My Father read The White Goddess when I was a child, and bits of it entered my awareness early on. Especially the idea of the Maid-Mother-Crone triple goddess. I attempted to read the book myself in my twenties. By that time I’d read a fair bit of Robert Graves poetry, and I, Claudius. I’d also picked up a degree in English Literature, and I was expecting to be able to handle it.
I was so wrong.
What happened instead was a slow, maddening trudge through page after page of mystery. I didn’t have a classical education, nor did I know my mediaeval texts well enough to get the references that sometimes came thick and fast. I found I didn’t have the history, or the anthropology or etymological skills to really grasp it either. I had at least tried to read Frazer (and, I confess, given up) I knew the gist and could at least see that bit of the puzzle, and I knew about Margaret Murray, and that helped. Mostly, The White Goddess confused the hell out of me.
There were times when I had a keen sense of this enormous, powerful mystery just beyond my grasp. A feeling that words themselves could be acts of magic, and that the entirety of reality could be reshaped if only you knew the right language. A sense of something important that was quite determined to stay hidden in its thicket and well out of my reach.
And then, there was this sneaking suspicion that some of the arguments were a bit circular and didn’t add up right, and that many of the learned references were effectively confusing me and not helping me and that this made it harder to follow the argument and that perhaps that wasn’t an accident. The book had been written to exclude those not elite and poetical enough to keep up with it. In the end I had no choice but to acknowledge that I was never going to be elite and poetical and well read enough to understand Graves.
The things I had understood weren’t terribly cheering, either. Graves writes a lot about true poetry, and what it means to be A Real Poet. Having a willy turns out to be an essential qualifier, for him. Women exist to be muses, beautiful, alluring, demanding, inspiring… but not poets. Only Sappho is apparently allowed to be a Real Poet and that’s mostly to do with being a lesbian, and her permission was grudgingly granted. So, not only am I not clever enough, I’m also not male enough. Thank you Robert Graves. Thank you very much. I never saw myself as potential muse material either. I’m never going to be ethereal enough for what Graves had in mind. I could get side-tracked on a rant about women as artists and historical attitudes, and contemporary ones for that matter… perhaps another day.
In the last week, I’ve slogged my way through Mark Carter’s Stalking the Goddess. It’s a big, difficult book, (akin to Ronald Hutton on that score) in which ideas and information come thick and fast. Not being an academic, and not automatically knowing all the references, I found it hard going. Interestingly, I did find it readable, in stark contrast to Graves. What Mark Carter does is takes the reader through the tangled maze of Grave’s influences, sources, and possible thinking. I learned a lot about Graves as a consequence, and the book I had struggled with, and came to understand more about how all that fits into modern
Paganism. The effort made in reading Mark’s work more than paid off. I came out feeling like I’d learned a lot, and not like I was stupid. I never once felt myself feeling inadequate over the whole not-having-a-willy thing either.
Mark has done the thing I couldn’t hope to do. He’s picked through The White Goddess, found the sources, cross referenced against possibly relevant things, and picked out the threads until you can see them and possibly make sense of them. I hate to think how long it took, but, as I’m going to be interviewing him for the Moon Book blog, I shall be asking.
And there are no spoilers in saying that yes, Grave’s arguments are actually quite wonky, his evidence wobbles a lot, and those things that looked like distraction tactics, probably were. It comes as a relief to me to think that there is no failing in my not having got to grips with Graves, and that the sense of inadequacy he gave me is not something I need to keep buying into. Good scholarship doesn’t set out to make you feel like an idiot. It gives you a fighting chance of broadening your mind. Mark Carter certainly did that for me, for which he has my profound thanks.
If you were in any way affected by the issues in this blog post, you can get Stalking the Goddess from all the usual places. Here’s one such… http://www.amazon.co.uk/Stalking-Goddess-Mark-Carter/dp/1780991738/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1367316849&sr=8-1&keywords=Stalking+the+goddess