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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, July 10, 2008


These days my "writing" consists of reading and typing the resulting notes. My method I suppose is not much different from what it would be if I were writing a work of nonfiction: reading, highlighting, typing. Occasionally my research sparks ideas for my story, and I type these in suitable story-related documents. I shift back and forth between reading my research works and musing on their implications for my story. I can only say that to me, this feels productive.

I follow specific lines of investigation. For a number of reasons my research right now has led me to look into the mythology surrounding Mount Lycaon in Arcadia--the place where the god Pan was allegedly born, where Zeus allegedly turned a king into the first werewolf, and where the Greek version of the Flood originated. My text right now is The White Goddess by Robert Graves, a treasure-house of deeply researched and interconnected mythological lore.

Taking a glance at the reviews on Amazon.com, I see that The White Goddess has become somewhat uncool--although it still has its passionate fans. Even those fans seem to feel the need to make excuses for what they fear is its political incorrectness and lack of concurrence with current scholarship.

Personally, I would never dare to presume to make excuses for a man of such evident and outstanding genius. True, he's an outlier: a poet, a maverick. He was not a professional academic--and was proud of that fact. He spent only a brief interval of his life teaching at a university in, I believe, Egypt; the rest of his life he spent as a professional writer.

Bravo, I say.

Graves had access to resources that academics lack. Not only was he fully conversant with ancient Greek and Latin, he had read, apparently, every surviving classical work in its original language up to the Byzantine era. He had tremendous powers of deduction and inference, as well as a profound knowledge of the natural, climatic, and folkloric aspects of Europe and especially the Mediterranean world.

But beyond these things he had a conviction in his vocation as a poet, which placed him in a fraternity not with academics, but with poets of all ages--including the poets responsible for the myths of the ancient world. Graves trusted his own poetic instincts to tell him how the poets of old connected their images and their meanings. You can't annotate that with a footnote. The plausibility or authenticity of the connection lies in its intrinsic power--in whether it awakens something in the reader or listener.

Yes, I can understand how, for academics, Graves constitutes a kind of no-go zone. But academics don't have a monopoly on knowledge, still less on history, culture, or myth. Graves was writing, first of all, for fellow poets: those entrusted with making use of the powerful images and their interconnections. And it is in that role that I approach his work.

And as I reread The White Goddess, I too am glad that I'm not an academic.

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