“The Battle of the Books” begins with a note from the bookseller to the reader, telling the reader that it refers to a “famous dispute … about ancient and modern learning.” Sir William Temple had taken the side of the ancients against Charles Boyle, who had praised the ancient writer Phalaris, but Wotton and Bentley had taken Boyle’s side. The controversy led to a battle between the books themselves, literally, in the King’s library. The manuscript about the battle is incomplete, so we still do not know who won.
Then comes a preface from the author in which the nature of satire is discussed. Most people do not see themselves in the satire, seeing only others, and it is not a problem when someone sees himself and get offended, since in anger his counter-arguments are weak. Weak satires apply “wit without knowledge,” while strong ones have depth.
The main tale begins with reflections about the causes of battles: mainly, pride and want. Like dogs, people fight over scarce resources but tend to be at peace during times of plenty.
The battle began, the story goes, when the Moderns, occupying the lower of the two tops of the hill Parnassus, grew jealous of the Ancients on the higher one. The Moderns offered to trade places or else to shovel down the higher hill, as a way of avoiding war, but the Ancients rejected the offer, surprised by the newcomers’ insolence. The Moderns should raise themselves up instead. Yet the Moderns rejected that alternative and, being of greater numbers, always with new if weak recruits, chose war, with the pen as the chosen weapon. Despite defeats, both sides set up victory marks.
When the tales of victory are repeated often enough, the two sides become entrenched in “books of controversy” in the library. For example, Scotus made trouble for Plato by turning Aristotle against him, which led to a policy whereby upstarts would be chained up and kept away from the others. This policy worked until the Moderns became a force to be reckoned with, despite being “light-headed.” Many of the Ancients had gotten out of place in the library as well, being stuck among the crowd of Moderns.
When the Moderns got ready for warfare, they got their best armor (ideas) from the Ancients. They claimed to be original, though, and since most of them had shoddy armor of their own making, Plato saw them and laughed in agreement that it was all their own.
There is a well-fed spider whose web-fortress is decorated “in the modern style” and who is best at science and mathematics. There is also a bee, who argues for the ancient values of “long search, much study, true judgment, and distinction of things” after getting caught briefly in the spider's web. The books are so transfixed by the discourse of the spider and the bee that they cease to quarrel.
Aesop takes the opportunity to escape to the side of the Ancients, remarking, characteristically, that the argument between bee and spider is a good allegory for that between Ancients and Moderns: the spider boasts “of his native stock and great genius,” particularly in architecture and mathematics, while the bee and the Ancients are content “to pretend to nothing of our own beyond our wings and our voice” and “whatever [else] we have got has been by infinite labour and search, and ranging through every corner of nature.”
This reflection inspires the books to prepare for battle, so they retreat to opposite sides of the library to choose their leaders and make their strategy. The moderns have lots of ugly weapons, some bulky fighters “without either arms, courage, or discipline,” including Aquinas, and a crowd of “disorderly” and generally worthless writers. There are far more Moderns than Ancients, the Ancients being primarily Greeks (Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Euclid, Herodotus) but also Romans such as Livy.
Fate alerts Jove about the impending battle, and (similarly to Homer’s Iliad) there is a big meeting of the gods. Momus is on the side the Moderns; Pallas (Athena or her close relative) is on the side of the Ancients. Jove consults the book of Fate and learns what will happen regarding the battle, but he tells nobody.
Momus engages with the Goddess Criticism in order to gain victory. She sits upon a mountain next to Ignorance and Pride, her parents, along with others including Opinion, Noise, and the like. After hearing of the battle, she proceeds to dispense her critical bile where it can be made use of—especially in England. She arrives at the library to see her son Wotton. She disguises herself as Bentley (the book version) to speak with him. She encourages him and leaves helpers with him (named Dulness and Ill-manners).
The battle finally begins. Details of the battle, we learn, are missing in some of the alleged gaps in the text. Aristotle flings an arrow at Bacon, which misses and hits Descartes. Homer kills many. Virgil is a bit slow and his helmet is too big. Dryden appears, claiming descent from Virgil, and tricks Virgil into changing armor with him. (Virgil’s was better.)
The Roman poet Lucan and the Modern epic poet Blackmore agree to exchange gifts and fight no more. The goddess Dulness gives the translator Thomas Creech a flying figure of the poet Horace to fight, but it goes badly for him—in the tradition of another poor translator, John Ogleby. The Greek poet Pindar slays many and finally faces the Modern named Abraham Cowley, to whom Pindar shows no mercy and cuts in two. Venus takes the better half of his body.
After another gap in the text comes “The Episode of Bentley and Wotton.” The Moderns are almost ready to retreat when Bentley takes up their cause. He is contentious and “malignant,” having a talent of lowbrow “railing,” which is serviceable enough in politics, at least. He is rude to the Moderns and turns to his friend Wotton for help, The two of them march past the tomb of Aldrovandus, the Modern naturalist.
They find two Ancients asleep. Bentley goes forward while Wotton stands back. Bentley is about to kill an Ancient, when Affright (a child of one of the deities), sensing danger, stops him, with the two Ancients scaring him simply by moving in their sleep. He at least takes their armor.
Wotton, meanwhile, tries to drink at the fountain on Mt. Helicon (sacred to the Muses; the fountain is named Helicon), but Apollo prevents him from getting anything but mud. Wotton attempts to kill Sir William Temple (a Modern who seems to be on the Ancients’ side) with divine help, but fails. Apollo is so furious at Wotton's attempt that Apollo orders Boyle to get revenge. Boyle catches up to the fleeing Wotton but, seeing Bentley with the armor, chases Bentley. The three of them fight. The divine Pallas helps Boyle. Bentley and Wotton are killed with a single stroke, and the two men die intertwined, almost indistinguishable from one another, like a pair of skewered woodcocks.
Although the bookseller suggests that this story is not allegorical and not about real people, this story is very much an allegory. While the books may not be interchangeable with the authors, they at least represent the ideas contained within the books. It is not literally a battle of books. One can go far, however, simply by putting Swift’s words in present-day English. Just restating the story in one’s own words is in itself a demonstration of understanding, for doing so requires the reader to unravel the allegory.
The more you know of the works of each author mentioned, the better able you will be to see Swift’s jokes and evaluate the claims behind them. For instance, is the great theologian Aquinas really “without either arms, courage, or discipline,” or is this just an anti-religious bias? Is Thomas Creech really that bad a translator of Horace that the best way to (humorously) portray him is that he was pursuing a flying vision of Horace, created out of dullness, that was not even the real Horace? Homer is incredibly strong and able, implying that Swift considered him one of the best Ancients, defeating other writers with his works. When Aristotle flings an arrow at Bacon but hits Descartes, Swift is implying that Aristotle’s work is superior to that of Descartes but perhaps not to Bacon’s.
The allegory also works at a more general level. For example, the offer to level the Ancients’ hill is a dig against the Moderns, who the author here casts as young upstarts who, at least in the eyes of the Ancients, should be grateful that they can labor under the protection of the Ancients’ longstanding achievements. Instead, the Moderns seem to make a business out of rooting out problems in the Ancients’ writings. The moderns are “light” intellectually but have large rears, yet they at least have numbers on their side.
The spider and bee also rather transparently represent, respectively, the Moderns and the Ancients. The spider is known for the scientific precision in his intricate web, yet the bee points out that he eats bugs instead of the nectar of better things, spewing out bile instead of honey, suggesting the relative advantages of each group.
It takes someone with knowledge of the Ancients to appreciate many of Swift’s flourishes; the preference once again is for the Ancients. When it is said of the bee in the spider’s web, “Thrice he endeavoured to force his passage, and thrice the centre shook,” this is an allusion to dramatic passages of Homer, where for example Odysseus “thrice” tries to reach out for his mother in the Underworld. Likewise, the intervention of the gods in a battle is most likely an allusion to Homer’s Iliad. The activity of the Goddess of Criticism with respect to her son Wotton, and the scenes of the battle in general, reflect similar scenes in the Iliad. The Iliad, for instance, contains an exchange of armor that is similar to the one here.
When the author “petition[s] for a hundred tongues, and mouths, and hands, and pens” in order to tell the tale of the battle itself, he is indeed drawing on epic writers, mainly Ancients, who called on the gods to help give them the language they need to capture the details. Aesop, master of fables (involving animals that signify humans), of course could be mistaken for a Modern when he takes the form of an ass.
Swift uses the deities to make further suggestions about the Ancients and Moderns. The Goddess of Criticism supports the Moderns along with Momus, god of satire, implying that criticism and mockery characterize the Moderns’ writings. Swift of course is a modern satirist, so this does not simply mean that the modern satirists are all bad. Remember that there is “criticism” but also “true criticism,” according to Swift's “Digression of the Modern Kind” in A Tale of a Tub. This Goddess, however, seems to represent much the worst kind, given her description as something like an ass full of spleen. The gods, for the most part, take the side of the Ancients and those few Moderns who are on the side of the Ancients.
In the final section, Swift parodies Bentley’s and Wotton’s close intellectual friendship and relatively weak abilities to fight the Ancients or even to drink at their fountain of wisdom. At the end, they are bound together just like in real life (in one book, both of their writings were bound together), basically indistinguishable. It is also comical that the great authors somehow need the help of these two men. It is fitting that when they die at the end, the battle rages on perfectly well without them. This is a lesson for other critics.
The gaps in the text permit Swift to turn easily from one topic to another. They also suggest the high degree to which the battle is unfinished, both overall and in the details of the conflicts between specific individuals. That the story ends without a conclusion might suggest the futility of the entire argument between Ancients and Moderns, since both sides have their virtues and each writer should be taken on his own merits. Given the intervention of the gods and the looming prophecy of Fate, there might not be much that men can do to affect the outcome.