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Golem – something speechless speaks to me

Friday 9 January 2009

Golems* are part of my adult life. Not old friends from childhood. But when I met my first golem, we ‘clicked’ straight away.

I grew up with satyrs, naiads and dryads and hamadryads, centaurs, demigods; hobbits, elves, dwarves (more than dwarfs) and goblins; witches, talking cats, fleeing gingerbread men and magic porridge pots. Oh, and a few emirs, caliphs, sultans, storks, and carpets. You never come across a golem in a Ladybird Book as far as I know.

But some people you meet in life just seem familiar from the outset. You know, when you talk for hours and seem to have everything in common, finishing off each other’s sentences, and yet you were only introduced that afternoon. That’s how we were, me and the concept of golem.

H2O Alchemist's golemTrue, my first glimpse was somewhat distant and we didn’t actually speak that time. I began to be aware of a person made of animated earth. If anything he reminded me of Talos, the (in some versions) mechanical giant who strode in the seas, thigh-deep iirc, around Crete.

A little later Terry Pratchett‘s Feet of Clay gave me a closer look. This clay man was brought to life by the written word. The words as well as the body were designed by the maker and both were controlled by means of the design.

Isn’t that what God did to Adam? Something like?

Feet of Clay only gave me the barest idea, but I knew the golem was special. Our eyes had met. I had a strong feeling he wasn’t showing me his true self in that context, but I was sure he would, taken out of that company of dwarfs and the Watch and all that, disclose his nature. I had to get him alone.

So I googled him, or whatever we did in those pre-Google days.

(I looked it up. Feet of Clay was published the year before that search engine was launched. Gosh.)

I found:

An animated being created entirely from inanimate matter … lacks any kind of free will … activated by writing a sacred word on its forehead or on a clay tablet or a piece of paper inserted in its mouth … Because golems are made in the image of man and not in the image of God, they can’t speak … a speaking golem, if it could be created, would be very dangerous. Subservient to its creator, though in legend it can become uncontrollable … more uncontrollable the longer they have been in existence … And intriguingly, in Talmudic legend, Adam is called golem (‘body without a soul’) for the first 12 hours of his existence.**

It still sounded more like the programming of robots than the deep truth my instinct was telling me the golem, somehow, was about. All that information, authentic though it was, lacked the certain something that would explain why I was so strongly drawn to the golem idea. Yes, part of the pull was the element of deliberate human construction, unlike the British Faerie or the Graeco-Roman nature spirits, more reminiscent of the clockwork flying horse of Arabian legend, steered – how prosaically! – by mechanical controls.

(Here’s the Prince Kamar al-Akmar working out the operation of the horse, The Ebony Horse in the translation of Sir Richard Burton:

‘Presently he turned the right-hand pin, whereupon the horse flew heavenward with increased speed. So he left it, and looking at the sinister shoulder and finding another pin, he wound it up and immediately the steed’s upward motion slowed and ceased and it began to descend, little by little, toward the face of the earth, while the rider became yet more cautious and careful of his life. And when he saw this and knew the uses of the horse, his heart was filled with joy and gladness and he thanked Almighty Allah for that He had deigned deliver him from destruction. Then he began to turn the horse’s head whithersoever he would, making it rise and fall at pleasure, till he had gotten complete mastery over its every movement.’

I like that. It’s how I learnt MS Excel.)

The Arabian horse appealed to me too but the golem’s secret lay somewhere else, not in his artificialness or his controllability.

He came to life, like Pygmalion’s put-upon statue Galatea, while still programmable. Even if, as with Frankenstein’s monster, his life took over and proved itself beyond control – as life (should I say Life?) is.

Well, Pygmalion annoyed me with his short-sighted wish of life for his beautiful ivory masterpiece, expecting her to stay within the description he gave with no input of her own; but that story never really grabbed me and frankly Frankenstein speaks only to the King Kong part of my soul. What was different about the dear old golem?

golem-n-textbook2Today I think I’ve found a clue.

In a review of Maps and Legends, Mark Flanagan quotes Michael Chabon drawing a parallel between the construction and animating of a golem and the production of a novel:

‘The adept handles the rich material, the rank river clay, and diligently intones his alphabetical spells, knowing full well the history of golems: how they break free of their creators, grow to unmanageable size and power, refuse to be controlled. In the same way, the writer shapes his story, flecked like river clay with the grit of experience and rank with the smell of human life, heedless of the danger to himself, eager to show his powers, to celebrate his mastery, to bring into being a little world that, like God’s, is at once terribly imperfect and filled with astonishing life.’

Aha. That must be it.

Writing is as basic to me as burrowing is to a rat. The truth that the golem carries, if it is the truth of the arduous creation of the unwieldy, turned-out-not-quite-as-designed work of art we call a novel, is the reason he and I ‘click’. It’s about the enchantment words can effect.

Now, as with all these unspoken but undeniable connections, I’m left to wonder… does he feel it too?

golems* For more about the golem, have a rummage in:

* Why twelve? Why not twenty-four, or three?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Thursday 20 January 2011 10.50 am

    Annoyed. Turns out that Dean Ezra, who left the flattering trackback to this blogpost, has also nicked my photo (the top one here, of Nod Ule, my own home golem) and has made it his Twitter profile picture.

  2. Monday 19 January 2009 10.50 am

    Interesting thoughts. Although, have you been to Prague? Apparently the golem there is a must-see, although we had stumbled around the city and were almost leaving when we accidentally came across the statue of it. Although, now I’m using Google (there it is again!) it doesn’t look familiar – so perhaps I missed seeing it after all.

    Good to see you here, Andrew! No, Prague is on my will-visit list. Just found some pix of that golem… looks a gentle one.
    – mand

  3. you know who i am permalink
    Sunday 11 January 2009 12.05 pm

    best post to date!!! re-reading terry pratchett at the moment (whom you introduced me to back last century, if you can believe it!). something nagging me – i think there is a short story about golems by isaac bashevis singer (i could be completely mistaken…but he is worth reading anyway).

    keep it up mand – i want to see more like this

    I’m doing my little best!
    Will look out that writer.
    – mand

  4. Sunday 11 January 2009 9.25 am

    A lovely metaphor for writing. I have often wondered about that seemingly paradoxical nature of the written word – we write it and yet it writes us, too. A lot of thinking for a Sunday night. (And I never knew much about golems, except that one features in an X Files episode which is really just a reworking of a Frankenstein’s monster meets voodoo story, with some antisemitism thrown in for good measure…)

    Thanx 80) I never got into the X Files…
    – mand

  5. Friday 9 January 2009 3.49 pm

    Oh goodness me. That needs such a lot of thinking about – not sure I understand it all. Do love Terry Pratchett’s writing though and find it so sad that he is now in the early stages of Alzheimers = life can be so cruel.

    Alzheimer’s is one of the scariest diseases, isn’t it? And yep, Pratchett is unique.
    – mand


  1. My obsession with ‘Golems’- Im not the only one!

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