to say is that Thel, after her death, must feed the worm. She does not live for herself, but has the purpose of being worm-food later on. The clod will embrace her (meaning her funeral). When Thel feels pity for the worm she was expected to accept her fate. At least this is what the cloud had in mind: “Then if thou art the food of worms, O virgin of the skies, How great thy use, how great thy blessing, everything that lives”. In short: you are useful as soon as you die and provide food for others. Small wonder that poor creature weeps.

The clod of clay also functions as the realm of the dead. Being the merciful and gentle creature that it is, it offers Thel a big act of mercy: the visit to the realm of the dead and a return ticket. It is ” a land of sorrows and of tears where no smile was ever seen”. Thus, as already mentioned, after a short while on a bench she runs back into her world in panic.

In the song, these dead seem to leave the realm of the dead. The clod of clay, the mother figure also functions as “container” of the dead. So, in logical consequence, it births the dead from its womb. Having the dead back is quite literary the birth of something decayed, considering what zombies look like.  And, in an alternative reading, as the realm of the dead is described as very unpleasant, it can be assumed that its creatures are unpleasant, too. The clod of clay, which has become the betraying prostitute now, gives birth to zombie-like creatures. Considering that female Thel was worm-food I wonder whom the male equivalent is supposed to feed.

The (Chemical) Wedding

To put it all in a nutshell, not only has a virgin been turned into a monstrous female who seduces the narrator to spawn her evil brood, but also has the female virgin figure been swapped for a male narrator. Both fear death. Yet while the female Thel returns to her world and things remain unchanged, things change for the worse for the narrator. Whereas the female Thel dreads the future, the narrator fears the present. Where does this difference come from? The narrator is seduced. Female Thel’s question “Why a little curtain of flesh on the bed of our desire?”, corresponds to a torn veil in the song. The virgin who seems a victim in the poem has become the threat, the predator, the seductress. Now she does not tentatively visit the land of the dead, she releases its dead on earth. Two utterly positive representations of femininity in Blake – the beautiful virgin and the loving mother who does not even demand for a husband – have been turned into the seductress and the mother of evil. A poem about the “virgin of the skies” and her short visit to the land of death has been retold as a dark tale – befitting heavy metal – of a cunning seductress who actually produces death. The imagery has been turned on its head. Now, the partners consummate what has to be described as a ceremony on an altar in a temple. There is the “marriage hearse” from Blake’s short poem “London” in the Songs of Innocence and Experience. The new “Book of Thel” is about nothing else than a “chemical wedding”.

Author’s Notes

Blake’s work was printed by himself which means that every copy is unique and differs from the others. This is why, when possible, I give a list of several digital reproductions.

“The Lamb” was first published in Songs of Innocence (1789). The issue was expanded to Songs of Innocence and Experience in 1794 adding poems such as “the Tyger” and “The Clod and the Pebble”.

Sources

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