Pygmalion

Pygmalion (Πυγμαλίων Pugmalíōn) is a legendary figure of Cyprus, most familiar from Ovid’s narrative poem Metamorphoses. He is a sculptor who falls in love with a statue he has carved.


Depiction of Ovid’s narrative by Jean Raoux.

Having crafted the perfect woman, Pygmalion makes offerings to Aphrodite at her festival day, quietly wishing for a bride who would be “the living likeness of my ivory girl.” When he returns home, he kisses his ivory statue, and finds that its lips are warm. He kisses it again, and finds that the ivory has lost its hardness. Aphrodite has granted Pygmalion’s wish. Pygmalion marries the ivory sculpture and they live happily together.

In modern times, George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, reexamines the myth through the story of underclass flower-girl Eliza Doolittle who is metaphorically “brought to life” by a phonetics professor, Henry Higgins. Higgins teaches her to refine her accent and conversation and otherwise conduct herself with upper-class manners in social situations. The play inspired the film My Fair Lady starring Audrey Hepburn.


King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, 1884, by Edward Burne-Jones, currently hangs in the Tate Gallery, London.

George Bernard Shaw’s re-telling of the Pygmalion myth also draws upon the Elizabethan ballad of King Cophetua. Titled “The King and the Beggar-maid,” the story is Cophetua, tells of an African king who one day while looking out a palace window, witnesses a young beggar, Penelophon, “clad all in grey”. Struck by love at first sight, Cophetua walks out into the street, he tells Penelophon that she is to be his wife. She agrees and becomes queen, and soon loses all trace of her former poverty and low class.

C. S. Lewis often used Cophetua and the beggar girl as an image of God’s love for the unlovely. In The Problem of Pain, he writes,

We cannot even wish, in our better moments, that [God] could reconcile Himself to our present impurities – no more than the beggar maid could wish that King Cophetua should be content with her rags and dirt…

In classical fairy tales, the maiden is woken from an enchanted sleep by the kiss of the Prince, just as Pygmalion, the sculptor awakens his bride, with a kiss. Moreover, Professor Higgins endows Eliza with dignity and pride, bringing her ‘to life‘ by bestowing upon her the graces of society. But these tales offer little nuance to what may occur to an unsuspecting creator once he has summoned a real life woman with agency and choice, into his life.

It is not love to to fashion a person as though an object, to be pure and good, endowed with life yet with the expectation it will remain good and pure in perpetuity? A mannequin or socially engineered project like Eliza Doolittle cannot truly feel loved nor genuinely love in return under such conditions.

Bernard Shaw’s play notoriously does not end with the fairy-tale love story of Ovid’s Pygmalion. Rather Eliza rebels from Higgins, refusing to fetch his slippers and he grows furious for “lavishing” his knowledge and his “regard and intimacy” on a “heartless guttersnipe” who he has made “a consort for a king.”  The Hollywood film version ‘My Fair Lady’ of course rejected such a realistic ending in favour of, well a Hollywood one.

What is reality then? The Hebrew prophets tell of a tragic drama between YHWH and his people, here depicted as a young girl taken from poverty to be the bride of the King. Ezekiel 16 reads:

10 I clothed you with an embroidered dress and put sandals of fine leather on you. I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments. 11 I adorned you with jewelry: I put bracelets on your arms and a necklace around your neck, 12 and I put a ring on your nose, earrings on your ears and a beautiful crown on your head.

However, the bride does not remain beautiful and obedient for the king. She soon rebels, turning to prostitution and idol worship and even giving her children up for human sacrifices.

15 “‘But you trusted in your beauty and used your fame to become a prostitute… 16 You took some of your garments to make gaudy high places, where you carried on your prostitution... 17 You also took the fine jewelry I gave you, the jewelry made of my gold and silver, and you made for yourself male idols and engaged in prostitution with them. 

The prophet continues to lament all of Israel’s misfortunes as resulting from the self inflicted chaos of Israel’s choices, a once chosen and adorned bride who chased other lovers. He closes with a reminder of YHWHs eternal promises.

Soren Kierkegaard’s version of the ballad of King Cophetua, ‘The King and the Maiden’ retells the tale with the king willing to take on the clothes of a beggar to claim the woman he loves. It is he that abases himself rather than she he elevates, lest he overwhelm her with his power and grandeur and never truly claim her heart.

The King and the Maiden

This short story strikes at the heart of the reader, for love is true love not when the object of desire is bestowed with graces to make her worthy of love, but when she is met by the humbled heart of one earnestly and repeatedly wishing to know her win her heart, one indeed willing to suffer the pains of loving her and her imperfections and keep coming back to an eternal promise of love.

Pinocchio

Pinocchio is a classic children’s tale, first written by by Italian writer Carlo Collodi in 1883. It is a story of puppet’s journey to become a “real boy” and is commonly counted among the most popular children’s tales of all time.

Indeed, the Disney adaptation in 1940 cemented its place in the hearts and minds of children across the world. However, like many fairy tales, myths and legends, the original story is remarkably dark and even sinister in parts. Moreover, many of the motifs and elements of the story hark back to deep and resonant mythical themes.

GeppettoPinocchio

The story begins in Tuscany Italy, where a poor and childless woodcarver Geppetto, is given a piece of wood that talks and weeps. He carves it into a marionette and calls the puppet  Pinocchio. Immediately the puppet shows willful ungratefulness to his “father” Geppetto, kicking him and running away.

Geppetto searches for Pinochio but ends up getting thrown into jail. The hungry puppet returns home and falls asleep in front of the fire. When he awakes and Geppetto returns from jail, they find that his feet have been burned off in the fire.

Ever loving Geppetto repairs Pinocchio’s feet and sells his jacket to purchase the puppet a book to attend school. However, the marionette’s mischief does not end here. On the way to school Pinocchio is diverted by a Marionette Theatre Company and sells his school book to attend. Here he gains five gold coins but instead of returning to poor Geppetto, the puppet is lured by a wicked Cat and Fox who try to extort him of his money and leave him hanging for dead.

Cat and Fox

Rescued by a fairy with Blue Hair, Pinocchio lies to her about his gold coins and famously his nose grows long. She urges him to be a good boy and sends him on his way.

The Cat and Fox return and succeed in stealing gullible Pinocchio’s gold and in his attempt to complain to the courts, he is thrown in jail. Further adventures have Pinocchio labouring for a farmer, shipwrecked at sea, captured by the Circus and turned into a Donkey.

All this time poor Geppetto has been searching for Pinocchio and himself ended up in the belly of a giant fish. Here, in the belly of the fish,  Pinocchio himself shipwrecked, finds his father and together they escape.

Blue Hair Fairy

Finally, humbled and repentant, Pinocchio works diligently, saves money and cares for his father. Visited by the fairy with the Blue Hair in a dream, Pinocchio finds that he has indeed become a “real boy.”

The story of an inanimate object’s metamorphosis into a being of consciousness and its consequent relationship with its maker is recurrent in mythical literature. From the Torah’s account of Adam and Eve in Genesis, to  Ovid’s Pygmalion, to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and to more modern iterations is sci-fi and fantasy Blade Runner each explore the nuances of the relationship between creation and creator in different ways.

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  • Can a maker imbue his or her creation with consciousness and life, simply by loving it enough?
  • What does true freedom and love between parent and child, between creator and creation really look like?
  • What is the consequence to a creator of a creation who is given life and yet is unloved?
  • What is the consequence to a creation of rejecting the creator and seeking its own path?

In many ways, the story of Pinocchio follows the classic tropes of a “hero journey”: the leaving of the familiar, the meeting with supernatural aids or mentors, the encounters with trials and enemies, the ordeal resulting in death and the final resurrection and return.

FrankenstineBlade Runner

Pinnochio’s story, like the story of Adam and Eve, begins with rebellion. Awake and consciousness, the first choices of this new being are ones of curiosity, independence, freedom and necessary rejection of the advice of both conscience [the cricket] and the father. However, this journey leads to strife, suffering, loss, imprisonment and even death.

Adam and Eve

His turning point is his encounter with his father Geppetto in the belly of the giant fish. Here Pinocchio, descends as though into death and rescues the father, returning him to life. Rising from the ashes of this death experience, Pinocchio is a different person – loving, humble, respectful and caring for his father. It is here that receives his ultimate wish from the fairy, his wish to become a “real boy.”

The classic mythological story, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, shapes a similar motif when Luke Skywalker encounters his father, the Sith Lord, Darth Vader. Luke knows he will never become a true Jedi until he faces his father. When Luke faces Darth Vader and he resists the pressure to turn to the dark side,  he redeems his father, much like Pinocchio, redeems Geppetto from the belly of the giant fish.

This narrative trope is starkly paralleled in the Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in which acolyte to the dark side Kylo Ren faces his father Han Solo, and in an act which will make him worthy of the dark side, kills his father. With this initiation rite, he sets himself free from the tradition his father represents and graduates to the place of true dark lord.

kylo-ren-han-solo

Pinocchio differs from darker tales such as Frankenstein and Blade Runner, which reflect on the despair and murderous ends sought by a creation spurned and unloved by its creator/ father. Pinocchio is loved by Geppetto and what holds him back from becoming a “real boy” is his own rejection of this love. His transformation comes through sacrificial reconciliation of himself to his father.

And so the biblical account of Christ, who is described as a second Adam, tells the story of a son who descends into death, to be sacrificially reconciled to the father. He reverses the alienation created by the first Adam, and leads humanity forward to ultimate metamorphosis into “true sonship” ….

resurrection-christ_0

…from puppet to “real child”.