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Book Report: 'The White Goddess'

In Which I Become Indoctrinated (Part 2)

If you haven’t read part one of my series analyzing this great masterpiece, here is a link to the first chapter.

This chapter takes the literary analysis further into the substance and content of folklore, continuing on the themes introduced in the first chapter.

The format of traditional Celtic literature follows a model not unlike a dramatic musical, switching back and forth between prose and verse depending on the mood. The great hag Cerridwen is introduced through the Romance of Taliesin, probably the story from this book which has stayed with me the most vividly over the years. If you don’t know the story, it can also be found the Mabinogion translated by Lady Charlotte Guest in 1848. The main crux of the story consists of a grand shapeshifting face off between two highly powerful wizards, climaxing with the miraculous birth of the greatest wizard of all. Taliesin’s introduction is followed by a long series of his further adventures, punctuated by poems which are also magic spells, spells which are also riddles, the solutions to which break the spell.

You might recognize the name Taliesin from The Mists of Avalon, whose author treats this character as a counterpart or equivalent of Merlin, from the Arthurian legends. It’s probably appropriate given the role Arthur also plays in the Mabinogion, although Graves doesn’t explicitly make the claim here.

The real substance of this chapter comes from one specific example, "The Battle of the Trees," a poem which is also a riddle containing deep magical knowledge. Or, perhaps it boils down to an encyclopedia of species of tree. The supreme position of trees in Celtic mythology is explored here, including the use of trees for letters in Celtic alphabets and the tradition that Druids had the power to bring trees to life in order to send them into battle.

Graves divides the Cad Goddeu and rearranges the verses, following a code written using an abundance of natural knowledge. This tree grows sweet berries, that burns the hottest for celebration fires, this is right as a building material, that for long straight arrows.

The result is a final poem depicting trees representing letters in a forbidden Druid alphabet, marching along in the proper order, as it were. Graves finishes this chapter by returning to the power of shapeshifting, this time by way of psilocybin mushrooms and the worship of the god Dionysus. This passage foreshadows a theme that will turn up again and again throughout the book: the suggestion that various deities and mythological beings from divergent cultures are actually analogous being crossing cultural lines. This suggestion leaves the audience wondering if the author is fully suggesting that Dionysus is literally real. He describes a Mexican counterpart to this being, Tlaloc, a great divine toad who is the patron of psychedelic feasts.

Do these characters have a common ancestor in ancient human history, a sort of Adam and Eve whose children scattered to the far corners of the earth carrying folklore and mythological images with them? Or is this more of a fundamental element of the universe, a sort of ecstatic life independent of human interpretations, existing, available, but also largely indifferent? Is there a sentient being in the universe that concerns itself with human transcendence and liberation? Is that who’s been leaving riddle poems throughout history?

Graves expresses confidence that he is uncovering a trove of encoded knowledge, and his confidence is contagious. Much like reading a poem, non-fiction, "the night-sky is a field of diamonds" the reader has no motivation to question this claim. The trees are a secret alphabet to a universal language of mysticism and ecstasy. It’s non-fiction.  

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Book Report: 'The White Goddess'
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