Giles Goat-Boy: Or, The Revised New Syllabus is a combination of a number of literary forms. It is an allegory in which the twentieth century world is seen as a huge university, the West Campus standing for the “free world” or Western universities and the East Campus representing the Communist bloc. Other participants in the political struggle include Siegfrieder College (Germany), the Bonifascists (Nazis), and the Student-Unionists (local communists). Characters represent John F. Kennedy, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Milton and Dwight Eisenhower, among many others. There are frequent references to Campus Riots One and Two (World Wars I and II), and everyone fears that a third and apocalyptic campus riot may break out. The WESCAC computer resembles the genie of nuclear power, out of its bottle and uncontrollable.
The novel is also an epic account of how a legendary hero saves his country and his people, and it thus resembles such literary antecedents as Homer’s The Odyssey, Vergil’s The Aeneid, and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen (1590 and 1596). Like the heroes of those works, Giles is wounded, endures trials, fights villains, descends to the underworld (in George’s case, the circuits of the giant computer), and finally delivers his people from the rule of a pretender (the false tutor).
An obvious model for Giles is the Greek king Oedipus, who, like Giles, had difficulty walking and committed incest, something George fears he may have done when he believes that Anastasia is his sister. Like Oedipus, George also kills his father, when he short circuits WESCAC. The connection between these two works is cemented when Giles watches a full-length parody of Oedipus Rex.
Giles Goat-Boy is also a story of the birth of a religion. The novel is its sacred scripture, passed down from its founder. Another founder mentioned in the novel, Enos Enoch, representing Jesus Christ, helps to make this connection clear. Like other sacred scriptures, both its origin and its content are ambiguous; wrapped around the novel at beginning and end are disclaimers by some editors and praise from others, ending with a letter from John Barth in which he says the manuscript was delivered to him by a mysterious figure who may have been the goat-boy’s son. In the novel, the details of the hero’s later life and death are fuzzy, and, like the careers of most religious figures, open to challenge. In this modern religion, human society is now a scholarly bureaucracy, and a spiritual God has been replaced by a computer and a person who is part man and part satyrlike goat.