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Seven Days in New Crete, Page 2

Robert Graves

  ‘Then how can anyone continue as a poet?’

  ‘I often wonder about that myself; but at least the opposing interests are not united. It’s the mechanization of life that makes our age what it is: science and money combine to turn the wheels round faster and faster. In communist theory the tractor is glorified as an emblem of prosperity; and no Pope has so far published an encyclical against the internal combustion engine or the electric turbine. But mechanization, and what is called standardization, are felt to have their disadvantages and dangers, and the poet is tolerated because he’s known to be opposed to them. So the stream of true poetry has never dried up, though it’s reduced to a very small…’

  Here I suddenly broke off. What I had been saying sounded too much like a contribution to a professional brains-trust to make proper sense. I always switch off the radio when it sputters words like ‘standardization’ and ‘mechanization’ at me.

  Old See-a-Bird broke an uncomfortable silence: ‘According to the Interpreter, you have lived through two World Wars. Did any poets take part in the fighting?’

  ‘Most of the best ones. Does that shock you?’

  ‘With us a poet may do whatever he pleases so long as he preserves his dignity. Both Fig-bread and myself have taken part in wars. But your sort of warfare appears to have involved loss of life and damage to property as well as other indignities.’

  ‘Naturally. A commander-in-chief’s task is to destroy the armies opposed to him and force the enemy’s government to unconditional surrender.’

  ‘Not at all a pleasant form of warfare. With us, a war is always great fun – apart from the defensive fighting in which our travellers sometimes get involved when they cross the frontier of New Crete – and if anyone were killed we should end it at once.’

  ‘Our wars are altogether hateful.’

  ‘Then is it really true that your armies show no respect for women and children? Surely no poet could kill a woman? That wouldn’t make sense.’

  ‘I never killed one,’ I said lamely. ‘At least, not so far as I know.’

  Another silence followed, broken at last by Fig-bread, who said: ‘Your voice carries unfamiliar undertones. I suppose that life with you is so complex that it’s never easy to speak the truth. When you’re discussing the institutions and events of your age the uncertainty in your voice contrasts strangely with the firm way in which you spoke first – when you said you liked us.’

  ‘Well, we like you too,’ said Sally. ‘Would you care to stay with us a little longer, or do you feel uncomfortable, carried so far ahead of your age?’

  ‘If I could be sure that my absence from home was causing no anxiety, I’d stay for as long as I was welcome.’

  ‘You needn’t worry about that. You’re asleep in your epoch, and at liberty to spend months or years here in a dream lasting no longer than from one breath to the next.’

  ‘Very well; but I shouldn’t like to return and find my house in ruins and my two-year-old son with a long white beard being pushed in a bath-chair.’

  I settled back comfortably and we talked until sunset, when a bell tolled in the distance and candles were lighted. They were made of bees’ wax and set in heavy gold sconces. Somehow I had expected to find a more advanced form of lighting.

  Most people from our epoch would have resented my new friends as altogether too good-looking – physically thoroughbred and with a disconcerting intellectual intensity. They seemed never to have had a day’s illness; their faces were placid and unlined and they looked almost indecently happy. Yet they lacked the quality that we prize as character: the look of indomitability which comes from dire experiences nobly faced and overcome. I tried to picture them confronted with the problems of our age; no, I thought, they would all be haggard and sunken-eyed within a week. Not only did they lack character, which the conditions of their life had not allowed them to develop, they lacked humour – the pinch of snuff that routs the charging bull, the well-aimed custard pie that routs the charging police-constable. For this they had no need, and during the whole of my stay there I heard no joke that was in the least funny. People laughed, of course, but only at unexpectedly happy events, not at other people’s misfortunes. The atmosphere, if it could be acclimatized in an evil epoch like ours, would be described as goody-goody, a word that conveys a reproach of complacency and indifference to the sufferings of the rest of the world. But this happened to be a good epoch with no scope for humour, satire or parody. I remember an occasion when See-a-Bird absent-mindedly hung up a mirror on what he thought was a nail but what was really a fly that had settled on the wall. Everyone laughed loudly, but not because of his mistake: it was a laugh of pure pleasure that he caught the mirror on his toe as it fell, and saved it from a crash.

  Chapter II

  The Five Estates

  I am no student of fashion, and careless, usually, about the way I dress. Since nobody on this occasion was either naked or wearing anything really eccentric, such as painted wooden armour, or a cloak made of old newspapers, I paid little attention to their clothes, except to Sally’s. She was dressed in the witch costume in which she had officiated at my evocation ceremony: a conical moleskin cap, straw sandals, and a long-skirted, long-sleeved dark blue robe, embroidered in silver thread with an interlace of serpents and willow wreaths, and caught at the waist by a girdle of large lapis lazuli pentagons set in silver. For ritual reasons she had stained her feet dark blue. She sat opposite me and most of my talk was with her. But it was of Sapphire’s presence – she sat between me and the fire, dark-haired, slim, grey-eyed, delicate-fingered – that I was most conscious.

  ‘If my clothes embarrass you,’ Sally said, ‘I could change. ‘It wouldn’t be much trouble.’

  ‘No, certainly not. They’re very becoming. By the way, that isn’t woad on your feet, is it? You don’t mean to say that you New Cretans have gone back to woad?’

  She nodded. ‘It’s a nasty-smelling stuff to make, but we witches have to use it every now and then.’

  ‘May I ask what sort of a blue-stained witch you are? A black one? Or a white one?’

  ‘We don’t use those distinctions.’

  ‘I mean: do you specialize in destruction or in healing?’

  ‘There’s no healing without destruction.’

  ‘But do you sometimes kill people?’

  She looked serious. ‘Sometimes. That’s the least pleasant part of our calling.’

  ‘Whom do you kill? Personal enemies? Or public ones?’

  ‘Bad people.’

  ‘What do you mean by bad?’

  ‘Bad is when, for example, a calf is born with two heads, or a hen crows and doesn’t lay eggs. Or when a man behaves like a woman –’

  ‘– What, you kill your poor homosexuals? That seems a bit hard.’

  Sally went on unperturbed. ‘Or when a man deliberately violates custom, and his estate, that is to say his class, repudiates him.’

  ‘Oh yes, the Interpreter said something about estates. How many are there?’


  ‘By the way, do you have kings? I’ve always had a weakness for kings.’

  ‘Yes, indeed. Without kings there can be no true religion. The New Cretan world is divided into kingdoms.’

  ‘Real kings, with gold crowns?’

  Everyone laughed. ‘Yes, kings with real gold crowns, entrusted to them by their queens.’

  ‘What a stable world it must be! No classless state? No republic?’


  ‘How are the estates chosen?’

  ‘I don’t quite understand your question.’

  ‘Is the classification, for example, by birth and property? Or by attainments?’

  ‘By capacity, of course. Birth is never a clear indication of capacity; parents of one estate may have children who properly belong to another. And property is an indication of a man’s estate, not his qualification for belonging to it. And attainments are the result of capacity.’

��But who judges capacity? Local committees appointed by your Royal Psychological Society? You don’t still use the Funck-Hulme intelligence test, do you – the one with jigsaw puzzles and coloured electric light-bulbs and a trick slot-machine?’

  A gasp went up from the Interpreter. ‘Please, Sir,’ he protested, ‘it would take me a sadly long time to translate the second part of your question, the answer to which I can give you myself. It is “no”. May I be permitted to ask the witch on your behalf merely: who judges capacity?’

  ‘Very well, who does judge it?’

  He translated this, and Sally answered: ‘Parents and playmates and neighbours. The child remains in his mother’s estate until there’s general agreement that he belongs somewhere else. A misfit is almost always recognized before his education begins in earnest. Then representatives of the estate to which he properly belongs come to claim him.’

  ‘Don’t the parents ever protest?’

  ‘Why should they? It’s painful to lose a child, but it’s worse to have one who doesn’t belong in the house. The parents are the first to reject him. usually they get another of the right kind in exchange – an orphan, or a misfit from some other estate. I myself was hatched in the wrong nest, as we say; my parents were recorders. On the whole the magicians breed true; but then we have small families and about one in every three of us was born in another estate.’

  ‘There are five estates, you said? We English had five once: nobles, clerics, yeomen, tradesmen and serfs. What are yours?’

  ‘We reckon them on the hand, beginning with the thumb. Look, thumb, the captains, who roughly correspond with your nobles; forefinger, the recorders; third finger, the commons – do you follow?’

  ‘I understand why the thumb is the captain: it comes first and it’s the strongest, and it combines easily with any of the other fingers. And the forefinger is the recorder because it directs the pen. But the third finger?’

  ‘That’s the middle one and the tallest; you see, the commons are the middle estate and the most numerous. Here it’s called the fool’s finger. The fourth finger stands for the servants, because of all the fingers it’s the least capable of independent movement.’

  ‘Palmists make it the Apollo finger.’

  ‘I know, and Apollo, you remember, was once a servant. The poet Cleopatra says in her tercet, Three Costly Errors: “The first, when Apollo forgot that he was a servant and played the master.” Servants, as you’ll agree, make the worst masters. Well, that leaves the little finger, which stands for the magicians, and that’s because –’

  ‘Because in fairy stories it’s always connected with magic?’

  ‘If you like to put it that way. And because ours is the smallest of the five estates. They’re all interdependent, like the five divisions of a plane-tree leaf. Each kingdom has its five estates, each kingdom is a leaf on the New Cretan plane-tree: that’s about the first thing one learns at school.’

  ‘Very neat; but I should like to hear how a child reveals his natural estate to his playmates. It sounds rather mysterious to me.’

  ‘It’s not at all mysterious. Take a ball-game, for example. Did boys play baseball in the Late Christian epoch? I forget. Or won’t that happen until Pantisocratism comes in?’

  ‘They play it quite a lot. Men too.’

  ‘Well then, in a ball-game, if a boy’s timorous, unenterprising and quiet, and if he prefers taking orders to making decisions, and doesn’t care on which side he plays, and prefers fielding to hitting or pitching, then he’s obviously a servant. If he’s more interested in discussing the fine points of the game, or keeping the score than in playing it, then he’s a recorder. If he’s more interested in organizing it than playing it, then he’s a captain. If he prefers hitting and pitching to fielding and shows strong partisan feeling, then he’s one of the commons. But if he plays without really taking part in the game, so that other players are made uncomfortable by his presence, even if he plays it well, then he’s a magician.’

  ‘What exactly do you mean by magician?’

  ‘Magicians think in an active way; everyone else thinks passively.’

  ‘I see. So mathematicians, philosophers and scientists are magicians?’

  ‘No, people of that sort, if we had them (but we don’t) would be recorders. One doesn’t need an active mind to record.’

  ‘But surely, you’d distinguish a man who adds up columns of figures from a man who invents a complex mathematical formula or generalizes about the nature of the universe?’

  ‘There’s no magic in a mathematical formula, however complex. It’s only a recorder’s convenience for his fellow-recorders: it’s part of accountancy, or history. A philosophic concept about the nature of the universe is of the same order: it’s part of history.’

  ‘I don’t follow you, Sally. What is active thought, as opposed to passive?’

  ‘Active thought is to passive as rhythm is to metre; or as melody is to harmony. It’s an event, not a condition. It’s a proof of life, not a description of the limits within which life moves.

  I let this go by, and changed the subject: ‘Do your kings actively govern their kingdoms?’

  ‘No, do yours?’

  ‘Only in name. Who does govern then? The captains? Or you magicians?’

  ‘There isn’t any governing estate. Custom is the governing principle, and each estate has its obligations to it.’

  ‘In the short run that’s all very well, but aren’t you asking for trouble in the long run? Suppose some unforeseen natural disaster occurs? You still have droughts, floods and so on?’

  Before she answered, Sally touched wood to avert ill-luck, but did this seriously and religiously, not with an apologetic smile. ‘The recorders keep detailed accounts of past disasters and if a new one happens, the captains consult with them at once on the best way to meet it. There’s always a precedent of sorts. Then they set the commons to work. They work until the danger has passed. The less responsible tasks are performed by the servants. The magicians stand by; they aren’t consulted unless the disaster concerns public health or morals, when they’re expected to intervene.’

  ‘You’re priests of a sort, then?’

  ‘Oh, no, all the priests belong to the servants’ estate. That seems to surprise you, but surely it’s only commonsense. The priest’s function is to give his deity faithful service. He doesn’t need to improvise, or take decisions, or perform magic. He memorizes his ritual and loyally and unthinkingly carries out his duties. It was once proposed that our kings should belong to the servant estate, too, because the king is the supreme servant, capable of the most utter self-sacrifice; but that was a mistake. The commons were conceded the right, on the plea that “the fool’s finger wears the crown” as the poet Vives had written, and that the priesthood and the kingship ought to be kept separate.’

  ‘A sensible decision. You get a more interesting set of kings that way and it must give the commons a sense of pride.’

  ‘It’s a fine foolish thing to wear a crown; while it lasts.’

  ‘Where do women come into this system?’

  ‘We maintain it, because we act directly on behalf of the Goddess. We appraise men; we don’t compete with them. Naturally, they treat us as the superior sex.’

  ‘But more men than women are capable of active thought.’

  ‘That’s irrelevant. We don’t regard magicians as more important than recorders because they think actively rather than passively; we regard them only as different.’

  ‘Well, as the superior sex (in the eyes of the men at least) I suppose you do no work?’

  ‘Of course we work. But in every estate women have different fields of action from men. There’s no competition between the sexes.’

  ‘Do men never appraise women?’

  ‘That isn’t the custom.’

  ‘It seems a rather one-sided arrangement.’

  ‘Yes, but the men are satisfied and we don’t complain.’

  Feeling a little crus
hed, I asked Sally to explain the difference between women magicians and men magicians. She said that evocatory magic was the women’s field. ‘That means removing spirits from where they have no right to be –’

  ‘For example?’ I asked.

  ‘For example, in cases of demonic possession and haunting. Or summoning people from elsewhere in time or space for consultation. Invocatory magic is the men’s field. That means calling the Goddess to witness and sponsor some magical action.’

  ‘As a poet invokes the Muse?’

  ‘Is your Muse a living woman?’

  ‘I think of her as the woman with whom I’m in love as I write.’

  ‘Is that usual in your epoch?’

  ‘I don’t think so. But it’s my way, at any rate.’

  ‘I’m glad; that will help you to understand us better. Custom here is based not on a code of laws, but for the most part on the inspired utterances of poets; that is to say, it’s dictated by the Muse, who is the Goddess.’

  At this point Starfish caught Sally’s eye and began rolling cigarettes. He rolled six neatly and rapidly, using some sort of leaf instead of paper. He handed one to each of us, except the Interpreter, and kept the last for himself.

  ‘So you still smoke?’ I said.

  ‘Every evening at about this time,’ said Fig-bread. Sapphire rose, lighted each cigarette with a wooden spill and spoke what seemed a traditional formula: ‘Smoke, enjoy, be silent!’ The Interpreter bowed slightly, took a meerschaum pipe from his pocket, and went out to smoke on the porch. Afterwards I found out that each estate used a different type of tobacco and kept strictly to itself while smoking or, in the servants’ estate, chewing. ‘Smokes do not mix,’ was a proverb I was to hear many times in different contexts during my stay. There was no careless, nervous tobacco-taking at odd hours. Everyone smoked, or chewed, calmly and deliberately, once a day only. Before I had been there a day I got tobacco-hunger and used to long for the evening.