Mark Carter recently released Stalking the Goddess with John Hunt Publishing under the O Books imprint. What he offers is a re-examination of Robert Graves’ poetic grammar the White Goddess in terms of modern Goddess worship. Interview questions by Diana Rajchel
Please tell about any experience that prompted you to write this book.
Confusion, pure and simple..
Stalking The Goddess grew out of my own notes on The White Goddess. Graves states very clearly in the foreword that The White Goddess is "a very difficult book, as well as a very queer one, to be avoided by anyone with a distracted, tired or rigidly scientific mind." Like a lot of readers, I started it more than once and gave up every time. I had grown up with an interest in mythology and I was familiar with Edith Hamilton and Bulfinch, but Graves was totally alien to me. Rather than the typical Greek and Roman mythology he was dealing with Celtic myth and European folklore I'd never heard of. It was obvious that if I wanted to understand the book I'd have to go beyond the average Wicca 101 books that glutted the market, and yet The White Goddess is cited in most. It had gained a reputation as some sort of reference book which you could just dip into for mythological references, but which nobody could understand in its entirety. I started taking notes, reading Graves' other works, reading criticism of his work, and locating his sources.
When I submitted the book to John Hunt Publishing, they sent it out to be evaluated and the comments I received back confirmed exactly what place The White Goddess held with Pagans. One of the beta readers had said she often consulted the book but could never read the whole thing. When she saw that I had written an examination of the book's argument she said, "I don't know why anyone hasn't thought of doing this before." That's when I knew there would be a market for my book.
Why is Robert Graves' The White Goddess important now?
I think the real question is: why wasn't a book like mine written forty years ago? I'm not sure Graves' importance to the Pagan community has changed in that time, and a book like Stalking The Goddess was long overdue. The White Goddess was published in 1948 and it was quickly taken up by poets and other writers, but just like any other literary fashion it eventually fell off. On the other hand, the book's popularity among Pagans continued to grow in the 1960s and 1970s and has probably remained constant since then.
A lot of Graves' work influenced paganism early on, between the 1940’s and 1960’s. He supported Margaret Murray’s witch cult theory, exchanged notes with Gerald Gardner, and came to the defense of Wicca in print before it really caught on. The White Goddess addresses magic, seasonal rituals, and enforces connections between medieval witchcraft and ancient Paganism, especially Druidism.
The White Goddess is one of the very few books to bridge the gap between literature and occultism, and appealed to everyone from literary ivory tower types to people practicing the lowest forms of ritual magic. Graves never actually advocates magic, or states his belief in it, but The White Goddess constantly allows for a belief in the supernatural when reconstructing history. Graves never tells anyone to practice magic but he reveals how belief in magic has shaped history and inspired some of our best art and literature.
What about it speaks to you? What within the work called you to write a Pagan-based exploration?
It's just a fascinating book from several angles. I realized that nobody in the Pagan community has really pursued it to this level and the academics certainly aren’t going to do it. The academic world takes a condescending attitude towards modern Pagans. Most of them ignore Graves’ impact on Paganism or disregard it as marginal. Even fewer are willing to admit Graves’ own occult interest. He consulted a fortune-teller, followed astrology, used the I Ching, and wrote magic charms, but the academics downplay the importance of these things. They admit Graves drew inspiration from his conception of the supernatural but they never explore the details. In a way, you can’t blame them. These critics aren’t Pagans and can’t be expected to intelligently debate what they consider the nuances of Paganism. From the outside, Paganism can seem like a sprawl of cults and superstitions and we shouldn’t be surprised if Ivory Tower types don’t want
to enter the fray. It just means that Pagans are going to have to better educate themselves.
Graves intended The White Goddess to be a revelation into the nature of poetry and inspiration, and it served that purpose for many writers initially, but its lasting value has been its contributions to Paganism. There is also the historical side, and Graves' fascination with secret alphabets and codes. At a deeper level, the book documents Graves' own creative process. When you place The White Goddess against its sources and Graves' personal life, you gain a lot of insight into how he thought and wrote. In that sense, he may have come closer to documenting inspiration than most people give him credit for.
If you had given me Graves' education, his life experiences, and his sources, I probably would have written an entirely different book. Part of the fascination for me was just the question of how did he do this and why did it take the shape it did? Ultimately, Graves tried to draw a blueprint of inspiration for others to follow. He failed to draw a correct blueprint, but his act of drawing it itself revealed something about creativity.
There are those who argue that the White Goddess is historically inaccurate and might even mislead people about Goddess worship. What is your response to this?
Well, that is the central question, isn't it? There are several historical errors in The White Goddess because Graves used a faulty model of prehistoric Europe to support his claims. He used sources like James Frazer, Margaret Murray, and Jane Harrison at a time when there works were disproven. Graves was probably the very last of the Celtic revival writers who could theorize about hypothetical matriarchies and prehistoric goddess cultures, or draw parallels between the Druids and the Essenes. Within five years of publication, The White Goddess was disproved by the discovery of carbon-14 dating, the Essene’s Dead Sea scrolls, the Gnostic texts of Nag Hammadi and the decipherment of Linear B.
Graves was attempting to align the historical with the spiritual in much the same way the Bible does for Christians, and just like the Bible, The White Goddess bends history to uphold its spiritual claims because Graves believes the physical world must reflect the spiritual. It's the old adage "as above, so below". Graves put the finishing touches on the model of prehistoric goddess worship and this allowed the Wiccan mythos to flourish. The entire concept of a prehistoric matriarchy that became a secret pagan cult, how it was persecuted as "witchcraft", and how it survived until it resurfaced with Gerald Gardner is central to the modern Pagan myth. We now know it's not true, but it helped validate the spiritual claims made by Pagans in the 1940s and onward. By way of comparison, consider those Christians who hold the Bible as sacred but don't believe it literally. Most Christians accept that the Bible can't be taken as authentic history, but they still maintain that it contains some metaphor that attempts to bring history and the spiritual together. Many Pagans make the same claim about the history within The White Goddess.
Are there other controversies concerning The White Goddess that you address in Stalking the Goddess?
There are some smaller points, but most of my book examines historic claims that Graves makes, in terms of whether that supports his views on creativity and inspiration. I'm not a historian and I didn't use many modern historical sources. It would be easy to compare The White Goddess with modern historical knowledge and reveal its errors, but what is more interesting to me is working with only the sources Graves used to see what other outcomes he might have arrived at. Seeing how he used his sources, which ones he favored, and which ones he ignored reveals something about his creative process.
Ultimately, the question is, “Can history or the physical world be brought into alignment with the spiritual or used to document the creative process?” It's a big question. The White Goddess tries to answer that, and Stalking The Goddess tries to demonstrate how Graves made the attempt. I'm not sure Graves succeeded in his goal, or that I succeeded in illuminating his processes. It's difficult to document such a thing so any examination of it is going to lean towards the historical side and the sources and texts, as I've done. Maybe I have at least cleared away the obvious arguments so that someone else can take an examination to the next step.
Why the title "Stalking" the Goddess?
The working title of The White Goddess was actually The Roebuck in the Thicket, because Graves argued that the roebuck was a symbol of the Goddess. He used a recurring motif of hunting deer and unicorns as a metaphor for his search for the muse. Hunting an elusive animal is a common device of some of the myths and fairy tales he examined, and the concept of the goddess or muse of inspiration concealed in a forest segued smoothly into his argument about a secret alphabet derived from trees. I wanted to stick with that metaphor.
I also saw my book as something like detective work. I was hunting down Graves' sources and sorting them out to create a paper trail that documented his writing process. I was working the problem backwards. I started with the finished product (The White Goddess) and traced it backwards, searching for hints of his goddess theories in sources that he neglected to mention. Graves intentionally omitted a bibliography from The White Goddess. He never made a full citation of his sources with title, author, and year of publication. He claimed that he wrote The White Goddess in a sudden fit of inspiration, and hiding his sources reinforced that claim. I felt that I was stalking his muse back in time, finding those hints that Graves would have left undocumented.
What's next? What projects do you have planned after this?
Nothing that is explicitly Pagan. For the past several months I've been gathering up sources and notes for a book about the gothic subculture. I'd like to write a history of goth from the 12th century gothic churches to the Minerva Press era of gothic literature ending with the goth music scene. There are already a couple books on the topic, but I don't think they've depicted the goth scene positively or explained the uplifting side of it.
I also have a movie script I've been working on. It's a dark supernatural romance set in 1980, so it touches on the whole goth and supernatural magic thing again. It's like a modern rendition of one of those old gothic romances from the 18th century reset in L.A. Imagine Frankenstein meets Wuthering Heights and aimed at the Tim Burton crowd. I have no idea what I'll do with it once it's done. I have no clue how to market a movie script. It's just a great idea I really like because it's so dark and romantic without using vampires, werewolves, or zombies.
I have leftover notes I never used in Stalking The Goddess too. I could probably write more on that subject, but I'm not sure how much people want from the same writer on such a limited subject.
What other liturgical/historical works would you like to see explored within a Pagan context?
What really interests me is the relationship between occultism or the supernatural and creativity. A belief in magic isn't necessary to see the metaphor of the supernatural driving creativity, so I'd like to see more examinations of myth, magic, or folklore that has inspired other writers. Older books like Anatomy of Melancholy or Agrippa's Three Books of Occult Philosophy deserve studies from a Pagan standpoint. Even things that look like gibberish merit more study, like the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses. All those magical and occult things inspire creativity, regardless of if you believe in magic or not, and when asked to define creativity, we're asked the old question of "Where do your ideas come from?" To answer, we usually resort to some mystical metaphor. The more we can investigate that the better.
Stalking the Goddess published June 16, 2012 with O Books/John Hunt Publishing. It is available on in print and for e-Reader.