Giles Goat-Boy

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Giles Goat-Boy
First edition
Author John Barth
Original title Giles Goat-Boy or The Revised New Syllabus of George Giles our Grand Tutor
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Doubleday
Publication date
Media type Print (hardcover)
Pages 710 pp
OCLC 15489838
813/.54 19
LC Class PS3552.A75 G5 1987

Giles Goat-Boy (1966) is the fourth novel by American writer John Barth. It is metafictional comic novel in which the world is portrayed as a university campus in an elaborate allegory of the Cold War. Its title character is a human boy raised as a goat, who comes to believe he is the Grand Tutor, the predicted Messiah. The book was a surprise bestseller for the previously obscure Barth, and in the 1960s had a cult status. It marks Barth's leap into American postmodern fabulism.


An allegory of the Cold War,[1] Giles Goat-Boy is one of Barth's most complex novels; it is considered by many to be Barth's best work,[2] while denigrated by others.[citation needed] It marks Barth's full emergence as a metafictional writer.[3] The metafiction manifests itself in the "Publisher's Disclaimer" and "Cover-Letter to the Editors and Publisher" which preface the book, and which each try to pass off the authorship onto another—the editors onto Barth, who claims it was by a mysterious Giles Stoker or Stoker Giles, who in turn claims it was written by the automatic computer WESCAC.[4] The editors in the disclaimer present their opinions on whether or not to publish the book, the responses ranging from repugnance to revelation, some disparaging both the novel and its presumed author.[5] The "author" JB, having amended the book to an unknown extent, claims it has become accidentally mixed up with a manuscript of his own, and the book is further appended with a "Post-Tape" and then a postscript, both potentially spurious, further undermining the authority of the author.[6]

"Here fornication, adultery, even rape, yea murder itself (not to mention self-deception, treason, blasphemy, whoredom, duplicity, and willful cruelty to others) are not only represented for our delectation but at times approved of and even recommended! On aesthetic grounds, too (though they pale before the moral), the work is objectionable; the rhetoric is extreme, the conceit and action wildly implausible, the interpretation of history shallow and patently biased, the narrative full of discrepancies and badly paced, at times tedious, more often excessive; the form, like the style, is unorthodox, unsymmetrical, inconsistent"
Anonymous "editor" from Giles Goat Boy's preface[7]

The humor and many events of the book are frequently in extreme poor taste, employing a number of potentially offensive representations of blacks, Jews and women. Even events such as the Holocaust are treated as material for frivolously absurd humor.[8]


University building
New Tammany College bears resemblance to Penn State.

George Giles is a boy raised as a goat who rises in life to be Grand Tutor (spiritual leader) of New Tammany College (the United States).[9][10] He strives for (and achieves) herohood, in accordance with the hero myth as theorized by Lord Raglan and Joseph Campbell. The novel abounds in mythological and Christian allegories, as well as in allusions to the Cold War, 1960s academia, and religion.[11] Rather than discovering it, George chooses his identity, much like Ebeneezer Cooke does in The Sotweed Factor.[12]

The principle behind the allegorical renaming of key roles in the novel as roman à clef is that the Earth (or the Universe) is a University. Thus, for example, the founder of a religion or great religious leader becomes a Grand Tutor (in German Grosslehrer), and Barth renames specific leaders as well: Jesus Christ becomes Enos Enoch (meaning in Hebrew "The man who walked with God" or "humanity when it walked with God"[13]), Moses becomes Moishe, Buddha becomes the original Sakhyan. As the founder of the maieutic method, Socrates becomes Maios; Plato (whose Greek name Platon means "broad-shouldered") becomes Scapulas (from scapula, shoulder-blade); Aristotle, as the coiner of the term entelekheia (lit. "having an end within," usually translated "entelechy," or glossed as the actualization of a potentiality), becomes Entelechus. The heroes of epic poems tend to be named after the Greek for "son of": Odysseus becomes Laertides (son of Laertes), Aeneas becomes Anchisides (son of Anchises), and so on. The subtitle The Revised New Syllabus means, in the novel's Universe=University allegory, a parodic rewriting of the New Testament. Satan is the Dean o' Flunks, and lives in the Nether Campus (hell); John the Baptist is John the Bursar; the Sermon on the Mount becomes the Seminar-on-the-Hill; the Last Judgment becomes the Final Examination. Among the parodic variations, a computer replaces the Holy Spirit, and an artificial insemination the Immaculate Conception.[14]

A hypertext encyclopedia also figures in the novel, years before the invention of hypertext and three decades before the Web became part of society at large. The character Max Spielman is a parody of Ernst Haeckel,[citation needed] whose insight "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" is rephrased as "ontogeny recapitulates cosmogeny" and "proctoscopy repeats hagiography".[15] The "riddle of the universe" is rephrased as "the riddle of the sphincters".[16]

The text is "discovered" by the author (much like in Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night).[17] The novel contains a forty-page parody in small type of the full text of Oedipus Rex called Taliped Decanus. The digressive play-within-a-book is grossly disproportionate to the length of the book, parodying both Sophocles and Freud.[18]


Barth has worked most of his adult life as a university professor, and has also set The End of the Road on a university campus.[19]

Barth tells how a reviewer of The Sot-Weed Factor saw in that book a parody of the pattern of the "Wandering Hero Myth", as described by Lord Raglan in The Hero (1936). This observation impelled Barth to begin research into comparative mythology and anthropology, which included reading Otto Rank's Myth of the Birth of the Ritual Hero (1909; 1914) and Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). This led to his deconstructing the idea of the Ur-Myth in Giles Goat-Boy.[20] Barth would delve further into the Hero in his essay "Myth and Tragedy", and in his novels LETTERS (1979) and Once Upon a Time (1995).[6]

[...]I say, Muse, spare me (at the desk, I mean) from social-historical responsibility, and in the last analysis from every other kind as well, except artistic.
Barth, "Muse, Spare Me" (1965)[1]

In the 1987 preface to the novel Barth declared that his first three novels formed a "loose trilogy of novels", after completing which he felt ready to move into new territory. He called Giles Goat-Boy the first of his Fabulist novels, in contrast to the 1950s-style black comedy displayed in the earlier novels. He declared in a 1965 essay, "Muse, Spare Me", that he desired to be spared from social-historical responsibility in order to focus on aesthetic concerns.[21] The Sot-Weed Factor was released in paperback the year before Giles Goat-Boy, and increased interest in his work shortly before Giles Goat-Boy was released.[2]

Giles Goat-Boy was released the same year as a number of watermark works in the early history of postmodern American literature, most notably Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. Brian McHale has seen 1966 as being a year in which the new postmodern aesthetic had definitively arrived, a year in which metafiction, poststructuralism and other concepts strongly related to postmodernism made their mark in the US.[22]


Giles Goat-Boy was on The New York Times bestseller list in 1966 for 12 weeks,[23] but was coldly received in England.[24]

In a 1967 article, science fiction author Judith Merril praised the novel for its sophistication in handling sexual material.[25]

Giles Goat-Boy was initially reviewed 1984, Robert Alter referred to it as "reced[ing] into the detritus of failed experiments in American fiction", calling it "little more than an inflated translation game"..."so brittle a cleverness that it constantly reveals the tediousness of the novel's informing conception".[26] While it enjoyed a cult status in the 1960s, it has since become one of Barth's least-read works.[27] John Gardner called the book a morally "empty but well-made husk".[28] Gore Vidal called it "a very bad prose-work", condemning it as one of a number of overly academic "teachers' novel[s]".[29]

Barth's own statements on the primacy of aesthetics in his writing have tended to obscure the otherwise obvious politics (as 1960s Cold War allegory) in the book. Robert Scholes was among the early critics who dismissed the elaborate allegory as irrelevant, and critics since then have emphasized the rôle of the hero and the quest in the book's construction.[30] In the 1980s, Barth would revisit his 1960s works and come to acknowledge their historical context, including in a preface to the 1987 edition of the Giles Goat-Boy.[31]


In 1967, after the success of Giles Goat-Boy, Barth was able to have released a revised one-volume edition of his first two novels that restored the books' original, darker endings.[32]

Barth has come to see Giles Goat-Boy as "the first American postmodernist novel"[33]—an assertion picked up by many of his critics and biographers, but not universally accepted.[34] The novel was the central exhibit of Robert Scholes' The Fabulators (1967), a study of a tendency in contemporary writers to eschew realism in fiction.[35]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Grausam 2011, p. 26.
  2. ^ a b Bryant 1997, p. 212.
  3. ^ Grausam 2011, p. 20.
  4. ^ Székely 2010, p. 301.
  5. ^ York 2003, pp. 66–67.
  6. ^ a b York 2003, pp. 68.
  7. ^ York 2003, p. 66.
  8. ^ York 2003, pp. 64–65.
  9. ^ Guido Sommavilla, Peripenzie Dell'epica Contemporanea, p. 295
  10. ^ John Clute. "Giles Boat-Boy or, The Revised New Syllabus" in: Frank N. Magill, ed. Survey of Science Fiction Literature, Vol. 2. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1979. (pp. 873–877) ISBN 0893561851 .
  11. ^ The fullest study of the novel is Douglas Robinson, John Barth's Giles Goat-Boy: A Study (Jyväskylä: University of Jyväskylä Press, 1980).
  12. ^ Harris & Harris 1972, p. 107.
  13. ^ Sommavilla, pp. 285–9. Robinson (1980: 363) suggests that Enos Enoch is also a pun on "enough's enough."
  14. ^ Although Barth's narrator also provocatively notes that while George Giles was conceived in a virgin, he was not exactly born to one, as he broke his mother's hymen being delivered. For a glossary of Barth's Universe=University renamings, see Robinson (1980: 363–73).
  15. ^ Mercer 1971: 7
  16. ^ Mercer 1971: 6.
  17. ^ Harris & Harris 1972, p. 24.
  18. ^ Harris & Harris 1972, p. 24; Robinson 1980, p. 71; Moddelmog 1993, p. 146.
  19. ^ Safer 1989, p. 88.
  20. ^ Clavier 2007, p. 166.
  21. ^ Grausam 2011, pp. 25–26.
  22. ^ Grausam 2011, p. 40.
  23. ^ Garner, Dwight (2008-10-05). "Inside the List". The New York Times. 
  24. ^ Lodge 1971, p. 9.
  25. ^ Latham 2011, p. 53.
  26. ^ Alter 1984, p. 29–30.
  27. ^ Haen 2002, p. 33.
  28. ^ Gardner 2005, p. 9.
  29. ^ Pritchard 1994, p. 165.
  30. ^ Grausam 2011, p. 27.
  31. ^ Grausam 2011, p. 28.
  32. ^ Grausam 2011, p. 25.
  33. ^ Barth 1995, p. 268.
  34. ^ Clavier 2007, p. 169.
  35. ^ Lodge 1971, p. 6.

Works cited[edit]

Barth, John (1995). Further Fridays: Essays, Lectures, and Other Nonfiction 1984–1994. Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 978-0-316-08691-2. 
Gardner, John (2005). "Premises on Art and Morality". In George, Stephen K. Ethics, Literature, and Theory: An Introductory Reader. Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 3–10. ISBN 978-0-7425-3234-2. Retrieved 2012-05-29. 
Greenwood, David; Hurtado, Larry W. (1999). "The Great Sayings of Jesus in Literature: Characters and Events". In Drane, John William. The Great Sayings of Jesus: Proverbs, Parables and Prayers. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 170–216. ISBN 978-0-312-22211-6. Retrieved 2012-05-29. 
Jeffrey, David Lyle, ed. (1992). A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8028-3634-2. Retrieved 2012-05-29. 
Latham, Rob (2011). "Sextrapolation in New Wave Science Fiction". In Pearson, Wendy Gay; Hollinger, Veronica; Gordon, Joan. Queer Universes: Sexualities in Science Fiction. Liverpool University Press. pp. 52–71. ISBN 978-1-84631-501-5. Retrieved 2012-06-05. 
Moddelmog, Debra (1993). Readers and Mythic Signs: The Oedipus Myth in Twentieth-Century Fiction. SIU Press. ISBN 978-0-8093-1846-9. Retrieved 2012-05-29. 
Robinson, Douglas (1980). John Barth's Giles Goat-Boy: A Study. University of Jyväskylä. ISBN 978-951-678-413-0. Retrieved 2012-05-29. 
Rogers, Mary Frances (1991). Novels, Novelists, and Readers: Toward a Phenomenological Sociology of Literature. SUNY Press. ISBN 978-0-7914-0602-1. Retrieved 2012-05-29. 
Pritchard, William H. (1994). Playing It by Ear: Literary Essays and Reviews. University of Massachusetts Press. ISBN 978-0-87023-948-9. Retrieved 2012-05-29. 
York, R. A (2003). "Barth: Giles Goat Boy". The Extension of Life: Fiction and History in the American Novel. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. pp. 63–75. ISBN 978-0-8386-3989-4. Retrieved 2012-05-19. 

Further reading[edit]