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Hogarth judge

February 2018



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Hogarth judge

This bears repeating

The barmy etymologies that enliven Graves’s index of names are the product of nothing more than amateur self-amusement with a Greek lexicon; and nuttier still are the astounding pseudo-scholarly interpretative commentaries on each section, which historicize everything in terms of Graves’s personal mythology of the White Goddess, under which nasty patriarchal Dorians displace matriarchal Pelasgians worshipping Graves’s triple goddess, and commemorate it all in dying-god rituals which encode the truth Da Vinci-style for scholarly cryptographers to decipher. Unlike the narrative portions, none of this stuff is even cosmetically source-referenced – for good reason, as Graves has made it up from whole cloth.

In so far as his metamyth has any merit, it is as a posher cousin of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos: an elaborate shared-world fantasy prehistory for later writers to colonize, as most novelists of Mycenaean Greece have ended up doing one way or another. (The most full-blooded is The Shattered Horse, by the composer and SF author S. P. Somtow, which in one astounding scene solemnly presents a ritual at Sparta where local sex goddess Helen stands at one end of a mushy field while a line of naked young men crawl towards her, ploughing the soil with their erections as they go and ejaculating away to fertilize the earth, whipped on across their naked backsides by gangs of young virgins with switches.) But Graves came to The Greek Myths fresh from his thousand-page folly, The Nazarene Gospels Restored – nowadays completely forgotten and eclipsed by the novel that begot it, King Jesus – and one thing he had learned well from the exercise was how to mimic the rhetoric of scholarly discourse. To the unpractised eye, it all looks unnervingly convincing. Add to its charms that the convoluted format cannily combines the rival arrangements of Apollodoran continuous narrative and modular reference work; and that the paraphrases themselves are wittily written, and take a twinkly delight in promoting extra-canonical alternative versions of familiar stories. It is Graves, for example, who is single-handedly responsible for the recanonization of the fictional journal of “Dictys of Crete” as a principal source for the matter of Troy, rather than a late and decidedly creative novelization.

Nigel Spivey, "Killing the Graves myth
A creative retelling of the Greek myth cycle" (Times Literary Supplement, December 20, 2005 )