Golems: A potent symbol of teenage emotion in recent Y.A. literature

We’ve always loved golems. The notion of a soulless husk suddenly given life is deliciously resonant. First there was Adam, formed from dust and given breath by God. Then there were a thousand variants, from the monster in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” to Mickey’s manic brooms in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” to the computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The idea of a powerful machine being given consciousness, then behaving in unpredictable ways, is thrilling.

It’s also troubling. The legend of the Golem of Prague involves the 16th-century Maharal, also known as Judah Loew, a powerful rabbi who created a golem (the word derives from “unshaped form” in Hebrew) to defend the ghetto from pogroms. In the tale’s many versions the golem often attacks its maker, becoming more vicious than intended or devastated by its own clay heart.

Given the folkloric, timeless nature of the tale, it’s no wonder it has inspired so many children’s books, several published in recent years. “The Golem’s Latkes” by Eric Kimmel, illustrated by Aaron Jasinski, is a cartoony, not-very-scary version of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in which a lazy maid delegates the potato pancake–making to a golem, leading to a giant interfaith party to which the emperor brings applesauce. This new book will make a delightful holiday gift.

Teen readers can turn to that ancient Jewish monster, the golem, for meaningful meditations on attraction, power and body. photo/flickr/jta/michael jones

But it’s in the young-adult category that the golem story, in its original horror, achieves the most nuance. It’s long been thought that monsters represent the adolescent’s lack of impulse control. Vampires, a staple in young-adult lit, are all about desire and sublimated sexuality; werewolves are pure animalistic brutality; zombies represent brainless conformity.

The golem fits in perfectly. “Clay,” the 2007 novel by the acclaimed British writer David Almond, is perhaps the most literary of young-adult golem books. In “Clay,” an altar boy in a faded coal-mining town meets a mysterious newcomer who may have the power to create life from earth. Almond’s perspective is Catholic, but his moral themes are familiar to Jews, and the book is clearly based on the golem story. This is a powerful, very creepy book.

On the salacious end of the literary spectrum is “Swoon,” a 2010 novel by Nina Malkin. The book’s heroine is Dice (short for Candice) and the hot, nasty golem is Sin (no, really — short for Sinclair). Do not confuse Dice or Sin with the other “Gossip Girl”-esque characters, though everybody does tons of drugs and has tons of sex. Turns out that Sin has been seeking a body to inhabit so he can return to the town where he was murdered a couple hundred years earlier and take revenge on the descendants of his torturers. Sin is horrid to Dice, but she loves him anyway because he’s a hot golem.

I loved the heartbreaking golem in “Storm Thief” by Chris Wooding (2006), and I think teenage fans of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fantasy will, too. After being caught in a “probability storm,” a violent atmospheric ripple that unpredictably changes reality, the golem is separated from his maker. He has only shards of memory, and he desperately wants to know his identity and purpose. The golem is prone to flashes of rage, but he also wants to love and help. Unlike “Swoon,” which is a story of selfishness, “Storm Thief” is all about sacrifice.

“The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making” (2011), by Catherynne M. Valente, is pretty florid; I wanted to yank out half the adjectives and stomp on them like ants. But among all the over-the-top mythical creatures, there’s a perfectly endearing female golem made of soap. Unlike most golems, she can speak (when she does, soap bubbles escape her lips). She’s powerless but not voiceless: Many young girls, pouring out their hearts in diaries, can understand that duality. She’s also the only completely kind female figure in a fairyland full of men and boys and mean girls.

A golem is a sturdy creature on which to hang a young-adult story; the figure asks perennial teenage questions: Who am I in the world? What powers do I have? Whom can I trust? How do I create a separate existence from my parents’? How do I control my anger and manage my baser instincts?

Kids today understand the dangers of technology — they grew up seeing the way gossip and bullying can spread through social media with the force of a probability storm. Stuffed animals, unlike Facebook and Twitter, wait patiently for loving humans to come back.

Perhaps the golem, made of earth and clay, also represents a longing for a simpler, less networked, more easily turned-off past.

This article originally appeared on Tablet Magazine, tabletmag.com