Review: Watch the Northwind Rise by Robert Graves

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20th June 2013 01:15 PM

Victoria Silverwolf

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Watch the Northwind Rise (1949) by Robert Graves
(also published as Seven Days in New Crete)

Tales of utopia have a long and varied history in literature. This subgenre of speculative fiction can be traced back at least as far as Plato’s Republic, and extends through many 19th Century works, such as Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy and News From Nowhere by William Morris.

20th Century writers usually took a more cynical view of future societies, resulting in such famous dystopias as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. Science fiction writers often create future societies which seem better than our own in some ways, but which have their own unique problems. A good example is The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin, with its revealing subtitle “An Ambiguous Utopia.” It might be best to adopt the term “heterotopia,” used by Samuel R. Delany to describe his novel Triton, for this branch of utopian fiction.

An outstanding early heterotopian novel is Watch the Northwind Rise (1949) by Robert Graves. Best known for his historical novel I, Claudius, Graves was also a poet and a scholar of ancient Greece and Rome. Readers of fantasy may be familiar with his enigmatic horror story “The Shout.” Most relevant to readers of Watch the Northwind Rise is The White Goddess, described by the author as “a historical grammar of poetic myth.” Published just a year before the novel, The White Goddess proposed the existence of Goddess worship in pre-Christian Europe. Although rejected by many historians, this controversial analysis of ancient mythology had an important influence on modern Neopaganism.

Watch the Northwind Rise begins in time-honored fashion with a person of our own time finding himself in a new world. Edward Venn-Thomas, a British poet living in France, is drawn by magic to New Crete, a low-tech, Goddess-worshipping society of the far future. The first part of the book follows the tradition of utopian fiction, with the narrator given a guided tour of what appears to be a peaceful, prosperous culture. The author mentions several famous works of utopian literature in passing, suggesting that this section is intended to be a pastiche of this genre.

The novel becomes more complex when Erica, a woman with whom Edward had a torrid love affair in his own time, appears in New Crete, an event with no rational explanation. Much of the book involves Edward’s relationships with Erica and other women, both of his own time and those who live in New Crete. He will also learn that New Crete is not always the paradise it may seem.

The author’s male characters tend to be likable and realistically depicted, if rather ordinary. Male concerns are shown as mundane. The male business of war, for example, has been tamed by New Crete into a rough but non-fatal game staged to settle a quarrel between two neighboring villages.

Women, on the other hand, are vividly portrayed as mythic figures. Nymphs, whores, witches, wives, mothers, or daughters, they are all depicted as nearly supernatural beings. Edward may dislike or be fond of the men he encounters, but the women he meets inspire love, hatred, terror, and awe.

The stark contrast in how the narrator views the sexes appears to be influenced by the author’s concept of the Goddess. Certain events in the novel seem to be genuine manifestations of this deity. Near the end of the novel, a religious ritual is depicted in great detail. The powerful emotional impact this has on the narrator seems to suggest that he has fully accepted the Goddess as real. He comes to accept that She has a very special role for him to play in New Crete.

Readers of science fiction will find Watch the Northwind Rise of interest in its richly imagined future world. Unlike some vague depictions of utopias, New Crete is a complex, real place. The author has created a society which is sometimes appealing, sometimes frightening, and often confusing. Readers of fantasy will be intrigued by the way in which the Goddess seems to guide the events of the novel. Watch the Northwind Rise is unlike any other work in the utopian tradition.
 

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