The Battle of The Books by Jonathan Swift Summary and Analysis

The Battle of The Books Summary and Analysis

The Battle of The Books by Jonathan Swift is according to Aitkin, “an attack on pedantry”. W. H. Hudson opines that it ranks “among the finest prose satires in the language.” It grew out of a controversy, in which Sir William Temple had taken prominent and modern literature, and is chiefly occupied not with the substantial issues involved but with the discomfiture of Temple’s personal opponents. The mock-heroic description of the great battle in the King’s Library between the rival hosts, is a masterpiece of its kind. The merit of the work lies in its satirical power.

The Battle of The Books is comprised of five clearly distinguished incidents. The main body of the satire is preceded by the Bookseller’s notice to the reader and a very brief preface. The preface states the circumstances under which the satire was written. The main purpose of the author was to give an impartial account of the battle fought between the Ancients and the Modems in the regal library, as a result of the mismanagement the librarian, Bentley, who show undue favour to the Moderns. The author makes a mock pretense to impartiality.

The first incident forms the main body of the satire. It concerns the dispute between the Ancients and the Moderns for the right to live on the highest peak of Parnassus. In the beginning the author refers to the internecine warfare that goes on among the dogs of the street for one great bone to be seized on by some leading dog. The author says that war is the child of pride, and that pride is the daughter of riches. The right of possession is common, jealousies and suspicious abound among men as they do among dogs as a result of which the street (the world) is reduced to a manifest state of war, of a citizen against a citizen. Thus, want and lust are the main causes of quarrels. After having discussed this, the author turns to the disputes between the inhabitants of the Parnassus.

The Parnassus had two peaks. The Ancients lived on higher peak, the Moderns occupied the lower peak. Jealousy and heart burning lie at the bottom of their hostile attitude towards the superior beings. The Moderns send an emissary to the Ancients asking them to step down to a lower position otherwise the Moderns would use shovels and level the said hill as low as they would deem proper. The impertinence of the Modems amuses the Ancients. The Moderns are advised to raise their own side of the hill. They assure them of their assistance. The controversy starts. It takes a serious turn when the animated books of St. James’s Library take up the argument. The controversial books of the library soon organize themselves into two mutually hostile camps.

On the one side are Plato, Homer, Virgil and others on the other side are Descartes, Dryden, Hobbes and others. Bentley the librarian is inclined towards the Moderns, and shows unfriendly attitude towards the Ancients. The antagonism between the two factions increases and intensifies. The first incidents ends with Temple playing a leading part in organizing the defence of his party against the vide ambitions of the Moderns. It may be recalled that Temple was Swift’s patron and a staunch supporter of the Ancients.

The second incident is about the spider and the bee. This is remarkable for its artistic economy and satiric efficacy. There were many remnants in the spider’s web. A bee enters there unknowingly. Swift describes the web in a mock-epic phraseology as the “mansion” of the spider. The bee manages to come out the web but in the process, the web is broken. The spider gets furious at the sight of his dilapidated “mansion”. The bee, the universal plunderer is rebuked by the spider for the latter’s insolence and impudence. The allegorical significance of the episode is made explicit through Aesop. The bee stands for the Ancients while the spider is the representative of the Moderns.

The third incident deals with the battlefield. The two sides assemble on the battle field. Homer, Pindar, Virgil, Herodotus, Lucan, Euclid, Plato, Aristotle and of course Temple are the Ancients. The Moderns are represented by Tasso, Dryden, Withers, Cowley, Descartes, Harvey Denham, Gondibert and a host of others. Milton and Tasso, the epic poets lead the horse. Homer appears on a furious horse. He slays five Moderns one after another. His victims are: Gondibert, Denham, Wedey, Parrault and Fontenelle. Pindar kills many opponents including Oldham, Afra Behn and Cowley.

The most interesting encounter takes place between Virgil and Dryden. The language of this part is packed with satirical punches. Dryden is unwilling to have a trial of strength with Virgil. He calls Virgil father and humbly proposes an exchange of armour, a sign of amity Virgil accepts to exchange his golden armour with the rusty one of Dryden.

The fourth incident falls in the middle of the third before the Commencement of the actual fight. The scene is shifted from the battle field to the Milky Way, where goods have assembled to hear from Jupiter the account of the controversy. In this portion Swift refers to the pedantry and shallow critical acumen of the Moderns. In the light of the soliloquy of Criticism, the attempt of the Moderns to criticize the Ancients and claim superiority over them appears almost frivolous.

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The fifth incident is an allegorical version of the supposed victory of Charles Boyle, who wrote in defence of Temple’s praise of the Ancients, over Wotton and Bentley. Wotton had attacked Temple. Apollo calls upon Boyle to take the revenge. Wotton runs away in fear. Boyle pursues him. Bentley happens to pass by he is carrying the spoils of Aesop and Phalaris, both of whom are dear to Boyle. With a single lance Boyle fixes both Wotton and Bentley together. The account of the battle ends here. The victory belongs to the Ancients, although the author does not directly expresses his own opinion. The merit of the work lies in its satirical power. It is an exquisite piece of literary art.

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