Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Robert Graves - is he all bad?

Browsing the Internet, I came across this piece in the Times Literary Supplement, by my former colleague Nick Lowe. Written with his usual engaging exuberance, it is ostensibly a review of Nigel Spivey's Songs on Bronze: Greek Myths Retold, but spends quite a lot of its time in an attack on Robert Graves' The Greek Myths. A shorter review in The Guardian by Mary Beard also takes a swipe at Graves. I'm grateful for Lowe's observations on Graves' use of assistants, which will make me reassess translations such as the Suetonius he did for Penguin Classics, but I'm not sure I agree with his judgment upon The Greek Myths.

Both Lowe and Beard draw attention to Graves' attempts to explain the myths. These are coloured by being the work of a man who grew up when some people (for the most part males with romantic notions about the 'noble savage') genuinely believed in the idea of a prehistoric matriarchy, swept away by patriarchal structures. They are, of course, nonsense, and even as a schoolboy I knew to give them no credence. However, by focussing on Graves' commentaries, Beard and Lowe give the impression that they represent most people's experience of the work. I'm not at all sure that this is true.

I rather suspect that most non-academics' experience of The Greek Myths centres not on the interpretations of myth, but upon the narratives of the legends. Many readers, indeed, have no choice but to experience the work in this way, as they will be reading one of the condensed versions (e.g. this), where the abridgment is achieved by the simple expedient of leaving out all the explanatory material. Taken on this level, one can see why someone like Margaret Atwood might describe The Greek Myths as 'crucial'. Because there really isn't anything else quite like it for providing a narrative summary of the mythological stories, together with variant versions, unless you go back to the works of the Edwardian A.R. Hope Moncrieff or the Victorian Thomas Bulfinch, both of whom tend to record only one 'canonical' version. Despite certain oddities of presentation, such as the fate of Agamemnon being dealt with before the chapters on the Trojan War, rather than after, as one might expect, Graves has an accessibility the earlier works lack.

For my own part, I would probably these days first consult Cassell's Dictionary of Classical Mythology by Jenny March, or the Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology (a translation and abridgment of Pierre Grimal's Dictionnaire de la Mythologie Grecque et Romaine) if I needed to do any mythological research. But both of those, as Lowe notes, are alphabetic reference works. I would soon turn to Graves for narrative, and all three books were within reach as I was writing my review of Gemmell's Troy.

If Graves is ever to be replaced, then it needs to be by a work that matches or improves upon what Graves does well, providing narratives of mythology with all variants, and the original sources (even if Graves lifted those from elsewhere), ideally placed into a historical context, so one knows which sources are earliest, and discards what Graves does badly (i.e. the commentary), and does all this in a mass market edition. I've not read Songs on Bronze, but from the reviews (and a brief browse in the British Museum bookshop) it is apparent that this is not that work. Rather, it is a novelistic retelling of certain stories that does not admit of variation. Nor does it appear from a brief browse of the pages available on Amazon that Timothy Gantz's Early Greek Myth is the Graves replacement classicists hope for, though the compendious collection of references therein suggests that I need a copy on my shelves.


Gabriele C. said...

I'm not familiar with Graves (yes, I've heard the name, but not read his books). My first contact with Greek Mythology was via Gustav Schwab's retelling of mythological tales when I was about 8. And then read the Illiad (in the old Voss translation). Since no one had yet managed to tell me hexametres are 'difficult', I just accepted them as normal.

Today, my main reference is Der Kleine Pauly, the 5 volume short version of the Realenzyklopädie des klassischen Altertums in 20something volumes.

Different cultures, different reading background. :-)

Anonymous said...

There are issues with Graves' narrative, though they are far less important than the interpretive issues. Graves' references, too, needed more editing. This is not to say that we should dismiss all the work Graves did; but we do need to be aware of his limitations.

Gantz is not a general-reader-ready replacement for Graves, but it is certainly a superior reference work as far as its scholarship (if only because it is so much more recent, and because its intended audience is a scholarly one, so that the scholarly references are more carefully done).

Erik said...

I definitely recommend getting the Gantz books - they're a valuable departure point for any research involving ancient mythology in visual representation; I keep them right next to my copy of the Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts (1300-1900).

I like Gustav Schwab's retelling (in English translation, alas :) as the best for the general reader; much more comprehensive than Edith Hamilton and without most of the issues that limit both Bulfinch and Graves.