Claas Kazzer: "'Family relations' – Traces of a cosmology in Ted Hughes's Creation Tales"

Note: This talk was presented at the Ted Hughes Conference at Emory University in Atlanta in 2005. It was written to tie in with Lissa Paul’s talk "Flexible Immunity: Contemporary Culture and the Better Kind of Folk Tale" which was presented just before. I’ve just added a few notes here and there – otherwise the text is as held on the occasion.

While Lissa's talk was on the many allusions and references to other tales, myths and traditions in Ted Hughes's stories and on the special kind of story he wanted to tell, I shall focus on the relationships between a number of characters in a very particular set of tales. This set is made up of stories published in How the Whale Became (HWB), Tales of the Early World (TEW), The Dreamfighter and other Creation Tales (DF), as well as one uncollected story published in Michael Morpurgo's Muck and Magic (MM). As Lissa has mentioned, Hughes began writing these tales around the age of 26, and he set to the task with a lot of passion. It is interesting to note, however, that Hughes continued drafting and writing such stories throughout his career. By 1998, the published body of the Tales formed the bulk of his narrative output – greatly exceeding what he published on many other themes and topics. Moreover, preparing materials for sale in the mid-90s, Hughes retained a box folder with notebooks of Creation Tale drafts to work on, as well as a list of one-liners of some 50 stories, which he still wanted to write.

The stories referred to in the following, are what I would term "Creation Tales proper", meaning those tales in which Hughes introduced God as a central character, and not Hughes’s early, Kiplingesque moral fables.

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For those of you who are unfamiliar with the stories, here is a short run through the general settings.

In the Creation Tales, Hughes takes us back to the early days of the world when God was still very busy creating things and animals. Some of the stories (in particular the early ones) focus on special features of animals, others elaborate on proverbs and sayings (such as "The meek shall inherit the earth") while others again explore more complex patterns of interaction between animals, humans and/or God and his mother.

So Hughes tells us how Bee was made, for example, and why he (!) behaves as he does. We can follow the creation of Parrot, Tiger, Peacock, Camel, Cuckoo, Swan, Lion and other animals. We learn how Sparrow's children came to inherit the earth or how Dinosaurs were made and why they became extinct. We are told about the creation of Dog and his relationship with Man, why Frog is taken to gambling, or how Man lost the Key to the Universe.

Throughout the stories, Hughes tends to employ particular characteristics that he associates with an animal as sources of inspiration from which he subsequently spins his tale. Many of his notes and notebooks contain mind maps or lists of associations of exactly the kind that Gavin Drummond mentioned in his talk.[1]

For the story triggered by associations of Bat, for example, Hughes put down:

Guardian of underworld – dog-face
[…]
Cries out in pitch dark
Thief of sun – rag of sun-bag – sent to drape sun
Sleep in holes
Snippety off cut of black cloth – made of leftovers
Perpetual evasion + dodging
Terror of light [linked with a line to "Thief …"] etc. [Box 129-7].

In addition to such associations, Hughes employs a recurring set of characters in many of the later stories, including God, God's mother, Man and Woman. With their help, he often tells sideline stories to the actual creation tale or occasionally lets them take centre stage. These sidelines and the stories focussing on Man, Woman, God and his mother reveal basic concepts of Hughes's storytelling and they present important aspects of his worldview. Once again we have important information here "hidden in full view" in his works for children, as Diane Middlebrook once put it. They are what I am going to explore in this talk.

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Looking at the entire body of published Creation Tales one cannot help noticing certain inconsistencies as regards some of the characters and/or their creation.[2] Hughes presents us with three conflicting stories of the creation of Woman, for example, there are two contradictory stories of the creation of Man, and at least two disagreeing accounts of the creation of human offspring, such as Baby or Boy and Girl. And that's not the end of it. While in one of the stories, God is not aware of Angels and Demons, in another he is working closely with them. Or, while in most of the Tales he lives and works on Earth, in two of them[3] he is removed to Heaven. Or, to give a final example, whereas in most of the stories the Sun is a celestial body or an entity that is wise and can give counsel even to God, in one of the Tales, Hughes turns it into a mere mechanical piece of celestial equipment, which can be taken apart and fixed like a clock.

[»Click here to read Part II]

Notes:

[1]    In his talk "Ted Hughes's Memory", Gavin Drummond referred to some of the mind maps and associative patterns, which Hughes used to write.

[2]    It is interesting to note that the book Crow and the uncollected Crow poems – like the Creation Tales – can also present very different accounts of the same events, such as Crow's creation, for example. Cf. e.g. "Two Legends", "Lineage”, "Examination at the Womb-door", "A Kill" [Crow 13 – 16].

[3]    Cf. "Leftovers", TEW 95 – 110 and "Goku", DF 1 – 9.

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About the Author

Claas Kazzer is a German independent scholar formerly associated with the University of Leipzig, Germany. He lives in Leipzig, where he works chiefly as translator and webworker.

His work on Ted Hughes includes "'Earth-Moon': Ted Hughes's Books For Children (And Adults)" (in Moulin (ed.) Ted Hughes: Alternative Horizons) and several essays published on this site. Website: www.claas-kazzer.de.

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How the Whale Became and Other Stories, Faber & Faber 1963, is Ted Hughes's first collection of stories and Creation Tales for children. Its genesis goes back to the fifties (!) since when versions of it had repeatedly been rejected by publishers. It may be for that reason, that some of its stories are much like a mix of Aesopian fables and Kipling's Just So Stories while others point to the genuine direction of Hughes's later Creation Tales [more].

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