Thursday, 24 April 2008

Archive: The Celts - Bernhard Maier

The Celts: A history from earliest times to the present
Bernhard Maier

This book was originally published in German in 2000, being made available in English translation in 2003 as far as I can tell from the publishing info. It's not normally the sort of area I'm interested in these days, but it's on the reading list for Celtic Civ 1a (or 101 for those across the pond) at Glasgow Uni and it piqued my interest, to see if there was anything in it that was more up to date than the stuff I learned some...*counts fingers*...eleven (ye gods) years ago now.

When I ordered it, I was expecting to receive something similar to Barry Cunliffe's The Ancient Celts - a fairly hefty tome with lots of nice glossy pictures liberally interspersed throughout the text and that nice smell that those books with the glossy pages for the colour pictures always have. Given the subject, the comparision is inevitable, so I was surprised to find that what actually arrived was a fairly modest book with no pictures - glossy or otherwise - and sans the nice smell.

I have to admit, the lack of pretty pictures immediately put me off wanting to read the book because a) I like looking at the pretty pictures, b) they help put things into context, and c) there's that psychological trick that publishers are happy to capitalise on that makes a glossy book with lots of pretty pictures and handy boxes with little 'soundbites' interspersed throughout infinitely more readable and 'dip-into-able'...

Once I got a grip and decided to have a stab at sitting down and reading it, I found that it was actually quite readable. I speak in relative terms, of course...If you're interested in the subject, then it reads well...if you're looking for some light reading that doesn't tax the brain too much and instantly grabs you with its witty reparte, then this book is not for you, so much...It's not the sort of book that has the double page spread devoted to a particular subject with the convenient soundbites housed in pretty coloured boxes at the edge of a page, or anything like is what it is, straightforward and generally fairly focused. That said, it's still the sort of book that's easy to dip into because the chapters and sub-headings within each chapter make everything easy to flick through ( and the index helps too...).

Unlike Cunliffe's The Ancient Celts (which was the prescribed text, all shiny and new then, when I began studying the subject at Glasgow, and still is alongside Maier), Maier takes a fairly straightforward and chronological approach to the subject, from the earliest evidence of the Celts in the Hallstatt period, through the La Tene, the Gallo-Roman and then the insular Celtic timelines up until the present. Cunliffe doesn't exactly ramble in his treatment of the subject, but he does provide a lot more context to the influences and issues surrounding the study of the Celts - both in terms of the political and social influences that affected the contemporary sources as well as the more modern analyses, interpretations and general misinterpretations that abound with the term 'Celts' and all it encompasses and entails.

Basically, Maier provides a fairly straightforward and bald description of the Celts throughout history, while Cunliffe is more analytical of the subject and therefore a bit more informative in terms of helping a beginner or intermediate get to know the subject and the issues surrounding it. In this sense, while Maier might be more up to date and less complicated, I think Cunliffe might be more useful as a recommended introduction to the Celts as a whole because it will help you to analyse anything else you might read. Then again, Maier's book will appeal to people who aren't looking for so much jargon, in general, if not on the whole, and just want something that's a little more straightforward - 'this is what happened in this period, and then this happened in this period' etc. For some this might be boring, for others, it might be less confusing.

Maier approaches the subject from a more 'Celticist' perspective, which means he deals with the evidence in terms of what the archaeology tells us, what the sources tell us, what the language tells us and so on and so forth - generally a more rounded approach, although one might argue that this makes him a jack of all trades, master of none. He's also (the blurb at the back tells me) a 'comparative religion specialist with interests in Celtic, Indo-European and Semitic Linguistics', which means there's a fair amount of evidence provided on the ritual/religious practices of the Hallstatt, La Tene and Romano-Gaulish period in particular - less so for the continent because he deals with firm evidence and as yet there's very little to draw from there, comparatively speaking. While authors like Barry Cunliffe, Simon James and Miranda Greene tend to try and approach the subject of 'the Celts' in a fairly rounded manner, it's obvious that they're archaeologists and that's where their specialty lies, which is why they tend to be a bit more jargony at times and less satisfactory in their treatment of subjects outside of the archaeological evidence.

For Maier, I thought his treatment of the insular Celts was a lot more superficial than the earlier information provided, particularly in terms of religious practice and traditions, so generally the book might appeal more to anyone interested in continental practices. I'm not sure that the book will provide anything earthshattering whatever period you're looking at, but it's a good introduction overall, and the references obviously draw from books that are also essential reading and so it gives good pointers for further study. You'll find a lot of references that are on the CR FAQ reading list, for one.

There were a few points that made me scratch my head, I have to admit. While it's impossible to agree with any one book 100%, I'm genuinely perplexed at the claims that:

"As typlogical research has shown, many features by which insular Celtic differs both from Gaulish and from the other early Indo-European languages have prescisely corresponding features in the Hamitic languages of North Africa, such as Berber and ancient Egyptian, and the Semitic languages such as Hebrew and Arabic..." (page 122).

I'm not a linguist, so I wouldn't dare to imply I have any sort of expert opinion in this area, but this is news to me...More to the point there aren't any references given to such a claim that would allow anyone to explore the issue further, which is otherwise unheard of in the book. Generally it's well referenced and fairly balanced (in as much as I noticed, anyway), so this example is all the more unfortunate.

Overall, you could do a lot worse than this book. I think the lack of glossy pictures - for context if anything else (because what's the point of describing a piece of art in detail without providing an illustration?) - will be offputting to some, if not most, people. That and the more comprehensive analytical approach that Cunliffe's takes makes his book the better option if you're looking for an all-rounder, but where Maier lacks in detail with the later periods of Celtic history in particular, he makes up for with a more rounded approach in terms of bringing Celtic culture up to the present - this book isn't supposed to be about the details, it's an overview and in those terms it fulfills its purpose well. There are some weaknesses to Cunliffe (especially in his treatment of religious practices, which relies heavily on a classical approach) which Maier tends to make up for. In all, Maier might be an easier read for beginners in terms of substance (or lack of, as it were), but not necessarily the way in which he presents his material.

I'd still recommend Cunliffe as a starting point - if anything, his books are probably cheaper and more widely available - but Maier makes a very good balance and complements other introductory books on the subject. Even if you're more interested in a particular Celtic culture, books like this are a good place to start because they provide a good background to start from. In essence, you could do a lot worse than starting here, but still...there's better out there.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Archive: The Great Queens - Rosalind Clark

The Great Queens
Rosalind Clark

It took me at least four attempts to get hold of this book, and while it was slightly more than I usually fork out to fund my book obsession, I'm particularly pleased I made the effort with this one. It wasn't available at Glasgow uni library so buying it was pretty much my only option, without jumping through inter-library loan hoops.

First and foremost, I didn't find it to be too much of a dry read. The book focuses on the use of what Clark argues are essentially sovereignty goddesses in various differing forms in Irish literature, from early medieval evidence to relatively modern examples like Yeats. Seeing as my area of interest is early medieval I was surprised to find that it wasn't too much of a chore to plough on through the final chapters that dealt with the more modern material, because ultimately I was interested in what Clark had to say even if I've never been interested in the modern stuff before now. I would even go so far as to say it piqued my interest in modern Irish history, which is something I've avoided (or at least not actively pursued, at any rate) until now.

Granted it's not light reading, and it's not the sort of book you'd want to take on holiday with you unless you're really interested in the Morrigan or the concept of divine sovereignty in Ireland, say, but still. If you are interested in these sorts of things, it's a worthwhile read. Unlike most of the discussion on this subject that I'm familiar with, Clark looks at the material from a literary perspective, rather than a historical or social perspective that I'm used to, so I found that refreshing. At the same time she came across as being very knowledgeable in the more historical areas too, so in that respect it gave a good balance.

Aside from the fact that I found her arguments about the Morrigan as being (ultimately) a sovereignty goddess persuasive, along with Medb and the Caillech, I found her analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the various different versions/translations by people like Lady Gregory and Yeats particularly useful for future reference. That said, I'm not all that keen on pigeon-holing deities into one role like 'sky god', 'sun god' and so forth, because it has a tendency to reduce gods or goddesses to one particular function or motive, and they aren't that simple. The label of 'sovereignty goddess' is the same sort of pigeon-holing that I dislike, and yet it's a label that I find useful, myself, so I guess the book's helped me take a look at my own unconscious hypocrisy, I guess.

On the minus side, her references to a triple goddess/Great Mother in a Jungian sense, amongst other sorts of scholars that hold a similar view, was quite jarring, especially seeing as she only went into any great detail in the conclusion to the book. While it's easily read around, and not fundamental to the book itself, it's distracting and I found it slightly confusing at times because she didn't elaborate until you're fairly committed. Has Robert Graves struck again? No, it turns out, but it's one point I especially didn't find any agreement with.

The book also tended to be quite repetitive in places, and while that can make it good for dipping into as a reference (if you wanted to look something up in particular, the general gist of the previous paragraphs wouldn't be lost on you), it didn't make for a very smooth read from start to finish at times.

Ultimately, I liked the book. There aren't many non-fiction, scholarly, books that I can read from cover to cover, but with this one I didn't have a problem. I would go so far as to say that I could probably read it again, which is also fairly unheard of.

This is the sort of book that I think anyone interested in CR should read, but I certainly wouldn't say it's one of those books that anyone should read first, as a beginner or perhaps even intermediate. This is a book for someone who wants to narrow their reading into a particular area. For those who want something a little more focused and in depth, especially if you're interested in the Morrigan (in her various related guises/titles) or the fairly fundamental concept of sovereignty in Irish society, this is a book you should read at some point.

Ultimately, this is the sort of book that I'm happy to hoard, as is my wont, and I don't feel like it's taking up space on my bookshelf unnecessarily.