Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4862
The novels of Robert Graves are usually a curious combination of detective work in history, legend, or myth and a considerable gift for narration. Graves never claimed any particular ability to invent plots, but he could flesh out imaginatively the skeletal remains of adventures he discovered in the past. Thus,...
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- Critical Essays
The novels of Robert Graves are usually a curious combination of detective work in history, legend, or myth and a considerable gift for narration. Graves never claimed any particular ability to invent plots, but he could flesh out imaginatively the skeletal remains of adventures he discovered in the past. Thus, the emperor Claudius lives again as the gossipy information in the works of Suetonius and other Roman chroniclers passes through Graves’s shaping imagination. Sometimes, as in King Jesus, a traditional tale takes on a startling new dimension through an unconventional combination with other legendary material.
My Head! My Head!
Graves’s first attempt at converting ancient history or myth into fiction was a short novel about Elisha and Moses, somewhat inauspiciously titled My Head! My Head!It was begun, as most of Graves’s subsequent novels were, because the original accounts were somewhat mysterious, leaving much unsaid about what really happened and why. The novel elaborates on the biblical story of Elisha and the Shunamite woman (2 Kings, chapters 8-37) and, secondarily, through Elisha’s narration, on the career of Moses.
The novel demonstrates both Graves’s tendency to explain miracles in naturalistic terms and his contrary fascination with a certain suprarational possibility for special persons. The writer’s curious views on magic are not entirely consistent with his debunking of miracles. The inconsistency is quite noticeable here because of the omniscient point of view. In most of his later novels, Graves wisely used a first-person narrator, which makes seeming inconsistencies the peculiar bias of a persona rather than of the author. King Jesus is thus told by a first century narrator who is neither Jewish nor Christian. In such a person, rational skepticism about specific miracles such as the virgin birth might well coexist with a general acceptance of magic.
In spite of its technical shortcomings, My Head! My Head! shows Graves’s interest in a number of themes that would continue to concern him for the rest of his life: the changing relationships between men and women, the nature of the gods, and the way in which knowledge of the past and of the future must depend on an understanding of the present.
No Decency Left
On those two occasions when Graves did not depend on mythological or historical sources for his fiction, the results were strange, satiric compositions, lucidly told, but somehow disquieting. The first of these, No Decency Left, a collaboration with Laura Riding, appeared under the pseudonym “Barbara Rich.” It is a satiric potpourri of events, drawing on such discordant elements as the rise of dictators, the man in the iron mask, the miraculous feeding of the multitude in the Bible, and comic-opera romance. The ideas in this fantasy may be attributable more to Riding than to Graves, though the attitudes displayed are quite consistent with Graves’s views on the follies of men and the hidden strengths of women.
The action occurs in one day, the twenty-first birthday of Barbara Rich, who decides that on this special day she is going to get everything she wants. She forthwith crashes high society, becomes incredibly rich, marries the heir to the throne, feeds a multitude of hungry unemployed people by invading the zoo and arranging for the slaughter and cooking of zoo animals, captures the Communists who try to take over the country when the old king dies, and becomes a dictator in her own almost-bloodless revolution.
If the tone of this outrageous fable were lighter and itsprotagonist more lovable, it could be converted into Hollywood farce or Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, but everyone in it is disagreeable. The characters are either uniformly stupid and cowardly or utterly unscrupulous. The book was probably written primarily to make money when Riding and Graves were short of cash. (Graves always claimed that he wrote novels primarily to support himself while he wrote poetry.) It is obviously accidental that the novel, written in 1932, might seem to satirize the blanket powers given to Adolf Hitler by the Reichstag in 1933 or the famous love affair of Great Britain’s King Edward with the commoner Wallis Simpson in 1936.
The Antigua Stamp
The view of the human animal, male or female, as vicious, with superior cleverness and ingenuity the mark of the female, also dominates Graves’s novel The Antigua Stamp. The everlasting battle of the sexes is dramatized here as sibling rivalry that is never outgrown—a controversy over the ownership of an exceedingly valuable stamp. A long-standing, sour feud between brother and sister ends with the latter’s victory because she is by far the more clever and conniving of the two. The Antigua Stamp and No Decency Left are potboilers, though they are interesting for the eccentric attitudes they exhibit toward human character and social affairs. These biases concerning the essential stupidity and greed of men and the intelligence and ruthlessness of women emerge in a somewhat softened form in Graves’s better novels.
They Hanged My Saintly Billy
Eight of Graves’s novels are based, at least in part, on historical characters and events. The first of these—I, Claudius—is the best and also probably the best known because of the sensitive portrayal of Claudius by Derek Jacobi in the 1976 British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) television miniseries based on the Claudius novels, which first aired in the United States in 1977 on stations of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Count Belisarius, about the brilliant general to the Byzantine emperor Justinian, is also a fascinating excursion into an exciting time, even though the character of Belisarius is not so clearly drawn as that of the stuttering Claudius.
Although Count Belisarius deserves more attention than it has received, the other historical novels appeal to a rather limited audience. The exception is the last, They Hanged My Saintly Billy, which Graves facetiously described in lurid terms: “My novel is full of sex, drink, incest, suicides, dope, horse racing, murder, scandalous legal procedure, cross-examinations, inquests and ends with a good public hanging—attended by 30,000.Nobody can now call me a specialized writer.”
The novel is hardly as shocking as this dust-jacket rhetoric implies. The case of Dr. William Palmer, convicted of poisoning his friend John Parsons Cook and executed in 1856, instigated a popular protest against capital punishment in Britain. The notorious case was rife with vague, unsubstantiated suspicions about Dr. Palmer’s past and irrelevant disapproval of his taste for gambling and race horses. Moreover, supposed medical experts could never agree about the actual cause of Cook’s death.
The novel’s best feature is the technique by which Graves preserves the confusion and ambiguity of the case. Most of the novel consists of personal testimony from persons who had known Palmer. Each speaker thus talks from his or her own biases and limited contact, some insisting that “he never had it in him to hurt a fly.” Others reveal an incredibly callous schemer who takes out insurance on his brother’s life, knowing him to be an alcoholic, then arranges for the brother to drink himself to death. No sure conclusion is ever reached about the justice of the case.
Sergeant Lamb novels
As a member of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers during World War I, Graves became interested in the history of his regiment and discovered the makings of two novels in the career of Roger Lamb, who served in the Ninth Regiment during the American Revolution but joined the Fusiliers after the surrender of General Burgoyne and the incarceration of the Ninth. Graves is more chronicler than novelist in the two books about Roger Lamb, large parts of which are devoted to details of military life and curious anecdotes about the colonists, the Indians, the French Canadians, and the fiascos and triumph of generals.
Graves explains in his foreword to Sergeant Lamb’s America that this story is not “straight history,” though he has invented no main characters. The reader has no way of knowing exactly how accurately he conveys the texture of life in the colonies. “All that readers of an historical novel can fairly ask from the author,” Graves writes, “is an assurance that he has nowhere willfully falsified geography, chronology, or character, and that information contained in it is accurate enough to add without discount to their general stock of history.” This is a statement to remember, perhaps, in connection with any of Graves’s historical novels. Although Graves seemed to have no particular rancor against Americans, the books do reveal a very iconoclastic attitude toward the Founding Fathers. His views of such notables as Benedict Arnold, Major André, and George Washington at least challenge many American readers’ preconceptions.
Sergeant Lamb, like Count Belisarius, seems a bit wooden for all his military ingenuity. The protagonist’s on-and-off love affair with Kate Harlowe provides only a tenuous thread on which to hang the semblance of a plot. The novels seem to be a scholar’s compilation of interesting anecdotes and factual data about the time. Of course, this unimpassioned tone could be defended as exactly appropriate, since the novels are ostensibly the memoirs of a much older Roger Lamb, written when he is a schoolmaster in Dublin. This cool, dispassionate tone is often typical of Graves’s style, however, even when he is describing his own experience in warfare in his autobiography, Goodbye to All That.
The Islands of Unwisdom
The Islands of Unwisdom celebrates, or rather exposes in its pettiness and greed, an abortive sixteenth century Spanish expedition to colonize the Solomon Islands. The leader of the expedition, Don Alvaro de Mendaña y Castro, had discovered the islands many years before. He called them the Isles of Solomon, thinking perhaps they were the location of the famous gold mines of the biblical King Solomon. The natives adorned themselves with gold. When the king of Spain finally gave permission for the expedition, therefore, a great many avaricious participants joined in the venture, which was ostensibly devoted to Christianizing the heathen.
Though a few devout persons, such as the three priests and the chief pilot, try to maintain the Christian charity of their mission, their feeble efforts are in vain. Practically all the islanders greet the Spaniards with affection and open hospitality, but sooner or later, the senseless slaughter of innocents converts friends into enemies. The combined stupidity and violence of the military and of the three Barretos, Don Alvaro’s brothers-in-law, ensure disaster wherever they go. Moreover, Doña Ysabel Barreto, Don Alvaro’s beautiful wife, is as proud and cruel as her arrogant brothers. Don Alvaro is devout but indecisive and unable to control the stubborn wills that surround him.
Graves uses the narrator, Don Andrés Serrano, an undersecretary to the general, to propose a theory to account for the superiority of the English over the Spanish in such situations. The English soldier could and often did do a sailor’s work when help was needed on shipboard. The more rigid class structure of the Spanish, however, prevented a Spanish soldier from doing anything but fighting. During long and hazardous voyages, the Spanish soldier was idle and bored, while the Spanish sailor was overworked and resentful. When a new land was reached, the Spanish soldier felt impelled to demonstrate his function by killing enemies. If none existed, he soon created them.
Graves was particularly drawn to this sordid bit of history not so much because of the too often repeated folly of bringing civilization to the heathen by murdering them but because of a truly unique feature of this historical event. After the death of her husband, Doña Ysabel achieved the command of a naval vessel—surely an unusual event in any age, and unprecedented in the sixteenth century. Doña Ysabel is not the conventional kind of heroine, to be sure, but a kind that Graves finds most fascinating—beautiful, cruel, and ruthless. This novel was published in the year following The White Goddess, and the reader who is familiar with that study may see an uncanny resemblance between Doña Ysabel and the moon goddess in her most sinister phase.
The Story of Marie Powell, Wife to Mr. Milton
The Story of Marie Powell, Wife to Mr. Milton is also rooted in history, yet it echoes Graves’s own views of feminine nature as well as his antipathy to John Milton, both as a poet and as a man. That Milton did, indeed, have some marital problems is clear; they were the inspiration for his pamphlet arguing that incompatibility should be sufficient grounds for divorce, which was followed by his brilliant “Areopagitica” against censorship of the press. (Graves notes that in spite of the admitted wisdom of the latter, Milton himself became an official censor under Oliver Cromwell.)
In Graves’s treatment, Milton is the epitome of the self-righteous, dominating male, drawn to the poetic, half-pagan rural England from which his young wife emerges but determined in his arid Calvinism to squelch these poetic yearnings in himself and his bride. Milton chooses head over heart, always a mistake in a poet, from Graves’s point of view. Though Milton desires love, like any man, he has a preconceived set of rules that would define and coerce love, which can only be given freely. He resolutely divorces sexuality from pleasure, for example, having intercourse with his wife only when trying to impregnate her—in compliance, presumably, with God’s orders.
Marie is the weakest of Graves’s fictional women, a kind of dethroned queen, a person of independent mind doomed to mental and emotional starvation in Milton’s household. T. S. Matthews, in his autobiography Jacks or Better (1977), makes the provocative suggestion that Graves poured his frustration and resentment about the marriage of Laura Riding to Schuyler Jackson into this book. It was written immediately after Graves fled to England, bereft of his longtime companion. Matthews has considerable background for this opinion, since he and his wife were living in the United States with the group (including Riding, Graves, Alan and Beryl Hodge, and Schuyler and Kit Jackson) when the fruit basket was upset. Even though Graves and Riding were not lovers at that time, according to James McKinley in his introduction to Graves’s last book, Graves was profoundly shocked at what he may have perceived as Riding’s abdication of her proper role. Whether this explanation is valid or not, this novel seems to touch a more personal vein of frustration, resentment, and sadness than do Graves’s other historical novels.
Moreover, Graves indulges in a bit of romantic mysticism in this novel, more characteristic of his poetic than his prose style. Marie Milton falls into a three-day swoon during her third pregnancy, at the precise moment that her cousin, her secret “true love,” is killed in Ireland. According to her own account, she spends those three days with her beloved. When she awakens she knows that her cousin, with whom she had fallen in love at the age of eleven, is dead. The child she bears thereafter, her first son, looks like her cousin, not Milton, and Marie is more peaceful than she has ever been. Perhaps this touch of fantasy expresses more about Graves than about Marie Powell Milton, but the author is careful to note in the epilogue that when Marie died giving birth to a third daughter, the one son followed her to the grave shortly after.
Readers may find the style of this novel somewhat ponderous, but Graves tries to adjust his diction to the times about which he writes. He deliberately uses some archaic, seventeenth century terms, for which he provides a glossary at the end; most of these words are easily understood in context.
If the pathetic Marie Milton shows the White Goddess in her pitiable decline, one need only return to the powerful women in Count Belisarius to see her in her glory. This is true despite the fact that Graves had not yet formulated his theory of the monomyth that he expressed in The White Goddess. In retrospect, his fictional women suggest that the goddess haunted his psyche before he knew her name. In Count Belisarius, not one but two striking women demonstrate the strength of the female. These are Empress Theodora, wife to Justinian, and Antonina, Belisarius’s wife. Both had been carefully educated, pagan courtesans, but they acquired Christianity when it became possible to marry prominent Christians. They inevitably display more good sense than most of the men around them. More than once, Theodora saves Belisarius from the vindictive jealousy of Justinian or convinces the negligent monarch that he should send some relief in troops or supplies to his champion on the frontier. When Belisarius’s situation becomes desperate because he is almost always vastly outnumbered on the battlefield and short of supplies as well, Antonina sends a private letter to Empress Theodora, who manages, by flattery or guile, to cajole Justinian into at least some action not altogether disastrous.
Of the two prominent men in the novel, Justinian is the more carefully characterized, even though he is invariably presented in a negative light. After Theodora dies and Belisarius throws Antonina out because of the emperor’s campaign to discredit her virtue, nothing remains to protect Belisarius from Justinian’s jealousy and fear. Like Samson shorn of his hair, Belisarius is imprisoned and blinded.
Belisarius, the central figure, is the least understandable in psychological terms. Though his exploits against the Persians and against the many tribes that threatened early Christendom are truly remarkable and well told, he himself seems larger than life in moral terms as well as in his undoubted military genius. He is seemingly incorruptible in a world riddled with intrigue and deception, and, as such, almost too good to be true. The jealousy of Justinian is more understandable than Belisarius’s unswerving loyalty, devotion, and piety. The reader never knows what preserves Belisarius from the corrupting influence of power and popular adulation.
Ultimately, the effect of the novel is ironic, in spite of the total absence of ambiguity in Belisarius’s character. The irony rests in the observation that for all the lifelong efforts of one of history’s military geniuses, his accomplishments mattered little, since they were so soon negated by Justinian’s bad judgment after the death of his greatest general. All the drama and the pageantry of war cannot compensate for its futility and incredible waste and its glorification of destruction in the name of true religion.
For his portrait of Claudius, grandchild of Mark Antony and grandnephew of Octavius Augustus, Graves had rich sources of information on which to draw; perhaps that accounts for the greater depth and complexity Claudius seems to exhibit in comparison with Belisarius. Both Tacitus’s Ab excessu divi Augusti (c. 116; Annals, 1598) and Suetonius’s De vita Caesarum (c. 120; History of the Twelve Caesars, 1606), a book that Graves translated from the Latin in 1957 as The Twelve Caesars, contain much of the gossipy, possibly slanted history that fills Graves’s I, Claudius and Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina.
I, Claudius is a more successful novel than its sequel. It builds to a natural climax as the protagonist, who calls himself “the cripple, the stammerer, the fool of the family,” is proclaimed emperor by riotous Roman soldiers after the assassination of Caligula. Claudius captures the sympathy of the reader in this novel as a survivor of a fifty-year reign of terror in which all the more likely prospects for promotion to emperor are eliminated by Livia, Augustus’s wife, to ensure the elevation of her son Tiberius to the throne. Claudius owes his survival mostly to his physical defects, which seemingly preclude his being considered for high office, and to a ready intelligence and wit that protect him somewhat from the cruelties of Caligula, who is the first to give him any role at all in government. The caprice of the troops in choosing the “fool of the family” as emperor is as great a surprise to Claudius as to anyone else. Presumably the terrified Claudius acquiesces to the whim of the military because the only other alternative is assassination along with the rest of Caligula’s close relatives.
With Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina, the reader can no longer cheer the innocent victim of the vicious intrigues of court life. Claudius now has power and, in some respects, wields it effectively and humanely. He acquires, however, many of the tastes and faults of his class. The man who, as a boy, fainted at bloodshed now has a taste for violent entertainment. The scholar who despised ostentatious show now invades Britain so he may have a glorious triumph on his return. Worse yet, the unassuming person who knew how to survive the formidable machinations of Livia now foolishly succumbs to younger women who are as ruthless as Livia but without her intelligence and executive ability. He dies of poison administered by a faithless wife.
Graves seems to be making a case for the older Claudius as a kind of tragic hero who has come to a realization of his own shortcomings as well as those of his contemporaries. He had once idealistically hoped for the return of the Republic, but in his later years he understands that he has actually made self-government less attractive, simply because his rule has been more benevolent than that of his predecessors, Tiberius and Caligula. He decides that the Republican dream will not arise until the country again suffers under an evil emperor. The government must be worse before it can be better.
Graves attributes to Claudius a rather improbable scheme of secluding his son from the temptations of court life by sending him to Britain, then letting his ambitious second wife secure the throne for her own son, Nero, whose cruelty and decadence Claudius foresees. In the debacle that will occur in the reign of Nero, Claudius hopes his own son can come back as a conquering hero and reestablish the Republic. This rather fanciful scheme misfires because Claudius’s son refuses to cooperate, confident that he can deal with his foster brother, Nero, himself. Actually, Claudius’s son was assassinated after his father’s death, presumably at Nero’s orders.
This attempted explanation of Claudius’s seeming gullibility in his last days is probably intended to lend dignity to his unfortunate decline into a rather foolish old age. Part of the problem with the second Claudius novel is simply the intractability of historical facts, which do not necessarily make the most effective plots. One of the usual requirements of tragic heroes is that they attain some measure of self-knowledge and that they are partially responsible for their own fall from greatness. Graves tries to retain empathy for a well-intentioned, thoughtful man who foresaw and accepted his fate, to be murdered by his wife, as a means to a greater good. Although this attempt to salvage a fading protagonist is understandable, it is not wholly successful.
Hercules, My Shipmate
As Graves’s historical novels depend partially on the intrinsic interest of a historical period, so do his novels based on myth depend on an intrinsic interest in myth interpretation. Quite aside from the familiar story of Jason and the Argonauts, for example, Hercules, My Shipmate offers sometimes believable explanations of some of the common ideas found in myth. The centaurs, for example, were not half horse and half man, but a barbaric tribe whose totem animal was the horse. They wore horses’ manes and worshiped a mare-headed mother goddess. Many of Jason’s shipmates were demigods—that is, the products of matings between humans and gods. This convention has a nonsupernatural explanation as well: Their births were traceable to the ancient custom of attributing the offspring of temple prostitutes or priests to the gods or goddesses under whose auspices they were conceived.
This does not mean that all supernaturalism is rooted out of Graves’s treatment of mythic material. Hercules has exaggerated powers analogous to those of the American legendary figure Paul Bunyan, a parody of the Greek ideal of the hero, a man so strong he is dangerous to foe and friend as well. Nor does Graves eliminate all supernaturalism from his King Jesus, the most controversial of his novels, which fuses biblical myth with Graves’s own ideas about the ancient goddess cult.
King Jesus creates a new myth about Jesus—a Jesus who is literally the king of the Jews, or at least the proper inheritor of that title. He is inheritor as the grandson of King Herod (through a secret marriage between Mary and Antipater, Herod’s son) but also because he is anointed by God’s prophet, John the Baptist, which was the traditional Hebrew way of choosing a king. In the latter sense, Herod had less right to the throne than Jesus, since Herod derived his authority from the Romans, not from ancient Hebrew custom. Moreover, Jesus fulfills other expectations built into what Graves presents as ancient Hebrew ritual, such as a marriage to the inheritor of the land. Graves claims that ownership of the land was matrilineal and that in order to become a king, a man had to marry the youngest daughter of the hereditary line, in this case Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. (Graves points out that this matrilineal descent accounts for Egyptian pharaohs marrying their sisters and King David marrying a woman from each of the tribes of Israel in order to unify the tribes.)
Jesus is an ascetic, however, and refuses to cohabit with Mary. Moreover, one of his chief adversaries in the novel is the cult of the goddess, whose chief priestess is yet another Mary, called the Hairdresser—the character known in the Bible as Mary Magdalene. It is no accident that the three vital women who attend Jesus at his crucifixion conveniently represent the Triple Goddess—Mary the mother, Mary the wife, and Mary the crone, who lays out the mythic hero in death. The irony of the situation is that in spite of consciously choosing the pattern of the Suffering Servant, described in the Bible’s book of Isaiah, and trying his best to overthrow the cult of the fertility goddess, Jesus nevertheless fulfills the role of the sacrificial hero in the goddess mythology. Though some readers may be offended by the liberties Graves takes with a sacred story, those who are fascinated by the whole of the mythic heritage from the ancient world can appreciate this imaginative retelling.
Watch the North Wind Rise
If King Jesus is the most serious of Graves’s treatments of the goddess mythology, the most lighthearted is Watch the North Wind Rise, a futuristic utopian novel in which the great goddess cult has been revived in Crete (its stronghold in the ancient world) as a social experiment. The protagonist is a time traveler, conjured into the future by a witch, in obedience to the goddess. He also serves a Pandora-like function, bringing unrest into a land made dull by continuous peace. Great art, after all, demands conflict, which this ideal land has left behind. The novel is entertaining as a satire of utopian ideas but also provides an interesting exploration of the relationship between an artist (the protagonist) and his muse (the goddess).
Graves’s last novel on a mythic theme, Homer’s Daughter, borrows heavily from Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614) and from Samuel Butler’s The Authoress of the “Odyssey” (1897), which argues that the Odyssey must have been written by a woman. Graves’s protagonist is the princess Nausicaa, who in the Odyssey befriended the shipwrecked Odysseus. In the novel, it is Nausicaa who endures many rude and insistent suitors, as Penelope does in Homer’s epic. A shipwrecked stranger rescues her in a manner attributed to Odysseus, by shooting the unwanted suitors and winning the fair lady for himself. She is the one who composes the Odyssey, incorporating her experience into the story.
In spite of the fact that Graves himself dismissed his fiction as a means of providing support for his writing of poetry, his best novels deserve to live on as imaginative treatments of history and myth. While he may not always have captured the “real” past, he helped to make the past important in a time when many people considered it irrelevant. He showed how ancient symbol systems could still capture the imagination of one of the most versatile writers of the twentieth century. He also helped to overthrow the stereotype of women as weak in intelligence and will. This does not mean that Graves was particularly accurate in his perception of women, but his biases do offer a welcome antidote to the more insipid variety of fictional women. Graves’s work is also likely partially responsible for renewing interest in mythology and the beginnings of civilization. Part of this is the result of his nonfiction works, such as The White Goddess, The Greek Myths, and Hebrew Myths, but his use of myth in popular novels has probably reached an even wider audience.