Flavin’s Corner
6-1-01

Roberts’ Graves

And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul.
From “Stairway to Heaven,” by Page/Plant, Led Zeppelin IV (Untitled), 1971.

Returning home to the Midwest after several years on the Right Coast was difficult, but I’d expected as much.  Visiting my brother’s grave in Indiana brought back memories of another time.  Rob was buried in 1974 with an 8-track of a live Led Zeppelin performance (this was, of course, before the release of 1976's The Song Remains the Same), and I’d forgotten how much that meant to me.  As I now know that Plant was inspired by Robert Graves’ The White Goddess and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, when he wrote the lyrics to “Stairway to Heaven,” made the visit so much emotional grist for the mill in my chest.  Time will out and we’re spectators for a while, then will be ground up with the rest of history.  Loss, Led Zep, LOTR, and Robert Graves; some things don’t change.

Sometime in 1977 I was toying with the idea of formulating a system to represent the alphabet with combinations of fingers and my buddy, Danny, suggested I read The White Goddess, as it contains a description of a Druid tradition of expressing the Irish ogham alphabet with finger-signs, sort of like a modern keyboard layout.  Recounting the significant influences and benefits I’ve gained from reading various works by Graves would take several thousands of words (low estimate), and is best left for another time.  Some of my complaints and criticisms of The White Goddess: A historical grammar of poetic myth (New York: Creative Age Press, 1948; amended and enlarged edition, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966) could be mentioned here, however.  Ah, Danny!  You opened a can of creepy crawlers with that referral!

Robert Graves (1895-1985) wrote a widely popular account of his WWI experiences, Goodbye to All That: An Autobiography (New York: Jonathan Cape and Smith, 1930), and followed with a successful career of marketing historical novels to support a financially frustrating passion for poetry (though he was Professor of Poetry at Oxford from 1961-66). Graves penned many non-fiction works, as well.  The Reader Over Your Shoulder: a handbook for writers of English prose (with Alan Hodges, New York: Macmillan, 1943, 1947) continues to be sound advice for writers, his The Greek Myths (Baltimore: Penguin, 1955, and later editions) is still used as a textbook in many universities, and some of his collections of essays, articles, and book reviews remain interesting and lively reading.  The bold ideas, admitted intuitions, and apparent academic theories of The White Goddess, and the associated themes in the novels, Hercules, My Shipmate (New York: Creative Age Press, 1945) and King Jesus (New York: Creative Age Press, 1946), have grown comfortable at the fore of controversy, discussion, and debate.  That is, if you take that type of stuff seriously.  [Note:  In 
1943's The Reader Over Your Shoulder Graves suggested that as James Joyce (1882-1941) broke every damned rule of modern form, style, and convention with his Ulysses (Paris: Shakespeare and Co., 1922; New York: Random House, 1934) and Finnegan’s Wake (London: Faber and Faber, 1939; corrected edition, New York: Viking, 1959), all writers should simply get back to straightforward, simple, and clear prose.  Something tells me that Graves didn't pay attention to the writings of Bill Burroughs and the Beats in the '50s and early '60s.  The recent trend of hyper-realism would probably have embarrassed him.]

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973), renowned Oxford philologist, translator, and author, is most often associated with The Hobbit  (London: Allen & Unwin, 1937) and The Lord of the Rings (London: Allen & Unwin, 3 vols., 1954-1955).  Ah, my older brother, Tom, tells of U.S. Marines in Viet-Nam reading The Hobbit.  I became enthralled with the concepts behind an amateur ink drawing of Gandalf and the dwarves tumbling into Bilbo’s home as advertised in a used comic-book fanzine I mailed away for while in 7th-grade in Panama.  I utilized my 8th-grade library and ordered photocopies of major literary reviews of Tolkien’s work from collections at the University of Michigan in 1971.  Missed a few of my 9th-grade English literature classes because I was lecturing to 11th and 12th-grade classes about Tolkien and The Hobbit, as well as fielding cute trivia questions from way cute juniors and seniors.  And, I remain a Tolkien fan, who is currently exercising every conceivable bargaining ploy to separate someone from an autographed note by Tolkien.

That I’m fond of Graves and Tolkien is nothing peculiar or original.  I’m confident many others are fond of their works as well.  And, Led Zeppelin may very well have played a role in the ongoing Tolkien craze by mentioning his characters, creatures, concepts, and places over three albums, I believe.  Maybe four.  One of Tolkien’s letters describes his attendance at a party where Ava Gardner had the undivided attention of the public and media, Tolkien and Graves encountering one another, a chat about a mutual dislike of parties ensued, and that neither knew anything about the other.  That J.R.R. was a retired, Goodbye, Mr. Chips Oxford don, and Graves was busy trying to rewrite history, shouldn’t excuse either of them.  Graves’ Claudius novels were best-sellers (his King Jesus inspired a letter from Winston Churchill) and Tolkien was beloved and respected as an educator and scholar.  They actually shared much in common, and both needed to get out more. 

As a philologist, Tolkien was interested in the etymology of Hy Brasil, a fantastic land to the west in Irish legend, and a possible relationship with the modern country of Brazil.  In fact, a diffusionist theme of ancient crossings of the ocean is present in the earliest of Tolkien’s writings, 1913's “The Story of Kullervo” (seeJ.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, by Tom Shippey, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001, p. 227).  Graves felt sufficiently qualified to review an advance copy of the late Prof. Gordon’s Before Columbus (by Cyrus H. Gordon, New York: Crown, 1971) for The Atlantic Monthly, and a large quote was used on the book’s back-cover jacket.  In A Scholar’s Odyssey (by Cyrus H. Gordon, Atlanta, Georgia: Society of Biblical Literature, 2000, pp. 93-94) Gordon describes a visit with Graves in Majorca and being shown a signet ring with an inscription said to have belonged to an ancestor of Graves who’d been a general under Alexander the Great.  Gordon writes: “I told Graves that the inscription was in Arabic letter forms that never appeared before Islam, which arose in the seventh century C.E.  Graves respected my knowledge.  He knew quite a bit of Latin and Greek, but was unfamiliar with orientalia, such as Arabic.  Thus, he accepted the factual veracity of what I said but was jolted by the sudden disappearance of his royal descent from a king in Afghanistan.  I am sorry I felt obliged to shatter a glamorous illusion.”  One may only wonder how many other assertions by Graves are likewise as fanciful.

While much of The White Goddess correctly concentrates on the glamor of women and their effect on men, Graves also puts forth many original solutions to ancient and modern problems, such as the original letter-order of the Irish ogham script and “Who cleft the Devil’s foot?”  I’ve discussed The White Goddess with many people over the years and a common complaint is the book’s lack of footnotes and a solid bibliography.  Indeed, an annotated The White Goddess would seem to have a pre-sold market.  Yet, Graves' confusion regarding the true age of Stonehenge and the correct dates for the various arrivals of the Celts to the British Isles would seem to render some debate moot.  And then, oddly enough, there’s Graves himself who asks the reader about their commitment to poetry and the hint that The White Goddess might be an elaborate allegory on the relationship between a man (Robert Graves) and a woman (Laura Riding).  Well, Graves was of Irish descent and his efforts could very well have followed the fantastic historical tales told in such early Irish works as those contained in the Auraicept (see, AURAICEPT NA N-ÉCES, THE SCHOLAR'S PRIMER, BEING THE TEXTS OF THE OGHAM TRACT FROM THE BOOK OF BALLYMOTE AND THE YELLOW BOOK OF LECAN, AND THE TEXT OF THE TREFHOCUL FROM THE BOOK OF LEINSTER by George Calder, Edinburgh: John Grant, 1917, as well as my 7-16-99 column, “Straight Lines.”

Emotion feeds the skeptic
maybe, possibly, hopefully
yet never enough to satisfy...

In Michigan I was pleased to find my Uncle Bob buried next to my dad.  As something akin to Alzheimer disease has befallen my aunt (a fate likewise shared with Graves near the end of his life), the last of my dad’s close relatives, I don’t know exactly where my grandparents are buried and can't ask her.  Perhaps, when I return in August, I’ll expend some effort and track them down.

 
A program from 1972; Danny played Gandalf.

The day before I was to return to the Right Coast, I was supposed to meet with my buddy, Danny, at an outdoor Chicago Book Fair.  Beeper, voice-mail, and e-mail confusions aside, we both attended, but didn’t run into one another.  The wind and rain, the rude, pushy crowds, and the generally over-priced books combined to form a sobering final impression of my return to Chicago.  I did, however, acquire a copy of Weird Tales (March 1952) with a Lovecraft reprint for $10, and a four dollar “new” copy of a paperback version of The White Goddess.  Later that day, in a Chicago suburb, I visited my mom’s grave, which brought the tally up to four graves in three states.  Yeah, the theme of this column was a foregone conclusion!

Of all of them, the visit to Rob’s grave affected me the most.  I don’t know, but it probably has something to due with a brother being buried with an 8-track.  It sure had some good material on it.  I wish I had both back to enjoy.

Thinking about the road,
Rick

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