Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Lesson on Transformation from Gandalf and Will Graham

With this being Holy Week, my thoughts have been focused on transformation for the last several days. Christians undergo a transformation when we're saved. Christ himself underwent a transformation on Resurrection Day, suddenly no longer confined by a physical body and its limitations. Transformation is something that everyone on earth undergoes at some point or another. A tipping point, as it were, from evil to good or from good to evil. Literature itself is ripe with the concept.

Think of Gandalf the Grey transforming into Gandalf the White. Gandalf the Grey is impressive in his own right, but he is viewed by many, hobbits especially, as harmless. He is merely an old wizard who specializes in magic tricks. Gandalf the White is something else entirely. He has metamorphosed into a pure version of himself, the version of Gandalf that was always just below the surface but needed death and resurrection to be released.

I've always been partial to Gandalf the Grey, probably because he's kick-ass tough and abounding with sarcasm. But I also appreciate the wisdom of Gandalf the White, who was only born out of sacrifice and death. Gandalf the White is the full interpretation of Gandalf. People who focus only on either Grey or White are missing Gandalf's journey, and thereby missing his point. He is the perfect example in literature of transformation from someone being merely a neutral color to being perfect purity. He is symbolic of Christ's transformation. Whatever else Peter Jackson might have done to Tolkien's work, he got Gandalf right, and for that I will always love him.

However, whereas Gandalf is a symbol of transformation into the height of goodness, there are other characters and people that symbolize a transformation in the opposite direction. I watched the latest episode of Hannibal this morning. I know, I know, probably not the holiest choice considering this is Holy Week, but I couldn't break with tradition. One thing's been niggling at the back of my mind for about 3 weeks now . . . the transformation of Will Graham.

Most of you, my readers, have probably never watched Hannibal, and I won't be the one to start you on it by recommending it. I don't watch it for entertainment value or titillation. I watch it because, within its horror, lies a great and profound truth about humanity. If someone came up to you on the street, handed you a knife, and told you to kill the man standing next to you, you wouldn't do it. Why? Because you hadn't been mentally prepared for the event. No one had taken the effort at transforming you into preparedness for murder.

Will Graham is profound in that he is being transformed by Hannibal Lecter. It is a slow transformation, oh so slow, but with each progressive episode there is less of the Will I love, and more of the Will I do not recognize, the Will who scares me. This is what life is like listening to the devil on a daily basis. A whisper here, an encouragement there, and suddenly evil done for good sounds like an acceptable choice. The Will Graham I know from Hannibal's 1st season was not capable of murder. Defense, yes, but not the cold, calculating premeditation we're seeing in him now. The Will I love is being chipped away, little by little, revealing a soul shaped by Hannibal Lecter.

Every person makes a choice in their life, to follow the path of good or the path of evil. To listen to the devil or to Christ. Will knows he's dealing with the devil now. He knows that Hannibal wants him to embrace his "nature," meaning the nature of evil that resides within each and every one of us. Instead of resisting the devil, Will is acting like he can beat Hannibal at his own game. We can't beat the devil that way. Will cannot destroy Hannibal by allowing himself to be transformed away from everything that made him a good man.

At the end of 2.8 Su-zakana, Hannibal says to Will, with a smile on his lips, "I can feed the caterpillar, I can whisper through the chrysalis, but what hatches follows its own nature and is beyond me." Hannibal has fed the caterpillar, whispered to the chrysalis, and is delighted at what is about to hatch out of Will Graham. Hannibal is out to create evil. It's why he took Abigail Hobbes under his wing in the 1st season, and it's also why he killed her when she didn't live up to his expectations of transformation. Will Graham is becoming everything that Abigail Hobbes was not, pleasing his creator in the process.

It's a terrifying transformation to witness. Will has no savior figure at his side, no angel to counteract the whisperings of the devil. Not even the most effusive Jack Crawford fans would ever term him an angel. So, Will is alone and floundering, moving closer and closer to that transformation Hannibal so eagerly anticipates. I keep praying that Will fights against Hannibal's urges, fights against his desire for vengeance and finds his soul again. Will no longer feels anything. His empathy is gone, his emotions vanquished, and he is becoming evil himself.

Will exemplifies what I never want to become. I never want to walk that road with the devil whispering in my ear, doing what he bids. I don't want to compromise who I am in exchange for a short satisfaction of successful vengeance. I had a choice to follow God or the devil, and I chose to follow God, turning a mostly deaf ear to the devil's whisperings. So, it breaks my heart to realize that there is no savior in these stories, no one to walk with Will Graham and guide him back to his path and away from Hannibal's path. For some people, Hannibal might be the most terrifying character in the series, but not for me. I've watched Will come under the influence of the devil and transform towards evil, an ordinary man taking a wrong path, and it makes me realize how very fragile our walk with God can be.

I know, it's a depressing topic. But I confess that watching this show renews my faith in God because I never want to walk in Will's shoes. And without God, I would be just as vulnerable. I have already undergone my first transformation from sinner to forgiven, and now I take each consecutive step in my relationship with Christ knowing He continues to transform my heart one day at a time, little by little, to be more like Him. Christ is a message of hope.

Have a blessed Resurrection Day.


  1. Excellent post.

    You bring up interesting points in contrasting Gandalf and Will. It's so easy to recognize religious symbolism when it's working properly -- like Gandalf, or even like Harry Potter -- sacrificing oneself for the greater good, and returning from the dead. But... we forget about the symbolism that goes the other way. Will is certainly becoming his master. One can say that it's because his friends all turned against him, and Alana betrayed him by believing him a murderer in the first place, that he's just living up to everyone's expectations of him, but this is a path Will has chosen. One can listen to the whispers, or one can close their ears.

    Will's transformation into the stag a couple of episodes ago, and now his open darkness in his relationship with Hannibal and others, is gut-wrenching to watch. He is indeed living up to his evil potential in ways that Abigail was never capable of -- he is what Hannibal intended for him to become -- a murderer, on his own level, perhaps even ascended to that higher state of being that Hannibal conceives that he dwells on. Will is, in his eyes, no longer inferior -- because he now sees how easy it is to take a human life. But... if he did so, I fear that Will, unlike Hannibal, would be emotionally gutted and quite unlike his master, incapable of taking it in stride.

    1. Most of the time we want to focus on the good side of symbolism, the side that points to hope and light. It's scary when we think of symbolism in terms of evil incarnate because it reminds us just how deeply sinful we can be. We try to excuse the choices we make, pretending that they're just genetic predisposition, but they're still our choices. We've just listened to the wrong master.

      I was creeped out a bit by the beginning scene of the 9th episode. Will's dreams of Hannibal grow more terrifying every day, this one especially so because in his dream he heard Hannibal talking of loving his beloved. Hannibal does love Will, not sexually, but in the way of a father mentoring his son to either join him in the family business or take his place. If Will won and killed Hannibal, I think Hannibal wouldn't even regret dying because the transformation from good to evil would be completed in Will by that act. It's horrifying to even consider, but that's what I see. I'm not as sure as you that Will would be emotionally gutted. If he shut everything off, he would be impervious to emotion, and that's the path we slowly see him taking.

      I love Ed Norton in Red Dragon, but Hugh Dancy's Will Graham has so many nuances that were never explored or considered until now. He's been recreated on a brilliant level. I just don't want to see Will sacrificed to make a point. Will needs to come out of this alive and whole and able to cope because that's what happened to Will Graham in Red Dragon. He won and he lived and he moved on, and that's what I need to see happen.

  2. The dream Will has about killing Hannibal while tied to a tree is a passage right out of Hannibal Rising. It’s how Hannibal killed one of the men who killed his little sister. So it’s not only a “rip off” of one of the books, it’s a subtle indication that Will is indeed BECOMING Hannibal. The books are all about transformation. Buffalo Bill kills people to make a skin suit so he can be a woman. The Red Dragon thinks he is transforming into THE Red Dragon! Hannibal “transforms” his victims through his artistic endeavors and his cannibalism. Super symbolism, dripping symbolism, symbolism everywhere… except Will is undergoing an unwanted transformation. He’s heading to a dark, dark place with no one to pull him back.

    Could Will turn off his empathy? Perhaps.

    I love Ed Norton’s Will way more than Hugh Dancy’s. Ed’s Will is easier to like and empathize with. This is one has been pathetic and weak from the start, and is now turning into a monster, so I struggle to have much compassion for him. So I don’t see him so much as a brilliant creation as I do a bastardization of a book character. Oh, Lord. I’m turning into my friend Katie!! RUN!!!!!!


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