Hughes and Myth

Terry Gifford (ed.), Ted Hughes: New Casebook (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), pp 13-24


Hughes and Myth

Laurence Coupe



Though it is widely acknowledged that Ted Hughes’s work is ‘mythic’ in its breadth and depth, confusion may arise as to what exactly we mean by that word. This chapter sets out to clarify Hughes’s own understanding of mythology, to demonstrate his prowess as an interpreter of specific mythic forms, and to explore the connection he makes between myth and literature.

‘Blueprints for imagination’

The word ‘myth’ comes from the ancient Greek mythos, meaning ‘story’. A myth is a traditional story that is handed on over the years – sometimes centuries, sometimes millennia – and keeps being retold. It is a narrative that helps human beings to make sense of themselves and their relation to one another, to the natural world and to the spiritual realm. It is a founding narrative, an essential plot, which cannot be credited to any one individual but rather belongs to the whole community. Myths combine together to form a mythology, a body of stories that define a culture. This collective narrative is not to be assessed on grounds of truth or falsity: the point is whether it has power for its community.

Perhaps Hughes’s most straightforward statement on myth comes in the course of his extensive account of the mythology underlying the work of the most famous of English writers. Early on in his Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, he draws attention to the strongly ‘mythic’ strain in both the poems and the major plays. In doing so, he pauses to explain that the same word is applicable also to such diverse works as John Milton’s Paradise Lost, William Blake’s prophetic books, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner’, W.B. Yeats’s Wanderings of Oisin and T.S. Eliot’s poetry generally, ranging from ‘The Death of St Narcissus’ to The Waste Land:

In each of those poems listed, the whole subject matter is the image of a subjective event of visionary intensity […] It is only when the image opens inwardly towards what we recognise as a first-hand as-of religious experience, or mystical revelation, that we call it ‘visionary’, and when ‘personalities’ or creatures are involved, we call it ‘mythic’. (SGCP 35-6)[1]

In this light, we might say that ‘mythic’ for Hughes implies, firstly, vision, that is, the capacity to imagine that the world is charged with sacred grandeur, and secondly, a narrative unfolding of that vision.

As for Shakespeare’s ‘mythic’ interest, Hughes is not primarily interested in the use of myth as a standard mode of allusion. What interests him is the way we can trace a dual narrative lying hidden beneath his total oeuvre:

[he] strips the myth[s] of all identifiably mythic features, and secretes its mechanism within his plot[s], as he does with the two myths – of the Great Goddess and of the Goddess-destroying god – which are the theme of my argument here. (SGCB 2)[2]

Myth, for Hughes, is a mediation between the external and internal worlds, and between the material and spiritual dimensions, though often not recognisable at first reading. For Hughes, this is the basis and mode of operation of much of the greatest literature. Gods and goddesses may come in disguise, but their presence and power will always be felt.

So consistent was Hughes’s interest in myth and his conviction of its importance that he wrote two essays entitled ‘Myth and Education’. In the second of these, published in 1976, he argues forcefully that children should be introduced to their culture’s mythology as early as possible because myths are our ‘blueprints for imagination’ (WP 151). A blueprint is a plan of action; a myth, then, is not just some dusty old text, but the indispensable format for those symbolic acts by which we keep in touch with the sources of life. For Ted Hughes the works of art which we call ‘great’ are those in which that contact is felt most compellingly. Myth, as blueprint for imagination, has a healing power. Whenever the inner world has become divorced from the outer we experience ‘a place of demons’. Then myths demand retelling by the poets, whose function is far more than entertainment or diversion, but an imaginative reconciliation of both outer and inner worlds in a creative narrative (WP 151).

Kinds of myth

By my reckoning, there are four broadly different kinds of myth. They are sometimes hard to separate, but it is as well to bear them in mind as they each tell us something important. They are: creation myth, which tells us where we come from; fertility myth, which tells us how we relate to the natural cycle; deliverance myth, which tells us where we are going; and hero myth, which tells us what human qualities we value.[3] It is not to be expected that any one poet will consistently refer by name to the four categories of traditional plots just listed. For one thing, each of them has variant titles: for example, creation myth might also be known as ‘myth of origins’, or even ‘paradise myth’; again, deliverance myth might also be known as ‘salvation history’. But what I want to demonstrate here is that Hughes’s use of myth is comprehensive, and that each of the four kinds which I’ve listed does figure in his own theory of myth, which will help us understand their enactment in his poetic work.

Hughes and creation myth

Creation myth tells us how everything began. According to the late historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, humanity has been driven by the impulse of ‘eternal return’: we tell ourselves stories about how things were in the beginning, when the gods were in close contact with humanity. Given that it seems to be a universal conviction that the newly created world was in the beginning idyllic, human beings have always felt a deep ‘nostalgia for paradise’. In other words, myth is about the regaining of ‘sacred time’, known to the ancient Greeks as the Golden Age; in complementary fashion, it is also about the regaining of ‘sacred space’, known to the Greeks as Arcadia.[4] Hughes conveys the power and beauty of this vision of the newly created world in the opening poem of his translation of Metamorphoses, written by the ancient Roman poet Ovid (see CP 865-79).

Hughes’s writing on myth returns again and again to the biblical creation narrative and its momentous influence on English culture: the creation of the cosmos in six days and the serpent’s role in the temptation of Adam and Eve and their subsequent fall from the Garden of Eden. In his study of Shakespeare, he is particularly interested in the way the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, and the subsequent rise of Puritanism in the seventeenth, drew on the idea of a righteously omnipotent God who was not slow to take revenge on those who flouted his law. Repudiating what they saw as the pagan goddess-worship of Catholicism – with its reverence for the figure of Our Lady, mother of God, also known as the Virgin Mary – fundamentalist reformers and dissenters appealed to the masculine might of Jehovah. He was a transcendent figure whom they took to be ‘far removed from the sensational, dramatic adventure of what is thought of as “myth”’ (SGCP 13). And yet, Hughes reminds us, their God was in many ways reminiscent of Marduk, the mythic sky warrior of the Babylonians, who had defeated and destroyed the primordial goddess of the waters, Tiamat, thereby establishing cosmos and overcoming chaos.  Given that the Babylonian creation myth casts its shadow over the Hebrew, Hughes surmises, ‘Shakespeare was aware of the feelings behind this myth through the Bible’ (SGCP 16). It is a bold chain of association which Hughes is forging: from the Babylonian Marduk, to the Hebrew Jehovah, and to the aggressively fundamentalist Puritan religion of the early modern world, and so to the greatest writer of that or of any other era who responds to this goddess-destroying lineage in his plays. One does not read Hughes on myth if one wants a conventionally comfortable guide. But it does offer an insight into the function of myth in his own work, where goddess-denial can lead to trouble, for example.

In offering a new perspective on the imaginative logic of Genesis, and in justifying the rough and ready approach to scriptural authority and religious orthodoxy of the protagonist of his most famous mythic volume, Crow, Hughes draws on an alternative mythic tradition, that of the ‘trickster’ tale. The mischievous male, usually priapic, protagonist of this kind of story participates in the creation of the world, but is also associated with all the disasters which plague human existence. He straddles the boundary between cosmos and chaos. Thus many of these tales feature a marginal creature who survives against the odds on the fringes of human culture: for example, crow, coyote, wolf, fox. The mythology of the Haida people of the northwestern coast of North America features the exploits of ‘Raven’, a figure who is constantly causing trouble in his endless search for food, but whose very persistence enables him to lay out the land, establish the clan and bring light to both – all by accident. A parallel trickster is the West African (and then Caribbean) figure of ‘Anansi’: taking the form of a great spider, he is usually out to cause trouble but, as in all trickster myths, he inadvertently brings about the natural order of things.

Hughes is always very clear that he regards trickster mythology as a necessary corrective to the biblical narrative, which seems to present us with a thoroughly tamed nature. In his essay on his poem ‘Crow on the Beach’ he explains the background to his Crow volume and he presents the trickster as the agent of the energetic and unpredictable life-force (‘his high spirits and trajectory are constant’) that tests our cultural constructions to destruction (‘Cultures blossom round his head and fall to bits under his feet’), and so wholly appropriate to any attempt to revitalise the mythology of our civilisation (WP 240-1).

Hughes and fertility myth

Creation myth is implicitly cyclical. It suggests that humanity cannot help but dream of a return to the beginning, when a perfect creation emerged out of chaos. Both Hebrew and Babylonian myths are the source of ‘nostalgia for paradise’. (As we shall see in due course, later books of the Bible bring a more progressive pattern into play, but Genesis certainly encourages a desire for a return to Eden.) With fertility myth, the cyclical model is emphatic, as is the role of the female deity. This kind of narrative is particularly associated with the invention of agriculture, about 12,000 years ago. Before then, there had indeed been an idea of the earth as a nurturing mother, from which human beings emerged and to which they returned at death. However, it was with the practice of sowing and reaping crops that there developed a myth based on the cycle of vegetation, with the goddess at its heart.

The pattern is as follows. The fertility goddess is immortal, but her male consort, the fertility god, has to die annually in order to ensure the renewal of the cycle. He is killed in his prime, by order of the goddess; his body is dismembered and the parts scattered across the land; he is then born again in order to fertilise the goddess once more, thus ensuring that the crops flourish for another year. This pattern persisted with the rise of urban civilisations, the goddess and god taking on different forms throughout the ancient world: Isis and Osiris (Egypt), Inanna and Thammuz (Mesopotamia, Babylonia), Aphrodite/Venus and Adonis (Greece/Rome). The very title of Hughes’s second collection, Lupercal, refers to a Roman fertility festival, and perhaps its most celebrated lyric is ‘Hawk Roosting’ – a poem which Hughes has related to the Egyptian myth of Isis, the implication being that the hawk is Horus, the son and successor of Osiris the dying god.[5]

The fertility goddess, representing the essential power of nature, necessarily has a dual identity. As the source of both life and death, light and dark, spring and winter, fruition and drought, she may be seen as both a benign and a malign force, as both lover and destroyer, both mother and murderer. This double part is well understood by those with an investment in the myth, the natural cycle making little sense to them otherwise. Hughes, we might add, was early on inspired by the poet Robert Graves’s account of the complex nature of this female deity in The White Goddess.[6] Gaudete is a poetic narrative offering a variation on fertility myth, with the dying and reviving god played by one Nicholas Lumb in the village where he is vicar. Lumb is abducted into the underworld where he is asked to revive a dying goddess. The substitute wooden vicar back in the village has a rather literal idea of spreading the gospel of Love and in a comic parody gradually turns the Women’s Institute into a kind of coven. The original Reverend Lumb was mistaken for shamanic healer when he was abducted (not the role of a Church of England vicar, apparently), but when he merges in the west of Ireland he has acquired shamanic wisdom and insight, as revealed in the book of poems he has brought with him – the closing lyrics of the ‘Epilogue’ addressed to the elusive goddess.

The fertility god’s death guarantees the continuity of the natural cycle, ensuring that the community survives. But also, according to Sir James Frazer in his classic work of myth theory, The Golden Bough, he functions as a ‘scapegoat’. That is to say, by departing and disappearing into the realm of death he serves to carry off all traces of disease, corruption and pollution that might otherwise blight that community.[7]

In seeking to situate the underlying mythology of Shakespeare’s body of work, Hughes is particularly interested in the Graeco-Roman version of fertility myth, given that it is the subject of one of Shakespeare’s early poems. In an early rehearsal for the full-length study, namely the Introduction to his Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse, Hughes expounds the significance of ‘Venus and Adonis’, which he relates to another long poem, ‘The Rape of Lucrece’. Here we might pause to summarise these two works before seeing what Hughes makes of them. ‘Venus and Adonis’ retells the Roman (originally Greek) myth of the fertility goddess falling in love with a beautiful youth, who resists her advances, fleeing from her only to be savaged to death by a wild boar – this creature being the incarnation of Persephone, Venus’s shadow-self, her underworld other. ‘The Rape of Lucrece’ is Shakespeare’s version of another ancient Roman tale (not strictly mythic, but becoming so by association in this context). It concerns the sexual assault made by Prince Tarquin upon the chaste wife of his fellow-commander in the Roman army. Lucrece (or Lucretia) kills herself; Tarquin is banished, and the Roman monarchy comes to an end.

Hughes argues that the two texts provide the basis for the mythic ‘equation’ that runs through the major plays. He calls the four characters of these poems, Lucrece, Venus, Tarquin and Adonis, Shakespeare’s ‘four poles of energy’ that provide the focus for the stages of Shakespeare’s complete narrative cycle. Venus confronts Adonis, whereupon Adonis is killed by boar and is reborn, through a flower death, as Tarquin, whereupon Tarquin destroys Lucrece, and in doing so destroys himself and all order (WP 116). Hughes argues that Shakespeare’s plays explore these ‘poles of energy’ in all sorts of combinations, ultimately attempting to resist the deaths of Adonis and Lucrece.

The mythic equation is also the ‘tragic’ equation; and the tragedy is the result of the competing myths which were acted out in Shakespeare’s era. Tarquin represents the Jehovah-worshipping Puritan, whose creation myth tells him that it the transcendent, omnipotent God who is in charge, not the pagan goddess of nature. In his zeal he sets out to destroy her and the plays gradually tell the agonising story of the gradual defeat of Venus and her boar. But the shifting protean puritan forces through the plays (as through the whole nation in Shakespeare’s time, suggests Hughes) are ultimately self-destructive. Shakespeare’s tragic hero, the puritan Adonis, is possessed by the demon he rejects. He struggles to reconcile in himself the tensions between the four principles represented by himself, Tarquin, Venus and Lucrece and is inevitably torn apart (WP 116). We are not here interested in the details of Hughes’s account of Shakespeare’s mythic project; we are chiefly concerned with Hughes’s own preoccupation with the nature of myth, and with the myth of nature. His focus is on the way the male believer in the absolute male God seeks to destroy the female principle which, according to the model of fertility, informs the whole of the natural world.

Hughes and deliverance myth

Here we need to focus mainly on the Bible, as the kind of deliverance myth relevant to Hughes’s work is almost exclusively Judaeo-Christian in form and meaning. While creation and fertility myths honour the cyclical conception of time, deliverance myth offers a linear, progressive view. Jehovah may punish Adam and Eve by expelling them from the garden, and leave them to make their way through the wilderness, but he has a grand plan for their salvation. What we know as ‘the fall’ is only the beginning of a long collective adventure. In a later book of the Bible, namely Exodus, we read how Moses, guided by God, leads the Hebrews out of Egypt, where they have been enslaved, and guides them towards a ‘promised land’. The Christian Gospels of the ‘New Testament’ extend this deliverance myth by presenting Jesus as the fulfilment of the Exodus story: through his crucifixion and resurrection he frees all humanity from the constraints of sin and death. Hughes’s poem sequence Adam and the Sacred Nine is a moving version of the paradise/fall myth, with Adam learning from various birds how to love, and finally to be at home on, the earth.

True, some theorists of myth see Christianity as having associations with fertility myth. Jesus may be seen as a dying and reviving god, born in the winter (Christmas), sacrificed and reborn in the spring (Easter). The parallel is not coincidental: Christianity clearly has roots in some sort of nature cult. But the difference also needs emphasising: the resurrection of Jesus is once and for all, and the result is not merely that the vegetation cycle succeeds (though we can see the link to this pagan model in various festivals of the Christian calendar), but rather that humanity is ‘delivered’ into the safety of the heavenly city of Jerusalem, as described in the final book of the Bible, namely Revelation. In other words, the Jesus story in its entirety belongs to that category of deliverance myth which we call ‘apocalyptic’ (from the Greek word for ‘revelation’).

Hughes throughout his work shows himself to be deeply suspicious of the biblical idea of salvation as coming about through history rather than through a renewal of our contract with nature and the goddess. If he may be said to subscribe to his own ‘fall’ myth, the Judaeo-Christian project is very much part of it, together with the modern cult of progress, which for him is only a secular variant of the myth of deliverance (though one that does not know itself to be mythic). In this case, a crucial moment in the protracted fall from what Hughes calls ‘complete being’ is that of the Reformation. For it was the fundamentalist reading of apocalypse which inspired the Protestant reformers, and still more dramatically, their Puritan heirs to wage total war against the goddess.  In support of Hughes’s thesis, we might remind ourselves of the main scenario of the Book of Revelation. Most of the earth is laid waste, in preparation for the establishment of the heavenly city of Jerusalem, which is built out of gold and other precious materials and which is lit neither by sunlight nor moonlight but by the light of God. Though we are told that the ‘tree of life’ and the ‘river of life’ will flourish, it is quite clear that these have a strictly symbolic existence, serving chiefly to represent the spiritual transformation of the earthly paradise depicted in the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis. Natural trees and rivers will have disappeared, or been transformed beyond recognition: ‘And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea […]’ (Revelation 21:1). With a fundamentalist reading of this text, the way was open for the legitimisation of a fiercely other-worldly faith, and with it that ruthless manipulation and exploitation of the earth which climaxes in modernity. So it is no surprise to find that there are several parodies of Genesis in Crow (‘Lineage’, ‘A Horrible Religious Error’, ‘Apple Tragedy’, ‘Snake Hymn’). There are also ironic meditations on the crucifixion (‘The Contender’) and on the apocalypse (‘Notes for a Little Play’, ‘Crow’s Account of the Battle’, ‘Crow’s Last Stand’). Interspersed with these are reflections on our abusive relationship with the great goddess (‘Crow and Mama’, ‘Revenge Fable’).

It is in the Shakespeare study that Hughes makes his case against the myth of deliverance, though not named as such. Being clear about Christianity’s debt to fertility myth, he is clear also that ultimately it represents a severing of our bond with nature. It is the destruction of the goddess, first by Jehovah to preside in Heaven, then by his and her son, the Puritan Christ, that sets in train the essential tragedy of Shakespeare’s narrative cycle: ‘What Shakespeare goes on to reveal is that in destroying her he destroys himself and brings down Heaven and Earth in ruins’ (SGCG 18). Christianity in this context may be seen as a religion rooted in fertility myth which eventually became divorced from those roots and began a long process of dissociation from the natural world, spurred on by an increasingly literal interpretation of its founding text, the Bible.

Hughes, then, repudiates what we are calling the myth of deliverance, and in particular its impact within modernity – early on with the Reformation and later on with the cult of progress, with unrestrained industrialisation, and what is euphemistically called ‘development’. His definitive statement is ‘The Environmental Revolution’, his review of Max Nicholson’s book of the same name. It is here that we see how his knowledge of myth and his passion for ecology inform each other. Hughes suggests that Western Civilization is still dominated by Old Testament notions that ‘the earth is a heap of raw materials given to man by God for his exclusive profit and use’. Because man is alienated from Mother Nature, the goddess, he is also alienated from his own inner nature. While Hughes uses the word ‘quest’ to describe the basic myth of the ideal life (WP 129), and while ‘quest’ is a word we would normally associate with hero myth – of which more very shortly – he is thinking primarily of that violent and destructive journey undertaken by God’s chosen people, with no sense of reconciliation or return, that we have referred to as the myth of deliverance.

There is hope, however. The artist – or, by analogy, the poet – may see something else, and guide us to it, whether in images that remind us of Eden, or the world of animals, or Pan, or nature’s force for regeneration even in the face of being poisoned by human activities (WP 130). All Hughes’s writing, whether directly or indirectly related to myth, is dedicated to ensuring that the germ of nature’s life not only survives but also flourishes. River is his celebration of the fertile natural world as the paradise (continually restored by death) that we thought we had lost – a vision of the given world as our one and only Eden.

Hughes and hero myth

I have left this category of narrative to the last because it is the most ambiguous: while it has a very specific, historically determined meaning, it can also be applied to a whole range of stories from different eras. On the one hand, then, it may be narrowly defined as that kind of myth which celebrates the rise of a warrior class in the later years of the second millennium BC. It represents the human ideal of that class, that culture. A male hero sets out on a quest, facing terrifying obstacles on the way, and proves his courage in combat, eventually returning home. Ancient Greece affords us many such tales: for instance, that of Perseus, slayer of Medusa, the Gorgon; or again, that of Hercules (or Herakles), famous for undertaking twelve labours, which included slaughtering not only the fabulous many-headed monster, the Hydra, but also a ferocious lion and a dangerous boar for good measure. Thus does a male hero prove himself in a patriarchal culture. More complex is the figure of Prometheus, the Titan who befriends humanity and steals fire from the gods on their behalf, thus facilitating human culture. As a punishment, Zeus has him chained to a rock, where he is perpetually tormented by a giant eagle tearing at his liver. His heroism lies in his refusal to give in or show signs of weakness. Hughes’s poem sequence Prometheus on his Crag is a visceral retelling of the famous myth, with the emphasis on not only what the hero endures but also on what he learns about the natural order.

On the other hand, however, hero myth is the most general kind of narrative we could possibly imagine. After all, every myth that has ever been narrated has one or more central characters who we might describe neutrally as ‘heroes’. Creation, fertility and deliverance myth: all are ‘heroic’, in that some figure, whether divine or human, achieves something. Thus, in the previous section we have noted Hughes’s  account of  ‘the Quest’, which may imply hero myth but which the poet can legitimately use to refer to that collective and progressive project which derives from the biblical myth of deliverance.

Less legitimate might appear Hughes’s application of the quest structure to that crucial role of every North American tribe, that of the shaman. Here again, though, he is strictly speaking accurate. For it is the shaman’s function to adventure in the spirit world – the dangerous flight of the imagination – to return with the healing gift of stories and poems and songs, and thereby restore the balance between culture and nature. In so doing, he may have affinity with the fertility god, but he may also be celebrated as the archetypal hero, the soothsayer of his tribe. This, Hughes, argued, was the basic experience of the poetic temperament we call ‘romantic’ and would, in a shamanizing society, give the role of shaman to the authors of Venus and Adonis, some of Keats’s longer poems, W.B. Yeats’ The Wanderings of Oisin and T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday. The shamanic flight also ‘lies perceptibly behind’ many of the best fairy tales and behind myths – Hughes singles out those of Orpheus and Herakles – and behind such poetic epics as those of Gilgamesh and Odysseus (WP 58).

Moreover, if the shaman makes sense in terms of hero myth as well as fertility myth, the trickster makes sense in terms of hero as well as creation myth. Indeed, the trickster’s endless adventures, whether in aiding the construction of the world or in wreaking havoc, seem to Hughes to conform to the pattern of the hero’s journey. Taking up his idea that this is a character which represents the life force itself, Hughes concludes that the quest of the trickster is like ‘a master plan, a deep biological imprint, and one of our most useful pieces of kit’. Hughes sees trickster tales as a form of Tragicomedy in which this ‘demon of phallic energy’, carrying the spirit of the sperm, suffers for his misunderstandings, but is also capable of experiencing tragic joy (WP 241). It is not that Hughes is confusing categories of myth and blurring different mythic roles. Rather, he is demonstrating that mythology is a complex web of stories – as complex as that great web of being that we call ‘nature’.

Moreover, Hughes is writing as someone who has understood that we are living in extraordinary times, having lost our bond with the earth and our sense of the sacred. Hence, any mythmaking poet has, as it were, to start from scratch, building up the mythic connections as best he can. In the interview given on the occasion of the publication of Crow, he explained that he believed that Eliot, Joyce and Beckett were suffering and portraying the last phase of the disintegration of Christian civilization. After them came some writers who did not seem to belong spiritually to Christian civilization at all:

In their world Christianity is just another provisional myth of man’s relation­ship with the creator and the world of spirit. Their world is a continuation or a re-emergence of the pre-Christian world . . . it is the world of the little pagan religions and cults, the primitive religions from which of course Christianity itself grew.[8]

Cave Birds is an extension of the Crow myth, and a revision of the dying and reviving god featured in fertility myth, with the hero on a quest which involves the necessary disintegration of his ego before his reintegration in ‘Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days’ and his rebirth as a falcon. Thus it is that, in coming to write Crow and its extension Cave Birds – what we might call Hughes’s gesture towards the kind of myth that might be appropriate for our desolate, disconnected state of soul – he finds it appropriate to redefine what we mean by ‘hero’. The arrogance of the ancient warrior class, the fundamentalist conviction of the reforming Christian, the triumphalism of the modern progressive mind: these no longer suffice. Our hero must be the stripped-down figure of a creature with nothing left to lose. And finally there remains the question of whether the myth will be understood in its full healing potential. Will the newly humble, powerful, transfigured falcon, for whom ‘the dirt becomes God’, connect with and empower readers? ‘But when will he land / On a man’s wrist’ (CP 440). Here Hughes the reader of myth becomes inseparable from Hughes the writer of myth; but in both capacities, he makes us see how much myth matters because there is always a need for a retelling, a new version, an unanswered question about the mystery of the universe: ‘At the end of the ritual / up comes a goblin’ (CP 440).


[1] The second revised, paperback, edition of SGCB (1993) is quoted in this chapter.

[2] In quotations from Hughes throughout this essay I have respected his capitalisation, even where it may seem inconsistent.

[3] For a fuller discussion of these categories, see Laurence Coupe, Myth, 2nd edn (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009).

[4] See Mircea Eliade, Myths, Dreams and Mysteries: The Encounter between Contemporary Faiths and Archaic Reality, trans. Philip Mairet (London: Fontana, 1968); Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans. Willard R. Trask (San Diego: Harcourt, 1959).

[5] Egbert Faas, Ted Hughes: The Unaccommodated Universe (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Presss, 1980): 199.

[6] See Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, 2nd edn (London: Faber & Faber, 1999).

[7] For a comprehensive account of the role of the fertility god, including his sacrificial function, see Sir James George Frazer, The Illustrated Golden Bough, ed. Sabine McCormack (London: Macmillan, 1978).

[8]Faas, Ted Hughes: 205.