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The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth Paperback – 23 Aug 1999
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The White Goddess by Robert Graves - a fusion of scholarship on folklore, mythology, religion and poetry - is a work of unprecedented originality and brilliance.
About the Author
Robert Graves (1895-1985) was a poet, novelist and critic. His first volume of poems, Over the Brazier (1916), reflected his experiences in the trenches, and was followed by many works of poetry, non-fiction and fiction. He is best known for his novel, I, Claudius (1934), which won the Hawthornden and James Tait Black memorial prizes and for his influential The White Goddess (1948).
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A second data point: this book is just what it says it is: 'A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth.' It may be the only one ever written. But be that as it may, criticisms of the book's scholarship are quite beside the point, because it isn't and doesn't claim to be a work of scholarship. It's a work of visionary poetic intuition which uses Celtic mythology as a paradigm to explore the roots of poetic inspiration. To criticize its scholarship is like criticizing the Old Testament for employing invalid anthropological methods.
Admittedly, the book is not easy reading, and much of it may never be clear to many readers. Graves himself warns that 'this remains a very difficult book, as well as a very queer one, to be avoided by anyone with a distracted, tired, or rigidly scientific mind.' But he goes on to give a useful reference point to which his whole complex, and often convoluted, argument ultimately remains related: that 'the language of poetic myth anciently current in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe was a magical language bound up with popular religious ceremonies in honour of the Mood-goddess, or Muse, and that this remains the language of true poetry.' The argument for, or one might better call it the exploration of, this thesis takes the reader on something of a wild ride. But however much or little one is convinced of the thesis, there is barely a paragraph of it which is not intensely interesting and intensely suggestive, leading one to new insights of one's own in considering poetry, mythology, and religion.
This is not, perhaps, a book everyone will want to sit down and read straight through; many people may benefit more from keeping it around to dip into every once in a while, thinking about the paragraphs which seem most intriguing and saving the obscure or less convincing seeming ones for later. (I myself have done both: I recently bought this new edition because I had to buy a new copy after the old one I bought years ago started falling apart.)
Hence the five stars, meaning that this is a must have book for anyone interested in Robert Graves, poetry, mythology, Celtic culture, or religion. I don't think even those who aren't convinced by it could say it is ever a dull read.
TWO MEN CONTEND FOR THE LOVE OF A POWERFUL WOMAN.
The woman is the White Goddess of the title. The men are the demigods of Summer and Winter, and their battle is an allegory of the changing of the seasons. Every other story, fictional or otherwise, is a part of or a retelling of or a distortion of this central truth. The wealth of examples used by Graves is astonishing; even the Scriptures can be interpreted in the light of it.
Graves assembles his argument by cracking the code of two ancient Welsh poems. "The Battle of the Trees" (Cad Goddeu) and "The History of Taliesin" (Hanes Taliesin) are found to conceal two mystical alphabet-cum-calendar charms, Celtic equivalents of the Norse Runes. These charms are the means by which the story of the eternal love triangle is preserved, and they also hide the names of two Celtic deities, theoretically in conflict in the fourth century BC. The process by which the decoding is made is brilliant, erudite, and academically outrageous- no University would sanction it. And yet, Graves is certainly on to something.
Even if you disagree, it's worth reading this book and making your mind up yourself. No knowledge of Welsh is required (Graves himself proceeds from English translations). On the way you'll learn more about mythology, religion and anthropology than from any officially sanctioned source- only Frazer's "The Golden Bough" comes close to it. Treat it all cautiously- but discount none of it.
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