John Ruskin's The queen of the air: A critical analysis



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John Ruskin's The Queen of the Air Is a highly imaginative account of the many aspects and powers of the Greek goddess Athena. The work has received little critical attention in the past, however, and what attention it has received seems superficial and inadequate. This thesis contains a close analysis of the work, including a discussion of its critics and sources, in order to attempt to evaluate its own merits and its relationship to Ruskin's thought. The Queen of the Air is first shown to have been anticipated by Ruskin for several years before its publication in 1869. Ruskin clearly began thinking of such an examination of the Greek myth of Athena by 1864, and his conception of the work evolved gradually. Its appearance was not met with enthusiasm by contemporary critics however. Their understanding of the work was, at best, superficial, and indeed some reviewers seemed to misunderstand the work completely. Subsequent critics of Ruskin's writings have also shown some misunderstanding of The Queen of the Air, and their opinions of and attitudes toward it vary considerably. Generally, however, the misunderstanding has arisen from the common critical opinion that the work was unintentionally chaotic and obscure. Ruskin had several sources of ideas available to him when he wrote The Queen of the Air, and he seems to have used some of them extensively. The thesis examines in some detail some of the ideas about myth of Thomas Carlyle, F. Max Muller, D. F. Strauss, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and George Grote. Carlyle, in various of his writings, showed a keen interest in the importance of symbols to modern man; Carlyle more than anyone seemed to provide the philosophical basis for The Queen of the Air. F. Max Muller, whose theory that myth had its origins in primitive metaphorical language, provided Ruskin with the method for delving into the meanings of Athena. D. F. Strauss' examination of Christian myth may well have given Ruskin an example to follow in the art of dealing with unhistorical, but nevertheless believable, myths. Coleridge's theory of imagination was the basis for Ruskin's, and his ideas on myth and religion may have influenced Ruskin's. Finally, Wordsworth and Grote provided Ruskin with an appreciation for Greek mythology, and further gave him some of the necessary background for its investigation. The analysis of The Queen of the Air that follows begins with a discussion of Ruskin's own theory of myth as being a symbolic representation of truth. Ruskin is seen to have admitted several possible origins of myths, but he asserts that those that have arisen out of the personification of natural phenomena are the most beautiful, and will be the ones discussed in the work. In the following two chapters is examined Ruskin's concept of the meaning of Athena. Ruskin begins with a discussion of the physical powers and domains of Athena as an ethereal deity, and gradually moves toward a conception of her as having some influence over not only the sky, but also the earth, the sea, and the lighted heavens. Ruskin then asserts that Athena is also a life-giving spirit, and so has all animal and plant life for her realm. Finally, Ruskin argues that Athena has dominion over man's imagination and will, and thus influences his creative and moral actions. The thesis concludes that although The Queen of the Air has little value as a work on Greek mythology, per se, it does represent a culmination of Ruskin's major ideas up till that time, ingeniously cloaking them under the mythic guise of Athena. In this sense, Ruskin is seen to have created a new mythic view of the world, based mainly on the products of his own Imagination. Thus The Queen of the Air is a unique work of Ruskin's, and may well be his most imaginative and creative.