Thursday, October 6, 2022

Miraculous beyond measure: Themes and Thinking in S.F. Said's "Tyger"

Nothing is ordinary,” said the tyger. “Everything is extraordinary. In all of infinity and eternity, that flower exists only in this world; this precise position in space and time. Everywhere else, there is a different flower, or no flower at all. And the same is true of you. Nothing special? You are miraculous beyond measure, both of you.

S.F. Said, Tyger (2022)

On August 18th 2022, A-Level results day, the TES announced that English Literature had finally dropp

ed from the Top 10 most popular A-Level subject choices. Forecast for a while,
The Guardian had back in 2019 reported on 'a 13% decline [that] summer in entries for all types of English A-level' (WEALE, 2022). A NATE Position Paper opined: 

One of the pleasures of English studies has always been the experience of discovering insights that go beyond language and literature through detailed discussion and analysis of text. This is what Barbara Bleiman (2019) calls ‘big picture English’. A student’s first exposure to a text should be geared around the primacy of the reading experience (Cushing and Giovanelli 2019). Student experience of English study today, however, tends to be a microcosmic analysis of textual features and their alleged ‘effects’ rather than on reading for meaning with close textual reference. This tendency has developed over more than two decades since the introduction of the National Literacy Strategy in 1997. Its effect has been to reduce English studies to the transmission of supposedly correct, objective knowledge about language and literature. This is evident at every level, from the current primary language curriculum to the official view of literary texts as ‘cultural capital’, knowledge of which is good in itself, rather than as a means of pleasurable reflection on and participation in life.

NATE, The Decline in Student Choice of A Level English (2019)

Later, came the final nail in the coffin:

When children write about their reading, there is now an overwhelming emphasis from Year 7 onwards on writing paragraphs of micro-analysis of literary texts using formulae such as the ubiquitous PEEL (Gibbons 2019). It is little wonder that many 15-year-old students report they no longer read for enjoyment (Lough 2019). An English graduate known to one of the writers reported that her 14 year old daughter asked her: ‘Why would you want to study English at university? It’s so boring!’


So the 2022 drop of English Literature from the Top 10 subjects is hardly surprising; almost to be expected in fact. And, yes, a bleak picture, certainly. 

In other news, just a few days before the A Level announcement, S.F. Said tweeted a picture of the final hardcover first edition of his Tyger, saying: 

This means everything to me. I've put everything I have, everything I know, everything I love into Tyger. So it's an emotional moment, holding the finished book in my hands.

S.F. Said, Tweet, 12th August

Tyger follows three earlier, very popular novels by Said so its publication has already been much-anticipated. In addition to this, it has taken nine years to write and early reviews of the novel mention 'future classic' status. But I must admit that I was surprised when I received an early proof that it was but a fairly modest size. I had been expecting something more like Phoenix, Said's third novel, something more...big. But when I finally came to read the novel, I found my first impressions were wrong - SO wrong. I tweeted on 21st June: 

I am taking [Tyger] VERY slowly. There are moments when I have to stop reading because the writing is so breathtaking, I can’t read on. Some passages are like nothing else I’ve read and so intensely vivid I have to remind myself that I’m not *there*. It bursts at the seams with ideas yet the story pace is perfect. There are so many layers here, symbol on symbol like a great palimpsest of history and philosophical thought. But the story is timely and the Vision…infinite.

I couldn't write about Tyger for months. I didn't know what to feel or think, only knowing that I had read something vital. Where had it left me? I didn't know then, and am still not sure that I know now. What makes it such a big book for us all to read, especially children and their teachers, and why exactly we should read it? It was on that Results day that I started to see that the bleakness of those stories of our Education system and the brilliance of Said's tygers might just prove to be two sides of the same coin.

That coin I’ll return to again later; in the meantime I’d like to offer some ‘Big Picture’ thinking for a Big Book. I’ll start by welcoming in Mister William Blake.


Artist, poet, printmaker, free-love advocate, Romantic, William Blake (1757-1827) is hardly disguised as the major influence of Tyger. The title alone, the spelling, immediately invokes the well-known tattoo:

Tyger Tyger

(...those two trochees that beat their way into our consciousness the very first time we hear them...)

burning bright,

(...sparking fires in the imagination...)

In the forests of the night;

(...whilst all around remains dark, knotted, tangled.)

Tyger goes far deeper into Blakean symbols, mythologies and themes than just the eponymous character; so much deeper in fact that anything less than ‘Big Picture’ reading leaves us lost and overwhelmed by those ‘forests of the night’. If we allow ourselves with Tyger to ignore that kind of reading, then things far too quickly turn 'boring'.

I wander thro' each charter'd street,

Near where the charter'd Thames does flow. 

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,

In every Infants cry of fear,

In every voice: in every ban,

The mind-forg'd manacles I hear 


William Blake, London (verses 1 and 2)

One peculiarity of Tyger appears at the very beginning of the book: 

It happened in the twenty-first century, 

when London was still the capital of an Empire, 

and the Empire still ruled the world…

This is not the London we know, quite. It is a London of the present and future, yet in so much of the novel the feel, the atmosphere of the story is older, more suited to the world of the late eighteenth century, the time of the Enlightenment, the Georgian world of William Blake. The social order of things has men arriving on horseback to proclaim in city squares; technology is seemingly non-existent - phones, tablets, email, computers are noticeably absent; Tesco and Sainsbury’s have given way to what seem like small, independent businesses - shoppes, perhaps; a thick (maybe more Victorian!) pea-souper lours over the city. 

Regardless of its old-fashioned feel, the impression of the capital is hardly an inspiring one: dirty streets, abandoned warehouses, sites fenced off for reconstruction. The streets, like Blake’s, are 'chartered', owned by and under control of the status quo and the barrier described at the very start of the novel forms perhaps a physical symbol of these borders. 

Why? Why this ‘future of the past’?

This is not a country of progress; in fact Albion has regressed some two hundred years! Albion has fallen, yet still waves its tattered standard, stubbornly refusing to admit the truth of its fate. A foul, pig-headed ignorance has taken hold. Citizens chant ‘Foreigners out!’. This is a post-Brexit novel, riddled with the fear of losing power to foreign ‘others’ and the attendant ironic portrayal of those who have created a social order that rewards no-one but the rich. 

Writing in The Guardian in 2014 (the time of which would also tie in with the early days of Tyger’s composition), Said said: 

I came to Britain in 1970, when I was two. I don’t remember living anywhere else. I don’t look obviously Arab, so I seldom faced racism on the street, but whenever my name came up, everything changed. What kind of name is that? Where are you from? And why don’t you go back there?

Back then, there weren’t many Arabs or Muslims where I lived. I felt very different to everyone around me. In Britain, I was seen as a foreigner, while in the Middle East, I was seen as British. I felt like I belonged nowhere.

The only place I felt at home was in books.

S.F. Said, “Books showed me it was alright to be different”, The Guardian, 15th October 2014

When Adam finds himself at one of those checkpoint-barriers leading out of the streets more familiar to him onto the more salubrious Oxford Street, he is questioned, rather as Said was, regarding his name and origins. Adam is finally allowed through, though it’s implied that the guard would rather Adam knew his place, figuratively and literally, and stay exactly where he belongs - like those other ‘good’ citizens who play by the rules, their minds manacled so easily. 

Adam, though, is different to them; even at this very early point of the novel, he demonstrates his independence from the drudge of work. He is on an errand, a servant, yes, but one brave enough to complete his mission, one who goes so far as to cross boundaries to do so. It is a quiet but momentous indication of Adam's destiny.

Division, separation, is apparent elsewhere too in the references to the River Walbrook, one of London’s ancient subterranean waterways. Some think that its name comes from the Saxon weala broc ('river of foreigners’), where it split the city of Londinium into the eastern side on Cornhill and the western Ludgate. This latter portion of land had a cathedral, royal residences and was generally ‘higher status’.  By its inclusion, the Walbrook metaphorically and physically invokes echoes of racist fears from history, showing us that what we read about in Tyger is nothing new: groups of people have been looked down upon - literally, even, from horseback or hill! - for centuries. 

Soon, Adam finds Tyger and, in her, Blake’s greatest theme is made incarnate. The poet set it down in just one line:

The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell 

…meaning that the wildness of the 'untameable' creative  is ‘greater’ than the trained, rule-follower. 

Before we consider those wrathful tygers, let’s turn first to the horses. In Blake’s Visions, even the hard work and effort of horses is not as highly regarded as the mystical nature of inspiration. In Tyger, horses appear (literally) beneath their masters, controlled, obedient, subservient: 

Some lords rode down the first class lane on horseback. Their slaves followed behind them. (p. 66)

Then, comes a horrifying tableau: 

Four horsemen in scarlet coats, with white faces; with long leather whips and rifles in their hands. Each one was flanked by a pair of hounds. 

A kind of eighteenth-century, powdered (white) aristocracy in bloody livery, a macabre parody of the traditional hunt. No pistols though, these are rifles, guns with power. A rank stink begins to creep into the narrative. 

One of the huntsmen declares to the assembled crowd: 

“The beast has escaped from my lord’s menagerie [...] You may believe such beasts exist but this one is alive and dangerous. If you see it, or hear anything about it, report it at once [...]”

S.F. Said, Tyger (pp. 67-68)

The hunt is on: Find the tyger! Do not listen to its lies! It must be destroyed! Here are echoes of the mechanical cats in Varjak Paw - they smelled wrong, just like these men on horseback. Both sets of characters are there to keep a stranglehold order. There is no place in their London for tygers. What tygers mean is too difficult for them to contemplate…and even more difficult for them to control. 

This Tyger, prophet-like and most certainly, dangerously, alive - no figment of London gossip! - is paving the way for a boy and a girl towards something far, far beyond those lords’ cold, stone hearts. (Also, it must be noted that once the order begins to fall apart later in the book, happily those horses do get to run ‘wild’).


If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell 

Throughout the novel, the two main protagonists, Adam and Zadie, encounter Doors. The first of these are the Doors of Perception, Blake’s metaphor for the limits of and passages ‘through’ consciousness. Blake’s ‘cavern’ for Adam is transformed into ‘a ruined building in a dump’, and the ‘narrow chink’ becomes 

‘A crack down the middle, between the doors, through which he could see a whisker of light. The brightest light he had ever seen.’ (p. 57) 

Is Blake’s Vision becoming too complex an image for a book with a young audience in mind? Not at all. It is both testament to Said’s belief in the Infinite possibilities of the child’s imagination and joyous, encouraging celebration thereof, and alarm-call to the grown-ups who run the world and shape the childhoods of young people: Who is it who closes those doors? Who is it who shuts down the perceptions of young people? 

I heard Katya Balen speak at an Open University Reading for Pleasure conference recently. Talking about reading in her keynote speech (paraphrasing here): 

Children should read widely and what they want to read, not be cut off at the root. Children make their choices and if those choices are not noticed - or scorned - then that part of their development is crushed. It’s something I feel strongly about.

Katya Balen, Keynote at OURfP Conference 1st October 2022

She kept returning in her speech to the teacher in Year 3 who gave her an exercise book with the instruction to write in it what she wanted, not bound by grammar rules or restricted, tightly (teacher-)planned subjects. This is what Balen needed, she said, as a child: she needed freedom. Freedom to explore. Freedom to pass through those Doors, not in want or need of any particular key that teachers thought was the right one. Freedom, so that untethered, her imagination could burn bright

Then, talking of her own writing, came the thunderbolt:  

I want to focus on those small details of what is around us…and expose the world.

A writer for children, like Said, echoing the great words of Blake from two centuries earlier: 

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 

And Eternity in an hour.

William Blake, Auguries of Innocence (1808?)

When Adam passes through the first door, he finds himself in a Wildflower meadow: compared to the dirty squallour of his London, he has truly found himself in Heaven. Everything is wild, sprawling, open…free. This scene in particular from Tyger (as Blake’s Auguries poem does in part) encourages us to consider the depth, size and potency of even the smallest things: a fragile wildflower has infinity housed within it, thousands of billions of future wildflowers locked away in potentia in every seed it produces. The magnitude of enumerating every grain of sand on a beach, in the sea, and then to consider the trillion future grains locked away in huge rockfaces. Where did they come from? Where are they ‘going’? As Tyger says to Adam when he first passes through the Doors: 

Do not look ahead, or behind. Focus on what is here, and now. 

Tyger, p. 58

Perhaps thinking about it for too long, thinking about the sheer hugeness of what we are contemplating, will burn. As Adam contemplates his heart, it is at this moment too much for him and he passes back to the real world, back to the Night. Tyger tells him he is not yet ready to pass to the next set of Doors, that Adam has glimpsed in the distance. From another angle, Balen talks of this: 

I’m not really much of a nature person, but because of that I look more closely and appreciate it more. If you know something well you run the risk of not really seeing it properly. 

This is what thinking does! It’s dangerous if rushed and needs time. There is no hurrying thought! It opens the doors, lets in the light:  

Every Night & every Morn

Some to Misery are Born 

Every Morn and every Night

Some are Born to sweet delight 

Some are Born to sweet delight 

Some are Born to Endless Night 

We are led to Believe a Lie

When we see not Thro the Eye

Which was Born in a Night to perish in a Night 

When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light 

God Appears & God is Light

To those poor Souls who dwell in Night 

But does a Human Form Display

To those who Dwell in Realms of day

William Blake, Auguries of Innocence (conclusion)

Blake, like Tyger, shows us that there is no real perception (the ‘Lie’) if we do not See with heightened Perception.

Auguries and the world of Tyger are echoed too by C.S. Lewis: 

I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it. Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.

CS Lewis - Meditation in a Tool Shed

This is another wondrous dimension to consider: what happens when you look through the Beam, look into and along the light? There is no toolshed (Said’s abandoned dump), no Beam even. Only the green of the trees, the Sun, that slim glimpse of Heaven! Being inside the Beam gives us a wider, intrinsically felt Experience: we move beyond un-knowing. We leave Innocence behind. 

Before we do that though, let's take a closer look at that concept of Innocence through another of Blake’s best-known poems, The Lamb. This poem is placed in dir
ect contrast to
The Tyger in the collection Songs of Innocence and Experience, Lamb and Tyger respectively. The connection between the two is mentioned explicitly in The Tyger: ‘Did he who made the Lamb make Thee?’, while placement of the poems in different ‘song-books’ - Innocence and Experience - may on first glance seem to set the two creatures as polar opposites: if The Lamb is ‘goodness’ then the Tyger is ‘badness’, surely? Is this actually the case, though?  

The interesting thing about the poem The Lamb is that, despite its sweetness and light, and strongly Christian rhetoric, the poem feels unstable - the Lamb may be Innocence incarnate but the questions that are voiced in the poem set a tone of shaky doubt. The strangest thing about the poem is that there are no question marks printed in Blake’s original. The Tyger too is full of questions, again about the animal’s creation, but here question marks punctuate the lines and stick out sharply. What does this grammatical oddity tell us about these creatures? 

If one considers that the two poems are about creation - ‘Who made the Lamb?’ ‘Who could ever have shaped the Tyger?’ - then the use of questions around this subject invoke a sense of Blake’s concepts of creativity. The urgency of ‘The Tyger’ is enhanced by breathless, ‘burning’ questions; the Lamb’s calm purity not so strongly questioned, much more gentle and laidback. As one interpretation, we therefore have a deeper kind of contrast posed by these two poems: on one hand, the ‘established’ Creation that we all know, safe and secure; on the other, there is the dangerous kind that burns and is wild. Both spark a kind of wonder. 

And yet…

I’ve been teaching now for over twenty years and I remember, clear as day, those early days of training, when I came across that Isis speech Philip Pullman gave on teachers and teaching. It sent far-reaching shockwaves through me - I see that now, though at the time it felt a more thrilling experience than the profound one it turned out to be. In the speech, he quotes an earlier teacher-writer, Marie L. Shedlock

[...]why are we in such a hurry to find out what effects have been produced by our stories? Does it matter whether we know today or tomorrow how much a child has understood?

quoted in Pullman (2003)

(How her words echo those of Bleiman!)

Pullman then turns the focus more sharply on the 'system' and attitudes of teachers at that time: 

The culture of exam after exam, test after test, with a curriculum like the deadly upas-tree that casts a blight over every corner of a child’s school life, cannot possibly encourage the kind of openness of mind, the intellectual curiosity which the best teachers have to have. 

I fear it will bring up a generation who are kind, who love children, who are full of good intentions; but who have been discouraged from intellectual adventurousness. Who are not interested in how things came about.

If the specifically Blakean allusions to Tygers and the Lambs are not made quite explicit yet then the ensuing passage really spells it out: 

Marilyn Mottram of the University of Central England in Birmingham, who has been studying the way the National Curriculum and the Literacy Strategy work in schools, wrote to me last month: “When I work with teachers on developing ways of using texts I’m frequently asked ‘… but are we allowed to do that?’ This sort of continuing anxiety about literacy teaching,” she goes on, “suggests that a culture of conformity has been quite securely established among our primary teachers and, like many others, I find this deeply disturbing.” 

Said’s Urizen is like this: his culture is likewise disturbing. This supernatural creature appears in Blake’s longer poems but unlike other references to the poet’s mythology, Said has chosen quite literally to transplant the character whole, with no disguise, echo or inference, into Tyger. His name is unchanged, and its meaning too: ‘Your Reason’...? ‘Horizon’: the distant view but ultimately the limit of what we can see? Wings may make Urizen seem angelic; though the vision is certainly not a heavenly one, more akin to the fallen angels led by Lucifer in Christian texts. His whip emphasises the oppression: the ultimate slave-master. 

Blake’s Urizen is drawn as an old man with a long beard, a weary face…even he is tired by his own net. In Blake’s drawings, his is no vital image, nor on face-value a dangerous one; though he certainly poses a dreary future for those ensnared by his traps.

Pullman too references these traps in his speech:

These young people [teachers] are tigers born in cages, and kept caged until they think that being caged is a natural condition; and they look down at themselves, and they see their magnificent stripes, and the only way they can understand them is to think that they themselves must be made of bars: they are their own cage; they dare not move outside the little space they occupy. But they are tigers still, if only they knew.

It is Reason that helps make those cages. Like that lingering, sticky guilt and even stickier ‘culture of conformity’ that Mottram describes, Urizen plots and fights, then fights some more:  The net Urizen has made of the Established, the Time-Worn, the attitudes of What’s-Been-Done-Before-Must-Be-Right does not tear, or even fray, easily. His whips of Self-Doubt sting like fire and keep their targets in their cages. 

So, for me, those ‘twin’ symbols of Tyger and Lamb are there, explicitly in the narrative of Tyger but very much haunted by the ghosts of Pullman and Blake:

Tyger appears first in a warehouse, right in the centre of the city, its brilliance setting the gloom and dirt of its surroundings in stark relief. She is badly wounded. Here is another of the book’s strongly marked visual images, one that makes the reader see the detritus of the city absolutely clearly, love Tyger instantly despite the peril, and yearn for her.

Lamb appears on the outskirts of London, in the hamlet fields of Highgate (much transformed from the district it is today!). It has managed to ‘escape’ the squallor we have identified in Tyger’s first scene, and now lives peacefully in the countryside. It gambols among the lush green grass! It breathes the fresh air! But it is ‘caged’, it has no freedom, and two shepherds to care for (manage?) it. Humans, kind though they may be, have twisted its existence to their desired intent. It wasn't difficult - Lambs tend not to be Tygers! "They offer themselves up like..." (ahem!) The scene plays itself out peaceably, though the reader really should consider what little Lamb’s ultimate fate is destined to be.

Meanwhile, Tyger runs wild. 

Said’s intent for these two symbols pulls together Blakean philosophy and Pullman’s politics into one original, exciting cord that runs, sparking and vital, through the whole novel.


The thing about Tyger - very likely the reason why I couldn’t speak about its impact on me for so long, and still can’t do so properly (as my ramblings here probably attest!) - is that it is so Big. In this essay, I’ve tried to shape a few references from the novel and a bit of knowledge about Blake into some coherent form, to help new readers and Teachers to see something of what I have seen in Tyger, and what I see in the spirit of Education. But it’s been hard and I’ve probably failed: Tyger won’t allow herself to be ‘framed’ that easily - maybe I ‘dared aspire’ too ambitiously! Tyger is full of stuff, so full it will take far longer than a few months for me to unearth and digest and make meaning of it all. In the meantime, I’m happy not to hurry myself and take my time and re-read and re-think. 

But although I haven’t any desire to answer everything I want to know about Tyger, I have always had those questions I mentioned earlier beating away deep inside: Why, today, do we need William Blake? Why indeed do we need Tyger? So I’d like, finally, to hazard a guess:

Firstly, Blake/Tyger speaks authentically to every child - regardless of background - of the powers of their imaginations. I don’t mean that because it has fantastical beasts and supernatural elements then it will appeal to those imaginations (though it will do that too!); I mean that Tyger will show them what their imaginations are, the challenges they might face in harnessing those possibilities- or at least in attempting to! It will show them to go beyond, to question what is ‘real’ and ‘true’ and ‘understood’. Tyger will show them that although their individual Perceptions may be different - wildly so, perhaps! - each one of them has potential and Greatness. Tyger encourages the realization of what is there, hidden maybe for now, but still there for the taking…if only those young readers are to be brave and be allowed to do so. 

Secondly, it speaks authentically to every teacher - and I don’t mean just those in classrooms; I mean every grown-up who Teaches young people, everyone who shows them the world, everyone who nurtures them to get better at stuff, everyone who helps them see  how their imaginations might fly. Tyger will show us all the magnitude of our responsibility and demonstrate the sensitivity with which we must wield it. Like Said’s great cat, let all our teaching be as muscular, strong, wise, powerful, fierce, lithe, elegant...Humble. 

Earlier in this blog, I said that those grim stories of the Education system, specifically in the context of reading, were the counter-side of Said’s Tyger. I need to return to that coin now. 

That blasted coin. It’s the coin we grown-ups hold jointly, we grown-ups who find themselves in the powerful and highly responsible position of Teacher.

So, let’s toss it into the air…

…and while it spins…

                …then free-falls…

                                  … before it lands…

                                                    …let’s just pause a moment…

                                                                                          …and think: 

We can choose.

Defying all laws of (meta!)physical probability, we actually can choose which side up that coin will land. By some miracle, that coin could land Tyger-side every single time

Every. Single. Time. 

Imagine that

And if we make it happen, for every single child…

“Miraculous beyond measure”.


LEWIS, C.S. Meditation in a Toolshed

PULLMAN, Philip.: The Isis Lecture (Lecture given at the Oxford Literary festival, 2003 ) 

SAID, S.F.: Books showed me it was alright to be different (The Guardian, 15th October 2014) 

WEALE, S.: 'Less fun' English declines as choice for A-level pupils (The Guardian, 14th August 2019 )
A levels 2022: English lit drops out of top 10 most popular subjects (TES, 18th August 2022) 

The Decline in Student Choice of A Level English (NATE, 2019) 

With heartfelt thanks to Meggie and Fraser at David Fickling Books for providing the wonderful illustrations by Dave McKean and for sending me the novel itself in advance, to S.F. Said for his constant encouragement, and to Katya Balen for a last-minute inspiration! Tyger is published today, 6th October 2022. Please do support your local independent bookshop where you can.