Sunday, 26 August 2012

Book review: Fiery Shapes

I'm slacking in the post-department this month. This is not to say I'm slacking in general, just that I'm being relatively anti-social. No offence...

Anyway, as the deadline for the first batch of books I got from the library some months ago draws to a close I'm starting to make a concerted effort to really go through all the books I like the look of so I don't have to renew too many - if any. Term will be starting soon and I don't want to hog any books that might come in handy for actual y'know, students, and while I did bring home rather a lot of books over my previous few trips, I never intended to read them all. But I do have a bare minimum I'd like to get through, and getting distracted by the first four volumes of Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire didn't help with that. What can I say. I don't get out much these days.

I have to say, though, the bunch I picked out from the library (not including the birthday splurge I indulged in earlier this year) this time round are really inspiring and - for the most part - quality. This next book I'm going to review comes from the library pile:

Fiery Shapes: Celestial Portents and Astrology in Ireland and Wales, 700-1700
Mark Williams

I don't usually pick up books that deal mainly with Wales, but having seen a preview of some of it online and then finding it at the library, why not? The Irish stuff certainly whet my appetite.

This is a book that fills a much-needed hole, covering not just astrology, but the way in which magic and certain forms of divination are shown in literature, and the kind of writers or places that may have influenced such portrayals. A little bit of eschatology gets thrown in too, looking at the end of the world or the apocalypse, so it's all good as far as I'm concerned. These aren't things you see being dealt with very often.

The Irish chapters, which concentrate mostly on divination and eschatology as well as the evidence for an 'Irish astrology', inevitably deals with druids as well and while they aren't the main focus of the book, what you'll find here is good stuff, and I'd say a must-read. Every now and then I see questions about the use of the word 'magi' as an equivalent to druids crop up, and this book deals with the evidence showing that it really does relate to the druids, and that the connotations and connections between the two are significant. I suspect some folks might be disappointed by the conclusions that are drawn here, though: the main thrust of the argument is that a lot of how the druids are portrayed in Irish literature has been influenced by the works of non-native sources, especially Isidore of Seville, who was very influential in the way attitudes about magic and such evolved in early Christian Ireland. The arguments presented here offer some good food for thought, even if it might not be quite the taste you were hoping for. It's kind of inevitable when dealing with this stuff.

For the most part I've got no real quibbles - my old tutor gets a mention so some of what's presented here is already familiar to me, especially in relation to the story of the Death of Conchobar (brings back good memories...), and some old favourites like In Tenga Bithnua ('The Evernew Tongue'), part of the Irish apocrypha, get a mention too. As far as astrology and the kind of bonkers and out there stuff that The Evernew Tongue deals with in particular, I do wonder if there was more fodder to look at in this area; it would have been good to see a bit more background and discussion on this kind of thing but I suppose there are only so many things you can fit in without going off on long tangents. There are some good references I'd like to hunt up, so I'm sure I'll be more than entertained when I get round to it.

My only real disagreement in the Irish chapters is in the discussion on the Morrígan's prophecy. The author comments that the Morrígan is "the divinity of carrion and carnage" and that "she is a strange figure have deliver the first, positive, prophecy" (p30) in Cath Maige Tuired. I think when you consider that the first, positive, prophecy gives the view of a land in peace, plenty and harmony (which in Irish mythological terms would be the result of a good king ruling over the land), while the second prophecy gives an extreme view of the opposite - a bad ruler - it underlines the tale in general; the suffering caused by Bres, a stingy and inhospitable king, as a result of the Tuatha Dé Danann having to remove their 'good' king Nuadu. The removal of Bres and the ultimate healing of Nuadu restores good order, but the spectre of an unjust ruler is never far off. The Morrígan, as a shadowy and unpredictable figure in the tale (until the Dagda secures her help for the Tuatha Dé Danann) could easily be seen as representing the land and its changing state, according to who is ruling over it. An idyllic land of peace and plenty, or an apocalyptic one are pretty much two sides of the same coin.

Otherwise, my only other lament is that there are frequent references to the story Forbius Droma Damhgaire ('The Siege of Knocklong') without any decent English translation pointed to or offered. I'm sure this isn't the author's fault - there must be a reason he only references Marie-Louise Sjoestedt's French translation! But it's frustrating to see references to a tale you can't really read in its entirety, and if there was a chance of providing a translation that would've been most welcome (there's a translation by Seán Ó Duinn that I'm aware of but aside from being extortionate, I'm not sure if the translation is reliable enough for academic use...).

Skipping backwards a little, one thing that set me in a particularly good mood was a short overview of Why Robert Graves Is Wrong in the preface; it isn't just critical of Robert Graves' "idiosyncratic treatise" (a good way to describe The White Goddess, I think), but it also points out the shortcomings of Peter Beresford-Ellis' own critique of the subject, 'The Fabrication of Celtic Astrology.' This is invaluable.

After the first two chapters that deal with the Irish material ('Celestial portents and apocalypticism in medieval Ireland' and 'Druids, cloud-divination, and the portents of the Antichrist') comes a change in focus and a switch to Wales. Here we find Taliesin and Geoffrey of Monmouth, Morgan Llwyd and a little bit of John Dee amongst other things. These chapters would probably be of interest to anyone with an interest in the Welsh side of reconstructionism, for sure, and I particularly found the chapter on Taliesin and Geoffrey of Monmouth to be good food for thought as far as how 'authentically pagan' some of what we see here might be. There are lots of references to poetry, with excerpts and translations included here, so there isn't the same niggle about references to things that aren't otherwise easily accessible as I had with the Irish chapters.

All in all, this is a book that would certainly come in useful if any of the subjects dealt with are your kind of thing. I wouldn't say this book is for the beginner but I'd definitely recommend it for someone who really wants to get stuck into the nitty gritty. It's a shame the book is so expensive because it's something I'd otherwise want for the bookshelf, but such is the way of things in academia these days, I suppose.