The Hunter

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote “man is not truly one, but truly two” in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. So it is that I’ve written about the animals and monsters that inspired two of the characters in my story. But, in a world of binaries, beasts cannot exist without hunters.

The Death of Actaeon by Titian (1559-75), National Gallery London. Source: Wikipedia

The Death of Actaeon by Titian (1559-75), National Gallery London. Source: Wikipedia

In a thriller novel, it’s conventional to have the ‘good’ guy pursue the ‘bad’ guy, or perhaps they pursue each other in a game of ‘cat-and-mouse’. Fair enough, I suppose, but it all seems a little bit boring.

Remember this?

In Christianity, wolves were a threat. Jesus calls upon his disciples and says “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves; be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). In this verse, as in others, a shepherd warns his flock, the sheep needing protection from wolves which were symbols of greed and destruction, and sometimes Satan himself.

If you’ve ever pick up the Epic of Gilgamesh, you will find the titular character criticising Ishtar about her habit of betrayal (Tablet VI, Andrew George trans.):

You loved the shepherd, the grazier, the herdsman,
            who gave you piles of loaves baked in embers,
and slaughtered kids for you day after day.
You struck him and turned him into a wolf,
            now his very own shepherd boys chase him away,
and his dogs take bites at his haunches.

And so the protector can be turned into a predator at the whim of the gods. This is echoed centuries later in Greek mythology.

Artemis (or Diana to the Romans) was the goddess of the hunt, the “queen of beasts” according to Homer’s Iliad. One of the myths about Artemis refers to a man called Actaeon. The story exists in fragments, but it is mentioned in The Bacchae by Euripides (ll.336-341):

You saw
that dreadful death your cousin Actaeon died
when those man-eating hounds he had raised himself
savaged him and tore his body limb from limb
because he boasted that his prowess in the hunt surpassed
the skill of Artemis. 

It’s also interesting that The Bacchae is a play that explores the same duality of man that Stevenson wrote about centuries later. 

A decade after The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was published, another book that may be familiar to readers was released: Dracula by Bram Stoker. It is in this story that we find another kind of hunter. Indeed, we find men who are not familiar with the nature of the hunt at all. As Dracula says to Harker (p.25):

“Ah, sir, you dwellers in the city cannot enter into the feeling of the hunter.”

This implies that hunting is not for a civilised creature (like Harker): it’s more primitive – it’s animal.

Van Helsing is the supreme hunter in Dracula (by default, really). He has a moment when he reminds those assembled to fight against Dracula (p. 253) that:

“...to fail here, is not mere life or death. It is that we become as him; that we henceforward become foul things of the night like him – without heart of conscience, preying on the bodies and the souls of those we love best ... We go on for all time abhorred by all; a blot on the face of God’s sunshine.” 

To fail, in this instance, is to be turned: poisoned, changed, altered – monstrous.

I once sat down with a pencil and paper and scrawled out the name ‘Van Helsing’, soon learning that rearranging the letters gives ‘Levan Singh.’  Singh is a common name in India, often used by warriors and kings, and is derived from the Sanskrit word for ‘lion’. (Incidentally, ‘Levan’ is a Georgian form of ‘Leon’, which means ... lion.) Historically, lions represent courage and strength, though are also guardians (consider the sculpted lions on plinths that flank a temple’s entrance).

In Thus Spake Zarathustra, the lion is used as a metaphor by Nietzsche and represents a man who rejects the old ways for a new morality.

For me, there is an echo of disquiet swirling around the morality of the hunter. Yes, the monsters must be defeated but the hunter may, at the whim of the gods (or fate, or nature, or perhaps inevitably) become a monster too. Or, perhaps the hunter needs to be a monster, an animal, to ensure victory.

Consider this: in Book II and III of The Republic, Plato defines a guardian class – those who would protect and also attack when needed. The guardians were to be educated in wisdom and courage, temperance and justice, while also subjected to strict physical training. But there were prohibitions too; for example, the guardians could not own private property. They are considered different, outsiders, their sole focus on attack and defence (Plato admired Sparta, incidentally).

Furthermore, in Ancient Rome, soldiers were restricted from entering the city. They were to remain outside of the pomerium unless on a victory parade through the city. Upon entering, they surrendered certain privileges. They had a job to do, but the citizens blocked out the reality of war by keeping the soldiers outside of the walls. Naturally, because, as Dracula said earlier:

“Ah, sir, you dwellers in the city cannot enter into the feeling of the hunter.”

Perhaps a modern example is in order. Check out this scene from Joss Whedon's Serenity.

And check out this from the movie Blood Diamond.

'Good guys' are boring, but stir in a little bit of villainy, add a dash of the monstrous, a dose of the animal, a sprinkling of belief in a cause, and toss the regret in the bin. How much more interesting does that sound?