Ancient History & Civilisation



‘He has changed the world – not as Mussolini has changed it, with coloured shirts and castor oil; not as Lenin has changed it, boldly emptying out the baby of the humanities with the filthy bath of Tsarism; nor as Hitler, with the fanfaronade of physical force. He has changed it by altering the chemical composition of the cultural air that all men breathe.’

The cultural revolutionary celebrated here (unlikely as it must now seem) is Sir James Frazer, extravagantly written up over half a page in the News Chronicle of 27 January 1937. The article – under the title ‘He discovered why you believe what you do’ – certainly does not stint its praises of the grand old man, then in his eighties. Later on in the piece Frazer is portrayed as a hero-explorer of time and space, ‘at home in the Polynesia of a thousand years BC or the frozen north before even the Vikings had touched its shore’. And he ends up compared (to his own advantage, once more) with one of the most romantic of British heroes: ‘this quiet sedentary student has a mind similar to the body of Sir Francis Drake, ranging distant countries and bringing back their treasures for his own kind.’

It would be convenient to dismiss this nonsense as the outpourings of a pre-war hack, with an unabashed talent for hyperbole and a peculiar passion for The Golden Bough. But the uncomfortable truth is that this is just one example (and not even a particularly extreme one) of the widespread idealisation of Frazer in the 1920s and 1930s. The press throughout the Empire – from the Hudders-field Examiner to the Melbourne Age – colluded in turning into a contemporary hero an obsessive, retiring Victorian academic.

Part of Frazer’s appeal was precisely his shy donnish character – the stereotype of the unworldly professor, devoted to learning at all hours of the day and night. ‘To Sir James Frazer,’ ran one report (based on an interview with ‘a close friend’) ‘work is a rite. During his life as a scholar he has worked 14 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and the same on holidays.’ No admission here of the tedium of such a regime; nothing but admiration for the strange paradox that Frazer’s writings explored the farthest-flung regions of the world, while Frazer himself rarely left his study. ‘Authority on savages – but he has never seen one’, declared (approvingly, it seems) the headlines of several articles; and they went on to reassure their readers that Sir James ‘is fond of saying that he has never seen a savage in his life; his books are the outcome of research into original scientific work.’ This was, in fact, exactly what Frazer did say to the gossip columnist of the Sunday Chronicle in conversation at a literary lunch in August 1937. The ignorant columnist had naively assumed that the anthropologist must have ‘pottered intellectually around Polynesia, New Guinea, the Great Barrier Reef and a few other places where our aboriginal brothers and sisters reside’– but was assured by Frazer that he ‘had never been further than Greece’.

All the trivia of Frazer’s life became good copy for any journalist. While the readers of Les Nouvelles Littéraires were let in on the secret that ‘Sir James vendrait son âme pour des fruits confits’ (‘Sir James would sell his soul for candied fruits’), the British public lapped up anecdotes about his ludicrously high-minded devotion to scholarship. These had greatest appeal when they showed him fearlessly neglecting all thought of his own comfort, even his own safety, in pursuit of just a few more precious moments at his books: he barely looked up, so it was reported, when a German aeroplane circled overhead; when he had singed off half his beard and his eyebrows in an exploding meths stove, he quickly reassured his wife that he was all right and got straight back to his books. The latter incident ended up as a cartoon (one of Lady Frazer’s treasured possessions) showing a group of ‘savages’ dancing round a blazing cauldron in which Frazer sat calmly reading a book on folklore.

There was more to this heroisation than newspaper gossip. Frazer himself, however unwillingly, became implicated in acting out the public role of intellectual hero. In a strange reversal of the image (and reality) of the retiring scholar, he came to play the lead part in a range of incongruous ceremonies. These were not merely the traditional public occasions which a distinguished academic, a knight and a member of the Order of Merit might normally be expected to attend. Frazer also found himself wheeled out to meet (and impress) an odd assortment of visiting dignitaries. One of these – in perhaps the most bizarre of the encounters on record – was the young Jesse Owens, passing through England on his return from the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Against all the odds, the meeting seems to have been at least a partial success. Owens claimed to have been ‘thrilled’ at talking to the famous scholar who knew more about the ancient Olympic Games than any other living soul. What Frazer himself made of the occasion we do not know.

The regular highlight of Frazer’s public year was his birthday – marked in the last decade of his life (he died in 1941 at the age of 87) by a series of theatrical parties, orchestrated by Lady Frazer and, of course, admiringly reported through the British press. The most lavish of these was his 83rd, in 1937. More than two hundred guests met in London to do homage to Frazer, who obligingly stood under a ‘golden bough’ – a branch of mistletoe which had been specially imported from Norway for the occasion. The spectacles laid on included a vast cake with 83 candles, the performance of an operetta based on a play by none other than Lady Frazer (called, appropriately enough, The Singing Wood) and a display of indoor fireworks. Frazer himself, according to the reports, claimed to have been ‘particularly charmed’ by the fireworks – but, as he was by this date completely blind, one suspects a certain irony in the remark, perhaps even an unease with the whole occasion. If that is correct, it is an unease that he rarely let show. It is true that a few press reports picked up his general preference for a good day’s work in the comfort of his study over such forced jollifications. But, by and large, he seems to have acquiesced in these public displays, offering appreciative quotations and posing for photographs in the long-suffering manner of royalty.

This cult of ‘Frazer the man’ in the years before the Second World War was matched by an almost equal craze for The Golden Bough itself. Admittedly some critics, even in the popular press, were beginning to sense that Frazer’s approach was a bit ‘Victorian’. One writer in the Sydney Morning Herald, for example, contrasted Frazer’s ‘pity’ for the poor savage – because he is so ignorant of the ‘blessings of civilisation’ – with the attitude of the radical young anthropologist of the new generation, who ‘usually enviesthe savage for exactly the same reason’. Such qualms, however, did not do much to dampen enthusiasm for Frazer’s brand of anthropology. The abridged edition of The Golden Bough sold more than 33,000 copies in the first ten years (between 1922 and 1933). And, as the 1930s came to an end, the London literary columnists constantly recommended the book as a good companion for the long nights of the war to come – an idea supported by Mrs Neville Chamberlain herself, who, according to the Evening News, used to take The Golden Bough with her on most of her travels. This success was not even an exclusively British phenomenon. In New York in 1940 The Golden Bough ran neck and neck with Mein Kampf as bestselling reprint of the year.

It is not easy to understand this extraordinary enthusiasm for Frazer and The Golden Bough. There were other books of anthropology which included almost as much exotic information and were a considerably easier, and shorter, read. But – except perhaps for the works of Margaret Mead – none reached the Frazerian level of popularity. There were also literally hundreds of dons in Oxford, Cambridge and elsewhere whose weird and eccentric habits could have provided columns of copy for a journalist in search of an easy story. But it was Frazer who found his way onto the pages of the popular press. Why?

Robert Fraser (no relation, different spelling) has not set out directly to answer that question, but his book does serve to highlight the problems of Frazer’s success. The Making of ‘The Golden Bough’ is a work of intellectual history. As his subtitle (The Origin and Growth of an Argument) makes clear, Fraser is concerned with The Golden Bough’s theoretical implications and the background from which it came. He explores in detail Frazer’s debt to the Scottish intellectual tradition (particularly Hume) and his formative relations with Robertson Smith, a colleague at Cambridge whose Religion of the Semites was published just a year before The Golden Bough. And – the qualifying test, it seems, for all bona fide students of Frazer’s vast output – he traces the changes and developments in the argument of The Golden Bough over its various editions, from the mere two volumes of 1890 through to the 12-volume third edition (1906–15) and the abridgement of 1922.

Fraser has a light touch with some uncompromisingly heavy material. Occasionally there is an irritating, drama-documentary feel to the book. (Is there any evidence for Robertson Smith’s breathless dash across the college to tell the understandably hesitant young Frazer to ‘Get going, man!’ with his article on ‘Priapus’ for the Encyclopaedia Britannica?) And occasionally the wry humour makes some quite simple points almost incomprehensible. (‘Ominous noises emanating from the Hôtel Printemps’ refers, as far as I can tell, to Frazer’s new ideas for the third edition of The Golden Bough, developed while staying at a pensione in Rome!) As a work of intellectual history, however, The Making of ‘The Golden Bough’ is for the most part a job well done, and a useful supplement to Robert Ackerman’s excellent, but more strictly biographical, study of Frazer.

The underlying problem is that it is not at the level of ‘high culture’ that The Golden Bough most demands an explanation. The strictly academic claims of Frazer’s book, its distinction between magic and religion, its theory of sacrifice, its development of Humean philosophy, may all in some ways have encouraged its wide popular standing – but, surely, not to any significant extent. Most of the readers of the News Chronicle or the Staffordshire Sentinel who avidly devoured all eulogies of the great man had not the slightest interest in the similarity between Frazer’s theories of sympathetic magic and Hume’s principles of resemblance and contiguity. They may well not even have heard of Hume, let alone Robertson Smith. Their passion for Frazer and his work must have had other causes. Those causes are not explained by any of the recent studies of The Golden Bough (Fraser’s included), which often express slightly baffled admiration at the size of the sales figures, but neglect the popular cult of Frazer and the rich material that documents it.

One of the most important aspects of The Golden Bough’s popular appeal was the theme of exploration and travel. The book does not, of course, document an actual voyage: in fact, as the press accounts constantly stressed, Frazer had never visited most of the countries or witnessed the customs and rituals he described. Nevertheless, eulogy after eulogy portrayed him as the hero-explorer, the new Sir Francis Drake. And Frazer himself in his introduction wrote of The Golden Bough as a ‘voyage’ – the author as helmsman, setting sail with ‘the wind in our shrouds’. What kind of travel was Frazer suggesting? Not, certainly, the once daring, now commonplace travel around the Mediterranean. After all, in the first chapter of the book, it was the coast of Italy that was conjured up as the relatively safe starting point of the whole adventure. Frazer’s voyage took the reader to places much further away in time and space, to the lands of all things strange, where the bizarre customs of primitive Britain (corn-dollies, maypoles and so on) stood side by side with the eccentric habits of the aboriginal populations of the Empire. Part ‘reality’, part ‘metaphor’, this was a journey to the Other, to the Foreign, to all that was different from the increasingly urban, industrial life of early twentieth-century southern England.

It was in some respects an alarming journey: on the one hand, there were the strange and violent customs of the ‘savages’; on the other, the unsettling sense that Britain, too, had once had its fair share of ‘irrationality’. But whatever the frisson of danger, at least the reader returned home safely in the end (i.e. landed up in Italy again). That is, of course, exactly what the title of the book – The Golden Bough – tells us. The academic reader, to be sure, would eventually realise that it related (in a rather complex, even perverse way) to Frazer’s introductory analysis of the peculiar Roman cult in the sacred grove of Diana at Nemi – the famous grove whose ‘priest-king’ held office only until murdered at the hands of a rival claimant. But it was also a reference to Virgil’s ‘Golden Bough’, that magical branch which, on the instructions of the Sybil, Aeneas plucked to ensure himself a safe journey into the Underworld, and a safe passage back out. The title, in other words, proclaimed its purpose: like Aeneas’s bough, it took its readers on a strange voyage into a terrifying foreign world, and then brought them back once more to safety.

This image of Frazer’s ‘voyage’ was developed in an unexpected way in a popular novel published in 1890 and based explicitly on The Golden Bough (whose first edition had appeared only months before). Grant Allen’s The Great Taboo turned Frazer’s metaphorical journey into a literal tale of travel and adventure. It is the story of a young English couple, Felix Thurstan and Miss Muriel Ellis, washed overboard from a steamer in the South Seas and cast up on an island called Boupari, where the religious habits of the natives are a close replica of those described by Frazer. There are some ludicrous moments in the tale: Felix (by now desperately in love with Muriel) being forced to kill the cannibalistic god-king and assume the role of deity himself; the horrible secrets of the island’s religious customs divulged to our heroes through the mouth of an aged talking parrot. But in the end the happy pair reach England again – and, of course, marry. The final scene sees them trying to deal with Muriel’s crusty old aunt, who objects to the fact that they spent so many months on the island together, but unmarried. ‘Taboos,’ as the concluding remark of the novel goes, ‘are much the same in England as in Boupari’.

This is not a great novel; it is a crude and simplified retelling of The Golden Bough. But partly for that reason it is important for our understanding of the immediate popular reception of Frazer’s work. Felix and Muriel, in their dreadful melodrama, act out the experience of every reader of The Golden Bough – embarking on a journey into a frightening and unknown world, then returning safely to familiar civilisation, but now with a heightened awareness of the taboos and constraints of their own culture. In The Great Taboo, The Golden Bough shows its true colours as a voyage of exploration.

There were, of course, other factors behind the pre-war success of The Golden Bough. The sheer bulk of the third edition, a monument to encyclopedic knowledge, gave it instant authority – and its 400-page index turned it into an easy reference work for the whole of world culture. At the same time the book’s incorporation and explanation of the customs of the native populations of the British Empire gave it a link with contemporary political reality. Some critics interpreted this link in very practical terms – one remarked that ‘many mistakes would have been avoided in the government of backward and primitive peoples if more attention had been paid to the knowledge which Sir James has revealed of habits, customs and traditional beliefs.’ And Frazer himself was said to have hoped that his books would ‘be of help to those whose task it is to govern primitive peoples’. More important, though, was Frazer’s symbolic service to the cause of Empire. The Golden Bough represented the imperial subjects to their masters, legitimising British imperialism by turning the natives into convenient supporting evidence in a grand scholarly project. This was political domination neatly converted into academic prose.

Why The Golden Bough still remains popular today is more of a mystery. The 1922 abridgement has never been out of print; and the publishers reissued a reprint of the twelve-volume edition for the centenary of the first edition – presumably in the hope of some commercial success. It would be naive to suppose that Frazer’s theories and arguments had much to do with his popularity. Admittedly (to judge from its presence in occult bookshops and the lurid cover of the paperback edition), there may be some link between Frazer’s theories of death and rebirth and modern esoteric religion. But even the most enthusiastic follower of the occult would find it hard to see the relevance of Frazer’s outdated ethnography to their interests. And to the average reader, lacking that incentive to persevere, The Golden Bough must seem a long-winded, impenetrable text, made all the more baffling by its insistent comparisons between one now unfamiliar world and another.

The book remains important to us not because it is any longer avidly read, but because it was once read (with pleasure, or sometimes distaste) by writers who do still matter to us – by Eliot, Joyce, Malinowski, Lawrence, Leach, Yeats. We see the book through their eyes, irrevocably distanced from any sense of direct excitement at Frazer’s text. Reminiscing in 1925 on her own generation’s first encounter with Frazerian anthropology, Jane Harrison, the Cambridge classicist and specialist in Greek religion, wrote: ‘at the mere sound of the magical words “Golden Bough” we heard and understood.’

The magic is no longer quite the same.

Review of Robert Fraser, The Making of ‘The Golden Bough’: The Origin and Growth of an Argument (Macmillan, 1990)

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