I read Jeanette Winterson's second children's tale, The Battle of the Sun, as if it held the answer to my own inner turmoil about the nature of good and evil. Clearly I've been struggling with the concept throughout my recent series of guest posts: good girls vs. bad girls, cultural notions of good and evil, when good becomes bad, when bad becomes good and what process causes the transformation. ("'Only a true alchemist can turn lead into gold,' said Able Darkwater."—The Battle of the Sun)
I must admit I've been a huge Winterson fan since her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a wickedly witty autobiographical foray into classic good and evil—an evangelical mother and church versus a dutiful daughter falling in love with other girls. Thankfully, Winterson emerges as her true self. As such, she has crafted a body of work that posits exotic worlds with magical, non-dualistic themes.
Set partly in the London of Oliver Cromwell and Charles I, Sexing the Cherry continues the exploration of good and evil in a space–time travel with characters of mythic proportions—a literal giant, The Dog Woman, and her adopted son, Jordan. It was no leap of faith for Winterson to move her cast of characters into "children's" fiction so she could work in a mythology more closely rooted to her personal examination of the self than the dualistic models of her evangelical childhood.
Despite its indefatigably English characters, Winterson's mythology is steeped in Eastern non-duality: two but not two: the oneness of body and mind, the oneness of self and other, the oneness of self and environment, the oneness of life and death, the oneness of good and evil.
In The Battle of the Sun, Jack—a young boy turning 12 in London in 1601—is dragged unwillingly into a power struggle: a great battle between an evil alchemist and all of London. As in any children's tale of magic, crazy twists and turns occur, involving a mysterious laboratory, imprisoned orphan children, a dragon, a phoenix, knights, an Abbess, a good witch, a time-travelling girl (from Winterson's first children's book, Tanglewreck). Under it all lies the alchemist Magus' lust for power and his drive to turn the entire city of London into gold.
The many clues to Winterson's non-dualistic view of life in her tale include a creature sawn in two, split head to toe down the middle, each with "one eye, one eyebrow, one nostril, one arm, one leg, one foot, and the other half had just the same." Except that half the creature sawn in two is male and half is female. Both creatures are mean and miserable—revealing the innate problem of duality. "'The Magus was sometime a long time ago a Knight Templar,' said the Dragon, 'and every knight is also the dragon he must fight, and every dragon has within him a phoenix. Good and evil are not as simple as the world wishes them to be.'" Dissolved in mercury, the young heroine Silver isn't dead or lost; she is absorbed into the liquid in thousands of potential Silvers, like the thousands of unseizable mercurial beads that bounce and splinter from a thimble of the liquid. Jack too is potential, which he must choose and fashion.
“Jack looked closely, and to his horror he saw that in each droplet was a miniature Silver.
‘There are millions of her!’ he cried.
‘And none at all,’ replied John Dee, ‘for while she is dissolved like this she is in a state of potentiality. Do you know what that means, Jack?... the power within you is great—yet you, like Silver are in potential.’
‘There aren’t millions of me,’ objected Jack.
‘Are there not? You are young. Are there not many Jacks jostling inside you to see which will become the one Jack, the real Jack?’"
"As Jack ran back to the crumbling destroying house, he remembered what Robert had said about the house being a kind of thought—that it didn't really exist. Then the Magus was 'unthinking' the house, and the house in its volcanic shudders was trying to throw off all the weight of matter and return again to an idea or a dream. The Magus had made it, now he could unmake it. But it was still heavy, still solid, and there was nothing dreamlike about the lead gutters and stone tiles flying like deadly missiles at Jack's head."As we all must, Jack has to discover his own power in this tale and use it for good. Unless he learns to control his fear and anger, the Magus can read his mind. He must learn about the workings of the mind in creation, to see past illusion and still to deal with the physical manifestations of thought. He must learn not to be split by his own dual thoughts: I can; I cannot.
In the end, Jack must use his personal power, "the rare gold of his spirit," in a psychological and physical battle. Even with the "oneness of good and evil," there can be no passivity. The alchemy of turning evil into good is that good must rise bravely against evil to perform the transformation.
I wonder, if by her own alchemy, Winterson isn't building a new mythology for Western children. At any rate, I am inspired by The Battle of the Sun to procure a copy of Tanglewreck. I still have some questions in need of answering.
[Find more Jeanette Winterson here.]
Linda Thornburg (www.mermaidssinging.com) is a filmmaker and writer.