After all my jabber about John Ruskin’s griffins, it occurs to me that I should show them:
The plate is in Chapter VIII, “Grotesque,” of the third volume of Modern Painters (1856). The left-hand griffin, medieval griffin, the “true” griffin, resides on the cathedral of Verona, while the “false” classical griffin on the right is from the Roman temple of Antoninus and Faustina.
Neither creature is true in the sense that it exists or existed. Ruskin is arguing the case for imaginative truth:
The Lombard workman did really see a griffin in his imagination, and carved it from the life, meaning to declare to all ages that he had verily seen with his immortal eyes such a griffin as that; but the classical workman never saw a griffin at all, nor anything else; but put the whole thing together by line and rule.
“How do you know that?”
Very easily. Look at the two, and think them over. (§12-13)
Taking “easily” ironically, and taking for granted that Ruskin’s arguments will be fanciful, the passage does turn out to be a masterpiece of the core of criticism – look and think. Ruskin saves it (too easy), but I will start with the most bizarre flaw in the classical griffin, that the left foreleg is nearly twice as long as the right; Ruskin is amused by what the griffin is doing, gently touching a leaf or flower:
We may be pretty sure, if the carver had ever seen a griffin, he would have reported of him as doing something else than that with his feet. (§ 14)
The Gothic griffin is actually clutching a little dragon in its powerful claws, which is unfortunately a bit hard to see in the plate – that’s the dragon’s curled tail and wing running up the griffin’s throat.
I do not want to repeat Ruskin’s analysis. The conclusion is that the classical griffin is a hodgepodge assembled from earlier models, with decorative elements added to hide the flaws, while the medieval beast is not a scrapbook but a wholly imagined original creation. Just look at that beak full of lion teeth.
So that taking the truth first, the honest imagination gains everything; it has its griffinism, and grace, and usefulness, all at once; but the false composer, caring for nothing but himself and his rules, loses everything, -- griffinism, grace, and all. (§ 20)
I can hardly imagine arguing on Ruskin’s terms (“honest,” truth”), and he in fact begins the next chapter with “I am afraid the reader must be, by this time, almost tired of hearing about truth.” But much of what I look for in art and literature, much of what I am trying to do at Wuthering Expectations, is in that passage. I am looking for true imagination when I read, for a book’s griffinism.