THE IMAGINATION OF PLANTS: A Book of Botanical Mythology
State University of New York Books, 2019, 298 pages
Hbk £79.11 ISBN: 978 1-4384-74
Review by Simon Leadbeater
Matthew Hall’s book starts, as will I, with the Jason and the Argonauts (1963) scene in which the skeleton troop emerges from the ground having been seeded by the hydra’s teeth; a good start. We all know the film and my attention was suitably piqued:
“The skeleton army attacks the gathered men and an epic battle is waged until the men finally win by turning the skeletons on each other”.[i]
Hall’s recollection of the film, however, differed from my own. So I checked. I am not sure whether there is more than one version of this epic encounter, but the one I watched on YouTube[ii] featured Jason with two companions (which I would not really describe as ‘gathered men’) both of whom were killed, and Jason only escapes by jumping off the cliff into the sea presumably to re-join his ship.
I feel uncomfortable starting this review with this observation, but this is how Hall begins his book, a book which took seven years to write. This obvious error is a real shame, as otherwise the famous scene is an excellent introduction, one which certainly resonated with me, and it explains how the author was first excited by the world of mythology. A minor element within Hall’s book, but as this is his opening, and as it appears to be an inaccurate account of a film version of the myth, inevitably I wonder whether if Hall could get such a simple thing wrong, what about his interpretation of original texts or ancient scholars’ versions thereof.
Pursuing this thought, in a book on mythology it is important to distinguish between mortals and deities. Adonis is described as a ‘god’.[iii] Although he entered this world from a tree he was killed having been gored by a wild boar; no god would have succumbed in such circumstances. The most beautiful of all young men died in the arms of his lover Aphrodite – most certainly a goddess – whose tears mingled with his blood, from which sprang red anemones, an eternal reminder of the brevity of youth and fragility of beauty.[iv] A wonderful story, but I maintain that Adonis was a young mortal man and no god.
I wanted to review this book because I consider Hall’s previous one, Plants as Persons: a philosophical botany (2011), to be outstanding, introducing me for the first time to an understanding that our anthropocentric and zoocentric view of the world originally derived from Aristotle, who replaced kinship with hierarchy and utility and ushered in the instrumental view of nature.[v] I assumed The Imagination of Plants would follow from where Plants as Persons leaves off. In a sense it does, but is organised rather differently. Essentially Hall divides his subject into different themes, Gods, Legends, Sentience and so on, gives an overview of each of them and then each chapter provides exerts from the original texts.
This is a beautifully illustrated book, and the hardback version probably something to treasure; the only typo I spotted for correction in future editions was ‘frther’.[vi] It is interesting and deeply researched, and like Plants as Persons inspired by Val Plumwood, who required of us to resituate “humans in ecological terms and non-humans in ethical terms”.[vii] Describing Sir James Frazer’s acclaimed The Golden Bough as ‘unthinking’,[viii] however, is rather disrespectful to perhaps the father of the mythical canon, and dismissing Michael Marder’s thoughts as ‘careless’,[ix] and later as ‘extremist and ‘impractical’,[x] gratuitous; if anyone is on Hall’s side, and there are sides to take here, I would say Professor Marder is definitely an ally.
Sniping at other well respected authors detracts from Hall’s thesis, which is essentially, though he does not use these words, as myths are not literally true the more important question is, what do they mean? The author goes some way to answer this question. Myth is derived from the Greek for word, and it was again Aristotle who first used mythos to describe what we think of myths today, centring on a plot and narrative. Moreover, most of these stories centre on a hero, such as Jason or Odysseus, or today perhaps Harry Potter, and all emphasise a human-centred world. And what Hall does is not just to redress the balance, but more fundamentally challenges “readers to re-imagine plants as fully alive, as having their own purposes, as deserving respect, as our sentient relations. This re-imagination of the plant kingdom is integral to… resituate[ing] nature with the moral sphere for the way we imagine plant life shapes the way in which we humans behave toward the natural world”.[xi] I regret that this powerful message is slightly lost, for me at least, in uncalled for criticisms of kindred thinkers, and by Hall’s introductory retelling of the Jason story.
I expected to be enchanted by The Imagination of Plants but instead think that over time I will find Hall’s book proves invaluable as I return to it repeatedly. As someone interested, but not well versed in ancient myths, I am not sure I will wholly trust it, however, for the obvious reason that Jason and his men did not defeat the skeletons as Hall contends. If Matthew Hall reads this review, then I apologise for probably not doing justice to his work, having perhaps been unduly distracted by Hall’s memory of Jason’s adventures and his criticisms of fellow authors. My suggestion for future editions is that Matthew Hall should re-watch Jason and the Argonauts and thus revise his introduction, and consider whether my other observations have merit for a revised second edition.
[iii] Hall Op.cit. p. 72
[iv] Fry, S., (2018), Mythos, pp. 327 – 8
[v] Hall, M. (2011) Plants as Persons: a Philosophical Botany, pp. 22 – 7
[vi] Hall Op.cit. p. 194 – towards the end of the penultimate paragraph
[vii] Quoted by Hall, Op.cit. p. xvv
[viii] Hall Op.cit. p. xxix
[ix] Hall Op.cit. p xxvii
[x] Hall Op.cit. p.190
[xi] Hall Op.cit. p.227