Dodona's Grove

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Dodona's Grove (1640) is a historical allegory by James Howell, making extensive use of tree lore.[1]

James Howell
from Dodona's Grove (1641)
by Abraham Bosse


This curiosity purports to be a history of Europe since the accession of James I of England put into an allegorical form in which the roles of the various kings, princes and nobles are taken by various trees. Its effect, however, is not quite what that would imply, as the tree-allegory remains on the level of the emblem, whereas the action demands if not people, then anthropomorphs convincingly capable of some sort of agency. Before the book is properly underway there is already a tension between its tenor and supposed vehicle. Having set up an allegorical apparatus, with a comprehensive 'Clavis', or key of the significance of the various names which he uses, as well as illustrations of the various trees, the text itself, though conforming vaguely to an allegorical mode, is anything but smooth in its allegorical workings, anything but subtle in its jarring clashes of style and treatment, which take it far away from earlier, more consistently executed examples of the genre.


In England at the time of the publication of Dodona's Grove, the dominant paradigm for the writing of allegorical romance, particularly when of a political nature was John Barclay's Argenis, a work which told the story of the religious conflict in France under Henry III and IV. Both of the dedicatory poems which precede Dodona's Grove mention the volume, and indeed there are similarities between Barclay and Howell in their attitudes towards writing, but what they have to say equally points up their differences. In Barclay, the process is much more subtle, more comprehensively articulated as an allegory which is inclusive of all its aspects. Instead of putting forward any kind of manifesto himself, he lets one of the characters in the romance tell of "a new form of writing", which he intends to invent, and thus places the text's genesis within its own fictional space:

... I will compile some stately fable in manner of a history: in it will I fold up strange events and mingle together arms, marriages, bloodshed, mirth with many and various successes... And that they may not say, they are traduced, no mans Character shall be simply set down: I shall find many things to conceal them, which would not agree with them if they were made known. I know the disposition of our country-men: because I seem to tell them tales, I shall haunt them all. While they read, while they are affected with anger or flaw, as it were against strangers, they shall meet with themselves; and find in the glass held before them, the shew and merit of their own fame. For, I that bind not myself religiously to the writing of a true History, may take this liberty.

Historical form[edit]

Like Barclay, Howell eschews conventional historical form, but the earlier writer's subtle combination of raison d'etre and moral considerations are quite distinct from Howell's intentions, or rather what he would like us to believe those intentions are. He writes as he does on the authority of the ancients, rather than political expedients he claims:

Nor is the Author the first, though the first in this peculiar Maiden fancy, who deeming it a flat and vulgar task to compile a plain and downright story, which consists merely of collections, and is as easier as walking horses or gleaning of corn hath under heiroglyphicks, allegories and emblems endeavour'd to diversifie and enrich the matter, to embroder it up and down with Apologies, Essays, Parables, and other flourishes; for we find this to be the ancient'st and most ingenious way of delivering truth, and transmitting it to posterity: Omnis fabula fundatur in Historia.


The book was written and published four years before the creation of the Royal Society, College for the Promoting of Physical-Mathematic Experimental Learning. As a Greco-Latin scholar he was well aware of Temenos. The tree of knowledge, which has been the watch phrase of the academic and scientist, has been replaced, in the last 30 years, by Genomics and genetics. Knowing the kingdoms and phyla, upon the tree, and even Darwinian species, is now more of a child's working tool, than that of a mature scientist. The suggestion that he was interested in Galen's medicine is far from inaccurate, since some of the trees of medical knowledge were known even then.

Today they are known as systematics, cladistics, or phyclogenetics, each classification being taken from a different node of the tree, and being treated as the top of a new tree. Digital technology now provides an alphabet-numeric system of classification.

Dodona's Grove was a serious commitment, a dedication, to the new learning which the Royal Society was set up to investigate. Law also has its own taxonomy, its own tree, which was considered by lawyers, such as Howell, to be a living entity. It still is. Kingdoms that he mentioned referred to the kingdoms of learning; as above kingdom.... phyla...class.... order... family...genus... species. (A mnemonic: KPCOFGS) Of similar date to Hartlib as he was, (His work has been compared to modern internet search engines) he may well have espoused pansophism. Hartlib was in favor of Cromwell whilst Howell was a courtier, against the country party.

Nor did he exclude the Kingdoms, the family tree of languages, which he understood so well, the ethnology of language. It is a work by a man of profound learning, attempting to encapsulate the ambitions of the newly forming Royal Society. He was not a founding father of the Society but then he was not a scientist in the evolving sense of the word. The book is arguably not an allegory at all, and it is understandable, before the days of Cladistic kingdoms, that the proliferation of words, such as tribe, clan, ancestry, family, kingdom, used even now, should lead him to consider kings and queens as such. There are now other, better ways of memorizing facts than by using terms of an anthropological hierarchy.


Epistemologically, therefore, what Howell will admit as truth is a broad spectrum of styles, and their heterogeneous nature, rather than undermining his viewpoint, confirms it in that the various styles that he uses do indeed clash with one another, demonstrating themselves as corollaries of the elemental conflicts in the extra-textual world, and upon which, as a neo-Stoic, he believed that world was based. This shall be discussed further below.

On a first reading, these clashing registers of discourse are particularly noticeable; set uncomfortably with the parergon of the allegory, the text's main framework, sit a variety of discourses: an exposition of the various lands of Europe strides the topoi and genres of travel narrative in the first section, whilst later, diplomatic history and the romance ideal chafe against one another when Prince Charles' visit to Spain is dealt with.

Main subject[edit]

The book's purported main subject, that of history, is often drowned out in the surface noise of the competing discourses in which it is expressed. The pulling of the text between narrative strategies, and between systems of mythology, medicine and philosophy can be arresting, and sometimes annoying, but these are disjunctions which are meant to be there, and the clashes and shifts in register which we see in this work are most probably intentional. Whether this makes good or bad historiography is another matter. In this case, the results are not important in terms of success or failure, but in terms of their invention.

Rhetorical Structure[edit]

The rhetorical form of Dodona's Grove is based on a series of frames, and a series of concomitant modes. Within its allegorical world of trees, the book has two main frames: that of the syncretic Stuart myth, which fuses elements of Greek, Roman and ancient British myth with hermetic neoplatonism, and that of a specific view of Galenic medicine, altered by an interest in neo-Stoical philosophy to be a radically unstable phenomenon. In these two clashing frameworks must exist the various modes in which the events are narrated: travel narrative, romance, diplomatic report, encomium, and medical treatise.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ [1]

External links[edit]