Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Book review: The Celtic Heroic Age

The Celtic Heroic Age: Literary Sources for Ancient Celtic Europe and Early Ireland and Wales
John Koch (ed.) in collaboration with John Carey

For once, here is a book that uses the word 'Celtic' in its proper context. That's not exactly surprising, considering who's put it together, but after all those books that don't...well. It's refreshing, to say the least.

While there are plenty of places online where you can find all kinds of myths and literature, sometimes it's good to have them in book format; especially considering the fact that the translations on offer are generally more up to date (though this isn't always the case. Elizabeth Gray's translation of Cath Maige Tuired is the most recent version, and freely available online, although the online version doesn't have the notes that the hardcopy format does). This book certainly has a lot to offer in terms of all kinds of myths and literature that are collated within this volume, though I have to say that the soft-cover version I have isn't the most sturdy. Some of the pages are threatening to come loose.

Inside, you'll find a veritable smorgasbord of goodies on offer. First up is a selection of Gaulish inscriptions, excerpts from Classical sources referencing the continental Celts, as well as bits and pieces relating to the Britons (e.g. Boudicca). Then we have Irish and Hiberno-Latin sources (i.e. Irish sources written in Latin), which forms the main chunk of the book, followed by Brittonic and Brittonic Latin sources. The latter part is comprised mostly of Welsh poetry, but there is also a little bit of Breton legend, as well as excerpts from the Historia Brittonum.

The Gaulish inscriptions are really interesting, but all too few, while as far as the Classical sources are concerned there's not much that I hadn't already seen before; it's certainly handy for reference, at least, but admittedly this material isn't really my area of primary interest. The usual suspects are to be found in the Welsh poetry - Taliesin, Y Gododdin, Preideu Annwn, etc. - so it's all good if you're wanting to get a broad overview of different kinds of Celtic literature. On the other hand, however, if you're wanting to study any of these things in more depth I would recommend books that are more dedicated to the subject.

The same can be said of the Irish section as well - you'll find the important stuff, such as Recension I of the Lebor Gabála Érenn, the Audacht Morainn, Echtra Nera, Tochmarc Étaíne, The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn, and so on, all neatly packaged and presented. There is a lot here that you can already find online these days (which wasn't the case at the time of this book's publication), although the down side with that is you have to look for it, and know what you're looking for. If you're familiar with the myths then you've probably read most of them before, at least. If not then at least you won't have to look too far to find the good stuff - some of the most important tales have been cherry-picked for you (although obviously it doesn't include the epics).

One of the best things about this book is that there are also some bits and pieces that the average reader is less likely to be familiar with. For the Irish section, the early Dynastic poetry is very useful in particular (lots of pre-Christian hints there), and so are the excerpts from Giraldus Cambrensis (including the section on the sacred flame of Kildare). Most of all, though, the value of this book - aside from the decent translations on offer (as opposed to the "retellings" and cleaned up versions that Lady Gregory or Charles Squire offer, say) - is in the fact that there is so much packed in to one handy volume. For the reconstructionist the decent translations are a definite draw, and just one reason that I'd recommend the book. I can't help but feel that it would have been better if the book had more thorough annotations, but then again I think the primary purpose of it is as a primary sourcebook, not a running commentary. The notes that are given are usually brief but often give good pointers to further reading in places. Still, more would have been better.

This is a book I would definitely recommend, though I can see that it will probably be a low priority for most folks who have a limited budget. It's definitely worth it, though, and you should be able to find it cheaply enough.