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The White Goddess by Robert Graves

The White Goddess (1948)

by Robert Graves

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Graves presents us here with his thesis on the meaning of the mythology contained within ancient Welsh literature, including the Book of Taliesin and the Mabinogion, and most importantly the poem of the Battle of the Trees. What we have of these works was written down in medieval times, but Graves believes that they preserve the poetry of a much older oral and bardic tradition, which created riddles to preserve an even older mythology stretching back into pre-Christian and pre-historic times. To the casual listener or reader these works do indeed present a riddle, which Graves believes was both an expression of ingenuity of the bardic mind, and a deliberate effort to avoid censorship of pagan themes within an increasingly Christian culture.

By teasing out the meanings of these works, Graves links in the themes to the wider European body of mythology. He posits an explanation for the riddle in the Battle of Trees, in that it relates to a calendar system with each tree representing a month. He explains why each tree relates to a specific month, linking in the related mythology associated with each tree and its cultural significance. This is then tied in with some non-arboreal riddle like poems that he believes also relate to a calendar system, which he links in to his notion of the White Goddess who is represented by the calendar.

Graves presents at length his evidence for an older common religious substratum, based on the White Goddess, present across Europe and the near East before historical times. He shows us examples taken from Welsh literature, Greek, other European and near Eastern mythology, which support his theory. He believes this female-deity led religious system predates the male deity-led systems which superseded them, and finds traces of this origin preserved in mythology and names.

He goes on to suggest that the White Goddess, the ancient prehistorical source of inspiration, life, and death, is the basis of all true poetry, acting much like an archetype of the unconscious as Jung would have it (though in a rare oversight in what is a well-researched book, he does not seem to have connected his idea specifically with Jung here).

In places this book is quite hard-going, with a lot of densely presented information, many names, aliases, myths, and parallels to keep hold of in the mind simultaneously, in order to follow Graves arguments fully. In this sense it has much in common with Frazer’s Golden Bough, which Graves notes was an important source of inspiration and reference in his writing of this work.

Whether or not the arguments presented here are convincing or not will perhaps depend to a large extent on how patient the reader is in following protracted arguments, or alternatively how much we are willing to accept at face value from the author. This is a complicated, dense, and lengthy work to read, but it does at least bring to light hidden themes present in European mythology, whether or not we accept them as meaning exactly what Graves says that they do. It also presents a style of thinking, poetic thinking as the author calls it (as opposed to scientific thinking), which he believes was a route to a different type of truth (at least so in historic times before it was largely lost), peculiar to the creators and keepers of bardic lore, mythology, and religious secrets in pagan times, who he discusses throughout this work.

In all this contains much of interest in terms of poetry, literature in general, mythology, anthropology, and history, whether or not we accept Graves’ argument in its details. Many readers however will find the content tenuous and overly complex, and if we do not take the author’s word for things, the arguments are often too tangled to easily follow. This is probably not for the casual reader, but if you have an interest in the themes and plenty of time to wade through it and read it patiently, it might be rewarding. ( )
1 vote P_S_Patrick | May 23, 2019 |
The first time I read this, my conclusion was "more learned than wise." My opinion has not changed in the intervening fifteen years. Graves admitted that he has no Welsh, and relied on (defective) Victorian translations. Take with a very large pinch of salt. ( )
2 vote gwernin | Jun 14, 2014 |
The wikipedia article on this book doesn't take us very far. I suspect I now need to index the terms... how on earth did the record come in with no author? I've edited.
  JohnLindsay | Nov 5, 2012 |
This is a fun read, but you need to take a lot of it with a grain of salt. The reader can decide for themselves which parts Graves imagines and are historically accurate. ( )
  librarianbryan | Apr 20, 2012 |
Graves shows us the difference between a glee-man and a poet. The awe-full knowledge of EVERYTHING fell on Robert Graves one afternoon. Now what he needs is a biographer like Roger Lewis - to make everything perfect. ( )
2 vote Porius | Feb 16, 2010 |
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» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Robert Gravesprimary authorall editionscalculated
Lindop, GrevelEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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All saints revile her, and all sober men 
Ruled by the God Apollo's golden mean - 
In scorn of which I sailed to find her 
In distant regions likeliest to hold her 
Whom I desired above all things to know, 
Sister of the mirage and echo. 

It was a virtue not to stay, 
To go my headstrong and heroic way 
Seeking her out at the volcano's head, 
Among pack ice, or where the track had faded 
Beyond the cavern of the seven sleepers: 
Whose broad high brow was white as any leper's, 
Whose eyes were blue, with rowan-berry lips, 
With hair curled honey-coloured to white hips. 

The sap of Spring in the young wood a-stir 
Will celebrate with green the Mother, 
And every song-bird shout awhile for her; 
But I am gifted, even in November 
Rawest of seasons, with so huge a sense 
Of her nakedly worn magnificence 
I forget cruelty and past betrayal, 
Heedless of where the next bright bolt may fall.
First words
Since the age of fifteen poetry has been my ruling passion and I have never intentionally undertaken any task or formed any relationship that seemed inconsistent with poetic principles; which has sometimes won me the reputation of an eccentric.
...I cannot make out why a belief in a Father-god's authorship of the universe, and its laws, seems any less unscientific than a belief in a Mother-goddess's inspiration of this artificial system. Granted the first metaphor, the second follows logically--if these are no better than metaphors....
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0374504938, Paperback)

Robert Graves, the late British poet and novelist, was also known for his studies of the mythological and psychological sources of poetry. With The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, Graves was able to combine many of his passions into one work. While the book is so poetically written that many of the passages amount to prose poems, it is also frequently plot driven enough to feel like a novel, and it is rich with scholarly insight into the deep wells of poetry. Especially fascinating is the chapter in which Graves explores the ancient and ongoing practice of poets' invoking the muse. Graves details the practice in both the Eastern and Western literary traditions, and shows specific similarities and differences among Greek, British, and Irish tales and myths about the muse. Graves has much to offer students of history and myth, but poetry lovers will also be fascinated with The White Goddess.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:26 -0400)

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