Thursday, 18 February 2010

Getting To Grips With Griffins: HG Wells, The Time Machine (1895) and The Invisible Man (1897)

It was HG Wells and the poise of his prose, its poetic beauty and intellectual rigour, that first brought me to write about Science Fiction, many years ago now. Let’s begin this blog with beginnings, I think, and write about SF’s greatest writer.

More, if I am to start writing about HG Wells, let’s begin with two of his greatest fictions. First, his universally admired 1895 novella, The Time Machine; next, his most adaptable 1897 classic, and a personal favourite: The Invisible Man. A vain enterprise, perhaps. Both books have been picked at and parsed, unpacked and analysed to within an inch of their venerable lives by better names than mine, by eminent Wellsians, the Parrinders and Huntingtons of this world. So, let’s begin by examining small things in both books, and see where that gets us. From small beginnings, interesting ideas may unfold.

Where I begin, then, is with griffins, those fantastical creatures that give name to this blog. So I begin with a riddle, one that has puzzled me since I first read The Time Machine and The Invisible Man. The riddle is disarmingly simple, as all good riddles should be, and the answer may remain an enigma. But what is the question? It is just this. Why do we find griffins in both of these great books?

This riddle may seem inconsequential. After all— what’s brown and sticky? Answer: ‘a stick’. Not much adding to the sum of knowledge there, surely. Yet griffins there are in both Wells’ stories— obviously, in The Invisible Man, where the eponymous character is called Griffin, but so fleeting in The Time Machine that you may well have missed their appearance. It’s that fleeting appearance in Wells’ novella, though, that really intrigues, and where I want to begin.

The time traveller has used his machine to leap forward into the future, and has made his first encounter with the diminutive Eloi. After the slow work of interrogating the little people, the time traveller grows bored and resolves to “mount the summit of a crest, perhaps a mile and a half away, from which I could get a wider view of this our planet in the year Eight Hundred and Two Thousand Seven Hundred and One A.D.” As he climbs, he makes some tentative judgements about the world about him, “so entirely different to from the world I had known”. “Later,” the time traveller tells his guests, “I was to appreciate how far it fell short of the reality”.

“With a strange sense of freedom and adventure” the time traveller climbs and surmounts the crest of the hill. Here we find the scene that I have done my best to approximate as the masthead of my blog, above:

There I found a seat of some yellow metal that I did not recognize, corroded in places with a kind of pinkish rust and half smothered in soft moss, the arm rests cast and filed into the resemblance of griffins’ heads. I sat down on it, and I surveyed the broad view of our old world under the sunset of that long day. It was as sweet and fair a view as I have ever seen. The sun had already gone below the horizon and the west was flaming gold, touched with some horizontal bars of purple and crimson. Below was the valley of the Thames, in which the river lay like a band of burnished steel.

The seat which the time traveller finds is a curious one, quite in keeping with the “oddness” of the “very confusing” world into which he has been thrust. The new alloy and its peculiar rust seem ill-fitted somehow to the bizarre persistence of the ancient figure on the arm rests. It is a strange mixture of the old and the new. Such are the decorations of this world, however. In the valley below the White Sphinx lowers on its bronzed pedestal, “thick with verdigris”. Nearby, broken and weather-worn “old Pheonician decorations” fragment over the entrance to the Eloi dining hall, its geometrically patterned stained glass “broken in many places”. The effect on the time traveller is “rich and picturesque”. For indeed, what threat is there here? Why not approach this remote decline and fall in a contemplative, aesthetic manner— until, that is, he knows better?

At this point we too might stop and leave our riddle be. We might declare that the griffin’s heads belong to Wells’ clever iconography of decay and disease, of decline and fall. This reading is in keeping with the novella’s well-established themes of evolutionary degeneration and entropy. Yet: isn’t the role of the White Sphinx in the novel also understood as something more than this? With its “sightless eyes”, “faint shadow of a smile on its lips” and “unpleasant suggestion of disease”, the statue sitting atop that hidden entrance to the Morlock’s netherworld is grim and haunting, one of the novel’s enigmatic triumphs. It is a man-eating creature at the heart of an anthropophagous tale, a riddler in a story of puzzles, and to Wells’ critics it has symbolized many things. What the example of the Sphinx tells us is that Wells chose his symbols well: he gave them life and depth from out of the common stock, and reshaped them towards his own ends.

So perhaps it is worth persisting, especially if we are to get to the answer of the appearance and reappearance of griffins in his writing. If Wells took his symbols from the common stock, we would do well to know what the griffin has traditionally meant in Western culture.

The griffin is a fantastic creature belonging to ancient myth. Half-lion, half-eagle, the nether parts of its body are leonine, but its head, wings and claws are those of the eagle. It has been part of a stock bestiary since at least archaic Greece, though it has precursors in the holy creatures of earlier cultures such as the homa of the Achaemenid Empire. It has noble characteristics, as lord of both land and air. Traditionally the griffin was associated with transcendent power. In the medieval Christian tradition, it was emblematic both of Christ’s rule and his ascension, blessed with powers of the eagle (the Lord of the Heavens, intelligent and far-sighted) and the lion (the King of the Field, strong, courageous and majestic). Yet in legend the griffin also symbolised superbia or hubris, attributed after Alexander the Great reputedly attempted to ascend to heaven pulled by two griffins.

The strange duality of the griffin also associated it with evil. Milton famously describes Satan’s ascent through Chaos from hell:

Treading with crude conscience, half on foot,
Half flying; behoves him now both oar and sail.
As when a griffin through the wilderness
With winged course, oe’r hill and moory dale,
Pursues the Arimaspian, who by stealth
Had from his wakeful custody purloined
The guarded gold…”
(Paradise Lost, Book ii, 941-947).

Such an iconography does allow us to pull together— with some effort— the griffins of The Time Machine and Griffin in The Invisible Man. Take the latter: Griffin is one of the great figures in modern literature for a man torn apart by his own duality. He is the image of the invisible God: who finds “unexpected difficulty” because he cannot see his own feet. It is a duality that drives him mad, until he is no stranger to either hubris or evil. Indeed, in an angry letter to the hapless scientist Kemp, he comes to see himself, laughably, as the firstborn over all creation:

The game is only beginning. There is nothing for it, but to start the Terror. This announces the first day of the Terror. Port Burdock is no longer under the Queen, tell your Colonel of Police, and the rest of them; it is under me—the Terror! This is day one of year one of the new epoch—the Epoch of the Invisible Man. I am Invisible Man the First. To begin with the rule will be easy. The first day there will be one execution for the sake of example—a man named Kemp. Death starts for him to-day. He may lock himself away, hide himself away, get guards about him, put on armour if he likes—Death, the unseen Death, is coming. Let him take precautions; it will impress my people. Death starts from the pillar box by midday.

A less noble character than Griffin, however, it is difficult to conceive.

It very difficult to reconcile the appearance of the griffin’s heads in The Time Machine with Griffin in The Invisible Man in anything like the same terms, however. Duality, frustrated transcendence, hubris: we might try to bolt these symbolic meanings onto the text of The Time Machine, but these metal griffins are unlikely to fly. The griffin’s intelligence and far-sightedness tempts comparison: the time traveller possesses both. Yet the moment when he reaches the seat on the hillcrest is, as he repeatedly points out, the moment when his speculative powers fail him.

For, as night begins to fall near the seat on the hill, the time traveller surveys the odd and settled world he has arrived in. “So watching,” he says, “I began to put my interpretation upon the things I had seen, and as it shaped itself to me that evening”. To the riddle that the world presents him, the time traveller reaches a bold and logical answer: though, as he admits to his listeners, “afterwards I found I had got only a half-truth— or only a glimpse of one facet of the truth”.

Looking out over the valley, the time traveller speculates that he has “happened upon humanity on the wane. The ruddy sunset set me thinking of the sunset of mankind”. The world of the Eloi, he decides, is the result of a perfect civilisation, and of decay caused by that perfection. Once, man ruled the earth so absolutely that all danger and disease was eliminated. With this “perfect conquest of Nature” complete, long ages of comfort free of environmental pressure led to the evolution of a new and weaker humanity, better adapted to an age of Quiet. “We are kept keen on the grindstone of pain and necessity,” the time traveller declares, “and, it seemed to me, that here was that hateful grindstone broken at last!”

As he later ruefully admits to his fireside companions, he is wrong. More of that later, however. My theory of a link between the griffins of The Time Machine and Griffin in The Invisible Man similarly seems to have run into trouble. Etymology might logically provide clues to an answer, but at first there seems little encouraging here. The word ‘griffin’ has its origins in late Latin, adopted from the Greek ‘grypes’ meaning ‘curled, curved, having a hooked nose’: ‘grip’ or ‘handhold’ being a common derivation, for example in the modern German, ‘Griff’. None of which, unfortunately, aids our grip on the riddle of the appearance of griffins in these two early Wells fictions.

If traditional symbolism or the commonly acknowledged roots of the word ‘griffin’ do not lead us towards an answer to our riddle, the beginnings of desperation demand we look elsewhere. The peculiar intellectual concerns and associations of Wells offer themselves as investigative paths. Here, however, is where an interesting tale intervenes, a story that turns on the puzzle presented by a creature that would become representative of the arguments around evolution and the origin of species in the mid-Victorian era. The story turns on etymology too, but strangely, obliquely, via battles over natural history and a palaeontological specimen that once lit up the fevered Darwinian debate of the early 1860s.

The tale is told in full in Paul Chambers’ fascinating book, ‘Bones of Contention: the Fossil that Shook Science’ (2002). Those contentious bones are now familiar to anyone with an interest in dinosaurs or evolution: they provided a crucial piece of evolutionary evidence for HG Wells’ one-time teacher at the Normal School of Science, TH Huxley. The fossilised creature found in a limestone quarry in Solhofen, Bavaria is today known as Archaeopteryx lithographia, Archaeopteryx for short.

Archaeopteryx was so named by a now-forgotten German geologist, Professor Hermann von Meyer. The name means ‘Ancient Wing’, and it belies the furious arguments that the specimen he first described brought to the world of science. For what von Meyer described in September 1861 for the Neues Jahrbuch fur Mineralogie was nothing less than a feathered reptile: a creature that seemed to deserve the Darwinian appellation ‘missing link’ in a way never seen before.

Archaeopteryx: the London Specimen

The fossil had a strange duality, indeed. It was to spark a battle for intellectual possession between Darwinists and Anti-Darwinists that finally culminated in a conclusive scientific victory for TH Huxley— ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’— over his great intellectual enemy, Richard Owen. Yet when Owen sent an envoy from the Natural History Department at the British Museum to persuade the owner of the fossil to part with it (for the princely sum of £450- over £20,000 in today’s money) he was not buying an Archaeopteryx lithographia. He was buying a Griphosaurus.

Griphosaurus. After the first description of the fossil found in Solnhofen, a more prestigious and Anti-Darwinian Professor of Zoology, Johann Andreas Wagner, delivered a talk entitled ‘Reports on a New Reptile, supposedly Furnished with Feathers’ to the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. There, he made his own description of the fossil, and rubbished the notion that it was any kind of ‘missing link’. Finally, as he finished his lecture, he made a canny move, beloved of demagogues and advertising executives: he renamed it.

As long as I am not convinced of the contrary… I have no hesitation in declaring it to be a reptile of the order of saurians [dinosaurs, pterosaurs, etc.]. I therefore give it the name Griphosaurus, derived from grifo (sic), enigma.

With that word, enigma, Wagner achieved a triumph of obfuscation that Richard Owen, once in possession of the fossil, was to add to in his own partial description of Archaeopteryx in 1862. For a short while, the neologism stuck: though Owen’s own efforts confirm the name Griphosaurus were frustrated by his more principled staff, who adhered to the established scientific principle of priority in naming.

Perhaps surprisingly, it took some years of intellectual struggle for Huxley to accept the fossil into his own brand of Darwinist thought. When his final rebuttal to Owen came some years later however, in 1868, it was devastating to mainstream Anti-Darwinism. In a talk entitled ‘On the animals which are most nearly intermediate between Birds and Reptiles’, Huxley compared the skeletal structure of Archaeopteryx to that of the dinosaur Compsognathus. The two skeletons were very similar: and the weight of his remarkable argument was that birds were indeed descended from dinosaurs. To his popular audience, Archaeopteryx seemed a triumphant example of one of Darwin’s theorised ‘missing links’. Furthermore, to his academic audience, Huxley proved that Owen had made simple mistakes in his description of the creature. His 1868 lecture to the Royal Institution was understood as a major victory for Darwinist theory.

Wells was born midway through this great controversy, in 1866: and in a real sense he became the conscious inheritor of its struggles. Darwinism, along with socialism, would eventually provide the twin poles of his thought. Wells struggled to escape his lower middle class upbringing in Bromley, where he was born. One of the first generations to benefit from the Education Act of 1870, he was nonetheless forced into work at the age of fourteen. He began a patchy series of jobs, from trainee draper to chemist’s assistant, then teaching assistant. In the latter position he excelled in his part-time studies, and gained a scholarship to the Normal School of Science (today Imperial College, London). It was here, in Kensington in 1887, that Wells began the Zoology course in which he was to achieve a first, and on which Huxley taught. From leaving the School, to teaching, journalism, writing his first novella and beyond: Darwinism and the figure of TH Huxley provided an intellectual touchstone for all his subsequent work.

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-95)

Huxley would remain a hero to Wells throughout his life. He considered himself one of ‘Huxley’s men’ and in 1901 confessed, “I believed then that he was the greatest man I was ever likely to meet, and I believe that all the more firmly today”. Indeed, in May 1895, a couple of months after The Time Machine was published, Wells sent a signed copy of the story to his one-time teacher. In his note he modestly pointed out that “the central idea— of degeneration following security— was the outcome of a certain amount of biological study.”

My own answer to the riddle of the appearance of griffins in The Time Machine and The Invisible Man argues this, then: that it was “the outcome of a certain amount of biological study”. It is unthinkable that Wells would not be well acquainted with this most famous early victory for Darwinism, led by his hero, Huxley. And it is extremely doubtful that Wells would not have known the murky story of the naming of Archaeopteryx. As a writer, of course he was interested in words: but he was also a thinker deeply interested in nominalism, the act of naming things (his 1901 philosophical lecture, ‘The Scepticism of the Instrument’, was on this very subject). The story of Wagner’s renaming of the Archaeopteryx would have appealed to him intellectually on a number of fronts, and taught him a memorable lesson in the unscrupulousness of a certain kind of scientist. Above all, it will have introduced into his vocabulary a new name, Griphosaurus, and an odd Greek derivation, grifo. It’s meaning: enigma.

It is a short but unexpected leap from Griphosaurus to grifo to griffin. It is all the more unexpected because Wagner’s derivation is somewhat obscure, and difficult to figure. I am not a philologist, knowing no Latin, and less Greek. I cannot precisely identify how Wagner associated this word grifo with enigma: the best association I have found is with the ancient Greek word Griphoi, meaning riddle. Yet the English word Enigma also comes to us from Greek via Latin: its Greek root being ainissesthai, ‘to speak in riddles’, from ainos, ‘fable’ or ‘story’. So Wagner’s derivation for Griphosaurus is a little unclear, though it is tempting to think that in looking at the Archaeoptryx fossil splayed in the limestone— half-lizard, half-bird— he was reminded of the fantastical and mysterious figure of the griffin. It is not so very crucial, however, if Wagner was mistaken, or wilfully obscure. It is the meaning that Wells took from the episode that is crucial. Let us return to The Time Machine, and the time traveller sitting on this strange metal seat, carved with griffins for arm rests, as the sun sets on a future day.

The time traveller believes, prematurely, that he has solved the enigma that the world of the Eloi has presented to him. Evolutionary degeneration— social degeneration— has produced this world and its infantile, happy people. Without war, disease and predation, and with a wholly settled global society, the Eloi have long since relinquished intellect. “For such a life,” the time traveller argues, “what we call the weak are as well equipped as the strong, are indeed no longer weak”. “Languor in decay” has produced the benign landscape he sees from his peculiar throne: “ever”, he confidently notes, “the fate of energy in security”.

As I stood there in the gathering dark I thought that in this simple explanation I had mastered the problem of this world— mastered the secret of this delicious people. Possibly the checks they had devised for the increase of population had succeeded too well, and their numbers had diminished rather than kept stationary. That would account for the abandoned ruins. Very simple was my explanation— and plausible enough— as most wrong theories are!

The dark secret of this new world— the divergence of humanity into two separate species, predatory Morlocks and cattle-like Eloi— is yet to be discovered by the time traveller. In his retelling of this moment, only the grim, as-yet-private joke that the Eloi are a “delicious people” hints to his complacent Richmond audience the dreadful knowledge that is to come. The time traveller’s bleak levity speaks of knowledge dearly bought.

The symbolism Wells created for this fleeting moment in his story becomes a little clearer. Unsuspecting, the time traveller has rested on a throne that presents and represents an enigma. His hands rest easy on the heads of the griffins as night descends. He is satisfied of his scientific shrewdness, his theoretical aplomb; with the tools of observational science he has solved a riddle. Yet the curving handhold beneath his fingertips is the unknown alloy of the griffin’s head itself. The time traveller does not have as firm a grip on the nature of the world around him as he thinks he does: he is in error. Soon he will climb down the hill again and find his time machine stolen by a “hitherto unsuspected power” from the lawn in front of the “white, shining, leprous” Sphinx. This discovery sets him upon altering his previous theory, and a dangerous journey towards discovering the nature of that power— the hidden because subterranean Morlocks. The seat on the hill, with its picturesque griffins, foreshadows the greater Sphinx’s riddle that The Time Machine presents: whose answer the time traveller finally discovers stems from the divergence of species driven by Darwinian natural selection.

The Archaeopteryx provided provocative evidence for Darwin’s theories in the nineteenth century. Wagner and Owen retreated from the complexity of the fossil that was found in Solnhofen and the theory that explained its peculiarity, blind to their own confirmational bias. Settled opinion and fear and loathing of Darwinism and Darwinists established in both minds that this creature was no Darwinian “intermediate creature, engaged in the transition from the reptiles to the birds”. Instead it was, by its very naming, to remain forever an enigma: a transcendental riddle, whose peculiar nature was singular, hardly to be grasped. Naming Archeopteryx Griphosaurus marked a quite conscious retreat from the riddle the fossil presented. These reputable scientists preferred coded mystery, turning away from the worldly explanations that Darwin’s remarkable theory presented.

On the other hand, the error of the time traveller— suitably for a book called The Time Machine— is transitory. The story of the time traveller becomes one of pursuit and involvement in the world. In his quest for the time machine he is forced to hypothesise and pursue dangerous thoughts so that he can comprehend the riddle of 802,701. Intellectual complacency— the great enemy in all of Wells’ early writing— means death. Danger and violence in The Time Machine are, in this sense, metaphors for the test that enigma presents to man: if he does not confront them, then he will face the same end as all those who could not answer the riddle of the original Theban sphinx.

To be able to answer such questions does not mean that comfort or happiness follows. Oedipus’ answer to the Sphinx’s riddle leads, after all, to the darker secret of his own identity. Similarly, Archaeopteryx. The fossil remains a frightening creature to many, especially creationists: its existence threatens a sense of identity and the self, a hard-won understanding of a special place in the world. Reflecting on the grim future awaiting mankind, the narrator of The Time Machine gives scant consolation as he finishes his pessimistic evolutionary tale: “it remains for us to live as though it were not so”, he says. Faced with the fear that attends all paradigmatic shifts in scientific understanding of man’s place in the universe, one option is always denial and retreat. Sometimes it is preferable to live with enigma, even delight in its strange forms, than attempt to answer the riddle it presents: to sit quietly before a sweet and fair view, in the gathering dark. To rest with the griffins on such a seat is dangerous.

Understood in this way, Griffin’s naming in The Invisible Man becomes more comprehensible. Griffin is also a dangerous enigma, a riddle— but the tone of The Invisible Man is quite different to that of The Time Machine. Question: What roars and flies and wears sunglasses? Answer: A griffin in The Invisible Man. The novel is intriguing, charming and funny, and delights in the riddle that Griffin presents to the world about him. Mastering understatement, Mrs Hall describes the bandaged and aggressive Griffin as he arrives at her inn in Iping as a “stranger who was undoubtedly an unusually strange sort of stranger”. In Marvel’s words (another well-named character), Wells’ novel is “Full of secrets… Wonderful secrets!” I think it’s fair to say that The Invisible Man hasn’t been particularly well treated by Wells’ critics: it is a gamesome puzzle-box of a novel, playful yet profoundly serious. I hope to write on it here at a later date. It is a book that revels in the enigma that Griffin and his invention presents: that finds much of its formidable drive in the half-baked theories and farcical mistakes made by its characters.

To finish with the riddle I began with. Why are there griffins in The Time Machine and The Invisible Man? The answer to the question is enigma, and all the peculiar and powerful ideas that people draw forth when confronted by its riddles. In placing enigma at the heart of these two fictions, Wells begins his career as a science fiction writer with a formidable engine for not only his own but all subsequent SF. Out of the back-and-forth between enigma and reflection on its riddles, Wells creates a template for the imaginative quest of modern science fiction. His griffins presage a fantastic yet principled investigation into the enigmatic nature of the universe, and observing in that glass darkly, yet with ever more scientific light, man himself.

1 comment:

  1. Good to see you blogging Griff - I must admit that I haven't yet read your lengthy post in its entirety but it has prompted me to seek out some classic SF and your analysis will probably make more sense if I revisit Wells first!

    In actual fact I'm just coming to the end of Adam Roberts' History. I read his earlier SF criticism years ago and met him once when I was working at Waterstone's and he was promoting one of his novels. "Stone" I think - he was with Richard Morgan who was promoting "Altered Carbon" and a third writer - can't remember who. (Of course I had met him before but I'm not counting one or two seminars I may have half heartedly attended at RHUL!)

    Anyway, I'm really enjoying the History (see you got a mention in the acknowledgements!) and now plan to re-comb its pages for unread classics and go on a bit of an SF binge!

    Also looking forward to more from Cadair Griffin!