A most amusing muse


“There’s no such thing as a muse, Tris. It’s just something men of a certain age and turn of mind invent to justify the time they spend thinking about pretty girls when they should be working…” (Tristan and the Dragon Girl)

The Goddess whose intervention causes poor old Leighton Buzzard to be ripped apart (temporarily!) in Little Victims appears in another guise in Tristan and the Dragon Girl. In fact, she shows up in several guises or disguises: she is a nightmarish vision of Gwen, Tristan’s estranged wife; Julie, the daughter of his friends Peter and Mary; an ex-girlfriend called Cyn; an Anglican priest, Arianrhod; and last but not least, the psychopathic sword-wielding witch, Draigferch or Ddraigferch who is the dragon-girl of the title. They’re all potentially destructive in their different ways, dangerous manifestations of what Tristan thinks of as his creative muse.

Muses are ambivalent; Das Ewig-weibliche zieht uns hinan (the eternal womanly draws us on) but to what? Harriet Smithson drew Hector Berlioz on to creating the Symphonie Fantastique, and, eventually marriage- albeit not a particularly happy one; but all too often a switch somewhere is flicked over, and muses become Lorelei, or Sirens, and the wretched artist is doomed. There is only the slightest modification of the vowel between the German words for a muse and a cunt, as I discovered at a performance of Little Victims in a school in Bonn: a student’s attempt to say, “She is the Muse” in German producing first a gasp of disbelief and then hysterical laughter, which I had to have explained to me by my giggling host.

I’ve written about Anthony Burgess before: one of the best examples of the fictionalised muse comes in his Enderby novels: the failed or failing poet Enderby is living in a run down bar in Morocco when she catches up with him: she is apparently sexually available (i.e. offering creative success) but Enderby cannot in any sense rise to her challenge: “Seeing her round jigging nates, Enderby could have died with regret and rage.”

But whether or not vagina mutates into vagina dentata the gender orientation of all this needs looking at. The anonymous young man of Shakespeare’s sonnets may have been a gay muse; and certainly my Tristan wonders about Thomas Mann’s fatal obsession with the boy Tadzio in Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice.) Are there examples of women artists being inspired by men in the same way? Answers on a postcard (preferably of the Lido) please! The issue of gender brings me to my last point today.

Dragons. Dragons are ambivalent too. A Welshman once told me he’d “seen” one in the Brecon Beacons, although the experience he described was emotional rather than visual. The Welsh dragon comes in two colours: the red and the white. Whether red is for menstrual blood and white is for sperm, and what this might mean, I shall leave to others to wonder, at least for today! Vortigern’s tower (in the King Arthur myths) collapsed because of the dragons fighting in a lake beneath it: Tristan gets there eventually, and finds the witch waiting for him. I’ll have to write more about Welsh magic in another post!

Meanwhile, click here to buy your copy of Tristan and the Dragon Girl!

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