Like many artists and illustrators, I often listen to audio while I’m working, whether it be music, podcasts or audiobooks. The spark of inspiration for these works came while I was listening to an interview with author Joseph Campbell, who made a life-long study of mythology and its function in various cultures. In the interview, Joseph introduces us to a fable from the book Thus Spake Zarathustra, by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Entitled ‘Of the Three Metamorphoses’, the fable seemed to me as rich and meaningful as any by Goethe or Aesop, and was begging to be interpreted visually.
The story tells of a camel who takes up the heaviest burden it can carry, and ventures into the wilderness. The camel is the ‘load-bearing spirit’, defined by its diligence and persistence. It symbolises the renouncing of comfort and the acceptance of incredible difficulty, for the sake of acquiring knowledge and strength. The camel’s journey is arduous, but if it can survive this hostile environment under such a heavy load, it will be transformed into a lion.
The lion represents the will of the individual. It is strong, courageous and ferociously single-minded in its purpose—to fight for freedom against its sworn enemy, the dragon. The dragon’s name is Thou Shalt. It represents the forces that push us to conform rather than think and feel for ourselves. These forces could be edicts from various forms of authority; governments, institutions, perhaps even the people who pay our wages. Or they could be the voices of our own fears. Either way, facing the dragon is an inescapable part of Nietzsche’s understanding of transformation.
If the lion is successful in defeating the dragon, it will be transformed into the child, the liberated spirit. We often think of children as being vulnerable, particularly in physical terms, but I think Nietzsche is instead focusing on the uninhibited nature of childhood—on spontaneity, innocence and autonomy. The child is a ‘self-propelling wheel’; free to do and be in ways that the camel and lion are not.
Although challenging, these paintings were a joy to work on. Personally, I don’t think of the metamorphoses described here as permanent or absolute. Rather, we embody all of them at different times in our lives, and in different areas of our lives. For the artists reading this, I have no doubt that you’ll see some parallels with your own creative struggle. My hope is that you’ll recognize the universality of this struggle, and that in some small way your own journey will be less daunting for it.