Spiral Castle Revisited: Acknowledging the Influence of The White Goddess

February 25, 2014

While surfing around, looking for information about La Granmère du Chimquiere and contemporary archaeological and mythological influences on James Joyce’s writing of Finnegans Wake, I was confronted by the literary shade of Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, his historical grammar of poetic myth. Finding references to this book was a reminder of just what a formative influence it was in shaping my outlook on the world, persisting as a subterranean influence even now.

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I first came across it when I was fourteen, browsing in a bookshop in St. Albans, attracted by its enigmatic title, the subtle blue of its cover and its strange Near Eastern iconography. Flicking through, I paused at the chapter heading, ‘A Visit to Spiral Castle’, and resolved that I must have this book. For whatever reason, I didn’t buy the book there and then – perhaps I didn’t have the money or was unnerved by the mysteries concealed within the text – but within a couple of months or so I possessed a copy of this magical book. In fact, I’d already been alerted to its existence by the endnotes in Alan Garner’s The Moon of Gomrath, a book which had also directed me to Alfred Watkins’ The Old Straight Track.

By the time I was fifteen, I had read The White Goddess from cover to cover. It was my ‘Bible’, contributing to a personal mythology given expression through poetry, paintings and further reading around the sources alluded to by Graves. As such, it was also my introduction to an anti-industrial, anti-capitalist attitude, expressed in this extract from the book’s Foreword:

‘Nowadays’ is a civilization in which the prime emblems of poetry are dishonoured. In which serpent, lion and eagle belong to the circus-tent; ox, salmon and boar to the cannery; racehorse and greyhound to the betting ring; and the sacred grove to the sawmill. In which the Moon is despised as a burned-out satellite of the Earth and woman reckoned as ‘auxiliary State personnel’. In which money will buy almost anything but truth, and almost anyone but the truth-possessed poet.

On reading the book a second time a few inconsistencies and inaccuracies became apparent, which multiplied exponentially when I read The White Goddess a third time. Perhaps it was significant that my gradual disenchantment with the book coincided with a deepening involvement, in the early 1980s, with an activist social milieu characterised to a certain extent by a utilitarian ethos, as I drifted into a climate in which poetry and creative activity were dismissed as useless luxuries.

So here I am, returning to Robert Graves’ ‘historical statement of the problem’, a statement which implies some kind of withdrawal or disengagement, a desertion from the social mobilisation required by capital and its law of value:

Call me, if you like, the fox who has lost his brush… Without my brush, namely my contact with urban civilization, all that I write must read perversely and irrelevantly to such of you as are still geared to the industrial machine, whether directly as workers, managers, traders or advertisers or indirectly as civil servants, publishers, journalists, schoolmasters or employees of a radio corporation. If you are poets, you will realize that acceptance of my historical thesis commits you to a confession of disloyalty which you will be loth to make; you chose your jobs because they promised to provide you with a steady income and leisure to render the Goddess whom you adore valuable part-time service. Who am I, you will ask, to warn you that she demands either whole-time service or none at all?

I still hold The White Goddess in high regard, so I’m heartened to learn that Leonora Carrington was herself profoundly influenced by the book, describing it as ‘the greatest revelation of my life’ (quoted here). Her painting, The Giantess or The Guardian of the Egg, although conceived and painted before its publication in 1948, appears to share the grammar which animates Graves’ book: a moon-faced giantess, a golden corn field as her hair, with geese swirling out from under her cloak, encircling her with their flight.

The Giantess

Encirclement by geese seems infinitely preferable to the current reality of a progressive encirclement by the disciplinary apparatus of economic intensification, but how to effect an escape from the latter? Graves offers no guidance here:

No, my brushlessness debars me from offering any practical suggestion. I dare attempt only a historical statement of the problem; how you come to terms with the Goddess is no concern of mine. I do not even know that you are serious in your poetic profession.

Fox and Geese board

Fox and Geese board

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