You may find this book irritating. A complex exposition of 2,000 years of history, it is intended for the general reader, whoever he is (a general reader would surely not attempt it), so its source material is not identified but tidied away into long footnotes, presumably on the principle of pas devant la bonne. Thus the 12th-century historian William of Newburgh is introduced in the main text only as ‘a crusty old scholar’, and the family of Geoffrey of Monmouth as ‘the Monmouths’. All right, so Simon Young thinks he knows his readership.
Yet he has this for an epigraph, ‘Ac nyt oed uawr yna y weilgi : y ueis yd aeth ef’, a sentence he attributes, cryptically, to ‘Branwen’. Epigraphs are important; they are what you encounter first, and you look to them for some clue as to what will follow. But here there is no translation, no explanation given of where it is from, and certainly no gloss on its prominent position. No general reader is ever going to sort that out, and no contemporary Welsh speaker either, apart from, at most, a dozen research scholars.
To understand it you not only have to know that it is from the 12th-century collection of stories, The Mabinogion, you also need a knowledge of early medieval Welsh spelling. I am advised that it describes an invasion of Ireland, led by a king so big he actually walked it, Lady Charlotte Guest’s approximate translation being, ‘And it was not far across the sea, and he came to shoal water.’ Presumably it is used here to show the homogeneity of a lost Celtic world, which is the theme of the book. So why doesn’t Young say so? I can only assume it is a knowing wink at possible academic critics, a ‘You and I realise I know my stuff really, it’s just that I have to jazz it up a bit for the others.’ The trouble is that the others may stop reading at this point, which would be a pity.
Young’s thesis, an extraordinarily ambitious one, is that the Celtic world, whatever that is or was, has had more of an influence on European history, and on us, than we realise. But who were the Celts? It is a Greek word meaning ‘barbarians’, those the upper middle class English in my youth used to designate as not being PLU, People Like Us, though they seem to have mislaid such nerve now. Young maintains that Celtic war-bands, long-haired, wildly moustached, hundreds of thousands strong (eh? Who counted them? More important, who fed them?) roamed European prehistory, in the process, quite innocently, softening up any subsequent opposition to the Roman blitzkrieg which followed. This is pushing it a bit, the irony being that in the process they almost did for the Romans as well.
But the Romans learned from their experience, as Romans tended to do, and the steamroller went over the Celts as well, just as in time (time passes quickly in this book) the English did, who in Britain had been hired by them as a sort of Securicor in a post-Roman collapse, and after them the Normans. So many changes in the boards of directors, each one pressing the Celts down into oblivion and into their own myths. The oblivion and the myths survived.
The Times once sent me to cover an Arthurian Congress, the resulting reports prompting the Sun to send a man. The Sun! Ah, it was a long time ago. He sat next to me on the bus to Glastonbury and asked to be briefed on The Once and Future King.
‘What you must remember is that if Arthur existed, which many doubt, he was fighting immigrants.’
‘Great, the news desk’s going to like that.’
‘Only these immigrants were the English.’
‘Arthur was Welsh, the Welsh were the original inhabitants of this country.’
Young is very good on the way a rough and ready, largely forgotten sixth-century Welsh warlord (it is best to forget British-Celtic and Anglo-Saxon labels, call them Welsh and English; anything else just confuses), in the way this man, through the bestselling fantasies of Geoffrey of Monmouth, the 12th-century Breton equivalent of Dan Brown (1,000 copies of Geoffrey’s work exist, or existed in manuscript), becomes the pin-up boy of all Europe. Such embarrassing details as the fact that Arthur actually fought the English, being the Welsh Messiah, are quietly shelved (Edward I, that master of spin, intent on conquering Wales and rattled by prophecies that the old King would return, saw to it that a dead Arthur was found). Other details like the Holy Grail, the Round Table and ‘many- towered Camelot’ are noisily added. The result was celebrity on a scale not known before. A Yorkshire monk complains that novices, indifferent to pious tales, weep openly over Arthur. A French abbot complains that while whole congregations nod at Bible readings they become wide awake at any mention of Arthur.
I like Young’s own protestation of belief (‘something hard and shining must be shining at the bottom of the well’); he is good at metaphor. He goes further, speculating as to what might guarantee this (‘a tomb, a forgotten Byzantine manuscript, an inscription …’).
But the image that stays with me is that of early Irish saints, who, bored with such tests as lying in bed with naked girls, sought to hone their faith in the fashionable Dark Age way, in deserts; only, finding deserts thin on the ground in Ireland, took to the Atlantic. They went in small skin boats without adequate food or means of navigation, and some found land. Most probably didn’t. I shall remember that long after I have forgotten my irritation over Young’s epigraph and his footnotes.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 28, 2009Tags: Britain, History, Non-fiction