How the Bee Became

Ted Hughes’ selection of short creation stories for children, called How the Whale Became and Other Stories contain this delightful story of how the bee became. As you can see from the wordmap above, the word demon occurs more times than does the word god. In fact, there are in total 18 references to the demon, and 17 to God. There is some kind of balance between the two, and the reader is allowed to sympathize with the tearful demon more than with God. Hughes does not explicitly describe the demon as the ogre that he is – what he is, more than anything, is a sad and lonely creature. He wants to make a creature more beautiful than any in God’s world, and succeeds in doing so. This is a tale of gods and demons, of light and dark, and yet Hughes never lets it stray from a story of sweet sadness and loneliness. It is no mistake that tear, tears, and crying are the most used words in this story.

There are, outside of this, two particular points of interest about ‘How the Bee Became’. First are its references to god. This is a god who:

a) does not create the bee (the demon does)

b) is surprised at the existence of the demon

c) is tricked by the demon with flattery to breathe life into the bee

This is a god who is not really in control. Elsewhere in the tales, the whale comes into being because it starts growing in God’s garden accidentally, and he breathes life into his new creation ‘Torto’ too soon – before he has cooled down from being in the oven – and simply by mistake. He doesn’t know everything about the world he has created, and is about as fallible as a well-meaning but amateur gardener. This is an interesting God to chose to transmit through children’s stories.

The second point of interest is some of the turns-of-phrase that Hughes employs. They are, in a word, simplistic. For example, when the demon is hammering at his gemstone-clay, the line goes ‘bang, bang, bang’. However, this simplicity throws up a few interesting lines. When the demon makes his first batch of stone-powder to make into clay, and begins to cry because there is no water, and then accidentally drops a tear on the powder and the powder dissolves, Hughes’ writes: “But he was too late!” This phrase seems, on examination, incorrect. The demon has not, afterall, attempted to prevent the thing from occurring and only intervened too late in the process. The demon did not intervene at all. However, the sense the phrase conveys is perfect. By using this phrase, Hughes exploits that this phrase signifies something sudden, something frustratingly out-of-control. It is at once perfect and also unfitting.

There is something beautiful at work in this short and gorgeous little tale. It requires the reader to fully suspend disbelief: to let themselves be delighted by the idea of a gem-coloured, flashing bee even when we know that bees are really black and yellow; to let themselves accept that the fiery, oven-like eye of the demon can also shed tears. Everything within it, the bee, the demon, even god, is so clearly a complete fiction, but they are so unabashedly, and the greatest creation is the story itself.

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