Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513

When published in 1941, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon received high praise but also some criticism. Time magazine (quoted in Wolfe) called it ‘‘one of the most passionate, eloquent, violent, beautifully written books of our time.’’ Katherine Woods, in the New York Times Book Review , regarded it as ‘‘the...

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When published in 1941, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon received high praise but also some criticism. Time magazine (quoted in Wolfe) called it ‘‘one of the most passionate, eloquent, violent, beautifully written books of our time.’’ Katherine Woods, in the New York Times Book Review, regarded it as ‘‘the magnification and intensification of the travel book form,’’ and added that it was ‘‘carried out with tireless percipience, nourished from almost bewildering erudition, chronicled with a thoughtfulness itself fervent and poetic.’’ Clifton Fadiman in the New Yorker thought it ‘‘as astonishing as it is brilliant . . . it is also one of the great books of our time.’’

Other reviewers took West to task for an overromanticized view of the virtues of Serb culture. In the New Republic (quoted in Rollyson, Rebecca West: A Life), Nigel Dennis wrote that the book was a ‘‘retelling of a tale we know all too well; the quest of the frustrated Western intellectual for a Nirvana of vitality and self-expression.’’

The assassinators of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in court Later critics often refer to Black Lamb and Grey Falcon as West’s masterpiece. Peter Wolfe calls it her ‘‘biggest and boldest work’’ containing some of her best prose. Wolfe characterized the work as a ‘‘modern epic,’’ pointing to the following elements in the book: ‘‘coursing back and forth over long stretches of time, the many characters, the battle scenes, the ritual sacrifices, the trip to the underworld of a Serbian mine shaft, the founding of a new world order, and Balkan heroism over the centuries.’’

Wolfe also argues that the book has a unified structure, the first part revolving around the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, and the second part focussing on the defeat of the Serbs at Kosovo in 1389.

In The Literary Legacy of Rebecca West, Carl Rollyson describes the book as an exemplification of what West called ‘‘process,’’ which he defines as ‘‘the mind’s ability to think through the stages by which it comes to know itself and the world.’’ Rollyson also notes that in addition to being a travelogue and history, the book is also West’s ‘‘spiritual autobiography.’’

Harold Orel notes how West’s sense of an impending war between Germany and England shaped and colored her narrative. Orel argues that the book is not unified by any literary structure. He prefers to see it as a ‘‘spider’s web,’’ in which all the separate elements lead to many different connections, ‘‘larger generalizations, greater truths, than the conventional writer of a travel journal can imagine.’’

During the Balkan wars of the 1990s, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon attracted fresh attention not from literary critics but from a new generation of journalists and commentators on current affairs who sought to understand the region that once again had drawn the Western powers into armed conflict. As of the beginning of the twenty-first century, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is regarded as an indispensable source of knowledge and insight into the former Yugoslavia, as well as essential to an understanding and appreciation of West’s work as a whole.

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