Monday, October 17, 2011


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.


  1. "The right-hand griffin, medieval griffin, the “true” griffin, resides on the cathedral of Verona, while the “false” classical griffin on the left is from the Roman temple of Antoninus and Faustina."

    I am confused. Is the "true" griffin on the left or right? All of your arguments seem in reverse of the above-quoted sentence. Or do I just need more coffee this morning?

    Assuming the 'true' griffin is the one on the left, I must agree with Mr Ruskin. The one on the right is a stereotype while the one on the left is a distinct individual.

    ~scott bailey

  2. Well that's sort of what I would call a major error. Maybe I needed more coffee.

  3. Now that it's fixed - thanks a lot! - I'll add that Ruskin happily concedes that the stereotypical griffin is a well-made stereotype, and he even admires the use of the "back" wing, the way it is pulled forward behind the griffin's head, to fill the background.

    But it's still what you say, a stereotype, a variation on someone else's old idea.

  4. Are you familiar at all with Persian art, and the struggle that happened between the Persian ideas of ideal forms against the Renaissance ideals of realistic portraits? To a Persian artist (before the 17th century), every depiction of a griffin should show a perfect, archtypal griffin rather than a particular griffin. So Ruskin's arguments would run counter to the aesthetic traditions of Persia. Hell, they'd behead him as a heretic, likely.

    It occurs to me that I don't know if any of those claims are historical fact; I realize I've accepted Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red as truth. He may have made it all up. But assuming he wasn't lying about his fictional Persian artists, I find it interesting (though likely predictable if I think about it for a minute) that my acceptance of Ruskin's argument is entirely cultural bias, and the strength of my agreement is based on my current concern about cliches in my own writing. So huh. More coffee.

    Are we finished with Portuguese novels? I haven't read Illustrious House of Ramires yet!

    ~scott bailey

  5. I think you and I are both looking for the same thing, when it comes to great books anyway. Though I enjoy a false griffin now and then, too.

    I like your notion of a book's "griffinsim." This is so often what separates good from bad in my mind. Whether a book depicts historical/reality based truth or fantastical/mythological truth it must be true to the imagination.

    It's been a long time since I read any Ruskin, but maybe I"ll take a look as this article.

  6. Every artistic tradition will have different ideas about originality and creativity. If I ignore Ruskin's own train of thought and follow the idea to the source, there should be some place, even in a quite rigid tradition, where this kind of free imagination should be possible.

    Plenty of Portuguese left. Tomorrow, even. Months of it, until we are all sick of it.

    CB - That's what's great about Ruskin's example, isn't it, that he picks a cleanly fantastic example.

    The false griffins are especially fun when you know how griffins are made, so to speak. Then we enjoy the clever rearrangements of the griffin-parts, of the clichés. This is partly why I was writing about genre fiction last week. The best mystery or romance or what have you cannot be truly original (or it is not in the genre anymore) so there has to be a fair amount of cliché-shuffling. But some "true" griffins will be in the book as well.