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Book Report: 'The White Goddess'

In Which I Share My Passion, Part 1

I’ve read The White Goddess so many times the lines evoke memories and emotions to me like bible verses or Princess Bride quotes. Over the years I’ve tried to get dozens of friends and lovers to read this thing so I will have someone to talk to about it, but apparently the wordy obscurity of it is a bit too much for most people. Personally, the prose is dense in a mesmerizing way, like a holy text somehow engineered to plug into my individual neurological DNA. I would blindly offer my hand in marriage to anyone who reads this thing and forms some interesting opinions about it, but so far no takers.

I embark, now, to obsess about this book chapter by chapter until somebody somewhere echoes my love. If I were to emulate as closely as possible the opening line of chapter one it might go something like this: “Since the age of thirteen, magic has been my ruling passion and I have never intentionally undertaken any task or formed any relationship that seemed inconsistent with magical principles; which has sometimes won me the reputation of a fucking loony.”

I am a person who, in my youthful spiritual days, fell in love with witchcraft first and found poetry through magic. I still remember the first moment I picked up a copy of The White Goddess, by Robert Graves, at the now non-existent Capitol Hill Twice Sold Tales in Seattle in the year 2005. It was an obscenely hot day and I had left my apartment without drying my hair, walking through the hipster part of town like I owned the place, my hair drying quickly in the breeze. I was in an abusive relationship at the time and looking for inspiration, still many years out from accepting skepticism and looking, not for divine intervention, but for a magic wand or an enchanted sword of empowerment, anything, to lift me up and fix my life.

I might have started out with some sort of morbid curiosity about the title. Is this going to turn out to be some ethnic thing? I can still feel that moment, summer warming my mind, opening up to the first page and casually reading that first line, “since the age of fifteen…”

Within three lines I had fallen, as we say in the social media age, “through the rabbit hole.” I had almost finished the page before I remembered I was still in the bookstore, realized I had found what I was looking for, and decided to pay the three dollars or whatever it was to make this new magic my own. I have always struggled to explain what exactly this book is. It’s not quite fiction and not quite history. It represents a man trying to explain his own worldview by expressing his passions and his passion for obscure poetic analysis is the strongest driving force.

Graves almost treats poetry as a form of engineering or a code, with categories of designs which demand extensive study. Then he contrasts this with the subjectivity of poetic art. He links the subjectivity of poetry with its power as a magical force.

Next he starts getting into Welsh history. Throughout the book, ancient traditions of the Celts, the Greeks, and the old testament will be explored in obsessive detail with an imaginative analysis, but the Welsh will remain dominant throughout. As a social scientist I would call this the product of a classical education, with emphasis on the Greeks, the bible, and one’s own local native ancestors. The conversion from traditional Celtic religion to Christianity is analyzed in a more or less familiar way, that is to say that poetry before Christianity doesn’t serve religion, it is religion. Poetry after Christianity is an art form involving creativity and technical skill. Poetry before Christianity is a sacred and powerful cultural practice.

Is it really true that some of these mythologies date back to the stone age? It’s such a compelling claim. Reviewers of The White Goddess have always pointed out the lack of hard evidence for this aspect of the book. This is what I mean when I say The White Goddess is just Robert Graves explaining his worldview. What’s going on here is that Graves thinks the stories are this ancient, so for the purpose of following this analysis we as the audience must agree.

The real substance of this first chapter, Poets and Gleeman, focuses on the distinction between the empowered poet and the frivolous gleeman, detailing the extensive role of poets in the Celtic tradition as judges and courtiers, representing the highest expression of intellect.

Religious mythology is designated in this chapter as “The Theme,” a sort of common core of fantasy storytelling grounded in what most modern Neopagans would recognize as the wheel of the year, following May Day, Lady Day, Midsummer, Halloween, etc.

Finally to conclude this chapter the author finally describes the goddess herself, a dangerous nature-beast as white as a corpse who represents animalistic hungers, the violent supremacy of nature, and the inevitability of death. To say that some poets are more empowered than others culturally is not quite complete without describing the muse-goddess who empowered poets must serve. The ultimate difference between a poet and a gleeman, according to Graves, is that only the poet serves The White Goddess.  

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