New Books – The World That Never Was, The Gaelic Finn Tradition, The Shadow-Walkers, Vanished Kingdoms, Celtic from the West, Weapons and Warfare in Viking and Medieval Dublin

In recent months I have been somewhat remiss in posting no new book reviews on An Sionnach Fionn. This is not for a lack of book purchases but rather a lack of time. The chill winds of recession have well and truly caught up with me and they are cold indeed. Like most people in Ireland outside of the corrupt elites of the Continuity State I find myself running fast to stand still and exhaustion is never that far away. However, as is my wont, I digress from the real purpose of this post: a quick round-up of recent purchases that might interest some of you. Especially with Christmas coming.

Celtic from the West: Alternative Perspectives from Archaeology, Genetics, Language and Literatureedited by Barry Cunliffe and John T. Koch (published by Oxbow Books, 2010)

First off the (printing) blocks is “Celtic from the West: Alternative Perspectives from Archaeology, Genetics, Language and Literature“, a series of essays on the origins of the Celtic peoples edited by professors Barry Cunliffe and John T. Koch. The central thesis of the collection is the long-standing but now increasingly in-vogue suggestion that the Celts gradually emerged as a distinct peoples from the Neolithic communities dwelling in the so-called Atlantic Zone of western Europe during the Late Bronze Age. This new paradigm of course replaces the older and now difficult to sustain theory of a central European origin for the Celts. It presents the Celtic homelands as those self-same countries where the Celtic-speaking peoples are known to have been historically present, with an ultimate source of origin in an even further distant past perhaps somewhere on the Iberian peninsula. This theory of course answers the age old question of when did the Celts come to Ireland, Scotland and Wales with an elegant reply that stems from contemporary archaeological, genetic and linguistic evidence. The Celts never came to the modern Celtic nations because the Celts came from the modern Celtic nations.

Admittedly “Celtic from the West” is for the serious Celtic scholar, lay or otherwise, since it consists of a number of detailed academic studies. The text can be quite densely worded at times, with scholarly terms in profusion, but for those who make the effort it is a thoroughly rewarding and an eye-opening collection, finely produced with numerous colour photographs and illustrations that aid understanding. Unfortunately you must pay for such professional excellence. My copy cost some 45 euros so only purchase it if you are sure you want to engage with such a heavyweight work.

“The Gaelic Finn Tradition” edited by Sharon J. Arbuthnot and Geraldine Parsons (published by Four Courts Press Ltd, 2011)

Another collection of scholarly essays this time covering all aspects of the history, literature and poetry of Fionn mac Cumhaill, the legendary Gaelic hero-figure of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. This is a relatively unique book since no new studies have been published on Fionn and the Fianna in many decades and the series of thirteen articles brings Fenian studies bang up-to-date with the latest in historical, linguistic, textual and comparative analyses. While many casual readers will find some of it heavy going, and in places scholarly terms and abbreviations fall like rain drops, essays like Kim McCone’s “The Celtic and Indo-European origins of the fian” are an essential read. Unfortunately we have another pricey work here, in my case 50 euros plus shipping. Academic rigour and validity do not come cheap though one certainly wonders if it should come quite so high. With only 288 pages and a handful of dubiously relevant illustrations I had to think long and hard before placing my order. While I’m glad that I did so the high price justifiably gives one pause for thought.

“The Shadow-Walkers: Jacob Grimm’s Mythology of the Monstrous” edited by Tom Shippey (published by Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 2005)

If the name of Tom Shippey sounds familiar to you that should come as no surprise. For the last twenty years he has become synonymous with the publication of studies into the works of the English fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien. More than any other person (except perhaps Tolkien’s son Christopher) he has become the scholarly defender of Tolkien’s Middle-earth legendarium against its critics and possibly its greatest proselytizer. However Shippey is also a noted professor of Medieval and Old English literature and it is this expertise that comes to bear in this series of essays by a number of international scholars.

If you wish to investigate the origins of the supernatural races of English and Germanic myth, elves, dwarves, trolls and the like, but with the surety of academic rigour, this is the place to start. Thankfully free of New Age or Wiccan nonsense this large book (at some 433 pages) is very well produced, finely-stitched and bound with long-lasting acid-free paper (which I thoroughly approve of!). The majority of the articles are clearly written, though again the casual reader might find some of it quite challenging. If criticisms could be made one might look to the indexes which are extremely poor, something that will certainly hamper its use for ready referencing. The lack of illustrations that in some places could have broken up the dense text also tell against it.

Naturally Irish literary figures and institutions receive a mention in a book dealing with the Medieval mythologies of the nearest neighbours of the Celts, though at times one wonders about some writers understanding of their Irish source materials (for instance the féinnithe are not the exact same as the díbheargaigh, despite the implications drawn from some early Irish ecclesiastical texts). However, in general, there is very little to question here when it comes to scholarly learning.

One sour note, though, is yet again the hefty price to be paid for all this professional knowledge and guidance. At 63 euros it is very hard to justify the purchase of this book for the ordinary reader and I don’t think I shall even attempt to do so. All I can say is that for me not smoking and drinking has some benefits beyond mere health, not least the health of one’s bank account. Otherwise I’m not sure that I could afford any of the works above.

“Weapons and Warfare in Viking and Medieval Dublin” by Andrew Halpin (published by the National Museum of Ireland, 2008)

Now here is a truly excellent study of military matters in Medieval Ireland that extends well beyond the Scandinavian-Irish city of Baile Átha Cliath or Dublin. Everything you could want to know about warfare in early Ireland is touched upon here, especially in the first few chapters, and it’s safe to say that it will challenge and overturn several preconceptions about Irish, Viking and Norman-British warfare on the island of Ireland. The book, which is in a large format, runs to 269 lavishly illustrated pages and certainly justifies the 35 euro price tag. However this is a work for those interested not just in the broad scope but also in the minutiae of Irish military archaeology as it relates to Dublin city and its environs. If that is for you then you won’t regret the purchase. If not then perhaps you should look elsewhere.

“The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents” by Alex Butterworth (published by Vintage, 2011)

This is a great read. The militant world of revolutionaries, democrats and anarchists in 19th century Europe and North America brought to vivid life. While in places there is a certain glossing over of the subjects, or lack of elucidation, in general this is a thoroughly enjoyable and at times thought-provoking work. My only criticism is the scarcity of Irish references and the author’s unfamiliarity with Ireland’s revolutionary movements, in particular the Fenians (both the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Fenian Brotherhood). However at only 8 euros you can’t go wrong.

“Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe” by Norman Davies (published by Allen Lane, 2011)

Another great read, as celebrated historian Norman Davies takes us on a grand tour of the “lost” states of European history, from the early Middle Ages right up to the 21st century. At 848 pages you certainly get your money’s worth (11 euros in paperback) in what is a well-written and thoroughly engaging book. The parts of the book dealing with the author’s predictions for the future of the “UK” make for fascinating reading though, yet again, a lack of familiarity with Irish affairs does make for one of two annoyances.

And that, a chairde, is it for now.

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2 comments on “Some New Arrivals

  1. James Todd

    Does Celtic From The West touch upon genetics at all? I have a hard time believing that the Celts descend from Neolithic Western European communities, because the inhabitants of regions historically bearing Celtic culture typically belong to the Y-chromosome haplogroup R1b. This includes both the Insular Celts (the Irish reach close to 100% R1b in Connacht) and the Continental Celts. However, R1b is believed to be a post-Neolithic inhabitant of Europe, originating in Asia.

    The more likely candidates for the original Western Europeans – those people who came to be the Celtic and Germanic peoples – are the bearers of haplogroup I, and all its varieties. In the case of the Atlantic Archepelago I2a and its varieties – where they are present in significant diversity – probably represent the first post-LGM settlers of those lands.

    Mind you, I personally think that there was significant cultural continuity between the original inhabitants of Western Europe and the R1b invaders/displacers/settlers/whatever. I mostly believe this because Newgrange – which is certainly pre-Indo European – was decorated with typically Celtic artwork. It wouldn’t have been the only time that a people’s culture was adopted by its invaders. Look at the Hiberno-Norse for only one example.

    That’s cultural continuity though, not genetic. Maybe that what’s the authors mean when they posit that the Celts emerged from Neolithic Western European communities. I’d like to read their arguments, either way. Thanks for the suggestion.

    • Indeed they do, with contributions from Stephen Oppenheimer amongst others. “Part II: Genetics” runs to some 60 pages.

      “4. Western Celts? A Genetic Impression of Britain in Atlantic Europe

      5. Irish Genetics and Celts

      6. A Reanalysis of Multiple Prehistoric Immigrations to Britain and Ireland Aimed at Identifying the Celtic Contributions”

      Barry Cunliffe goes further than most, relating the spread of farming and the Bell Beaker migrations to the earliest proto-Celtic peoples. In a number of books and articles he has suggested that the Newgrange builders were not only Indo-European speakers but more specifically speakers of a language or languages that were to become “Celtic”.

      Personally I find the arguments highly plausible though of course there are still many loose ends to tie up.

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