Reading With Fakename: Tyger! Tyger!

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright, In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye Could frame thy fearful symmetry? 

In what distant deeps or skies Burnt the fire in thine eyes?  On what wings dare he aspire?  What the hand dare seize the fire? 

And what shoulder, and what art?  Could twist the sinews of thy heart?  And when thy heart began to beat, What dread hand, and what dread feet?

What the hammer?  What the chain?  In what furnace was thy brain?  What the anvil, what dread grasp Dare its deadly terrors clasp? 

When the stars threw down their spears, and watered heaven with their tears,  Did he smile his work to see?  Did he who made the lamb make thee? 

Tyger!, Tyger! burning bright, In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye Dare frame thy fearful symmetry? 

The occasion is that I’m reading The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, by John Vaillant.  There are hardly words to describe how riveting this book is.  It’s a little of everything:  geography, psychology, ecology, evolution, genetics, mythology, Russian history and detective story.  Essentially, it’s the story of tracking one Amur tiger (incorrectly called the Siberian tiger), who killed and ate a man named Markov in the winter of 1997.

It takes place in an area I never even heard of:  the Primorye Territory of far eastern Russia.  Ecologically, it’s extremely bizarre, and plants and animals normally found either in the Artic or the tropics coexist there.  It’s thought that it’s an area that somehow escaped the last Ice Age.  However, pressure from the north drove Arctic plants and animals south, while pressure from the south drove tropical plants and animals north, where  both groups adapted and survived.

The author uses two lines from William Blake’s poem above to introduce one of the chapters.  The lines he chose are “What the hammer?  What the chain?  In what furnace was thy brain?”  This so perfectly illustrates what the tiger’s behavior indicates:  it was angry.  Vividly, blindingly, chillingly so.  Singlemindedly intent upon revenge against Markov for an unforgivable offense (two offenses, actually).  In other words, its brain was in a furnace. 

Blake’s poem is really not about tygers…I mean tigers…it’s really about God.  The most important line in the poem is “Did he who made the lamb make thee?”  The tiger is  a stand-in for all predators, all fearsome things, and ultimately, of evil.  It’s really the age-old question that Christians have been asking themselves since, well, the beginning of Christianity.  When you postulate a God who created everything, is omniscient and omnipotent, then you have to ask the question, Why does God allow evil?  More importantly, why did he create it (since he created everything)?  I know the standard answers, but I also know that even Christians find those answers strangely unsatisfying.  That unresolvable conflict, that mystery of human existence, is why poems like Blake’s (aside from the beauty and simplicity of its language) survive for more than two hundred years (it was published in 1794). 

The book has its poetic moments as well.  A writer and researcher mentioned says that on the African savanna, when it thunders, lions will roar back.  “What other creature”, the author asks, “besides the lion, the tiger, and the whale, can answer Creation in its own language?”  Indeed.  What dread hand, and what dread feet?

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11 responses to “Reading With Fakename: Tyger! Tyger!

  1. One fascinating issue the author discusses is that of predator versus prey behavior. Prey animals operate on the principle of “anywhere but here”. The prey must be anywhere the predator is not, whether that is three feet or a hemisphere away. (In other words…Run!)
    But predators must be EXACTLY in the same spot as the prey, at the exact same time. And tigers do not have the advantage of a pack. They hunt alone, and have developed extreme stealth measures. In the environment where Amur tigers have evolved, a person cannot walk through the frozen forest without announcing himself in a hundred different ways. Snow crunches. Twigs break. But the tiger can do it without detection.
    Small wonder that the Amur tiger has achieved mythic proportions in the minds of both the native people of the region and pretty much everyone else. They believe it is psychic. In the case of Markov, he made a number of mistakes, but the native people believe those mistakes were because he was already under the spell of the tiger. The tiger was affecting his mind, they said. They also said, once you’ve been targeted by a tiger, the only thing you can do is leave. The tiger will always win.

  2. Interesting story and a well written review. I might just check it out myself.
    My own personal believe is that their is good and evil because humans are just inconsistent. The theory of heredity x time x environment = personality applies to more than just child development ie it is a more universal axiom and applies to “good and evil”. Might also apply to Tigers:)

  3. Why thank you, pt. I consider that very high praise. I think you really should read the book. I believe all its facets would appeal to you. For example, there is information in the book about the Stalinist purges, and I never before grasped how utterly brutal it was. At its peak, they were killing a thousand people a day. And yet that is germane to the primary story. He is trying to explain the character and lifestyle of the Primorye residents. It’s so remote that they were mostly left alone. So it attracted a certain kind of person, outcasts in some cases, but not necessarily. People who would do anything for a small taste of freedom. But that meant they had to live off the land in whatever way they could, and it is unimaginably hard to picture. Because it borders China, the trade in tigers and tiger parts was a viable way to make a living. It is easy, for me at least, to throw all my sympathies to the tiger, but this book shows me the error of that thinking.
    This particular tiger was a very unusual one. The book reminds me a bit of The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Once the tiger kills Markov, they go back and trace who Markov was and who the tiger was. How did they come together at this particular fateful moment?

  4. I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say that Markov did hunt tigers, however, that had nothing to do with why this tiger targeted him. It was a different issue. When I finish the book, I’ll have a Tyger! Tyger! part two…then there may be spoilers 🙂

  5. By the way, that illustration at the beginning of this post was one the poet painted himself. He didn’t quite get it right as far as the actual appearance of a tiger goes 🙂 It could be that he was being abstract, but I doubt that. I think he didn’t actually know what a tiger looked like, and painted it from his imagination, based on things he’d heard.

  6. I have ordered The Tiger, and will read it soon. Currently I am reading Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. A true story about a GI and his mates who were stranded in the Pacific in a raft after being shot down during WWII. She wrote Seabiscuit which I found surprisingly well researched and written. I knew virtually nothing about horse racing and she made it come to life. I loved the movie too.

    Anyway you have influenced my reading…..you and NPR:)

  7. Fakename
    I thought you’d like “Tiger” and I was right!
    I got “The Tribe of Tiger – Cats and their Culture” and “The Other End of the Leash – Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs” sitting here too but no time to read them. I think they were referenced in Gladwell’s book.
    PT
    I read “Unbroken” too. I knew the Japanese treated prisoners badly but this really illustrated the situation.

  8. Mikki! Welcome! Not only did I like the book, I consider it one of the best I’ve ever read. Thank you so much for the suggestion! I finished it today, and was sorry when it was over. This is a book I actually wouldn’t mind owning, and I’d like to read it again someday.
    I’m familiar with Unbroken and with Hillenbrand. One of my other friends has chronic fatigue syndrome, and so does Hillenbrand. It’s astonishing that she wrote both these books in between episodes of being totally debilitated. I’ll ask my friend for the link again to an interview with Hillenbrand, which was amazing, so I can post it.
    pt, I’m pleased that you’re getting the book just because I think it will give you hours of great pleasure. Knowing that you are going to read it, I’ll be cautious in my Tyger! Part 2 post, because there is indeed some mystery to it that I would not want to spoil. Right, Micki? 🙂 And an ending that is straight from Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.

  9. Here is the interview with Ms. Hillenbrand: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/04/an-author-escapes-from-chronic-fatigue-syndrome/?emc=eta1
    And sorry about misspelling your name, Mikki, in my last comment.

  10. It’s amazing she can write at all much less as well as she does. Dang that’s a bad way to be.

  11. Thanks for the review Fakename. I will order this when my Nook arrives.

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