“There’s been weapons since there’s been man,” said Delorme. “Neanderthals had them. It’s the nature of the beast.” (The Nature of the Beast, Page 186, Trade Paperback Edition)
For those of you who have read the 11th installment in the Louise Penny canon, you know that this retort, directed at Gamache, comes at a crucial moment in the plot. It’s the only time the phrase, the nature of the beast, is used within the novel but the power it conveys is so strong it titles the book. The Oxford Dictionary defines the expression as “The inherent and unchangeable character of something” and the phrase itself first appeared in John Ray’s Collection of English Proverbs which was published in the 1600’s.
The origin of the idiom is murky and has been interpreted in many ways since it was first uttered. In Louise’s novel, it is both a reference to human nature, and a haunting evocation of something far more malevolent. The biblical beast, who waged war against God in the New Testament’s Book of Revelations. Here is the moment, from The Nature of the Beast, when the investigators begin to get an inkling of what they might be up against:
“An etching?” he asked.
“Oui,” said Beauvoir, standing up slowly at his desk in the Incident Room. “At the base?”
“Oui,” said Beauvoir, caution creeping into his voice.
“Is it a beast?” Rosenblatt asked, finding it difficult to breathe. “A beast?”
“Un monstre.” His French wasn’t very good, but it was good enough for that. “Oui. A monster.”
“With seven heads.”
“Oui,” said Inspector Beauvoir.
To the right is a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer depicting the Beast as interpreted from the Book of Revelation (17:7). Count the heads.
If you have read The Nature of the Beast, you know a major plot point revolves around man’s apparent predisposition to make war. But, as Gamache proves time and again, it’s also in our nature to cherish decency. Kindness. Peace.