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I bought a book over the holidays, “The Discovery of Middle Earth” by Graham Robb.

It’s not a book about Tolkien, or the Lord of the Rings, or the worldbuilding of the Peter Jackson films, it’s about the Celts.

It’s interesting, if flawed.  First one can’t set aside that his credentials are those of the interested layman.  He is not trained as a cultural anthropologist, nor an historical one.  That’s not a knock on him.  I am not trained (in any way as anyone is likely to point at and say, “he really knows what he’s talking about”) in lots of the things I am fairly well versed in.  But it’s a hurdle to clear, because lacking depth of discipline can lead one to error.

So too can being versed in it. The sword cuts both ways, to be trained is to accept some level of orthodoxy.

If his arguments have a fatal flaw it’s that he tries to do too much.  There are at least two stories being told, one is of the people who were paramount in most of what is now Europe for centuries (about 600 years).  A group of peoples who held sway from Ireland and the British Isles to Russia, and down to Turkey (where Paul was still addressing them in his Letter to the Galatians.  Who were waging war on the Greeks, and helped (by virtue of kicking their ass) to convert the Romans from small polity on the hills of the Tiber to a political dynamo which was able to wage a war of elimination against them, and create an Empire that covered a large area on three continents. A group which had religious leaders/political figure the Romans felt they had to kill to the last man (Claudius making it a capital offense to be a Druid in AD 54, about a century after Julius Caesar fought the Battle of Alesia, and won the Gallic Wars)

The other is of the worldview which both raised them up, and “brought them low”.

The first is a lot more defensible.  As a people the Celts have been relegated to a sort of sideshow, in part because they weren’t that fond of writing things down, and because the people who conquered them didn’t understand them at all.  In that regard, esp, in the things he argues for the role of both the druids, and the supernatural in everyday life, this is a marvelous book.  It manages to bring forward an interpretation of Celtic mindset which is compelling (and in keeping with the Celtic mythic systems we do have from Ireland, Wales, the Ilse of Man, etc.).

The other half of his arguments are harder. They are more speculative.  They also (as he freely admits) invite ridicule.  He is looking to see if he can find order in the Celtic World, is there an underlying “map” of the world, which they took from the divine realm, and moved to the mortal.  It’s an interesting theory, and he collects a lot of interesting (and somewhat compelling) inferential, circumstantial, and yes textual evidence (e.g. Caesar goes on about Gaul as if it were a barbarous wilderness, but he’s also able to move armies about at a rate which only works if there is an extensive road network.  The Celts engaged in some massive internal migrations; which seem to have been planned around aspects of religion, and politics: again the Romans reported on this).

We know the Celts made serious use of observed astronomy (with Druids needing some 20 years to be completely trained).  All of this is fairly well supported in his text. He argues well for a vibrant people, with a cultured society, an interesting worldview and a fascinating cosmology. He ties that into the rest in a way which is plausible; so plausible one wants to believe it.  So utterly fascinating I want people who have the credentials needed to get the funding to really dive into the questions he’s trying to answer to look at testing his theories.

Where he fails is in his language in the latter part of the book.  By the time he gets to Britain/Ireland (as places the Romans came to late, if at all) he has moved to phrases such as, “with what we now now about the Celts”, when what he ought to say us, “as is consistent with the evidence seen in…”.  Which is painful, because it leads me to wonder what level of his earlier argument is perhaps not so well supported.  What aspects of it are perhaps “what we know”, rather than,”what I think/believe, based on…”

So all in all, it’s worth reading,  but I don’t know that I can recommend without some strong reservations.  It might be best to check it out of the library.


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