Updated 21 May (see below)
Three ways into poet/novelist/crank Robert Graves’s retelling (synopsis) of the the great body of Greek myth:
- Naively treating the book as a neutral compendium of Greek myths (this is a recipe for madness, and will likely lead in short order to the next reading-posture)
- Knowingly treating the book as two — expert retellings of the myths marred by oddly deflating synoptic intrusions, plus a parallel, less compelling work of fantasy in the endnotes — and savouring the main text while dipping into the notes from time to time
- Knowingly treating the book as a single work of fantasy based on the Greek myths, marking the endnotes as a kind of optional countermelody
The advantage of the third approach, which I’ve tried to adopt in my own reading, is that it accommodates Graves’s deflating alternate versions and parenthetical insertions — instead of damaging a conventional narrative flow, they can be understood as a necessary feature of an alternative form.
If you haven’t read Graves, this is the sort of thing you can expect:
The Eleventh Labour: The Apples Of The Hesperides
a. HERACLES had performed these Ten Labours in the space of eight years and one month; but Eurystheus, discounting the Second and the Fifth, set him two more. The Eleventh Labour was to fetch fruit from the golden apple-tree, Mother Earth’s wedding gift to Hera, with which she had been so delighted that she planted it in her own divine garden. This garden lay on the slopes of Mount Atlas, where the panting chariot-horses of the Sun complete their journey, and where Atlas’s sheep and cattle, one thousand herds of each, wander over their undisputed pastures. When Hera found, one day, that Atlas’s daughters, the Hesperides, to whom she had entrusted the tree, were pilfering the apples, she set the ever-watchful dragon Ladon to coil around the tree as its guardian.
b. Some say that Ladon was the offspring of Typhon and Echidne; others, that he was the youngest-born of Ceto and Phorcys; others again, that he was a parthogenous son of Mother Earth. He had one hundred heads, and spoke with diverse tongues.
c. It is equally disputed whether the Hesperides lived on Mount Atlas in the Land of the Hyperboreans; or on Mount Atlas in Mauretania; or somewhere beyond the Ocean stream; or on two islands near the promontory called the Western Horn, which lies close to the Ethiopian Hesperiae, on the borders of Africa. Though the apples were Hera’s, Atlas took a gardener’s pride in them and, when Themis warned him: ‘One day long hence, Titan, your tree shall be stripped of its gold by a son of Zeus,’ Atlas, who had not then been punished with his terrible task of supporting the celestial globe upon his shoulders, built solid walls around the orchard, and expelled all strangers from his land; it may well have been he who set Ladon to guard the apples…
Graves goes on this way for several pages; his retelling of the Labours of Heracles expands zenoparadoxically into a series of digressions and clarifications and alternate visions that seems as if it may never end. But it does, and I was sorry that it did — Graves tries my patience but I love this stuff all the same. Paragraph b is typical: I can’t imagine a nonexpert caring one way or the other who exactly gave birth to a 100-headed polyglot dragon, and it matters not even a tiny bit to the flow of the story, but this is neither ‘proper’ scholarship nor pure narrative, and conventional satisfactions aren’t the point.
The function of paragraph b — assuming you think Graves has a point and isn’t simply mad — isn’t to slow the story but to broaden it: Typhon and Ceto don’t figure in this particular story, but by invoking them in this quasi-scholarly way like a Biblical scholar noting concordance between the synoptic gospels, Graves sets them to echoing in the background, as it were. Heracles’s labours matter to Graves and to the book’s metanarrative as part of a system of knowledge; on their own, as a series of well supplied violent rampages by a psychotic demigod, they’re Neat but not hardly Significant. But the mention of Typhon, with his arms 300 miles long and an ass’s head that touched the stars, deepens the colour of the story somewhat. Graves’s endnotes ground the stories in a (ridiculous) myth-history, and his cross-cutting invocations of a heavenly genealogy ultimately function as worldbuilding rather than, er, monomania and indiscipline.
If you think of stories as payloads for information, this strategy won’t make sense; there are better ways, for Christ’s sake, to establish the complexity of the Greek mythos than by dropping a steaming info-pile in the middle of the narrative pathway. But if you think of a story, like any work of art, as a machine for inducing psychotropism at a distance rather than a kind of inductive proof, then Graves’s approach has a certain imaginative logic. The mythos is a map whose territory is an entire long-dead culture’s collective imagination, and you don’t need instructions (‘plot’) to browse a map.
Which isn’t to say Graves’s individual retellings aren’t fun to read — I’ve been reading the Myths for months, a little at a time, and I’m enjoying them more now than ever — only that ‘fun’ isn’t exactly the point.
Sticking only to stories here for a second:
‘Visionary’ narrative maps an imagination — it attempts to render the encounter between a complex mind and a complex world without reducing either to the status of narrative components. Visionary art tends to be unconcerned or at least under-concerned with its own parseability. It doesn’t concede to convention, which at any rate is always a post hoc rationalization of an originating vision.
Conventionally satisfying linear (‘sane’) narrative does not directly map an imagination. It maps a kind of second-order reality: the narrative sequence you cocreate in your mind, Reader(s), is and must be orderly in a way reality never ever is, and the same goes for the author’s private story that the text bundles, encodes, and transmits. A story must be tellable to be told, duh, but the world isn’t. The world is the opposite of a story: it doesn’t presuppose sense and then work within it (unless of course you think the world is a story made by gods, in which case good luck with that), because the world doesn’t assume or presuppose anything. Before everything, being is. Telling comes after, because everything that dreams is needy.
My point here is that when I talk about ‘visionary’ art (which I do a hell of a lot, I know, and not only in the context of ahem psychedelic improvised rock), I mean art that doesn’t presuppose an orderly knowable ‘tellable’ world — nor a tellable mind. I’d say Graves’s own mad autodidactic myth-history falls into this category, though his close contemporary Tolkien’s mostly doesn’t: Tolkien’s legendarium is supremely orderly, which geeks like, and his brilliant long novel, though a work of actual genius, is satisfying in (among others) the totally conventional sense of putting its heroes through escalating heck and restoring them to something like sense on the other side, wrapped up in a bow. As GRR Martin points out, Aragorn is a good ruler because he’s the titular returned king, and for no other reason, really; he represents a neat’n’tidy idea, and he never attains the particularly complexities of a human being because he never actually has to rule. Frodo and Sam, meanwhile, are more richly imagined figures, their humanity tested rather than their fitness for the role of ‘plucky heroes.’ They’re the ones who grow in the telling.
I’d say that Tolkien attains a dreamlike ‘visionary’ power at points in Lord of the Rings — Shelob’s lair, Moria, Minas Morgul, the doom of the Rohirrim — but his storyworld always snaps back into place afterward. Middle-Earth isn’t elastic like Graves’s ‘encoded patriarchal overthrow of authentic Triple-Goddess worship’ frame; part of the ‘adventurous expectancy’ (HPL’s term) in Graves’s Myths comes from the feeling that he might, on page 600, just start gibbering about Celtic paganism and never stop. The basic imaginative content is the opposite of definitive, not least since you (I) have no idea which of his goddamn endnotes (which take up at least half the book) he’s just made up whole cloth. Whereas Middle-Earth is or at any rate can be written down somewhere, safe and sound. (This is no deprecation of Tolkien or his creation.)
All of which is why I don’t fault Graves’s dryly synoptic presentation. He’s not trying to tell a series of little stories, he’s trying to accurately render his felt sense of the deeply weird complexity of the whole sort of general mythos-mishmash. It is boring at times because worlds are. It contradicts itself at times because worlds do. It makes no sense because the world doesn’t, can’t, because the world isn’t made to make sense. It isn’t made. This is the great virtue of what we might call a ‘mythic outlook’: it pushes us toward an acceptance of the world of the mind (and the world itself) as it is. It is a posture of eager receptivity.
Visions come to prepared spirits. (Kekulé)
Update (21 May 2017)
Coda: The final piece of Graves’s project is a retelling of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Despite his odd dismissal of the latter (‘the first Greek novel,’ a lower form than myth of course), throughout the Myths Graves has given himself freer rein when nothing was at stake, mythographically speaking. And his dry presentation of the myths, which for a long stretch prior to the labours of Hercules had gotten a little boring, crackles to life whenever the focus of the stories shifts from the divine to the (comparatively) human. The Odyssey is suffused with melancholy anyhow, but Graves treats it as the coda to a vast cosmology, the birth of the modern in a sense — ‘Well, I’m back’ and ‘Goodbye to all that’ — and that framing only intensifies the source texts’ deflationary effects. By linking Homer’s poems to various Mediterranean myths of city-founding, and devoting so many pages to partings and dissipations, Graves undercuts Homer’s narrative arc but finds a deeper, sadder story: the end of the Trojan War seems to take as long as the war itself, and Odysseus’s reclaiming of his throne barely registers as climax before he’s banishing his son to avoid prophesied death (which comes from the sea anyway, ironically in the form of one of his illegitimate half-divine children).
The Homeric material concretizes the Myths, makes them finally into a book rather than a grab-bag of Frazerian fixations.
Plus Graves has one more goofy surprise waiting in his penultimate notes section: Homer was Nausicaa, whatever the hell that could possibly mean.