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Books I Haven't Read (part eleven)

On myth, poetry, and all that

When I first moved down to South-West England, I was intrigued to note that one of the major local commercial property firms, their boards decorating every half-empty high street, was called Alder King. No doubt this is because at some point in the distant past Mr Alder and Mr King got together to form a business (their website is sadly unhelpful on the subject), but in my own private imagination I liked to think that their founder was deliberately trying to invoke a mythical archetype, implying that the cycle of closure, vacancy and opening on the High Street echoed the ancient cycle of death, sacrifice and rebirth, the brief but spiritually charged reign of the sacred king destroyed by the Great Goddess as described by James Frazer and popularised by one of the twentieth century’s best-known English-language poets. No doubt that poet, if he had lived to the 2010s and had seen Alder King’s advertising boards himself, would have thought the same. Rather, he would not just have thought “that’s an amusing coincidence of naming,” as I did: he would have thought it yet more evidence that all of his theories about mythology and prehistory were incontrovertibly, emotionally and poetically true, and that anyone who disagreed with him was probably a contemptible writer-of-prose or Apollonian poetaster with a degree from Cambridge. At least, I assume that’s what he would have thought. I’ve never managed to finish reading his book on the subject, and I’ve threatened to write a blog post about it more than once in the distant past. Today’s Book I Haven’t Read is, as you potentially have already guessed from this introduction, The White Goddess by Robert Graves.

I have a strange relationship with Graves. I’ve been intrigued with him, puzzled by him, almost obsessed with him, since I was a teenager and my English teacher loaned me his own copy of Goodbye To All That, Graves’s infamous autobiography. He wrote it in a great rush to raise cash in the late 1920s after abandoning his final full-time salaried job, and it’s a fascinating mixture of anecdote and recollection dominated heavily by the one great horror at the heart of his life. He had the bad luck to be born into the English upper-middle-class in the mid-1890s: he left public school, and was about to join Oxford University, in the summer of 1914. He became an army officer without even having to try; whilst still a teenager he was a lieutenant, and by the time he would theoretically have been graduating, he had almost been declared dead and was no longer fit for front-line service. Writing your autobiography at the age of 32 might seem somewhat precocious, but the greatest part of Graves’s is purely about his life between the ages of 19 and 23. I hadn’t even realised, when reading the book, that I was reading the now-standard second edition. It was revised by Graves when some thirty years older to take out the more controversial parts: some passages that hugely upset his close friend Siegfried Sasson, and any references to his 1920s attempt at “feminist” polyamory. The original text is a lot harder to find these days, which is no doubt what Graves would have wanted.

I have a strange relationship with Graves, but I don’t think I could ever like him, and certainly I don’t think we would ever have got on if I should happen to somehow go back in time and meet him. He was a mass of contradictions and swirling neuroses. He always insisted he was a poet, but the majority of his income was from novels and biography, books that he himself always derided as “potboilers”. He had a great skill for making stories make narrative sense, though. His retelling of mythology in the Greek Myths has almost become a standard from a literary standpoint, but he picks and chooses sources and details indiscriminately according to his own subjective view of what feels “more mythological”, or in other words, what he feels best fits the story he wanted to tell. Similarly his best-known novel, I, Claudius, is no use at all as history precisely because its point is to fit a narratively-satisfying story on top of a patch of history which Graves felt needed a better explanation than evidence alone could provide. Above all that, he seems to have been a fairly horrible person: misanthropic, homophobic, racist, and with an irrational hatred of anyone with a degree from Cambridge.*

This post, though, is supposed to be a review of The White Goddess and why I’ve never read it all the way through, or, indeed, got more than a few chapters in. Its subtitle is A Historical Grammar Of Poetic Myth, and in it, Graves first gives a very narrow definition of poetry, before explaining why his interpretation of ancient Celtic sources proves that his definition of poetry is correct in an almost geometrically-perfect circular argument. In short: poetry is verse which inspires subconscious terror, fear, and makes your hair stand on end,** because its subject is always male devotion to the all-commanding White Goddess, the triple-goddess of birth, fecundity and death, the goddess who marries her suitor the Alder King for one glorious day before he is destroyed as a sacrifice to her.

All true poetry—true by Housman’s practical test—celebrates some incident or scene in this very ancient story (p20 of the fourth edition)

“Hang on a minute, Captain Graves,” I can almost hear you saying. “I mean that’s fine for you to say, but I’ve written some poetry and it wasn’t about that!”

In that case, clearly according to Graves’ rules, you’re not a poet and you weren’t writing Poetry. To you and me this might indeed sound like nothing more than highest-order gatekeeping, but Graves goes into great effort to explain that it’s true, much of what you might think is poetry just isn’t Poetry by the standards of Graves The Dedicated Poet. Indeed, according to his standards, the English have barely understand poetry at all.

The Anglo-Saxons had no sacrosanct master-poets, but only gleemen; and English poetic lore is borrowed at third hand… This explains why there is not the same instinctive reverence for the name of poet in the English countryside as there is in the remotest parts of Wales, Ireland and the Highlands. (p19)

So, Robert, you’re saying that the True Poets are those dashing chaps in flappy shirts like Byron and Shelley and so on, who were always saying they wanted to dedicate themselves to their muses?

This is not to identify the true poet with the Romantic poet. … The typical Romantic poet of the nineteenth century was physically degenerate, or ailing, addicted to drugs and melancholia, critically unbalanced and a true poet only in his fatalistic regard for the Goddess as the mistress who commanded his destiny. (p21)

In other words, the only true poets in the world are, really, Robert Graves and a handful of contemporaries he respected (Alun Lewis being one example he quotes approvingly). Others? Sorry, no, whatever you thought you were doing, you’re just not writing poetry by Graves’ standards. The problem I have with this is not just the way it immediately writes off huge swathes of literature, but that this is apparently done so in order to centre Graves, his neuroses and his relationships as the epitome of Poetry, the pinnacle of literature. Graves described himself as a feminist as far back as the 1920s, but his feminism was one in which in reality he was at the centre of things: in which he chose a woman, elevated her onto a holy pedestal, and jealously ensured she stayed there. An emotional masochist, he poured his creative energy into worshipping his chosen muse almost in the hope that she would make him suffer for it. In this sense, his explanation of what makes True Poetry is nothing more than a recapitualation of his personal relationships of the 1920s and 1930s, which he claims to be some sort of universal religious truth. Jealousy itself is elevated to being a vital emotion for the True Poet to have.

What evidence is there, in The White Goddess, that Graves’ inner demons really are the key to both True Poetry and to the ancient mystery religion he claims to be decoding? A dense and cryptic analysis of medieval Welsh poetry, specifically the poem Cad Goddeu, taking it like a set of crossword clues and reordering lines and stanzas in order to produce something that Graves thought made more sense than the original poem. Graves’s “poetic logic” here is much like his logic in writing I, Claudius, or his Greek Myths, or his novel about the life of Jesus: his rewrite of the poem makes a better story, because rewritten it supports his argument, and therefore his argument must be true, because the poem supports it. As a key to understanding Cad Goddeu it is not really anything other than speculation, and certainly not the self-evidently true reconstruction that Graves insists he has produced. To be fair, Cad Goddeu is a famously impenetrable poem and most interpretations of it are little more than speculation, but at least most of the people who attempt to understand it admit that they have no clue what it really consists of.

I said earlier that Graves’ life was governed and steered by the pure luck of being born where and when he was. Similarly, he wrote The White Goddess at just the right time for it to become highly influential: at precisely the time that a new religion was being created in Dorset. As Ronald Hutton has documented in The Triumph Of The Moon, Wicca arose from a seething mixture of British and Irish cultural influences from the late 19th to mid 20th centuries, and The White Goddess, coming at the very end of that period, was one of the most influential on later Wiccan development. Its goddess and its underlying Frazerian story are now widely adopted in modern Paganism, and I’m sure you can find pagans who not only worship Graves’ goddess themselves but believe the ancient Welsh did too. The book has stayed in print for many years, although I do wonder how many of the sold copies have been read all the way through.

So why haven’t I—as of the time of writing—been unable to complete it, despite several attempts? I suspect I’m just too well aware that its basic premise is wrong, or at least, fundamentally flawed. Graves seems to always have been greatly annoyed that academics in both literature and archaeology didn’t think much of it, and that any reviews that did come from academia were generally scathing. He showed it in quite a passive-aggressive way: not only did he write long letters of reply to magazines that gave it a bad review, but some are printed as an appendix to the modern Faber edition. Sadly, they largely show nothing more than his own arrogance and lack of understanding: his insistance that his own outdated knowledge of archaeology and anthropology was far more accurate than that of the professors criticising him. Given I received an introduction to Welsh myth and archaeology at university, I am well aware firstly that much of Graves’ understanding was wrong (even at the time it was written, and it has only grown more wrong since), and secondly that some of his statements make huge leaps in logic and present whole towers of assumption and supposition as if they were solid fact. The entirety of the text rests on sweeping syncretism, with claims such as that the Welsh mythological magician Gwydion is the same character as the Norse god Odin, or that Gwydion’s nephew Lleu Llaw Gyffes is the same character as Hercules and the Mesopotamian god Tammuz. The text resembles a grand conspiracy theory as any similarity between stories and people, however weak, is jumped upon as meaning an equivalence. I opened the book at random to find an example and found this passage, on the ancient Irish poem Song of Amergin:

Tethra [a name mentioned in the poem] was the king of the Undersea-land from which the People of the Sea were later supposed to have originated. He is perhaps a masculinisation of Tethys, the Pelasgian Sea-goddess, also known as Thetis […]. The Sidhe are now popularly regarded as fairies: but in early Irish poetry they appear as a real people. […] All had blue eyes, pales faces, and long curly yellow hair. […] They were, in fact, Picts (tattooed men), and all that can be learned about them corresponds with Xenophon’s observations […] on the primitive Mosynoechians of the Black Sea coast. […] They occupied the territory assigned in early Greek legend to the matriarchal Amazons. The ‘blue eyes’ of the Sidhe I take to be blue interlocking rings tattooed around the eyes, for which the Thracians were known in Classical times. Their pallor was perhaps also artificial—white ‘war-paint’ of chalk or powdered gypsum, in honour of the White Goddess, such as we know, from a scene in Aristophanes’s Clouds where Socrates whitens Strepsiades, was used in Orphic rites of initiation.

There you are: the “real identity” of the mythological Sidhe is uncovered by picking apart random coincidental parallels with things Graves had picked up in his Classical-themed public school education. It’s more like a word association game than genuine historical research. Apologies for editing out the description of the Mosynoechians; it’s impossible to tell from Graves’ account whether there genuinely were coincidental similarities between them and the mythological Sidhe, or whether Graves is being Graves and jumping to conclusions based on the flimiest of matches.

Hopefully one day I will complete reading The White Goddess. The last time I picked it up, I was tempted to live-tweet every time I came to a passage that infuriated me, but soon realised what a thankless and hopeless task this would be after just the second page of the introduction contained the line that Judaism is “a Semitic [religion] grafted onto a Celtic stock”, which is closer to conspiracy-history than anything grounded in fact. I’m certainly not ready to read it just yet. Maybe, instead, I should write something better. Something that is full of open inspirational ideas, not closed and self-justifying ones.

* As someone whose degree is from one of the Ancient Scots Universities, I don’t really have a horse in this race; but I do wonder if he generally thought that any universities other than Oxford were beyond contempt, or if it was just Cambridge specifically.

** This isn’t me colloquialising. He specifically says: a verse is a poem if it makes your hair stand on end if you recite it silently whilst shaving. I can imagine that’s quite handy for doing those tricky bits around your chin; as a test, it’s attributed to A E Housman. I can’t really imagine Housman agreeing with the rest of Graves’ thesis.

Cultural Appropriation

On stories set firmly in a particular place

There are quite a few ideas for blog posts lining up on my pinboard at the moment, and most of them are the sort that require work to write: long, in-depth pieces that need some sort of study or concentration. With the state of things right now, both in the world outside, here at home, and in the office, the space for that level of study and concentration has been a bit hard to come by. However, there’s one thing that has been in my head, on and off, for years, and it’s been sitting in my head for so long that it’s about time I tried to put it into words. It’s about a book which (unlike these) I have read, a much-loved book, one I love myself, in fact, at least at some level. It’s a classic of 1960s YA fiction, particularly in Britain. The Owl Service, by Alan Garner.

If you haven’t read it: it’s a retelling of one of the most famous stories of Welsh mythology, the story of Blodeuwedd, an episode in Math fab Mathonwy, the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. I realise, typing that out, that if you’re not already a fan of Welsh mythology all those words in the previous sentence might be so much noise to you. The Mabinogi is a collection of four linked stories, written down in the Middle Ages but presumably somewhat older, which survived in two known manuscript copies;* in the 19th century they were translated into English by the aristocratic philologist Charlotte Guest. Math son of Mathonwy starts with a war between Gwynedd and Dyfed started by a magical pig-theft as a grand distraction from a rather more sordid plan, and traces the threads that follow on from that plan and the destruction and havoc that follows as a result. If it can be said to have a single theme, it’s probably that magic always makes things worse. Blodeuwedd is a woman conjured from flowers to provide a wife for the cursed hero Lleu Llaw Gyffes; she is not particularly a fan of the idea herself, and goes off with another man instead. I won’t tell you the whole story here, but you can probably gather that it isn’t going to end well.

One reason I’m not going to retell the whole story here is that if you haven’t read The Owl Service then you should do; as I’ve said, it’s a modern retelling, bringing the story forward to 1960s Wales and turning it into a triangular relationship between three teenagers: an English girl who has inherited a Welsh country house, her step-brother, and the Welsh son of their housekeeper. The country house is located in an oppressive, narrow valley and the house seems haunted by sounds: motorbikes powering along the road up-valley, and invisible vermin scratching in the roof. As the book progresses there are dark family secrets, mysterious paintings, ghostly reflections, and of course the crockery set of the title. As stories go it is short but dense: there is a lot of information packed into its pages. Garner is very good at offhand description whose significance is not signalled, letting you make the connections yourself later. In the telly adaptation, made by Granada shortly after publication, quite a bit of further exposition had to be added, notably a “story so far” narration at the start of each episode which sometimes describes explicitly events which weren’t really explained or shown at the point they happened.

I must have first read The Owl Service when I was in my early teens, and I know that when I first read it I was already aware that it was an Important Book. I knew this because most children’s novels I recall reading included a few pages of blurb for other novels at the back of the book, and I’d read the blurb for The Owl Service several times in this way before eventually getting a copy of it.** Certainly, much of it went over my head, but I was taken with its description of 1960s Wales; of the valley, lush and green, that almost disappears when you hike uphill to look down from the surrounding mountains; and the combination of kitchen-sink realism and deep mythology, of the idea that all myths did happen, somewhere, in the real world, and that their ghosts still haunt those places. That, though—I came to realise many years later—is where the problem is.

Nowadays I have two translations of the Mabinogi on my bookshelf, although I carefully keep them apart so that we avoid a critical mass of mythology in one place (or more likely, questions on why exactly I need two different translations). If you pick either of them up, and turn to Math fab Mathonwy, you’ll see the story tells you exactly where everything happened. I said earlier there was a war between Gwynedd and Dyfed: it ended when King Pryderi of Dyfed was killed and buried near Maentwrog, just off the A496. The other man that Blodeuwedd went off with was from around Bala; and the key events in the Blodeuwedd story all occurred close to the Afon Cynfal, one of the rivers that flows down into the Vale of Ffestiniog. I know the area well.

What makes me uncomfortable about The Owl Service is that it’s not set there. It’s not set in some generic imaginary fictional Welsh valley that only exists in Garner’s (and his reader’s) imaginations, either. It’s inspired by a specific place that Garner had visited, Llanymawddwy on the upper Dyfi. If you read the book alongside the Ordnance Survey map of the area, you can track a lot of the walks that the characters take in the book. Garner describes, for example, the walk up to the Ravenstone on the county boundary; and there it is on the map, Carreg y Frân. This is a real place, a real village. But in Garner’s retelling, this is the place the story of Blodeuwedd originally happened, and keeps happening, reoccurring in every generation; when the myth itself is anchored in another real place, an entirely different stretch of the countryside.

The hills above Llanymawddwy

Is this cultural appropriation? I’m really not sure; in any case, that’s hardly a well-defined term. Garner certainly tried to put a lot of effort into trying to make his story both realistic and respectful. He learned Welsh to write The Owl Service, but not for vocabulary or to read the myth in the original; rather, he learned it so that he could make the English speech of his Welsh-speaking characters follow Welsh syntax, because he felt that this would be a more respectful way to make them sound Welsh than the superficial technique of dropping random Welsh vocabulary into their statements. In general this works really well, with just one spot where he shows off his erudition to the reader in a slightly clunky way. The feeling I am left with, though, is that he did just come along to Wales and immediately feel as if he had found some deep, spiritual, mythological meaning to the landscape that wasn’t actually there, a meaning that was his own romanticised interpretation of that landscape as filtered through one of the most famous of all the Welsh myths. In a sense this is no different to if he’d travelled half way around the world and felt he had discovered something deep and exciting and mystical there; the only difference is that he’d only travelled a hundred miles or so over the border from Cheshire. The village and the valley in The Owl Service are haunted by the sound of motorbikes, because the road through Llanymawddwy leads to Bwlch y Groes, a steep, high pass that has for many years been well-known in the biking world. I have no doubt the reason motorbikes are important in the plot of The Owl Service is that Garner, visiting Llanymawddwy and exploring the valley, will have frequently seen and heard bikers driving through the village and up the valley towards the pass; will have sat up at Carreg y Frân and heard them roaring in the distance.

Am I the right person to point this out? I’m not Welsh either, after all, and although I’ve spent a lot of time there for one reason and another, I’ve never lived there. I don’t speak the language beyond a few simple phrases like “mae hi’n bwrw glaw” or “dw i wedi yfed cwrw gormod”, although I probably speak no less than most people who live in Wales do. As an English person living in England, are my own attempts to learn Welsh and read Welsh mythology just as appropriative as Garner? Some would probably say so. As someone who spends a fair amount of time in Wales—albeit not as much as I did a few years ago when I commuted over the border every day—it feels like the right thing to do.

The Owl Service is still a fantastic book, despite its flaws, and despite the niggling impression I have that it represents one Englishman’s superficial interpretation of a myth more than it represents the myth itself. In some ways I suspect my biggest disappointment is, as always, that the Good is the enemy of the Perfect. The Owl Service is so embedded in the imagination as the reimagining of the Blodeuwedd story, it seems difficult to believe that any other, potentially better, potentially more Welsh reimagining of it would ever take its place in th canon. Am I just being too much of a perfectionist critic? Maybe so. And the story of Blodeuwedd still exists, and is never going to disappear.

* The bound manuscripts are known as the Red Book of Hergest and the White Book of Rhydderch. This naming pattern clearly chimed with JRR Tolkien, as in his fantasy mythology, The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings were the translations of a set of manuscripts known as the Red Book of Westmarch.

** Incidentally there are still a few classic children’s and YA novels that I only know in this way, from the blurbs in the back of other novels. The Silver Sword is one that springs to mind; or Smith by Leon Garfield.