Science Fiction Studies

#4= Volume1, No. 4 = Fall 1974

Robert H. Canary

Utopian and Fantastic Dualities in Robert Graves's Watch the North Wind Rise

For nearly sixty years Robert Graves has thought of himself as primarily a poet; for nearly thirty years, he has publicly identified himself as a poet-servant of the eternal Muse, the White Goddess worshipped under many names in antiquity. But Graves is more familiar to the reading public as the author of historical novels like I, Claudius (1934) and of the classic autobiography of World War I, Good-bye to All That (1929). Some critics have argued that Graves' prose works deserve as much serious consideration as his poetry, but little has been done; especially surprising is the general neglect of Watch the North Wind Rise (1949), a utopian novel about a future society which has returned to the worship of the Goddess.1 I would like to suggest that the framework of this novel exhibits a duality characteristic of the genre of the "fantastic," that it provides an example of the way in which similar dualities may be found in utopian works, and that it is the very existence of such dualities which makes this novel a satisfactory vehicle for Graves's reflections on the nature of poetry, the Muse, and the women in whom she is seen incarnate.

The term "fantastic" here is taken from Todorov, who sees the genre as defined by the reader's hesitation between a natural and a supernatural explanation for the events he observes; the fantastic is thus midway between the uncanny and the marvelous (which is often called "fantasy").2 Watch the North Wind Rise begins with the protagonist summoned into the future by the poet-magicians of New Crete and ends when he recovers consciousness to find himself naked outside his own door back on the night on which he had left. The dream journey can be explained either by magic or by sleepwalking. The protagonist is an English poet, Edward Venn-Thomas, who might naturally dream of a utopia managed by poets; on the other hand, Venn-Thomas professes to be convinced of the reality of the journey—and Graves, his creator, had recently published a long work testifying to the historical power of the Goddess, The White Goddess (London: Faber and Faber, 1948).

Traditional tales of the fantastic have been situated within known history; alternative worlds have usually been thought of as giving complete allegiance to natural laws (science fiction) or as openly allowing for the supernatural (fantasy, fairy tale). Although set in a future alternative world, Watch the North Wind Rise maintains a certain tension between natural and supernatural explanations for what Venn-Thomas sees in New Crete, as well as for the dream-journey which takes him there. The poet-magicians who have summoned him believe implicitly in their own magic powers, but the magic which Venn-Thomas actually observes is explainable in terms of psychological suggestion and common sense; Venn-Thomas himself, as a poet, is a member of the magician caste and can work some minor feats of suggestion, which he regards with suitable skepticism: "If one used the right formula, the commons could be hypnotized into doing any ridiculous thing" (§22). Venn-Thomas meets the Goddess herself, incarnate in an old crone and perhaps in other forms as well, but the possibility that these are merely mortal women remains open. His attitude toward her worship remains ambivalent: "Such fantastic ingenuousness of faith! Yet, without such ingenuousness, what strength had religion?" (§19). On balance, Venn-Thomas seems to believe in the Goddess, but the reader is not required to do so.

IT MIGHT BE THOUGHT THAT the uncertainties of the fantastic would be incompatible with the demands of utopia as a literary genre, for the latter would seem to call for an ideal society constructed within the realm of natural possibility. But utopias have always been both "the good place" and "no place," and few literary utopias of any merit have failed to deal in some fashion with the obvious question of whether the ideal proposed is a possible one for natural men. Even in B.F. Skinner's positivist, small-scale, contemporary utopia, Walden Two (1948), the author has his protagonist wonder whether the utopian community's success derives from its principles or from the temporary influence of a charismatic founder.

The existence of such hesitations between the possible and impossible is, in fact, one of many such dualities in utopias, which cannot be reduced to mere blueprints for attainable social reforms. While sketching one possible ideal society, literary utopias also serve as criticisms of the author's own society, of other utopias, and often of themselves.

Almost by definition, utopias mediate between the ideal they propose and the actualities of the author's own society. While in dystopias the criticism of the author's society takes the form of explicit exaggeration of present trends, in utopias the criticism is more often by implicit presentation of better alternatives. The contrast with the present is their reason for being, and it may be argued that the "literary value of utopian fiction depends largely upon its satiric potential."3 Graves, for example, contrasts New Crete, where the ritual murder of the Victim-King makes murder for less sacred ends seem unthinkable, and his own world, where millions die in the senseless slaughter of war; the force of the comparison does not depend on the specific likelihood of the alternative presented, only upon its relative correspondence to our own ideals. The criticism of the author's own society may also be explicit, in the fashion of dystopias. In New Crete, we are told, priests are drawn from the more stupid members of the servant class. Incidental touches of this sort are not really out of key in a work whose principal reference point is inevitably the author's own society.

The opposition between the utopia and the author's society is not, however, the only duality found in literary utopias. Utopias breed counter-utopias, and most literary utopias stand in some defined relationship to the utopian tradition itself. In Watch the North Wind Rise, we learn that New Crete was a deliberate creation of a world council, influenced by the author of a Critique of Utopias, who concluded "we must retrace our steps, or perish" (§4). Anthropological enclaves were formed, recreating earlier periods from history. New Crete was the most successful of these enclaves and now, five hundred years later, has spread its system "over a great part of the still habitable world" (§4). New Crete has thus been chosen over all utopias which extrapolate man's technological progress and has proved itself in competition with other archaic patterns.

New Crete shares with many other utopias a caste system, and Watch the North Wind Rise includes both implicit and explicit satire on this feature of utopias. Implicitly, Graves criticizes those utopias in which the caste structure is hereditary; individuals are assigned to castes on the basis of their childhood behavior, and captains (the warrior caste) are not allowed to marry. Even more importantly, the highest ranking caste is that of the poet-magicians, in contrast to the intellectual or managerial elites of other utopias. Poets are here the acknowledged legislators of the human race, and poetic values rule even in economic matters: there is no money in New Crete, goods being given to those who need then in return for free gifts; no machines are allowed that are not hand-crafted, made with the hands of "love." For Graves, at least, love is a poetic value.

Some of the other castes are objects of satire. We see relatively little of the commoners (the masses) or the servants (who do menial chores for higher castes). The recorders are an upper caste, but most are presented as fussy pedants. The captains ride about giving moral exhortations, much in the style (as Leiber says) "of head-boys at a British school." Venn-Thomas nicknames one captain Nervo the Fearless. Both the recorders and captains are objects for satire against the intellectual and military classes so often given high rank in utopian societies—and our own. But explicit satire of this sort is also at the expense of the structure of Graves's own utopia.

The self-critical side of utopias is by no means at odds with their function as implicit criticism of the author's own time. In their focus on alternatives opposed to society as it is, utopias become societies of humors; when their authors are men of sense, the ridiculous side of the ideal is apt to be shown. Venn-Thomas decides that the lack of a money economy has dulled the wits of the people of New Crete. He has no doubts that New Crete is a more perfect society—"if I had to choose between New Cretan half-wittedness and American whole-wittedness, I was simpleton enough to choose the former and avoid stomach ulcers, ticker tape and Sunday best" (§19)—but he finds New Crete a bit bland, a bit boring. The author and the Goddess apparently agree, for Venn-Thomas has been brought to New Crete to help destroy it. His presence helps re-introduce the inhabitants to lying, jealousy, murder, and suicide. The North Wind is rising, and soon all New Crete will suffer from "an itching palm, narrowed eyes and a forked tongue" (§22), characteristics of modern whole-wittedness. New Crete has brought man happiness, innocence, and goodness, but at a price in other human qualities, notably reason.

The world of the utopia may thus be seen as existing in opposition to the author's own society, to other utopias, and (again) to an implicit notion of human possibilities. New Crete may also be seen as both a reproduction and an idealization of Late Bronze Age Crete, a Golden Age or lost Eden—though Graves's destruction of his own utopia at the end suggests that he believes in the Fortunate Fall. Beyond this ambiguous relationship to a specific period, New Crete stands in an uneasy relationship with the idea of history itself—clocks are forbidden, and few records are kept. Societies which aspire to be perfect, as utopias do, are almost inevitably static, and New Crete seems to have been created as an escape from the consequences of man's history. But to be human is to change, and change is coming to New Crete at the end of the novel. The dualities of time and timelessness, stasis and change, history and perfection are linked to those set up by the utopia's opposition to other societies by the very ambiguity that surrounds its status as a possible/impossible world.

THE TENSION SET UP by the dualities of the novel's structure is parallel to that generated by its emotional and thematic content. At some level, Watch the North Wind Rise is a projection of the conscious concerns and latent impulses of the poet Venn-Thomas-Graves. To begin with, it is obviously concerned not only with the kind of society implied by Graves's poetic values but also with the kind of society ideal for poets. The two are not identical, for the poetry of New Crete—and its music as well—is insipid and academic.

In some ways, New Crete deals with poets in ways which we know (from other writings) Graves approves of. Although poets are honored as a caste, few are afforded immortality. All poetry must begin as oral poetry, for there is no paper. The best of a poet's poems may be inscribed on silver plates. The best poems of an age may be inscribed on golden plates and kept in the Canon of Poetry, which has been reduced to fifteen volumes. The details of a poet's life are kept only in verbal tradition, which re-arranges them freely. The inhabitants of New Crete do not admire poets but the Goddess who inspired them. All this sounds very Gravesian, although Venn-Thomas does not seem very pleased to find a poem of his in the Canon—"but clumsily rewritten and attributed to 'the poet Tseliot'" (§18).

The failure of New Crete is the failure of the utopian ideal itself. The soft, good life which it provides its inhabitants does not arouse the strong emotions which Graves thinks necessary for true poetry. Poetry is to act as a mediator between innocence and experience, good and evil, but here is only innocence and good. It is significant that the only good poet Venn-Thomas meets is Quant, a recorder. Because he is a recorder, Quant is closer to history than his fellows. Because he is a member of one caste who follows the discipline of another, Quant is a marginal man, set apart from his society; the implication is that poets are better off in worlds not run by poets. Venn-Thomas can take with equanimity a future which implies the destruction of his own non-poetic age, but he is the very agent of the destruction of the anti-poetic utopia run by poets.

It is significant that it is the Goddess who has summoned Venn-Thomas to perform this task. Graves has always insisted on the cruel side of the Muse. His ideal figure of the poet has not been the poet-magician but the royal lover, who accepts his eventual fate in return for the privilege of her love:

Dwell on her graciousness, dwell on her smiling 

Do not forget what flowers 

The great boar trampled down in ivy time.

Her brow was creamy as the crested wave,

Her sea-gray eyes were wild

But nothing promised that is not performed.

("To Juan at the Winter Solstice")

The love the Muse offers the poet is like the dream of New Crete itself, a momentary idyll; the poet will suffer jealousy and loss, even death, just as New Crete must undergo fearsome change at the Goddess's hands.

Graves's early criticism, written before his submission to the Goddess, casts some light on his fascination with the double-edged promises of the Muse.4 He held that poetry was a product of internal conflict between "the rival sub-personalities" of the poet, holding "apparently contradictory emotional ideas" (On English Poetry, pp. 123, 13). Graves himself has written of the opposition between reason and emotion in his own inheritance, between the Classical and Romantic traditions of poetry. Poetry resolves such conflicts by integration. Watch the North Wind Rise can be seen as fulfilling a similar function. Even the doubts allowed to remain about the real existence of the Goddess can be seen as satisfying Graves's latent rationalism.

To see how this process of integration is achieved, we must look at the plot which unifies this novel. Soon after his arrival, Venn-Thomas begins a platonic affair with one of his host witches, Sapphire, but his sleep with her is troubled by mysterious voices that sound like his wife, Antonia. The other witch, Sally, seems to be involved with at least two of the three men at Magic House, but she treats Venn-Thomas coldly. Venn-Thomas's old flame, an adventuress named Erica, makes the first of several unexplained appearances and tells him that Sally is jealous of Sapphire. Erica is probably the Goddess in disguise, and her interpretation of Sally is naturally correct. Sally arranges for her lover Fig-bread to be killed by his horse, so that she can spread her cloak across his grave and demand that Venn-Thomas sleep with her.5 This local custom is supposed to afford the dead man's spirit rebirth in the child so conceived, but Venn-Thomas refuses her. Later that night, his wife Antonia shows up in his bedroom; he sleeps with her, only to discover that it was not Antonia but Sally working her magic on him. He goes to Sapphire, who has fled the house, and she says that she will not sleep with him until she can spread her cloak on Sally's grave. Instead, Sally arranges for Sapphire to undergo ritual death by swallowing a personality-destroying drug; Sapphire does so and is reborn as a commoner named Stormbird, but first she kills Sally. Of the remaining inhabitants of the Magic House, one becomes an "elder" (spending his remaining days in the Nonsense House) and the other dies of heartbreak or suicide on hearing of Sally's death. The village is left without a poet-magician caste for protection; this fulfills a prophecy, and means that the North Wind is about to be loosed on New Crete. Venn-Thomas finds Stormbird, only to realize that he does not desire her sexually but as the daughter he and Antonia have never had. After he returns to his own time, waking to make love to Antonia, Stormbird returns as the daughter to be born from that act of love, announcing her coming in New Cretan style, by knocking three times on the door.

As a utopia, Watch the North Wind Rise involves choices among opposed social ideas; as a novel, it presents its protagonist with choices among women. There are really two choices, one of which has already been made. Venn-Thomas could never really have chosen to keep Erica, for Muses cannot be kept, but in marrying Antonia he chose to temper his pursuit of the Muse with a quieter, familial love. Now Erica appears in his dream of the future, though secondary elaboration explains her presence as an incarnation of the Goddess, and Antonia seems to be present, though we are given the delayed explanation that her form was taken by Sally. Sapphire also looks a bit like Antonia—"Who are you really?" he asks her, and she replies, "The woman you love" (§3). The opposition between the attractive but evil Sally and the gentle Sapphire is, in fact, parallel to that between Erica and Antonia, and between sexual passion and familial love in general.

Chapter Seventeen of the novel, "Who is Edward?" makes it quite clear that the choices involved are also choices among the rival sub-personalities of Venn-Thomas himself. He wonders whether his true self is the Ward who loved an American girl, the Teddy who loved Erica, the Ned who loves Antonia, the Edward who loves Sapphire, or none of these. Venn-Thomas's dream-solution makes a distinction between choices made as a poet and as a man. As a poet, he chooses the Erica-Muse and accepts the destruction and suffering entailed by such a choice; as a man, he escapes from the whirlwind and returns to his stable home, sanctifying his sexual love for his wife by his paternal love for his yet unborn daughter. To do this is to reject the static utopia of New Crete while attempting to incorporate its values (represented by Sapphire) into his own life, to reject the necessity for evil in society (represented by Sally) while serving as its involuntary agent. On the emotional, artistic, and social level, the conflicting ideals of his rival sub-personalities are balanced and integrated in the structure of the novel.

Watch the North Wind Rise has many of the characteristics of the "fantastic" genre, which is to be located in an area of tension between the natural and the supernatural. As a utopian fiction, it also presents oppositions between notions of the possible, between social ideals, and between the idealizing and satiric impulse. Such formal dualities make it a particularly appropriate vehicle for the reflections of a poet who has always seen poetry as the result of mastering conflicting impulses. The congruence of the formal structure of the novel with the internal dynamic of its plot gives Watch the North Wind Rise an organic unity unusual in Graves's fiction and entitles it to greater attention than it has hitherto received.


1George Steiner, for example, sees Graves as closer to first-rank as a historical novelist than as a poet—"The Genius of Robert Graves," Kenyon Review, 22 (1960), 340-65. The lack of detailed work on Graves's novel is obvious from David E. Pownall, "An Annotated Bibliography of Articles on Robert Graves," Focus on Robert Graves, no. 2 (December 1973), 17-23. Watch the North Wind Rise (N.Y.: Creative Age, 1949) appears as the first edition in Fred H. Higginson's authoritative Bibliography of the Works of Robert Graves (London: Nicholas Vane, 1966), but some readers may know the novel from the English edition, which was published as Seven Days in New Crete (London: Cassell, 1949). The only extended treatment of this novel with which I am familiar is Fritz Leiber, "Utopia for Poets and Witches," Riverside Quarterly, 4 (June 1970), 194-205, a sympathetic summary which stresses the fantasy elements in the book. Graves's critics have seldom given the novel more than a passing sentence, and it is completely ignored by several critics otherwise particularly interested in Graves's view of the Goddess: John B. Vickery, Robert Graves and the White Goddess (Lincoln: U. of Nebraska, 1972); Daniel Hoffman, Barbarous Knowledge, Myth in the Poetry of Yeats, Graves, and Muir (N.Y.: Oxford, 1967); and Randall Jarrell, "Graves and the White Goddess," The Third Book of Criticism (N.Y.: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969), 77-112. With the honorable exception of Leiber, critics of utopian fiction and "speculative fiction" have also neglected Watch the North Wind Rise, perhaps because because it is the only Graves novel to fall into these categories. Robert C. Elliott, The Shape of Utopia (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1970) devotes a few pages to Graves, arguing that Graves's apocalyptic ending is an arbitrary response to the "formal and experiential limitations of utopia" (p. 117); in what follows I hope to suggest that Elliott is wrong about both utopian fiction and Graves's novel.

2Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic [1970], trans. Richard Howard (Cleveland: Case Western Reserve, 1973), p. 33. Jane Mobley, "Defining Fantasy Fiction; Focus and Form," paper presented to MMLA Speculative Fiction seminar, 1973, identifies true fantasy with magic-using other worlds (a sub-genre of Todorov's "marvellous"). Darko Suvin, on the other hand, has identified fantasy with Gothic, horror, and weird tales, categories which are excluded by Mobley's definition and which overlap Todorov's genres—"On the Poetics of Science Fiction," College English, 34 (December 1972), 372-82, and "Science Fiction and the Genological Jungle," Genre, 6 (September 1973), 251-73. Todorov's "fantastic" might, however, be thought of as existing on the borderline between Suvin's cognitive and non-cognitive estrangement. So long as the criteria used are made clear there is probably no great harm in such terminological confusion, though it remains a nuisance.

3David Ketterer, New Worlds for Old (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1974), p. 101. On utopia as a literary genre, Darko Suvin, "Defining the Literary Genre of Utopia: Some Historical Semantics, Some Genology, A Proposal and a Plea," Studies in the Literary Imagination, 6 (Fall 1973), 121-45.

4I have discussed this at greater length in "The Making of the Graves Canon: The Case for the Early Criticism," paper presented to the MLA Graves seminar, 1973. The most important early works are On English Poetry (N.Y.: Knopf, 1922), The Meaning of Dreams (London: Cecil Palmer, 1924), and Poetic Unreason (London: Cecil Palmer, 1925).

5This scene curiously parallels one between Jason and Medea, the Golden Fleece itself spread beneath them on their wedding night—The Golden Fleece (London: Cassell, 1944), published in America as Hercules, My Shipmate (N.Y.: Creative Age, 1945).



 Watch the North Wind Rise (1949) is a utopian novel about a future society that has returned to worship of the Goddess. I suggest that the framework of this novel exhibits a duality characteristic of the genre of the "fantastic" (in Todorov’s sense of the term). An emphasis on dualities makes this novel a satisfactory vehicle for Graves’s reflections on the nature of poetry, the Muse, and the women in whom she is seen incarnate. As a utopian fiction, Graves’s novel presents oppositions between notions of the possible, between social ideals, and between the idealizing and satirizing impulse. Such formal dualities make it a particularly appropriate vehicle for the reflections of a poet who has always seen poetry as the result of mastering conflicting impulses. The congruence of the formal structure of the novel with the internal dynamic of the plot gives Watch the North Wind Rise an organic unity unusual in Graves’s fiction; the novel is entitled to greater attention than it has yet received.

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