Regius professor at Oxford from 1908 to 1936, Gilbert Murray was one of the foremost Hellenists of his time. He participated in the revolution of classical studies carried out by the Cambridge Ritualists and, with his more moderate position in relation to his Cantabrigian colleagues (he shared Wilamowitz’s antipathy for the primitive), contributed to the diffusion of their ideas: the underlying ritual structure in Greek drama, the Dionysiac metamorphosis of the eniautos daimon or year spirit, the sacramental theory of sacrifice. His teaching was transmitted to a generation of scholars who influenced key strands of research over the ensuing decades, above all in the field of historical anthropology. One thinks in particular of E. R. Dodds, who always remembered Murray’s lessons on the Bacchae as the most stimulating intellectual experience in his student days at Oxford.
The text, edited by C. Stray, which for the most part gathers papers given at a conference on Gilbert Murray held in 2005 at the Institute of Classical Studies (University of London), reconstructs the complex intellectual biography of the scholar. The papers cover in depth the whole range of Murray’s activities, from the work of translator to that of propagandist for Greek studies, and that of promoter of international peace through his leading role in the League of Nations, of which he was a founder. The result is not only a multi-faceted portrait of Murray, but also a detailed fresco of late-Victorian England and of the cultural ferment of the first half of the 20th century that had as protagonists other eminent figures such as F. Macdonald Cornford, Jane Harrison, Bernard Shaw, and Bertrand Russell.
The book opens with a remembrance of two of Murray’s grandchildren (Ann Paludan and Alexander Murray, pp. 17-32) and a reconstruction of the scholar’s childhood in Australia (Francis West, pp. 31-48).
Dedicated to his work as a classicist are the contributions of Mark Griffith (who dwells on the two main phases, or modes, of Murray’s career as scholar, pp. 51-80), Christopher Collard (on his critical editions, pp. 103-132), James Morwood (on the translations of tragedies, pp.133-144) and Robert Parker (on the writings on Greek Religion, pp. 81-102).
On his role as committed intellectual — an aristocratic liberal with some traces of ideological ambiguity — focus the essays by William Bruneau (Murray’s politics is analyzed through his clash/encounter with Russell, pp. 201-216), by Martin Ceadel (who confronts the energetic involvement in international politics of Murray’s adult life and the conservatism of his last years, pp. 217-237), by Peter Wilson (on Murray’s legacy to the field of International Relations, pp. 239-260), and by Julia Stapleton (on Murray’s conception of Hellenism in relation to political and intellectual twentieth-century liberalism, pp. 261-291).
Barbara F. McManus and Mick Morris concentrate on Murray’s role as mentor and promulgator. The first paper relates Murray’s work of promotion for J. A. K. Thomson, the classical scholar who became his literary executor (pp. 181-199), while the second analyses the role that his broadcasting with the BBC played in promoting the two causes that were dearest to him: Greek studies and Internationalism (pp. 293-317). The latter paper includes comprehensive listings of Murray’s broadcasts. Two essays close the book: William Bruneau and Russell Wodell on Murray’s letters to The Times (pp. 319-348) and N. J. Lowe on Murray’s involvement in parapsychology. Lowe’s contribution includes also an example of the performances with family and friends through which Murray sometimes put to a test his capacity for telepathy (pp. 319-348). This was not a mere matter of eccentricity, because interest in the paranormal at the beginning of the century was in the air. Murray was president in 1915 and still later in 1952 of the Society for Psychical Research, which numbered among its members Frederic Myers and Andrew Lang, pioneers of conjugating the study of the ancient world with paranormal themes, philosophers such as William James and Bergson, politicians such as Gladstone and Arthur Balfour, and writers such as Tennyson, Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, and Arthur Conan Doyle.
Fiona Macintosh’s essay on the fortunes of Murray’s translation of the Bacchae (pp. 145-165) has been positioned by the editor as a watershed between the section dedicated to the classicist and the section dedicated to the internationalist and promulgator. On the other hand, it is in theatrical performances that the ancient world entered into contact with the modern world and the interaction between past and present was perhaps the most characteristic trait of Murray’s work.
Published fifty years after Murray’s death, the book is not only well organized and full of information, but in some way in spite of the large variety of perspectives, it succeeds in sketching a unitary portrait of the scholar who, looking to the irrational in an attitude that varied between attraction and reluctance, always maintained his Olympic profile and did not sacrifice to the archaic the progress of reason. Parker writes that “his greatest enthusiasm was for Stoicism, a fully developed philosophical system” (p. 84).
My only doubt is that the homogeneity of judgement reached by the collection risks consigning Murray to the dusty fate of books opened again only for the curiosity of the historian. His work as scholar from this point of view would belong only to the history of historiography and would not be able to offer ideas to those who today deal with the same themes. Mark Griffith acutely underlines the disappearance of Murray in all recent specialized bibliographies (p. 58) and Stray ends his Introduction (pp.1-15) with these words of Dodds: “Whether he is to be ranked with the greatest scholars depends on one’s conception of scholarship; but that he was a truly great man no one who knew him could doubt” (p.15).
It remains to be asked if Murray as scholar doesn’t deserve something better than this epitaph and if the research on such a fertile period for classical studies must always remain within the known paths or may look for less explored ones.
Although the differences between Murray and the Ritualists have been emphasized, less covered are their points of convergence, especially where they neglect anthropological ideology in favour of the structure of the text. For example, in Murray’s Excursus on the Ritual Forms preserved in Greek Tragedy —which is an organic part of Harrison’s Themis (1912) a sort of manifesto of the Ritualist experience — the genetic question on tragedy resolves itself in the individuation of the constitutive elements of the narration, organized in a uniform sequence. The analogy with Russian formalism, in the double aspect of synchronic morphology and diachronic genetics, is all the more surprising if one considers that Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale and The Historical Roots of the Wonder Tale would appear only later, respectively in 1928 and 1946, and both Murray and Propp reach a schematization of the internal dynamics of the agrarian festivals, departing from the assumption that tragedy and folk tale ‘narrate’ what ‘was previously acted’ exactly in the same order as it was acted.
The possibility of real interconnecting routes between the proto-structural experiences of Oxbridge and the Russian critical literary currents, despite their seemingly mutual ignorance of each other, deserves further study (the philologist Nicholas Bakhtin, brother of the more famous Mikhail, was one of the persons closest to Cornford in the last years of his life). Other significant names and indications of possible contacts with the formalism are cited in P. G. Naidicht, A Ritualist Odyssey: Victorian England to Soviet Russia, in The Cambridge Ritualists Reconsidered, ed. William M. Calder III, Illinois Classical Studies, Supplement 2, Atlanta 1991, although from a different perspective from the one I am suggesting. For in my view in the slipping of anthropological comparativism towards the morphology of the text lies one of the most vital legacies that the study of classics during the first half of the 20th century has left to us.