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.
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.