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Environmental and ecological readings

Philippe Laplace

Part II. Nature, the Environment and the Posthuman: Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries

The Hieroglyphic of Raindrops: Reading the Signs of Nature in The Warlock of Strathearn by Christopher Whyte

Robin M. J. MacKenzie

Texte intégral

1The ecological turn in twentieth-century Scottish literature has attracted a deal of critical attention over the last decade or so, most notably with the publication of Louisa Gairn’s impressive study, Ecology and Modern Scottish Literature. Gairn discusses a number of writers from an ecocritical perspective, from Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Edwin Muir to John Burnside and Kathleen Jamie. Among the writers she does not mention is Christopher Whyte, better known perhaps for his critical and imaginative engagement with issues of gender and sexuality than for a concern with ecological themes. In this article I would like to argue that in his second novel, The Warlock of Strathearn, Whyte explores precisely those things Crawford cites as constitutive of ‘the landscape of the ecological’ – ‘people, creatures, landscape’ and even (tangentially) ‘crops’ – as well as the possibility of a balanced co-existence between them.

  • 2 Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth (London: Picador, 2000), p. 199.

2If we concur with Jonathan Bate that ‘the role of ecopoesis […] is to engage imaginatively with the non-human’,2 then The Warlock of Strathearn surely occupies a significant place in the field of contemporary Scottish ecological writing. It does explore its ecopoetical concerns, however, in rather untypical, and decidedly non-naturalistic, ways and it is these distinctive features of Whyte’s novel that I want to examine in this article. My focus will be directed towards three areas which seem to me crucial to Whyte’s environmental vision: first, the relationship of human subject to natural environment (or, to be precise, to the world of non-human nature); then, more specifically, the representation of animal experience in The Warlock, and how this compares (and contrasts) with the way such experience is presented in works by two other contemporary writers: English novelist Lawrence Norfolk and Australian poet Les Murray. Finally, I will outline some of the ways in which these broadly ecological concerns might link up with another major thematic area in the novel (and indeed Whyte’s work in general): that of gender, sexuality and personal identity.

  • 3 Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling, also appeared in 1997. The rest, as they (...)

3Christopher Whyte was born in Glasgow in 1952, studied at Cambridge and lived in continental Europe (Italy) for many years before returning to Scotland in 1990 to teach and research in Scottish literature, first at Edinburgh and then at Glasgow University. Intellectually speaking, he could aptly be described as a ‘man of pairts’: a polyglot who reads twelve languages and has translated from Italian and Catalan; a major contemporary Gaelic poet (and that in spite of not being a native speaker); an influential critic and scholar, who has written an authoritative study of modern Scottish poetry and edited a path-breaking volume of critical essays, Gendering the Nation (1995), which helped establish queer theory in Scottish literary criticism. Whyte has also written four novels, of which The Warlock of Strathearn, is the second, published in 1997 – the year, incidentally, that saw the appearance on the literary scene of another rather more famous, though to my mind rather less interesting, fictional wizard.3

  • 4 For a discussion of the categories of marvellous, fantastic and uncanny, see Tzvetan Todorov, The F (...)
  • 5 Kirsty Macdonald, ‘Anti-heroes and Androgynes: Gothic Masculinities in Contemporary Scottish Men’s (...)

4As I indicated above, Whyte explores ecological themes in a decidedly non-naturalistic mode; it might therefore be useful to say something about genre before embarking on more detailed textual analysis. The Warlock is most obviously categorised as a historical novel, set in Perthshire in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, from the time of the Covenanters to the 1715 Jacobite rebellion. It is not, however, a work of historical realism of the kind we associate with Hilary Mantel or Rose Tremain; it contains a strong admixture of the supernatural, of what Tzvetan Todorov calls the marvellous (as distinct from the uncanny or the fantastic in a precise sense).4 Kirsty Macdonald has made an interesting case for classifying it as neo-Gothic novel, in the ‘tradition of Castle of Otranto’: she emphasizes the ‘ambiguity, ambivalence and […] concern with boundaries […] habitually listed as Gothic traits’.5 We might, however, question whether the overtones of horror suggested by the term ‘Gothic’ are entirely apposite in the case of Whyte’s novel. Perhaps Rosemary Jackson’s comments on fantasy literature might be more pertinent:

  • 6 Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London: Methuen, 1981), p. 48.

Fantasy establishes, or dis-covers, an absence of separating distinctions, violating a ‘normal’ or commonsense perspective which represents reality as constituted by discrete but connected units. Fantasy is preoccupied with limits, with limiting categories, and with their projected dissolution.6

  • 7 See (for example) Sir Walter Scott’s famous ‘Essay on Romance’ of 1824.
  • 8 Fiona Wilson, ‘Radical Hospitality: Christopher Whyte and Cosmopolitanism’, in The Edinburgh Compan (...)

5The dissolution of limits and limiting categories certainly plays a major role in Whyte’s novel, which is above all a narrative of metamorphosis, of fluid and shifting boundaries between subject and object. This might bring to mind another, more native, genre: the ‘romance’, in the sense in which the great nineteenth-century Scottish novelists such as Hogg, Scott and Stevenson, understood it.7 The generic, indeed intertextual, links with Hogg seem to me particularly pertinent: several critics (most notably Fiona Wilson in an excellent piece on Whyte’s fiction)8 have drawn attention to parallels between The Warlock and the Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, though Whyte’s novel seems to me to show equally strong affinities with Three Perils of Man, a work Hogg himself described as ‘A Border Romance’. The figure of the warlock is perhaps the most obvious intertextual link between the two works, with striking resemblances (particularly in the prominence given to the shape-shifting motif) but also clear-cut divergences in, for example, the contrasting moral nature and position of the two warlocks: whereas Whyte’s warlock is overwhelmingly a life-enhancing figure, Michael Scot in Three Perils of Man very much plays the part of the traditional mischief-maker, under orders from the ‘common enemy of man’.

  • 9 Scottish Literature: in English and Scots, ed. by Douglas Gifford, Sarah Dunnigan & Alan MacGillivr (...)
  • 10 Christopher Whyte, The Warlock of Strathearn (London: Victor Gollancz, 1997), p. 248. Subsequent re (...)

6Several critics have sought to position The Warlock in a more contemporary literary constellation, describing it as a work of home-grown magic realism, as in the 2002 survey, Scottish Literature: in English and Scots,9 and on the back cover of paperback edition of the novel itself. Its most obvious affinities are perhaps not so much with celebrated and foundational magic realist works such as Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude or Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children as with a specifically European sub-species of the genre, exemplified by (among many others) Austrian writer Christoph Ransmayr’s Die letzte Welt (telling of Ovid’s exile on the Black Sea coast) or From the Mouth of the Whale by the Icelandic novelist Sjón. Finally, returning to more traditional generic categories, we can discern a solid Bildungsroman framework underlying the warlock’s narrative: the warlock’s Lehrjahre (to adopt the term from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister) in Strathearn are followed by the (literally and physically) transformative experience of sexual love, in turn followed by his Wanderjahre across continental Europe. Moreover, the warlock’s narration ends with his return to his place of origin, where he foresees his own (imminent) death. The theme of apprenticeship emerges with the tutelary role of the spirits of the wood, acknowledged in the final sentences of the warlock’s narrative: ‘Perhaps a whiff of my burning will reach the spirits in the wood beyond the gorge, who taught me all I know, and to whom I owe so much.’10 This natural process of learning and development – in a far from uncommon Bildungsroman trope – is placed in opposition to the repressive and life-denying influence of the warlock’s formal education at the hands (literally) of the minister McAteer.

7Neo-Gothic novel, work of magic realism, romance, novel of apprenticeship: it seems clear that The Warlock, like most of Whyte’s fiction, is a hybrid work. Indeed, hybridity is a pervasive element in theme, image and motif as well as form, as Wilson has argued:

  • 11 Wilson, ‘Radical Hospitality’, p. 197.

Long before his remarkable powers become manifest, [the warlock’s] liminal position in the family marks him as ‘foreign’ – a resident alien, as it were, whose mere presence discloses legitimacy and authority as arbitrary fictions. As in Euphemia, such in-between hybridity invites various responses.11

  • 12 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, revised edition (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 119.

8The liminal, the hybrid, the transitional: these in-between states, as we know from the work of anthropologists from Van Gennep onwards, are particularly unsettling positions to occupy, both for the liminal figure and the community or social structure on the margins of which he or she moves. As Mary Douglas writes, ‘ [d]anger lies in transitional states, simply because transition is neither one state nor the next, it is undefinable. The person who must pass from one to another is himself in danger and emanates danger to others.’12 In the warlock’s case, his liminal position is never more evident than in his relationship with the natural environment. He describes quite early in his narrative (in the first ‘chapter’) the unusual powers he possesses to understand and communicate with non-human nature (elements and plants as well as animals):

I was not merely aware what it would be like to be a swallow. Though their movements were not preordained, I knew they formed a meaningful pattern, one which could be interpreted, just like the hieroglyphic of raindrops in the puddles of a pitted track, or the subtly different shape a tree assumes, each year, in summer garb. (Warlock, p. 31)

9We find here a very clear emphasis here on the underlying order and meaningfulness of natural phenomena and a strong sense of the natural world as hermeneutic object (or entity). The implication of the key metaphor, ‘the hieroglyphic of raindrops’, is surely to underline not just the possibility of deciphering the book of nature but the difficulty of doing so, the resistance that the signs of the circumambient world offer to the interpreting consciousness. The complexity of the warlock’s interaction with the (non-human) natural world emerges strongly in the passage below:

To say that I can read the thoughts of animals is inexact. To say that I understand the feelings of trees, their joy as the wind ruffles their leaves, their mounting anxiety when the autumn gales tug at their branches, threatening to topple them, their excitement when buds form on each twig, like clenched hands ready to open taut fingers and blossom, is not quite the truth either. I would claim to have a sixth sense, if what I gradually discovered set me apart from the common run of men and women was something as specific as a sense. (Warlock, p. 30)

10On the one hand, the warlock seems to be emphasising the legibility of natural phenomena, the transparency (as it were) of his relationship with non-human nature, plant and animal. Equally strongly stressed, however, is the extreme difficulty of describing and communicating this relationship in human language. The passage is marked by the recurring trope of definition by negation, or what we might refer to as the apophatic mode, particularly prevalent in negative theology, where one attempts to define God by stating what He is not, listing the qualities He lacks. Counterbalancing this we find (especially in the second sentence) something akin to the rhetorical figure of paralipsis or praeteritio: the ‘far be it from me’ trope, whereby the speaker claims not to want to, or be able to, talk about something, and then proceeds to do so anyway (‘joy’, ‘anxiety’, ‘excitement’…). It is clear, then, that the warlock’s discourse is traversed by a conspicuous tension between a strong sense of the limits (and limitations) of human language – especially when it comes to articulating the warlock’s experience, his modes of knowing and perceiving nature – and a persistent impulse to evoke that experience in linguistic terms.

11Another salient rhetorical feature of the text is the density and proliferation of metaphors, which is perhaps not so surprising in conjunction with the apophatic mode, as metaphor can often play a heuristic role, taking over where analytic or denotative language fails. Franco Moretti, drawing on the work of Paul Ricœur, gives a characteristically clear and elegant account of this in his Atlas of the European Novel, in a section discussing the ‘rhetoric of the border’:

  • 13 Franco Moretti, Atlas of the European Novel: 1800-1900 (London & New York: Verso, 1998), p. 47.

In an unknown space, we need an immediate ‘semantic sketch’ of our surroundings and only metaphors know how to do it. Only metaphors, I mean, can simultaneously express the unknown we must face, and yet also contain it.13

12A striking feature of our passage is that the metaphors are drawn overwhelmingly from two related domains: the realm of art/ aesthetics and that of language / textuality. Among the instances of the former we could cite the ‘symphony of voices’ (describing various creatures), the dogs that ‘paint[ed] likes and dislikes’ and, if we extend our conception of the aesthetic, the swallows’ ‘twilight acrobatics’ and propensity to ‘stitch […] crazy patterns in the cloth of twilight’. Then, forming a transition between non-verbal and verbal art forms, we find two theatrical metaphors: the ‘drama of plants and animals’ and the hawk’s ‘lofty soliloquy’. Finally, there are several more specifically textual or linguistic images, such as the dogs’ ‘vocabulary of smells’, the warlock’s self-figuration as a ‘great scholar in famed library’, the reader’s disorientation as though before ‘speech in a foreign language’, and (most vividly) the evocative image of the ‘hieroglyphic of raindrops’, which the warlock can interpret but which remain incomprehensible to lesser (or less gifted) mortals.

13What are we to make of this abundance of metaphors from art and language? The aesthetic metaphors tend to create a sense of nature as (organic) unity, characterised both by complexity and an underlying order, structure or meaning, and containing a strong element of the developing and dynamic. This is hardly new; in fact, it could remind us of certain strands of Romantic aesthetics, and also (although perhaps less compellingly) the idea of nature as a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk. More pertinent for this argument, perhaps, is the prevalence of linguistic and textual imagery, evoking the idea of nature as text – the Book of Nature – and (once again) a sense of Nature as hermeneutic object or entity, in spite of warlock’s equivocations and disclaimers about human language. We could read this as underscoring a tension or gap between figurative and declarative registers of warlock’s discourse: he draws upon textual / linguistic metaphors to figure or (as Moretti would have it) explore heuristically a domain that he explicitly describes as being beyond the reach of human language and signifying systems.

14This proliferation of metaphor is counterbalanced by the warlock-narrator’s tendency to use often quite abstract and anthropomorphic vocabulary (close at times to pathetic fallacy) to describe the emotional and moral characteristics of the animals he encounters:

If I strained, I could perceive the tiniest existences. Flies scudding to and fro were frenzied and voracious, eager to pack all the life they could into their short day. The spiders’ thoughts were as creaky and laborious as the turning of an unoiled hinge. I preferred not to tune in to the viciousness of their cowardly hunting, the slow determination with which they consumed their helpless, and still living, prey. (Warlock, p. 31)

  • 14 Gillian Beer, ‘Animal Presences: Tussles with Anthropomorphism’, Comparative Critical Studies, 2: 3 (...)

15What strikes us here (once again) is the frequency of adjectives drawn from the domain of human psychology (‘voracious’, ‘eager’, ‘vicious [ness]’, ‘cowardly’), indicating a certain transparency in the language which we could perhaps interpret as expressing the warlock’s confidence that human moral discourse can adequately describe the nature and behaviour of animals, that no great pressure or distortion is exerted on normal structures of lexis and syntax by the ‘otherness’ of animal being. As Gillian Beer writes of a well-known children’s book (or series of books), Dr Doolittle, ‘ [t]here is no attempt at actual translation; rather, the shift across has already occurred: what we read is that other language.’14

  • 15 Karla Armbruster and Karen Seago, ‘Editors’ Introduction’, ‘Literary Beasts: The Representation of (...)

16This kind of anthropomorphism is often criticised as the expression of a kind of human ontological imperialism, which ignores and eradicates all trace of the otherness of animal being by translating it into the linguistic structures of human discourse. As Karla Armbruster and Karen Seago note in their introduction to an issue of Comparative Critical Studies devoted to animals in literature, ‘many critics of anthropomorphism suggest that literary beasts, even those less obviously anthropomorphic, can only ever teach us about ourselves.’15 There is, however, another, more favourable, reading: the ‘transparency’ of the warlock’s description of the inner life of animals, his apparently unproblematic translation of animal experience into human categories, could be read as a way of conveying the undistorted nature of the communication between warlock and non-human nature. His account of animal experience, then, would not be about the imposition of power or elimination of difference, but rather an acknowledgement (or expression) of mutual understanding, of a genuinely intersubjective relationship between warlock and the animals in his environment.

17In view of the tensions in the warlock’s discourse between competing conceptions of the relationship of human language and animal experience, it is instructive to compare it with some other contemporary examples of what I’m tempted to call ‘writing animal’ (by analogy with ‘Learning Human’, the title of Les Murray’s New Selected Poems). The texts I’ve chosen – not entirely at random – were written by an English novelist and an Australian poet, both of whom allow the (putative) otherness of animal being to mould and distort ‘normal’ linguistic structures, to twist them out of shape, or into new shapes. The English novelist is Lawrence Norfolk, author of the complex and playful historical novel, The Pope’s Rhinoceros, from which the following passage comes:

  • 16 Lawrence Norfolk, The Pope’s Rhinoceros, 2nd ed. (London: Vintage, 1998), p. 70.

Cannibal herring circle slowly about, nosing, tasting. Its attributes spell food, and yet… It is too big. Too hard, and strangely shaped – utterly unfishlike. Utterly unmeat-like. Juices curdle disappointingly in their stomachs. They cluster more thickly. It has tendrils – one thick, one thin – which grow upwards towards the death-light and twitch, plick, in the shielding water. Plick, plick. It has an eye, or a vent, set in the middle of its stomach, which spews a murky yellow glow.16

18Some narrative context might not come amiss here. The episode is set on the Baltic coast on the island of Usedom, on the borders of present-day Germany and Poland; it describes how Salvestro, the novel’s protagonist (insofar as we can identify one in such a complex and polyphonic narrative), descends in a barrel into the murky depths of the Baltic, observed (at least intermittently) by a shoal of herring. The ‘it’ in the passage is Salvestro’s barrel.

  • 17 See Norfolk, The Pope’s Rhinoceros, pp. 204-07.

19Particularly striking in this extract are the shifts of focalisation: in the first sentence the herring are seen from outside, but once we get to ‘It is too big’, we’re surely looking at the thing from a piscine perspective. This impression is reinforced by the use of lexical inventions like ‘death-light’ or by words like ‘tendrils’ or ‘vent (in the middle of its stomach)’ which are clearly intended to reflect a herring’s-eye view of the incident, the shoal’s attempts to make sense of the unfamiliar object. This is very different from the warlock’s ‘transparent’ descriptions of animal experience; the lexical deformations and tropings in the passage are clearly designed to evoke (at least sporadic) glimmers of the herrings’ mode of being. And a rather primitive mode of being it is: Norfolk’s herring are creatures of appetite with only rudimentary levels of awareness, showing little (if any) sign of the moral complexity of the dogs or swallows or even spiders the warlock describes in Whyte’s novel. Even when Norfolk vouchsafes to his fictional animals a greater degree of mental acuity – as with the rats which conduct their brutal civil wars in the Fortress Colonna and the Church of the Santissimi Apostoli in Rome17 – we have little sense of a pervasive intelligence manifesting itself in different forms of being, as in The Warlock.

20The second example of ‘writing animal’ I would like to discuss occurs in a short poem by the Australian poet Les Murray entitled ‘Echidna’:

  • 18 Les Murray, ‘Echidna’, in Learning Human: New Selected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2001), p. 115.

Crumpled in a coign I was milk-tufted with my suckling
till he prickled.

He entered the earth pouch then
and learned ant-ribbon,
the gloss we put like lightning on the brimming ones.
Life is fat is sleep. I feast life on and sleep it,
deep loveself in calm.18

  • 19 Gillian Beer, ‘Animal Presences’, p. 321.

21This is an astonishingly vivid evocation, or imaginative recreation, of the experience of a non-human creature, exemplifying what Gillian Beer has described as ‘Murray’s powerful wrench on language’ in his animal poems.19 In our poem – one of a number of poems that could have been chosen from Murray’s œuvre – this comes across in several ways: the distortions of syntax that evoke the echidna’s mode of being, what one would almost be tempted to call its inner world: ‘I feast life on and sleep it, | deep loveself in calm.’ (Note that ‘I feast life on’ carries a very different charge to ‘I feast on life’, conveying instead meanings we could perhaps gloss as ‘I feast on and that’s life’ or ‘I live on, feasting all the while’, or even ‘the duration of my life consists largely in feasting’.) Similarly, it is difficult, if not impossible, to pin down the exact relationship of the phrase ‘Deep loveself in calm’ to the preceding clause (‘I feast life on and sleep it’): the phrase presumably stands in loose apposition to what comes before, but whether to ‘I’ or the whole clause is harder to determine. However one decides to construe this, the syntax of the poem takes quite a lot of unravelling and there is more than one way of unravelling it.

  • 20 Gillian Beer, ‘Animal Presences’, p. 318.

22Not only syntax but also vocabulary is ‘wrenched’, or at least modified, in the poem. ‘Earth pouch’, ‘ant-ribbon’; ‘the gloss we put on the brimming ones’: the lexical and metaphorical inventiveness serves to create a vivid sense of the echidna’s otherness – not incomprehensible to us but nevertheless inhabiting a very different life-world from ours and resistant to our habits and modes of sense-making. As Beer has written, ‘ [t]he language is often baffling in its ellipses and leaps, but the triumph is to draw another life-form into speech: speech scarified, but surviving, drawing on the human, but at the service of another way of being.’20

23Understandably, Beer tends to foreground the resistance of Murray’s language, the obstacles to understanding it throws up. But, paradoxically, we could argue that Murray’s work shows a certain linguistic optimism or self-confidence as to the possibility of (to quote Beer) ‘draw[ing] another life-form into speech’, however ‘wrenched and scarified’. For Whyte’s warlock, on the other hand, there would be no point in distorting verbal structures to convey the textures of animal experience, as the comprehension of other life-forms does not primarily pass through human language. The warlock has undistorted access to animal experience but nevertheless recognises that this experience is alien to human language, that (to paraphrase Beer) it represents a way of being beyond human speech. In that sense, the transparency of the warlock’s description would reflect the immediacy of his understanding of, and communication with, non-human nature, rather than the struggle of human language to articulate the animals’ radically different modes of consciousness and being.

24In the final pages of this article I’d like to broaden my focus and suggest how the warlock’s encounters with and experience of (non-human) nature might link with another major thematic concern in The Warlock of Strathearn, and in Whyte’s work generally. That theme is gender and sexuality. The crucial symbolic link comes in the figure of the Shapeshifter – one of the ‘spirits of the wood’, a numinous presence the warlock encounters in his childhood and youth and who acts (for a while at least) as a kind of tutelary figure:

He [The Shapeshifter] emanated a sensation of knotted strength, which in no way resembled that of a muscular human body. He looked as if he might mould and shift his form at will, sliding along the thin branch of a sapling as a snake will do, scuttling over the surface of a pond as an almost weightless beetle, or pouring himself through a keyhole and into a room in the form of a puff of dense smoke. (Warlock, p. 72)

25It is the Shapeshifter who develops the warlock’s incipient powers of metamorphosis, teaching him to adopt the corporeal form of other creatures:

He turned me into a mole, a weasel and then an otter, always at my side to guide and reassure me. The transformations came faster and faster. He was vaunting his dexterity, and did indeed take a risk that proved nearly fatal. For a split second we were gnats, hovering above the dark mirror of a pool. Just as a trout’s jaws loomed to catch me, I became a trout myself and dropped into the water, much to the puzzlement of the creature that had come close to eating me. (Warlock, pp. 73-74)

26The Shapeshifter’s fellow spirit, whom the warlock knows as the Trickster, occupies a similar symbolic space, though with a greater emphasis on hybridity (or even monstrosity) than on transformation from one being to another:

[T]he Trickster […] never manifested in the same shape twice and took delight in inventing constantly new forms, poised between the animal and the human. (Warlock, p. 77)

27One could argue that the Trickster’s sometimes bizarre or grotesque hybridity helps extend the reach of the warlock’s sympathy, allowing it to encompass creatures that arouse revulsion in other humans. We see this in the episode of the two-headed baby, born from an incestuous coupling between father and daughter:

A strange tenderness possessed me as I took it in my arms. The trunk was well-formed, but it had three legs, a normal one on either side and a double one in the centre, two legs combined, as it were, with a splayed foot like a contorted butterfly. The heads were joined at the nape of the neck and faced in opposite directions, after the fashion of the double-headed heraldic eagles I encountered repeatedly in Bohemia, many years later.
[…] It might have been more fitting to have recourse to the Trickster, given the strangeness of the creature I had assumed care of. (Warlock, pp. 89-90)

28On one hand, these tutelary spirits, and the Shapeshifter in particular, have a significant plot function: the transformative powers the warlock shares with, and perhaps derives from, the Shapeshifter, and which allow him to take on form of other animals and birds, are those he later draws upon to change sex – to become a woman and thus seduce his beloved Lisbet. Ironically, after the warlock undergoes his sexual transformation, he loses his preternatural powers, including the ability to understand and communicate with other species, to ‘tune in’ to rhythms of natural world:

And if, then, I had been able to reduce the babbling of voices, the language of sparrows, caterpillars and weasels, the music of rain and clouds, and the dumb rhythms of the soil, to the thinnest of murmurs […], all of that was silenced from this point on. Rather than being maimed myself, it was as if the world around me had gone dumb, losing an organ of expression I had always known it to possess. (Warlock, p. 154)

  • 21 Carla Sassi, Why Scottish Literature Matters (Edinburgh: Saltire Society, 2005), p. 162.

29In an ideologically charged passage, the warlock wonders whether there is a sort of exchange, or trade-off, taking place: ‘In changing sex, had I become normal at last? What did normality mean?’ (Warlock, p. 154) More important for us, however, than the definition and construction of normality are the symbolic resonances contained in the Shapeshifter figure, involving notions of fluid identity and polymorphous desire, of self-transformative powers as against the rigidity of fixed identities. The warlock’s shape-shifting powers enable him to cross both species and gender boundaries, thus suggesting that fluid identity and the free play of desire flow from the same ontological source as a heightened ecological awareness and a fully-developed intuitive and empathic relationship with (non-human) nature. One might argue, moreover, that a way of being that acknowledges, and indeed celebrates, the free play of (sexual) desire is more likely to sense and experience the interconnectedness of all nature – of all life-forms, across the species divide. At all events, these characteristics, or propensities, could be seen as the expression of a specific mode of being-in-the-world, diametrically opposed to the rigid and repressive structures and sadistic tendencies associated in the novel with Covenanting Presbyterianism, with what Carla Sassi calls the ‘monotheistic severity of the Presbyterian church’.21

30The hostility to Presbyterianism in various guises is of course a time-honoured theme – ‘ane old song’ – that we recognise from Burns, Hogg and Stevenson, to name but the most notable examples. But, as Sassi’s formulation suggests, it is given an interesting (and in some respects distinctive) development in Whyte’s novel. To take Sassi’s noun first, the severity manifests itself in repression – or conversion (as in hysteria) – of sexual energies into what can only be described as sadistic behaviour, in the precise Freudian sense of sadism as the deriving of sexual pleasure through causing or witnessing pain. This comes across very plainly in the case of Alison, the warlock’s grandmother, whose demonic and murderous destructiveness is ascribed (or at least linked) to the repression of strong sexual impulses. We see this most directly in Alison’s visible, or rather audible, pleasure in watching the minister McAteer flog the young warlock:

What I tremble to remember is not the swishing of the invisible can behind my back, but my grandmother’s voice as she counted the strokes. There was a quality to it I recognized even then, although years were to pass before I could name it as voluptuousness. (Warlock, p. 98)

31If this conjunction of repressed sexuality and sadism in certain forms of Presbyterianism occurs in many literary accounts, the hostility to monotheism (the adjectival element in Sassi’s description) gives rise to more unusual developments in Whyte’s novel. The warlock’s universe is profoundly polytheistic: his native paganism peoples the landscape around Strathearn, and especially the ‘thin places’ (where boundaries between material and spiritual worlds are porous) in the rowan grove and beside the Water of May, with a multitude of deities, or numinous presences, of whom the Shapeshifter, the Trickster and the Lady of Flowers are the most prominent. More unusual still is the strong element of metempsychosis in his belief system – somewhat reminiscent of Hinduism – though one could argue that the transmigration of souls flows easily and naturally from the warlock’s experience of bodily transformation and his alchemical attempts at the transmutation of base metals. The metempsychosis motif appears in the final sentences of the warlock’s narration, as he describes his imminent death:

I shall lay my body on the pyre and […] Hughoc’s grandson will set a torch to it, tending the blaze until every atom of my mortal vesture has been converted to a greater purity of smoke, ash and perfume.
The four winds will disperse what I once was throughout the length and breadth of the Valley of the May. Perhaps a whiff of my burning will reach the spirits in the wood beyond the gorge […]. They have the privilege of foreseeing the form I will return in. I do not. With that question in mind, I shall proceed as calmly as the phoenix does, on the road to my destruction and rebirth. (Warlock, pp. 247-48)

  • 22 Carla Sassi, Why Scottish Literature Matters, p. 162.
  • 23 Kirsty Macdonald, ‘Anti-heroes and Androgynes’, n. pag.

32In The Warlock of Strathearn Christopher Whyte has imagined a figure who embodies a fluid and self-transformative subjectivity, characterised by the free play of desire and a preternatural sensitivity to, and interconnectedness with, the natural environment. Not a schoolboy wizard, then, but a Perthshire shaman who can ‘listen to the energy of living things’ (Warlock, p. 33) and who, in Sassi’s memorable phrase, ‘poses the ultimate challenge to the idea of morphological normativity at the heart of western civilisation.’22 Macdonald argues that Whyte’s choice of genre allows him ‘to defamiliarise contemporary values through their distancing in time’;23 there is also, though, a sense in which this distancing (temporal and modal) allows him to probe those values and debates in sharper focus and with greater symbolic complexity and force. The warlock may be a denizen of a fictional world which bears little resemblance to our late capitalist, postmodern reality (one could multiply the adjectives). But in an era when ecosystems look increasingly fragile and threatened by the technological will-to-power of (western) humanity, the warlock’s attentiveness to and reverence for the natural world is something we might do well to emulate, however far short we inevitably fall in our efforts to make sense of the hieroglyphics of raindrops or the swallows’ mad, twilight acrobatics.


2 Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth (London: Picador, 2000), p. 199.

3 Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling, also appeared in 1997. The rest, as they say, is history.

4 For a discussion of the categories of marvellous, fantastic and uncanny, see Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, tr. by Richard Howard (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975), pp. 24-57.

5 Kirsty Macdonald, ‘Anti-heroes and Androgynes: Gothic Masculinities in Contemporary Scottish Men’s Fiction’, The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies, 3 (2007), n. pag. <> [accessed 27 February 2015].

6 Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London: Methuen, 1981), p. 48.

7 See (for example) Sir Walter Scott’s famous ‘Essay on Romance’ of 1824.

8 Fiona Wilson, ‘Radical Hospitality: Christopher Whyte and Cosmopolitanism’, in The Edinburgh Companion to Contemporary Scottish Literature, edited by Berthold Schoene (Edinburgh: EUP, 2009), pp. 194-201 (p. 197).

9 Scottish Literature: in English and Scots, ed. by Douglas Gifford, Sarah Dunnigan & Alan MacGillivray (Edinburgh: EUP, 2002), p. 976.

10 Christopher Whyte, The Warlock of Strathearn (London: Victor Gollancz, 1997), p. 248. Subsequent references to the text will be given in brackets.

11 Wilson, ‘Radical Hospitality’, p. 197.

12 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, revised edition (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 119.

13 Franco Moretti, Atlas of the European Novel: 1800-1900 (London & New York: Verso, 1998), p. 47.

14 Gillian Beer, ‘Animal Presences: Tussles with Anthropomorphism’, Comparative Critical Studies, 2: 3 (2005), 311-22 (p. 314).

15 Karla Armbruster and Karen Seago, ‘Editors’ Introduction’, ‘Literary Beasts: The Representation of Animals in Contemporary Literature’, Comparative Critical Studies, 2: 3 (2006), v-xiii (p. vi).

16 Lawrence Norfolk, The Pope’s Rhinoceros, 2nd ed. (London: Vintage, 1998), p. 70.

17 See Norfolk, The Pope’s Rhinoceros, pp. 204-07.

18 Les Murray, ‘Echidna’, in Learning Human: New Selected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2001), p. 115.

19 Gillian Beer, ‘Animal Presences’, p. 321.

20 Gillian Beer, ‘Animal Presences’, p. 318.

21 Carla Sassi, Why Scottish Literature Matters (Edinburgh: Saltire Society, 2005), p. 162.

22 Carla Sassi, Why Scottish Literature Matters, p. 162.

23 Kirsty Macdonald, ‘Anti-heroes and Androgynes’, n. pag.


Taught for many years at the University of Swansea and is now Honorary Lecturer in the School of Modern Languages at St Andrews University. He has published a number of articles on modern (post-1850) French fiction, mainly on the work of Marcel Proust. His current research interests lie in comparative literature: recent publications include articles on Proust as reader of Stevenson, and on ecological themes in novels by Lawrence Norfolk and Christoph Ransmayr.

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