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Golden Bough, The

magnum opus, Aftermath, The Golden Bough, Aeneid, The Making of The Golden Bough

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Ellen Gilchrist Biography to Grain

Sir James Frazer's magnum opus, subtitled ‘a study in magic and religion’, first published in two volumes in 1890 and completed in twelve volumes which appeared between 1907 and 1915. A one-volume abridgement appeared in 1922, and a supplement, Aftermath, in 1936. The Golden Bough presents an enormously detailed anthropological thesis in accordance with Darwinian evolutionism: all religions, Frazer maintained, follow similar patterns of development, emerging from primitive magical belief towards increasingly comprehensive theological schemata, and having as their essential dynamic the biological imperative for survival; the advent of scientific wisdom in the West marks the final stage of this process of mental and institutional organization. The book develops out of Frazer's interest in the ancient priesthood of Nemi, the rule of which was that succeeding priests attained office by slaying their predecessors, having plucked ‘the Golden Bough’, to which the Aeneid alludes, before so doing. The work develops around two central questions: ‘Why had the priest…to slay his predecessor? And why…had he to pluck the Golden Bough?’ The first is answered in terms of ensuring the continuing vitality of the priesthood, the second by establishing that the Golden Bough, identified as mistletoe, magically embodied the priest's power. While the scientifically agnostic tones of Frazer's conclusion speak of ‘the long tragedy of human folly and suffering which has unrolled itself before the readers of these volumes’, his sensitivity towards his material is such that the work possesses considerable imaginative grandeur and dramatic power; ‘at times he seems consumed with devout astonishment at his own subject-matter’, remarks Robert Fraser, author of The Making of The Golden Bough (1990) and editor of the essays in Sir James Frazer and the Literary Imagination (1990). The latter examines the pervasive effect of Frazer's study on twentieth-century literature, to which it has contributed more meaningfully than to anthropology; T. S. Eliot refers to it in the notes to The Waste Land (1922) as ‘a work …which has influenced our generation profoundly’, indicating The Golden Bough's significance for many writers, among whom are James Joyce, W. B. Yeats, John Synge, Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, and Robert Graves.

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