My great books #4: The White Goddess
Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.
One of the odd but recurrent patterns of intellectual history is that a false hypothesis proposed by a genius is often more rewarding—or at least generates more useful material, almost by accident—than a correct one offered up by an ordinary mortal. James Frazer’s theory about the priestly succession at Nemi has been rejected by most anthropologists, but without it, we wouldn’t have The Golden Bough, which is still the greatest repository of information and insight ever published on magic, ritual, and religion. You could say much the same about the theories of Freud. And while I no longer believe in the details, or even the general outline, of the historical argument that Robert Graves makes in The White Goddess, I wouldn’t give up the resulting book for the world. It reads today like the kind of conspiracy theory we find in a Dan Brown novel, although infinitely more ingenious, and even Graves knew that orthodox scholars were unlikely to embrace his work: “Though they cannot refute it, they dare not accept it.” For the general reader, fortunately, it doesn’t really matter, because The White Goddess is unsurpassed as a lucky bag of lore, ideas, and clues for other writers to take up and pursue. I’ve found myself browsing through it whenever I start a new writing project, if only on the off chance that one of Graves’s asides or digressions will spark a train of thought that never would have occurred to me otherwise.
Read with an appropriately skeptical mind, The White Goddess is still the best entry point for the intelligent reader on a dizzying range of subjects: Celtic mythology, poetic logic, the interpretation or decoding of mythic and religious iconography, the relationship between the poet and the muse, and the role of intuition in the creative process. The difficulty of his hypothesis forced Graves to range further and delve more deeply than a scholar making a more conventional case, and the material that he tosses up casually along the way has stuck with me longer than his primary argument. (I was first attracted to the book by its back cover’s promise to provide practical answers to countless unsolved riddles of the ancient world, including Thomas Browne’s “What song the sirens sang” or “What name Achilles assumed when he hid among women”—not to mention how to untie the Gordian knot, which Graves handles in a single footnote. And his “solution” to the vision of Ezekiel lies at the heart of my novel City of Exiles.) In the end, it stands as an illustration both of intuition’s possibilities and of its limits, although it also makes mere reason seem cramped by comparison. In his poem in praise of the goddess herself, Graves speaks of “tourbillions in Time made / By the strong pulling of her bladed mind / Through that ever-reluctant element.” “Bladed mind” is really a description of Graves himself, and the tourbillions, or whirlwinds, that he created in his intractable material continue to revolve in my imagination, long after more reasonable books have faded away.