Niffenegger’s Raven Girl and the Image of God

Raven GirlTwice, in the short life of this blog, I have written on Audrey Niffenegger’s synthesis of visual and poetic arts. The Night Bookmobile—a terrifying exploration of the “dark side of reading”first captured my attention. Later, I compared her work to William Blake in the imaginative The Adventuress and The Three Incestuous Sisters, describing her creations as “stories of anger, resentment, love, longing, loss, and escape . . . morality tales of transformation embodied in the strange and paranormal.”

Her latest graphic novella, Raven Girl (Abrams ComicArts, 2013) continues to shape Niffenegger’s growing reputation as a leading figure in contemporary storytelling. The book originated in a request from the Royal Ballet for a “dark” tale to be developed for production. A fairy tale at heart, Raven Girl follows a postman who falls in love with a raven (an intriguing reversal of Coleridge’s Mariner & Albatross). The two eventually have a child—a raven girl. She looks like a girl, that is, but her skeletal and other biological systems have some features that are more bird than human. She cannot speak human languages, but neither can she fly. Raven Girl is an exploration of the bodily dysphoria the girl experiences and the quest to attain functional wings of her own.

rg_13_raven_girl_arms_wings_final_72Among several themes raised in the story, Niffenegger’s work encourages reflection on the meaning of the image of God in the person. Through the voice of an antagonist—a young man who falls in love with the raven girl, only to violently oppose her efforts to change her body through surgery—Niffenegger challenges the belief that our bodies should be treated as immutable, in some sense, due to their creation in the divine image.

Readers of Raven Girl who reduce the story to a simplistic morality play of contemporary bioethics, however, may fail to see other opportunities for literary and theological reflection. While the tale invokes a discussion of body and identity, Raven Girl also encourages meditation on the relationship between the divine image and creation as a whole.

Raven Girl is, in many ways, a tragic story of isolation and estrangement—from the self and others. The postman and raven fall in love, but they do so while experiencing, to varying degrees, alienation from their respective communities. The raven girl, though surrounded by other children, grows up without friends and others who nurture, shape, and care for her development. Loneliness, isolation, and longing surround these characters, even amidst moments of tranquility and joy.

While the bodily dimension of the story deserves our attention—our bodies, and what we do with them, matter—readers should attend to the social dimension of the story, too. True humanity is discovered in the demonstration of love—the love of God, neighbor, and all creation. In fact, Raven Girl unexpectedly affirms the deeply Christian belief in created relationality in its final pages. The love of the raven prince who seeks out the mysterious girl affirms a wider vision of reconciliation, community, and restorative relationships. Through their love, the enmity between alienated beings is put to rights.

Echoes of William Blake

My fascination with Audrey Niffenegger’s graphic novel The Night Bookmobile (2010) inspired a search for more of the Chicago-based artist’s works. While her acclaimed debut novel The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003) didn’t capture my interest (I confess I made it only a third of the way into the book), two of her graphic novels merit further notice.

Three Incestuous SistersNiffenegger’s The Three Incestuous Sisters (2005) and The Adventuress (2006) require a different kind of reader—the kind I long to be; the kind I encourage my students to become.

Niffenegger compares her work to “a silent film made from Japanese prints . . . a silent opera” (“Afterword,” The Three Incestuous Sisters). The artist’s words are few. Language tells one part of the story. Niffenegger’s beautiful and haunting—even nightmarish—images complete the narrative. In these stories, images convey meaning beyond language, calling imagination to furnish the tale’s complex struggle with beliefs, motives, and action captured still-frame in nitric acid baths.

LossThe “Afterword” of TIS describes Niffenegger’s laborious process of discovery: “The Three Incestuous Sisters’s first incarnation was an artist’s book, in a handmade edition of ten. I created the story in pictures, sketching page spreads the way a director might work out the storyboard for a film. I wrote the text; as the images gained in complexity, the text dwindled until the weight of the story was carried by the images. I then spent most of the next thirteen years making the aquatints, designing the book, and setting and printing the type. The final year of the project was spent binding the books, elaborately, in leather” (“Afterword”).

Blake Sata AmorSince the time I first sat down with these two works, I have been reminded of William Blake’s unique etchings. Blake’s melding of image and poetry remain among the most stimulating creative accomplishments of British Romantic literature. Time will tell if Niffenegger will continue to pursue this seemingly less-profitable form of creation (given the success of The Time Traveler’s Wife), but the two artists share a common concern for the unique materiality of their works. Niffenegger explains, “I make books because I love them as objects; because I want to put the pictures and words together, because I want to tell a story” (“Afterword”).

The result is beautiful. These are stories of anger, resentment, love, longing, loss, and escape. They are, in very different ways, morality tales of transformation embodied in the strange and paranormal.

Stories such as these can be consumed in less than an hour. The creative process advanced slowly over the course of years. Meaning emerges in the meditation and reflection in-between.

The Problem with Reading

My love affair with books and libraries began some time in elementary school and continues to this day. Thankfully, my wife has the same problem, so reading unexpectedly draws us out of ourselves and into accepting communion with one another.

The Night BookmobileReading and relationships aren’t so easy for Lexi, the main character of Audrey Niffenegger’s poignant graphic novel The Night Bookmobile (2010). Lexi lives in Chicago, walks the streets early in the morning, and, one day, discovers the open door of an old Winnebago at the corner of Ravenswood and Belle Plaine.

Inside the mysterious bookmobile, Lexi meets a librarian—Mr. Openshaw—who allows her to roam through stacks of books . . . the reading history of her life, from cereal boxes to novels and everything in-between.

Niffenegger’s short story is tragic and haunting—at once a cautionary tale and a record of how the stories we read become the narrative of our lives: “Have you ever found your heart’s desire and then lost it? I had seen myself, a portrait of myself as a reader. My childhood: hours spent in airless classrooms, days home sick from school reading Nancy Drew, forbidden books read secretively late at night . . . It was as though I had dreamt the perfect lover, who vanished as I woke, leaving me pining and surely.”

As with so many others—the Pevensie children and that mysterious wardrobe, or Harry Potter seated at the foot of the Mirror of Erised—Lexi finds herself longing for a world she cannot control, cannot inhabit, except by living . . . and reading.

But, as Lexi’s troubled journey reveals, the love of literature is full of trappings. When we read, we risk encountering new perspectives and new ideas—new narratives against which we may measure our lives. Sounds wonderful, even romantic. In truth, it’s terrifying.

The dark side of reading—the capacity for books to turn us inward or outward or upside-down—the “moral” dimension of reading—is seldom discussed, but deserves our attention. Imagination is a source of delight, but it can also be a realm of horror. Ideas may change us or even destroy the patterns of daily existence.

Books bring us into communion with otherness. To know and understand the other is to come to grips with the particularity and limits of the self. In the fusion of these horizons—the encounter between text and reader, as Hans-Georg Gadamer aptly describes it—we face both the possibilities as well as the dangers of change.