Poetry Madness

Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, January 1st, 2006


Songs on Bronze: The Greek Myths Made Real

by Nigel Spivey

Killing the Graves Myth

A review by Nick Lowe

We owe the most audacious blurb in literature to the ninth-century patriarch Photius, who in recommending Apollodorus' Library of Greek Mythology to his brother found a "rather fine" epigram prefaced to his copy: "Gather time's coil from my instruction / and come to know the tales born long ago. / Look no more to Homer's screeds, or to elegy, / or the tragic muse, or lyric song, / nor seek the epic cycle's resounding verse; gaze into me, / and in me you will find all that the universe holds".

We know nothing at all of this enterprising pantographer -- sometimes unkindly called "Pseudo-Apollodorus" to distinguish him from an Apollodorus of whom we have heard and with whom our manuscripts confuse him. But his Library is the earliest known attempt at a comprehensive narrative compendium of Greek myth, telling the complete story of the world from its creation to the end of the age of heroes. Generations of classical scholars, many of whom got their first childhood fix of antiquity from Apollodorus' modern-day epigones, have assumed there must have been many other and earlier such efforts. How could the Greeks have lived for centuries with their huge corpus of myths without a reference work to consult when they forgot, as they so often must, whether Pelops begot Tantalus or vice versa? But it is now becoming apparent that earlier mythographic collections were quite different in form, scope and coverage, and the thought is slowly becoming thinkable that until Apollodorus' work in (perhaps) the second century AD, the Greeks felt no urge to see their complete cycle of myth brought together in a single end-to-end narrative.

Such a notion seems incomprehensible to our own view of "the Greek myths". But there was vastly more myth available to the ancient world than the pitiful trickle which has reached us, and an even vaster body of texts retelling it. Only with the shrinkage of the literary canon in the Roman period would Apollodorus' enterprise have begun to be conceivable. For Apollodorus' his readers, living like ourselves in what was increasingly a handbook culture of bluffers' guides and classics digested, the prospect of never having to wade through the thirteen poems of the so-called epic cycle -- a sprawling concatenation of early Greek epics stringing together the creation with the Theban and Trojan sagas -- must have been a hard invitation to resist. Nor did they; not one papyrus fragment from a cyclic epic poem survives.

Notoriously, the anglophone nations have been rather less fortunate in their own librarians of myth. Where the French have Pierre Grimal's Dictionnaire de la Mythologie Grecque et Romaine and the Germans the monumental turn-of-century encyclopaedias of W. H. Roscher's Lexicon der griechische und römische Mythologie and Carl Robert's edition of L. Preller's Griechische Mythologie, we have to suffer moments like the scene in The War at Troy by Lindsay Clarke (2004) where Odysseus decides to call his newborn son Telemachus: "‘Decisive Battle,' Menelaus smiled. ‘A good name and a good omen!'". This is a line to make classicists clap hand to eyes, Gromit fashion. As any beginner knows who can even spell the name in Greek, Tele-machos does not mean "decisive battle"; the second letter is an eta, not an epsilon, and so the tele- element is "far", not the unrelated root meaning "decisive". But the howler is not Clarke's; his error is merely to have put his trust in a sourcebook that for fifty years has peddled this kind of drivelling fakery to generations of the gullible, while perversely managing to cling to the status of a minor English classic.

When E. V. Rieu commissioned The Greek Myths for Penguin in 1951, Robert Graves should in many ways have been well positioned for the job of mythographer laureate to the English-speaking peoples. His maternal German gave him ready access to Roscher's Lexikon and Preller/Robert's Griechische Mythologie; while the year of Graves's commission from Penguin saw the first editions of two mid-century European classics, Grimal's Dictionnaire and The Gods of the Greeks by C. Kerényi. It is entirely symptomatic, however, that Graves made no discernible use of any of these, instead lifting his impressive-looking source references straight, and unchecked, from his Mallorca copy of William Smith's 1844 Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. He could have plagiarized worse, as the mythological entries were mostly the work of the great expatriate philologist and historian Leonhardt Schmitz, a key figure in the transmission of German classical scholarship to Victorian Britain. But to credit Graves with any inkling of this would be far too generous to his grasp of his classical sources.

With his Charterhouse Latin and Greek forty years behind him, Graves was reliant on having texts translated for him by his hard-worked research assistant Jan de Glanville; the "translations" from Latin and Greek authors that followed in the 1960s were similarly produced from cribs. The barmy etymologies that enliven Graves's index of names are the product of nothing more than amateur self-amusement with a Greek lexicon; and nuttier still are the astounding pseudo-scholarly interpretative commentaries on each section, which historicize everything in terms of Graves's personal mythology of the White Goddess, under which nasty patriarchal Dorians displace matriarchal Pelasgians worshipping Graves's triple goddess, and commemorate it all in dying-god rituals which encode the truth Da Vinci-style for scholarly cryptographers to decipher. Unlike the narrative portions, none of this stuff is even cosmetically source-referenced -- for good reason, as Graves has made it up from whole cloth.

In so far as his metamyth has any merit, it is as a posher cousin of H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos: an elaborate shared-world fantasy prehistory for later writers to colonize, as most novelists of Mycenaean Greece have ended up doing one way or another. (The most full-blooded is The Shattered Horse, by the composer and SF author S. P. Somtow, which in one astounding scene solemnly presents a ritual at Sparta where local sex goddess Helen stands at one end of a mushy field while a line of naked young men crawl towards her, ploughing the soil with their erections as they go and ejaculating away to fertilize the earth, whipped on across their naked backsides by gangs of young virgins with switches.) But Graves came to The Greek Myths fresh from his thousand-page folly, The Nazarene Gospels Restored -- nowadays completely forgotten and eclipsed by the novel that begot it, King Jesus -- and one thing he had learned well from the exercise was how to mimic the rhetoric of scholarly discourse. To the unpractised eye, it all looks unnervingly convincing. Add to its charms that the convoluted format cannily combines the rival arrangements of Apollodoran continuous narrative and modular reference work; and that the paraphrases themselves are wittily written, and take a twinkly delight in promoting extra-canonical alternative versions of familiar stories. It is Graves, for example, who is single-handedly responsible for the recanonization of the fictional journal of "Dictys of Crete" as a principal source for the matter of Troy, rather than a late and decidedly creative novelization.

Not surprisingly, classicists have been trying for decades to come up with a Graves-killer, with frustratingly scant success. The game seemed up, in 1993, with the appearance of Timothy Gantz's Early Greek Myth, an instant classic that in a fairer world would have gone straight to a mass-market paperback edition and knocked Graves off everyone's shelves.

But nothing of the kind has happened; Gantz died prematurely, and his monumental narrative compendium of myths and their variants has never made it out of an academic imprint. Jenny March's exemplary Dictionary of Greek Mythology (1998) has done better, but that is an alphabetic reference work like Smith or Roscher; in the Apollodoran market, Graves continues supreme.

Now Nigel Spivey, who in civilian life lectures in Classical Archaeology at Cambridge, has taken a less timid approach to the challenge than his peers. Where Graves masked fiction under the rhetoric of scholarship, Spivey's bold professional fight-back, openly billed as "the first major retelling of Greek mythology in half a century", cloaks his own scholarship in the rhetoric of fiction. Songs on Bronze: The Greek Myths Made Real is a novelistic presentation of selected Greek myths that most closely recalls the vividly told young-adult versions of Leon Garfield and Edward Blishen from the 1970s. There is no scholarly apparatus of any kind: no notes, no source references, no front matter legislating on the proper use of the text. A brief afterword pointedly avoids any details of sources used, owning merely to unspecified selectivity.

"Songs on Bronze", we are told, "originated from the desire to create a single, organic narrative of as much Greek mythology as most people want or need to know." Though eyebrows may feel an upward twitch at the last dozen words, the book does in fact pack an impressive amount into its space, covering the creation, Prometheus and Pandora, Demeter and Persephone; Herakles, Theseus, Perseus, Jason; the Trojan war and the Odyssey; and the Oresteia and Oedipus, with a handful of other better-known tragedies dropped in along the way.

Songs on Bronze originally bore, and should really have kept, the less hyperbolic and polemical subtitle Greek Myths [sans article] Retold. It promotes itself as a modern-day Apollodorus, a bluffer's guide to Greek myth. This is unfortunate, as it can be recommended on almost any grounds but that. Readers innocently seeking to remind themselves of canonical versions will find themselves confronted with a Pandora who doesn't open her own box (which strictly ought in any case to be a jar), a contest with the bow which is Telemachus' idea rather than Penelope's, and a matter of Troy which incorporates the medieval tale of Troilus and Cressida -- rather cleverly, as it happens, so long as you know your sources. Ingenious touches of invention freely enliven familiar stories: Hector runs from Achilles' spear not because, as in Homer, his spirit breaks, but because he calculates that Achilles will be unfit after three weeks' withdrawal from battle and he can wear him down before the combat -- not realizing that Achilles' new divine armour is super-light.

All this is alarming in a sourcebook but natural in a work of creative reinvention, which is what Songs on Bronze is, if only it dared to speak its name. The curious mispromotion, in fact, looks like the usual scholarly embarrassment about admitting to having written a novel. None need be felt: Songs on Bronze is an accomplished piece of prose storytelling that holds its own well against recent competition from old novelistic hands like Clarke, Adèle Geras, and the contributors to Canongate's new series of mini-myths, as well as such overtly scholarly retellings as The Universe, Gods, and Men by Jean-Pierre Vernant and Charles Rowan Beye's beguiling Odysseus: A Life.

Where Spivey's book works least well is in the attempt to turn the cycle of myth into "single, organic narrative". His mythography is framed by the story of Orpheus and Eurydice -- a tale first attested in the form told here by that well-known Greek author Publius Vergilius Maro, and an uncomfortable device anyway, since Orpheus was traditionally supposed to have lived a generation or two earlier than the events he is here made to tell. (Or perhaps he doesn't, since his role as narrator is quietly abandoned by the time we return to Orpheus at the end.)

And like Vernant, who similarly abandons Homeric chronology to put tragedy at the end, Spivey fluffs the one fundamental point about the plot of "the Greek myths" as a whole, which was understood throughout antiquity from the compilers of the epic cycle to Apollodorus' own Library, and was also grasped by Graves: that "the Greek myths" end with the Odyssey, which is not only the last big story chronologically but openly reflects on the waning of the age of heroes, at the threshold of a dark age so dark that the Greeks of Homer's time, half a millennium later, had only the haziest idea it had ever happened. What survived was the memory of a lost era of heroes who had built palaces that were now only rubble; ancestors who had ruled the Aegean, sacked Troy, and then mysteriously vanished into the memory of bards. Nigel Spivey, wary of historicizing and perhaps of the echo of Graves, has tried to put the world of myth together differently, as is his prerogative as a creative reteller. But the brazen reality behind the songs is untold in the making.

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