|What is it with cartoons, songs about bats, and earworms?|
It’s December 28, 2013. The top song is still–quite appropriately, as we shall see–“Monster,” and the top movie is still the second Hobbit. In the news, members of the Russian band Pussy Riot are granted amnesty and released from jail three months before their sentence would have ended; British WWII hero and computer pioneer receives a posthumous pardon more than 50 years after he was chemically castrated for the crime of homosexuality; and the sign-up deadline for Obamacare arrives.
Meanwhile, Merriwether Williams’ delightful “Bats!” airs. In addition to being a strong episode in its own right, this episode also harkens back to the themes of the season premiere more than any prior episode, albeit in three relatively subtle ways.
The more straightforward of these thematic echoes is in the use of concepts of corruption and dark mirrors. Corruption in the premiere was fairly obvious, from the decay of day and night to the transformation of Ponyville into an outpost of the Everfree Forest by the Plunder Vines to the transformation of Luna into Nightmare Moon. Here in “Bats!” we are treated to even more examples of corruptive influences at work from the very beginning of the episode, starting with the transformation of Applejack’s apples into globs of gray goop by the vampire bats. This, in turn, leads to a corruption of Applejack and the rest of the Mane Six (except Fluttershy) over the course of the deliciously creepy song “Stop the Bats,” from Applejack’s initial, understandable position of wanting to protect her crop to a five-pony mob chanting their hatred of bats.
The centerpiece of the story is the corruption and physical transformation of Fluttershy, as feedback from Twilight’s magic causes Fluttershy to become gradually hybridized with the bats into a fructivorous “vampire pony.”
The figure of a vampire is a classic figure of corruption. The infectious nature of its bite, traditionally, leads to physical and spiritual decay, from the bat- and rat-like features of the titular character of Noaferatu to the conversion into a soulless, super powered predator as in Fright Night or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Here, Fluttershy’s physical transformation involves acquiring bat-like features, while her mental transformation begins as a craving for fruit and ends with her becoming aggressive and territorial, along with apparently losing her capacity for speech.
This corruption is accompanied by a frequent presentation of dark mirrors of characters. In the premier, there were several such pairings: Discord as the trickster mentor, who uses aggravation and teasing to teach Twilight not to accept special treatment that separates her from her friends, is a distorted reflection of Zecora as the sagely mentor, who teaches Twilight about history by providing a helpful elixir. Nightmare Moon, the darkness of a solar eclipse, is a reflection of Celestia, the light of the sun. And of course the Plunder Vines themselves, plants with the power which consume the landscape and distort magic, are reflections of the Tree of Harmony, which eats the magical Elements and restores order to the landscape.
Likewise “Bats!” contains numerous dark mirrors. The clearest such pairing are Fluttershy, or more accurately Flutterbat, and Applejack themselves: both, after all, are motivated by a desire to take the apples for themselves and prevent others from having them. To a lesser extent, Flutterbat’s craving to suck the juice from the apples reflects the running gag of Rainbow Dash’s obsession with cider. Even her vampirization itself, as an unexpected transformation into a demonic creature resulting from a seemingly unrelated spell cast by Twilight, is a dark mirror Twilight’s transformation and apotheosis at the end of Season 3.
The most subtle thematic echo is also the most important: we once again have a crisis caused by parasitic creatures attacking trees, which means that all of the apple trees are substitutions for the Tree of Harmony, which we have already identified as the Tree of Life, the Sephiroth. In the article on “Princess Twilight Sparkle,” I noted that the identification of the tree’s symbols with the 10 Sephiroth is in places tenuous, most notably for Applejack and Fluttershy. Since they are the focus characters of this episode, that is now worth re-examing.
The two Sephiroth in question are chesed, the Sephirah of Loving-Kindness, and gevurah, the Sephirah of Strength. Chesed refers to the capacity to care for others, protect and nurture them, and provide for their needs; gevurah refers to the capacity to reject what is dangerous, wicked, or false. A common description of the is as the right arm that embraces and the left arm that pushes away. Fluttershy’s gentle, nurturing, self-effacing nature makes her a natural fit for chesed, while Applejack’s sometimes-blunt honesty, drive, and strict adherence to a particular notion of How Things Should Be make her a good fit for gevurah.
However, in the Tree of Harmony, Applejack’s apple symbol was in the position where we would expect chesed, while Fluttershy’s butterfly is in the position of gevurah. This episode helps make sense of that apparent contradiction. At first, Applejack is clearly the one rejecting that which is destructive, namely the bats, while Fluttershy is defined by her kindness toward them. However, the descriptions of the Sephiroth I gave above are not complete, because they reflect only one perspective on the Tree of Life, that of the path to enlightenment, from mundanity at the bottom to enlightenment at the top. The Sephiroth, however, are also the process of creation, from inspiration (or, if you prefer to capitalize “Creation,” the Divine) at the top to material product (or the World) at the bottom. In that respect, chesed is the boundless love of the creator for the created, the enthusiastic and potentially infinite expansion of the project; gevurah is the capacity to set limits and boundaries (which is why it is sometimes also called by the Hebrew word din, “judgment”).
It is thus significant that this episode is set on Applebucking Day; the last episode set on that day, Season 1’s “Applebucking Season,” was about Applejack’s inability to set limits on her kindess to others or her creative labors (and farmwork does follow the creative process–it begins with an idea, continues as a series of conscious decisions, and ends with a material product, shaped by those decisions, which would not otherwise exist). Here in “Bats!” Applejack admits that she is more concerned with saving Fluttershy than stopping Flutterbat from devouring her crops. Applejack has more than a little affiliation with chesed, in other words; her association with it in the Tree of Harmony, at least where this episode is concerned, is not entirely wrong, even though normally we would place her with gevurah.
Likewise, Fluttershy is very much defined by her boundaries and limits, particularly her social anxieties–and perhaps more importantly, when others cross those boundaries, she is quite capable of forcefully rejecting that which is dangerous or wrong. Indeed, at the end of the episode she states that she she shouldn’t have gone along with a plan that made her uncomfortable–that, in other words, she needs to work on boundary-setting where her friends are concerned. Fluttershy has some gevurah to her, and she belongs there in this episode.
The combination of the Qabbalistic theme with corruption and dark mirrors suggests something else may be present in this episode: we should be seeking the qlippothic here as well. In Jewish Qabbalah, the qlippoth (actually kelipoth, Hebrew for “husks”) are the obstacles which must be overcome on the path to enlightenment, which get in the way of fully realizing each Sephirah; they are the peels or husks which must be penetrated to get at the “fruit” of the Tree. Certainly there is plenty of that here. Applejack’s attempts to drive off the bats are constantly thwarted, because she is using the wrong aspect of gevurah; she should be trying to set limits on them instead, by providing a sanctuary. Fluttershy, meanwhile, finds that her attempts to be kind to the bats are undermined by her excessive meekness and willingness to go along with her friends.
The notions of corruption and dark mirrors, however, become more interesting when we consider the Hermetic interpretation of Qabbalah, in which the qlippoth are corrupted reflections of the Sephiroth. Here we find the associations between Applejack and gevurah on the one hand, and Fluttershy and chesed on the other, are strengthened. The qlippothic reflection of gevurah‘s strength is the destructive and self-destructive impulse, which we see in this episode in Applejack’s determination to stop the bats at any cost, which keeps making things worse for her. The episode avoids mentioning it, but the spell Applejack has Twilight cast is a cruel death sentence–it makes the bats uninterested in eating fruit, their only source of food. And, of course, it is that spell which creates and unleashes the Flutterbat.
Flutterbat is of course the qlippothic reflection of Fluttershy herself, and unsurprisingly it epitomizes the qlippothic reflection of chesed‘s loving-kindness, the impulse to devour and consume. Flutterbat appears to have no desires except the mindless consumption of all the fruit she can find, until none is left. As is often the case with the vampire, she is reduced to nothing but a hungry predator, (albeit a strictly fructivorous one), leaving drained husks–qlippoth!–in her wake.
And yet Fluttershy insists twice, once during her debate with Applejack at the beginning of the episode, and again after the ponies finish setting up the bat sanctuary at the end of the episode, that the bats’ destruction of the apples is, in the long term, good for the trees and the farm, spreading seeds and helping the trees grow stronger. What she is asserting is an alchemical idea we briefly touched on back in Season 1: putrefaction. Literally a form of fermentation, in traditional European alchemy putrefaction is the creative power of decay, the emergence of life from death and value from rot. A rotting peace of fruit looks and spells repulsive to us, but it is also an explosion of life, molds and bacteria and flies. These form the basis upon which the survival of creatures we find more attractive, and ultimately ourselves, depends; the husks make the tree stronger.
In Jewish thought, the qlippoth are not evil or even entirely corrupt; they serve a positive and useful function in that they prevent the energies of the Sephiroth from escaping. The husks make the Tree stronger. This episode thus ties the Hermetic notion of the qlippoth as distortions of the Sephiroth to the Jewish conception of them as having a useful function by way of putrefaction: the corruption and decay of something pure is not inherently evil, and may make it purer and better.
It’s a point worth remembering in a season that opened with two fundamental changes to the show’s premise, namely Princess Twilight and the introduction of a true seasonal arc–and more changes are coming.
Next week: Speaking of the arc…