Daryl's Reviews > The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth

The White Goddess by Robert Graves
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really liked it
bookshelves: nonfiction

Sometimes it's hard to tell erudition from bullshit, and at times, The White Goddess seems to me to sort of walk that line. Certainly it is packed full of erudition about ancient history, religions, languages, trees, and customs/rituals, but the breezy way in which Graves strings these things together sometimes seems suspect. It's not so different from what I've read of Frazer's The Golden Bough (whom Graves cites here and there, at times with the modest assertion that old Frazer in his giant work simply hadn't carried things forward to their obvious conclusions), so perhaps there is tradition or prior art for this sort of work.

The book reads at times like the explication of a mythic conspiracy theory -- I can almost see Graves with scrolls and bits of papyrus pinned to his wall with lengths of yarn strung from piece to piece to demonstrate the thousands of connections he makes across myths and histories and languages. Often enough, it felt as if he had an idea in mind and that he interpreted his inputs (or often lack of inputs) to accord with his idea. At times it also reads like the ramblings of an old grandpa who starts in one place and then meanders sort of aimlessly before pausing to ask "now where was I?" and moving on to the next topic.

It is a pretty readable -- that's not to say an easy -- book in spite of its meandering. I'll confess that I didn't delve deep into the logic by which he made various numerological connections to build several variants of ancient alphabets based on tree taxonomy and linked to bardic cyphers and finger languages. I read the words and understood the general idea and trusted that I could come back to it later if ever I decided he was taking me for a ride and I wanted to try to verify for myself. Nor did I carefully cross-reference the thousands of name and story variants he breezily tossed out as if they're common knowledge (they were a veritable alphabet soup to me). Again, I trusted that he was an ok source and otherwise contented myself to be a willing victim to his knavery. I'll further confess that I skimmed some of the particularly name-heavy sections. These shortcuts are what made it readable and helped make the book a pleasure rather than a labor for me.

It's rare for a book to send my mind in so many directions with such enthusiasm. I've walked away from The White Goddess wanting to read The Mabinogion, learn more about Welsh and Irish history, research augury, and maybe get off my ass and learn Latin so that I can read the likes of Catullus in the original. I mean, I won't do most of these things, but a book that's sufficiently stimulating that it makes me want to is one that really struck a chord for me.
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Reading Progress

April 23, 2019 – Started Reading
April 23, 2019 – Shelved as: nonfiction
April 23, 2019 – Shelved
April 26, 2019 – Finished Reading

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