The Battle of the Books by Jonathan Swift contains a satirical account of the controversy that had been going on for some time in England with regard to the comparative merits of the ancient authors and modern authors.
Swift gives the origin of the dispute between the two parties of books in the very beginning in allegorical terms. He regards the ancient authors and the modern authors as the occupants of two summits of a mountain called Paranssus (which was sacred to Apollo and the Muses), the summit occupied by the Ancients being higher than the one occupied by the Moderns. A feeling of jealousy leads the Moderns to challenge the right of the Ancients to occupy the higher summit. The quarrel between the occupants of the two summits, says Swift, then spread to the books lying on the shelves of St. James’s Library.
Before describing the actual battle fought by the books, Swift takes the opportunity to attack Richard Bentley who was the keeper of the aforesaid library and a champion of the Ancients, Swift satirizes Bentley for his discourtesy towards those who wanted to borrow books or manuscripts from the library and for his inability to think clearly or to keep the library books in proper order.
Swift then turns to the books themselves and the dispute which was taking place between them. One of the Ancients, says Swift, had tried to settle the matter by arbitration but had failed in his effort to assuage the tempers. This ancient author had pointed out that the writers belonging to his side were really wiser than those of modern times and that they were entitled to greater respect because of their antiquity. But the Moderns did not accept this argument and went so far as to claim that of the two parties the Moderns were the more ancient.
Swift then proceeds to describe an important event that occurred at this juncture. A bee, finding a hole in a broken window-pane of the library, came inside and landed upon a spider’s cobweb. This invasion by the bee led to a dispute between the two (the spider and the bee). The spider spoke to the bee in a contemptuous tone, pointing out that while he himself owned an impressive palace(namely, his cobweb) the bee had no property or substance at all except a pair of wings and a drone pipe. The bee in reply said that heaven had given to him the power to fly and the power to sing, and that he visited all the flowers and the blossoms of the field and the garden, gathering the required materials for his use. The bee also alleged that the spider’s palace, while exhibiting “method and art”, was absolutely devoid of “duration and matter”. The bee went on to say that all that the spider produced was poison while the bee produced honey and wax.
Aesop now speaks and states that whatever the bee had said in favour of himself could be applied to the ancient authors and that whatever the bee had alleged against the spider could be applied to the Moderns. According to Aesop, the Moderns have no real grounds for boasting of their genius or their inventions because, even if they possess method and skill, they have only produced works which will soon be forgotten because the materials of which those works are made have come out of the authors themselves and are therefore no better than dirt. The Moderns cannot claim to any genuine productions of real value. Much in their work can be described as mere wrangling and satire which may be compared to the spider’s poison. As for the Ancients, they have their imaginative flights and their language. The Ancients collected their materials from every corner of Nature and they have produced works full of honey and wax which have contributed to mankind two of the noblest things, which are sweetness and light.
Swift then goes on to mention the books which took part in the battle. However, instead of naming the books by their titles, he names the authors of the books which took part in the fight. When the two armies of warriors had thus got ready for the battle, Fame, who had at one time an important position in the library, flew up straight to the chief god, Jupiter, and gave him a faithful account of what was happening below on the earth. Jupiter immediately called a meeting of the gods and goddesses in order to decide upon a course of action. However, there being a difference of opinion among the gods and goddesses, Jupiter privately consulted the Book of Fate and gave appropriate orders to his agents to go down to the library and manipulate events in accordance with those orders.
Momus, the god of jealous mockery, who at the conference of the gods and goddesses had taken the side of the Moderns, now enlisted the support of a goddess known as Criticism. This goddess was very malignant and she lent her full support to the Moderns.
Swift then goes on to describe the battle itself. He tells us that the first to start the offensive was Paracelus who attacked Galen with a javelin but who was himself wounded by Galen’s counterattack. Then Aristotle shot an arrow at Bacon, but Bacon escaped being injured and the arrow hit and killed another modern philosopher whose name was Descartes. Now it was Homer’s turn to launch an attack upon the modern epic poets. Next came Virgil, another ancient epic poet. He found himself face to face with the modern poet, Dryden who also had attempted epic poetry (by writing a translation of Virgil’s Aeneid). Dryden, however, acknowledged Virgil’s superiority to himself as an epic poet, and sought a compromise with the enemy.
Yet another ancient epic poet, by the name of Lucan, now attacked two Moderns who also had attempted epic poetry. These Moderns were Richard Blackmore and Thomas Creech. Then the ancient poet, Pindar, the famous writer of Odes came forward and killed such modern writers of Pindaric Odes as John Oldham and Afra Behn, and Abraham Cowley. Then comes the last episode in The Battle of the Books. The central figures in this last episode are Bentley and Wotton (who were the champions of the Moderns), and Temple and Boyle (the champions of the Ancients). Swift pours all his scorn and ridicule upon Bentley and Wotton. These moderns see Phalaris and Aesop lying fast asleep in the distance, but they do not have the courage to attack them. Wotton even fails in his attempt to quench his thirst at the spring known as Helicon. The two friends then encounter Charles Boyle who attacks them with a lance and kills both of them at one stroke. According to Swift’s satirical account, then, Temple and Boyle had been victorious in their support of the Ancients as against Bentley and Wotton who had opposed the Ancients and given all their support to the Moderns.