Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Venusberg’s title, which never appears in the text itself, directs the reader’s attention to one of the major myths of medieval German legend. Venusberg, according to the most common version of the myth, is a mountain within whose caverns dwells the Lady Venus, the goddess of beauty and love. Human visitors are sometimes permitted there, although they run the risk of eternal damnation. The Venusberg’s most famous visitor, the wandering poet Tannhauser, is the hero of a sixteenth century German ballad and a nineteenth century opera by Richard Wagner. These works relate how Tannhauser enjoys a year of love with Venus, repents, and seeks absolution from the Pope but is told that he can no more look for mercy than the Pope’s wooden staff can be expected to blossom. His hopes of salvation abandoned, Tannheuser decides to return to Venus’ allurements and cannot be found when, on the third day after his departure, the Pope’s staff suddenly bursts into bloom.

The intensity of its passions and the fervor of its religious sentiments have kept this story alive as a parable of the conflict between man’s sacred and profane desires. Powell’s Venusberg is in a sense a modern adaptation of the myth, with intense passion replaced by natural sexual drives and religious fervor replaced by moral anxiety. There are many dissimilarities between the two versions, especially in terms of their respective protagonists’ attitudes toward love and...

(The entire section is 432 words.)