From Ritual to Romance by Jessie L. Weston


Following on my Waste Land reading, I thought I’d give this relatively short book a go. It’s directly mentioned in Eliot’s half-serious, half-mocking footnotes:

Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston’s book.

The book makes claim that the King Arthur legends in fact are, in a suggestion worthy of a Dan Brown novel, a coded representation of marginalised pagan rituals. It’s not a claim I really feel knowledgeable enough to rule out, but I didn’t feel that Weston’s argument is strong enough to make the broader claim hold water.

A lesser claim, not quite made by Weston herself, but closer to Jung’s later claims of collective unconscious, is that almost all legends and religious stories reflect some deep requirements of human beings. To quote Wittgenstein in his remarks on The Golden Bough: “we act in this way and then feel satisfied”, or to tweak slightly, we find the form of these stories satisfying, and thus we pass them on.

Religions are about more than the stories they tell (large elements of ritual, community and group identification etc are also important), but in this conceptualisation, various stories are shared in groups and those that are the most popular continually get passed from generation to generation, some written down earlier in their existence than others. Only those that speak to multiple generations have come down through the centuries.

Multiple generations retell these stories in the form that speaks best to their peers. In this chain, The Waste Land itself is a modernist retelling of elements of the Arthurian legends, but in a form where the narrative is almost entirely removed (mainly by Pound), leaving a series of loose voices and images.

Weston’s book is, therefore, an interesting part of this chain. Eliot clearly knew the Arthurian legends before reading Weston, but he also chose to give her prime position in the footnotes, presumably because her book prompted his creativity. To a contemporary reader, it’s hard to give it more credit than this. It’s not an electrifying read, and its central argument, like that of Weston’s hero, Frazer, seems to have started from the conclusions and worked back to the premises with limited and often implausible evidence.

(Photo by Ricardo Cruz on Unsplash)

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