Symbolic Stories 
by Derek Brewer.
Boydell, 190 pp., £15, October 1980, 0 85991 063 6
Show More
Show More

This is a polemical book. From the time of Dryden to the mid-20th century, Dr Brewer argues, English literary culture has been dominated by what he calls ‘Neoclassicism’ – by a taste, that is, for the realistic representation of likely events. A.C. Bradley is in this sense a Neoclassical critic; and the most characteristic product of Neoclassical taste is the naturalistic novel. Since the age of Bradley and the novel is now receding into the past, we may begin to see why its sophisticated criticism failed to make sense of ‘traditional narratives’. Fairy-tales and romances are not concerned with character, as Bradley understood it; and their stories often violate the canons of probability and Johnsonian good sense. ‘Literary intellectuals’ have therefore either neglected them or else distorted them by strained naturalistic readings.

Against such ‘sophisticated literary taste’ Dr Brewer appeals to the ordinary experienced reader ‘uncorrupted by literary prejudice’. Such ordinary readers, in my experience, often outdo any Neoclassical critic in insisting upon realistic probability: but Dr Brewer has in mind a less corrupted type, still capable of responding to the patterns of traditional narrative in a naive, direct way. ‘Naive’ is a term of praise in this context. Dr Brewer himself writes with disarming simplicity, but his own naïveté is calculated and challenging. When he observes that an incident in Malory’s story of Gareth ‘shows what a decent man Beaumains is’, the flat statement and the old-fashioned epithet seem designed to force literary intellectuals to examine their consciences. Dr Brewer has his blimpish moments (‘we live in a time when a literary nihilism is fashionable, when traditional virtues are despised and happy endings denied’), but why should he not call Beaumains a ‘decent man’? Malory would most likely have accepted the description, once it had been explained to him. Why may it not be just as simple as that?

Dr Brewer is, in fact, a subtle polemicist, with an unnerving combination of simplicity and sophistication reminiscent at times of the late C.S. Lewis. But his book has a more serious purpose than to make literary intellectuals feel foolish. He aims to justify the ‘literal, natural, even “naive” response to traditional literature’ by demonstrating the latent significances of those non-naturalistic story-patterns which appear plainly in fairy stories, half-hidden in romances, and more than half hidden in some novels. The general line of argument is not unfamiliar. Such stories have deep meanings like those of dreams, going down to ‘a lower substratum in the mind ... than that which produces high-powered scientific, theological or literary culture’. They are ‘symbolic stories’, expressing half-understood universal truths about human nature and experience. They are not to be understood as direct imitations of the events of everyday life.

The difficulty has always been to develop these perceptions into analyses of particular works which can rival the subtlety and flexibility of the best non-Freudian criticism. No doubt ‘Neoclassical’ literary studies made rather too much of the sacred particularity of individual works of art, but it remains difficult to accept a critical method which leads over and over again to the very same ‘latent significances’. It is the nature of a science to seek as simple an explanation as possible for diverse phenomena, and criticism, in so far as it attempts to explain the power of works, no doubt aspires to the same singleness and simplicity. But such explanation often turns out to be oddly disappointing, and so it is here, despite all that Dr Brewer can do. He argues that many (not all) traditional stories are rooted in what he calls the ‘family drama’, particularly in that phase of the family drama where young people are pitted against their parents. Such stories are concerned, in fact, with growing up: ‘the emerging adult and his or her efforts to break out of the family circle and establish a permanent relationship with a peer’.

The greater part of the book is devoted to demonstrating the patent or latent presence of this family drama in a wide variety of stories: Cinderella, Snow White, David and Goliath, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Gareth, Hamlet, Imogen, Fanny Price and Pip. The following observation is typical of the method: ‘Although Cymbeline rages at Imogen and the Queen is courteous, Imogen is not deceived by her, and we immediately recognise the basic pattern of the fairy-tale with a female protagonist: wicked stepmother, father under her influence, innocent heroine oppressed at home.’ The author uncovers such basic patterns with considerable skill and energy, and some of his results are undoubtedly convincing. Cymbeline does indeed exhibit a fairy-tale structure, in the relationships between the younger and older characters. The Queen is a wicked stepmother. Yet even in such cases, the analysis leaves me with a sense of frustration. At this particular game, it seems hard for the critic to win. Where a family drama is clearly being played out in the text, as in Cymbeline or Mansfield Park, commentary in modern psychological terms tends to seem superfluous and intrusive; and where that drama is not clearly present, analysis will usually fail to convince at least those ‘ordinary readers’ to whom Dr Brewer appeals. Conclusions tend, in fact, to be either obvious or implausible.

I think that the author’s interpretation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight must count as implausible. Dr Brewer is certainly right to insist that this medieval romance should not be read as if its characters belonged to the ‘real life’ of the naturalistic novel; and some of his arguments against oversophisticated readings carry complete conviction. There has been too much talk about the poet’s irony – in his portrait of Arthur’s court, for instance – and too little attempt to come to terms with what is certainly a profoundly traditional story. But it is a difficult matter to explain the power of a story, and in this case Dr Brewer’s methods yield dubious results. He interprets the Green Knight as ‘quite clearly a father-figure’, who stands in the way of ‘the establishment of the hero’s independence and maturity’. Gawain has to confront and overcome this figure, just as he has to confront the mother-figure, who is ‘split’ between the malevolent Morgan le Fay and the seductive lady of the castle, if he is to escape from the stifling environment of home and grow up. Gawain, in fact, turns out to be that painfully familiar figure, the adolescent emerging into manhood, facing and surviving the threat of castration (the beheading) at the hands of his father. One is moved to protest that Sir Gawain is not, in the poem, an adolescent. The Knights of the Round Table are young, as they almost always are in romances, but the hero’s very first speech, when he offers to take on the adventure, displays a self-possession which seems anything but adolescent. Indeed, he is less self-possessed at the end of the story than at the beginning. Most romances, as Dr Brewer rightly says, achieve a straightforward happy ending, but in Sir Gawain the hero is left in a state of mortification not far short of anguish. To that extent, at least, the optimistic commonplaces of modern social psychology fail to fit this particular text.

It would be unfair to suggest that Dr Brewer sees such family dramas everywhere he looks. He realises that ‘a hypothesis that is true of everything is so true as to be useless’ and his discussion of Chaucer, interestingly, stresses the fact that this poet’s stories mostly ‘belong to the world of cause and effect which Neoclassical theory would have all stories be images of, rather than to the symbolic world of pattern and unconscious bonds’. There are, indeed, many shrewd and salutary observations in this book. The author points to the priority of plot over character in traditional literature: ‘Event precedes character. Motives etc are post facto rationalisations. Characters do not (as in the theory of the modern novel) generate actions. From the point of view of the story, events generate characters.’ He also issues a warning – very relevant to an understanding of all romance, including Sir Gawain – against exploring the inner life of secondary characters: ‘No character, with the possible partial exception of the protagonist, has an autonomous inner life, a self-motivated independent existence of his or her own.’ Such observations display the fresh good sense which is the true mark of Dr Brewer’s mind even when, as in much of this book, he is in hot pursuit of an idea which I suspect few of his readers – even those ‘uncorrupted by literary prejudice’ – would wish to see him pursue any further.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences