The Battle of the Books

by Jonathan Swift

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Jonathan Swift's satire describes a battle fought between ancient and modern books in the King's Library in Saint James' Palace. This account is Swift's contribution to a controversy that had been going on in France and England for several decades between those who thought Greek and Roman texts remained the most important in the world and those who believed that modern learning had surpassed them. Swift's patron, Sir William Temple, was one of the former party and published his argument, Of Ancient and Modern Learning, in 1690.

Swift writes that the quarrel between ancient and modern texts first began

about a small spot of ground, lying and being upon one of the two tops of the hill Parnassus; the highest and largest of which had, it seems, been time out of mind in quiet possession of certain tenants, called the Ancients; and the other was held by the Moderns.

The Moderns sent ambassadors to the Ancients, asking them to give up their higher position or allow the Moderns to level it "with shovels and mattocks" until the two parts of the mountain are equal. The Ancients refused, saying that if the Moderns want equality, they should raise their own part of the mountain, not flatten the other part.

Before he begins his account of the battle in the King's Library, Swift asserts that books preserve the spirits of their writers. Hence, the books fight in the same way and for the same values as those who wrote them, forming alliances and attacking enemies accordingly. 

In recent years "a new species of controversial books" with "a more malignant spirit" have disturbed "the public peace of libraries." In the Saint James' Palace library, the librarian favors the Moderns, often putting them on the best shelves while the Ancients are "buried alive in some obscure corner." At other times, he mixes up the Ancient and Modern books, increasing the discontent on both sides.

A giant spider lives in the highest corner of one of the library windows, where he has constructed an intricate web, which Swift describes as a fortress. When a bee flies into the web, destroying part of it, the spider is angry and scolds the bee as "a vagabond without house or home," which lives by stealing indiscriminately from the flowers and plants. The bee replies that the spider spins his web out of the "plentiful store of dirt and poison" in his breast. In contrast, the bee makes itself useful by producing honey and wax.

A volume of Aesop's Fables listens to the dispute between the spider and the bee. He says the spider represents the Moderns and has created nothing but a filthy cobweb. The Ancients, however, are like the bee in that "instead of dirt and poison, we have rather chosen to fill our hives with honey and wax; thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest of things, which are sweetness and light." 

Aesop's speech moves both the Ancient and the Modern books to join the battle. They gather their armies, with Tasso, Milton, Dryden, and Wither disputing which should command the Modern cavalry, other brigades led by Descartes, Hobbes, Paracelsus, and Harvey, and the rest "a confused multitude." The army of the Ancients is much smaller, led by Homer, Pindar, Euclid, Plato, Aristotle, and others. This army includes Modern writers who support the Ancients in the dispute, notably Sir William Temple.

The gods learn of the battle between the books, and Jupiter calls a council in heaven. Athena speaks for the Ancients, while Momus represents the Moderns. While Athena is known as the goddess of...

(This entire section contains 979 words.)

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wisdom, Momus is the god of satire, whose name means "disgrace" or "blame." Momus seeks the help of "a malignant deity called Criticism," who flies to the library in her chariot just as the battle is about to start.

Criticism is the mother of William Wotton, one of the leaders of the Moderns, and appears to him in the shape of his friend, the scholar Richard Bentley, urging him on to fight. Criticism's hideous appearance and her children ("Noise and Impudence, Dullness and Vanity, Positiveness, Pedantry, and Ill-manners") show how inferior the Moderns are and how ill-equipped to comment on the qualities of the Ancients.

As the two armies of books join the battle, Paracelsus throws his javelin at Galen, who protects himself with his shield. Aristotle shoots an arrow at Bacon but hits Descartes in the eye instead. Homer kills several Moderns while Virgil agrees to exchange armor with Dryden as a mark of friendship, "though his was of gold and cost a hundred beeves, the other's but of rusty iron."

Lucan and Blackmore also exchange gifts, while Cowley begs Pindar to spare his life. Pindar furiously refuses and cuts the Modern in two with his sword. In these episodes, Ancient books engage with their Modern counterparts. Dryden translated Virgil's Aeneid into English, while Cowley wrote odes based on those of Pindar. In each case, Swift emphasizes the Modern version's inferiority and the classical original's nobility.

Richard Bentley is "the most deformed of all the Moderns." He attempts to kill the sleeping Phalaris, the Sicilian tyrant who was supposed to have written letters which Bentley proved were a forgery. Still, the goddess Affright prevents him from doing so. However, he steals Phalaris's and Aesop's armor and searches for his friend Wotton.

Wotton, meanwhile, attacks Sir William Temple, but his lance misses its mark. Apollo sends Robert Boyle in pursuit of Wotton, and Boyle kills both Bentley and Wotton with a single lance. Swift describes his (and Temple's) two chief adversaries as being "joined in their lives, joined in their deaths; so closely joined that Charon would mistake them both for one and waft them over Styx for half his fare." They are therefore made to appear cheap and ludicrous in death and life.