The White Goddess

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…

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

6 responses to “The White Goddess

  • dragonsmeet

    I am glad it is not just me that thinks that book is a tad over-rated!!!

  • Anny

    Currently in the process of trying to read The White Goddess – and happy to find I’m not the only one struggling. Doesn’t help that it’s mostly bedtime reading… I struggled with Ronald Hutton too until I bought Triumph of the Moon for the Kindle – what a difference being able to increase the font makes!

  • RodeoBucket

    I had a very difficult time with poetry growing up. For some unknown reason, the teachers I had in early school never taught symbolism or meter or anything about it in depth. And these were men. Once I began taking college English courses, I fell in love with my English teacher because she was the first person who opened my eyes to the true meanings and value to poetry, stories and other forms of writing. I finally understood how to hear and interrupt works I thought were beyond my scope. (many still are) but back then I couldn’t even read Shakespeare. Your explanation here of what you experienced strikes several chords within me, with different writers but I do have a deep resonance with this very subject. You write about it so eloquently. And the bit of ‘frustration’ I feel in what you experienced is something I carry still because of what my brain deficiencies or mental illnesses keep me struggling up against daily when I try to ponder out a particular problem.

    When learning someone somewhat pompous may be making that issue more difficult than necessary, it is actually a relief to know there are others out there, writing books to unravel those mysteries so that I too, don’t have to feel less than or like an idiot who can’t comprehend and can grab up those road maps and enjoy just like the rest. Thanks for this insightful post about unraveling the ‘not always so mysterious mysteries!’ ~Stephanie

    • Nimue Brown

      Teachers have so much power to make or break your relationship with any subject, but perhaps arts espeially where the emotional connection is so much more important. It doesn’t help that culture is often viewed as second and third rate by governments and sometimes even schools. Not understanding how culture reflects and informs everything it touches. I’m a big fan of writers and teachers who enable. It’s one of the reasons I love Ronald Hutton, that he’s making some really serious stuff available to lay Pagans. It’s the job of the teacher to make the subject understandable, and I get so cross about the pompous ones.

  • lornasmithers

    I’m sooo divided on this.

    On the one hand as a personal vision ‘The White Goddess’ is a work of genius.

    What vexes me is not so much his syncretism of various myths, stories, pieces of folklore, deities etc but his presentation of his insights as fact.

    I feel similarly toward Graves as I do toward Iolo Morganwg. Without Graves and Morganwg we wouldn’t have Wicca or Druidry as we know them. They’ve play a huge part in inspiring the development of neo-paganism. But they’ve also caused alot of misunderstanding as some people have been deceived into taking their personal mythopoeic truths for historical fact.

    • Nimue Brown

      Oh, I know just what you mean. I think if he’d written it purely as a poetic book, it would ave been much more lovely, and probably a lot more useful. I love the mystery and the prmise of wonder thathe offers, I hate the way its dangled out of reach. And yes, share that lovehate Iolo Morganwg thing too, love the inspiraiton, hate the fraud. A complicated lot, our ancestors of tradition.

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