The Mirror of Myth
Classical Themes and Variations
by Jasper Griffin

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

The T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures, 1986

Faber and Faber: London, 1986

144 pages September 2008

An exhilarating excursion

The Mirror of Myth: Classical Themes & Variations is a rich book within its small compass of four lectures. Jasper Griffin's style is clear, smooth, cleanly reflecting his close observation of some important writers' deployment of mythical figures, as well as his sharp thinking about subtleties in those figures' characters and their relations to one another.

The lecture titles are "Myth and Paradigm", "The Apotheosis of Pleasure", "The Endurance of Pain", and "Heroism, Epic and Forgiveness". These titles cannot convey the lushness of Classical mythology, and the searching light that Griffin plays on their use by major authors, most generally Homer, the Classical Greek playwrights, Virgil, and Shakespeare. Along the way we also look in on examples from Plutarch and Ovid, Offenbach, Keats, Tennyson, Yeats, Auden, and others. In the course of this Griffin also briefly compares and contrasts Greek, Roman, and Christian interpretations of pleasure, pain, and forgiveness. A dense schedule for four lectures? Yes, but Jasper Griffin's lively presentation and focused quotations make this an exhilarating excursion in fresh air.

Some of these excursions are along more-traveled byways that seem all the greener, as though we are exploring, not led by symbolic triangulators, but accompanied by an artistic naturalist. For instance, Griffin breathes fresh life into how subjects from luscious fruit to feminine nudity in poetry and painting (Ovid, Keats, Alma-Tadema) could be displayed and enjoyed through the safe lens of mythical appreciation. And on what I believe still is an under-traveled pathway: the presumption of her goddess nature by Cleopatra, the accompanying assumption of godhood by Mark Antony, and their ideal apotheosis of pleasure. Shakespeare dramatizes this wonderfully in Antony and Cleopatra.

On the perennial question of pain in the world, Griffin shows how Socrates in his manner of ending became a mythical figure, the ironic philosopher presented by the anti-poetic Plato to be an inspirer of poets. He is illuminating on the difference between Greek and Roman authors' representation of endurance to pain.

In another sustained thread, Griffin contrasts Shakespeare's deep concern with forgiveness with the indifference of the Greek tragedians to it. In his great dramas where Shakespeare drew on Plutarch, Shakespeare expanded on the smallest hints at forgiveness in his source. Homer here is closer to Shakespeare than his nearer playwright successors in the use of the Greek mythical stock.

The Mirror of Myth is most nicely written, and a treasure of insights. All this of course is literary criticism of a very high order. The book is stuffed with delicious quotations like plump plums or crisper applets.

Greatness in the world

Also, to a considerable degree, The Mirror of Myth is a commentary on greatness in the world. What makes some men and women great? How, even, may immortal Greek gods and goddesses represent our mortal lives and passions? What is it about their actions, or their reaction to the glory and pain that their natures seem to invoke from destiny, that calls forth our wonder and often admiration even after three thousand years? What makes these lives in some degree mythical?

A question for the ages; and for us.

Could it be that amidst all these mythological clouds of glory, illustrated by lovely poetical quotations, Griffin is daring to talk about values? He concludes his lecture on "The Endurance of Pain" on what he calls "a polemical note":

I spoke earlier of Shakespeare's humanist conception of the great soul. The proof for the audience of greatness of soul in a character is the ability to express profound emotion in language of sufficient range and power to embody it worthily, neither exaggerating nor flinching. That is the quality eminently possessed, in English by Othello and Lear, in Greek by Oedipus and Antigone.

Such characters cannot be created and given worthy speech without belief in the possibility that the human soul can indeed possess the quality of greatness, and that belief has by no means always existed. Some kinds of religious faith are incompatible with it; not less so are some forms of atheism. The age we live in does not find it easy to grant such greatness to anybody. Plays which were created in other times are stretched and lopped on the Procrustes' bed of interpretation by producers who seem to sympathize more with Creon than with Antigone. For the error, the crime of Creon, who wants to leave a corpse unburied in order to deter enemies of the state, was to intrude political calculations into an area where they do not belong ...

That confrontation comes irresistibly to mind when one hears of seminars at Stratford, in which solemn persons assure each other that the only important thing about each Shakespearean scene is its social implications, and when one sees the plays put on in a way which complies with that agitprop conception. In opposition to all that, to the reduction of great tragedies into political sermons on the level of the ordinary fare served up ... stands the central fact of the artistic depiction of great suffering worthily endured and articulated: the supreme spectacle of tragedy. Creon the political man can condemn Antigone to death, but it is not his but her utterance, incommensurate with mere politics, which endures in the heart of the audience.


© 2008 Robert Wilfred Franson

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