As The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts nears its end and appeals to Geoffrey of Monmouth as a source of historical truth proliferate, even the most oblivious reader starts to get the joke: Geoffrey’s Historia Regum Britanniae was a milestone in the genre of historical fiction satirizing historical non-fiction by posing as historical non-fiction.
Geoffrey succeeded so well that he earned 900 years worth of cranks mistaking his fiction for fact. As with Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, Geoffrey’s character of King Arthur is so compelling that many Historia readers keep insisting that Arthur must be real. This insistence is yet another demonstration that fiction believed shapes history as much as fact believed. The ideal of the real (but fake) Arthur shaped how Latin Christian rulers portrayed themselves and (sometimes) acted, and how their subjects thought they should portray themselves and act. Edward I even resorted to digging up Arthur’s bones to co-opt fiction to support his conquest of Free Britain.
Longshanks to Britons: See here? Arthur’s bones. No Once and Future King can save you now.
The Discovery of Middle Earth does not approach works by titans of its genre like Rachel Carson or Umberto Eco; the library Discovery of Middle Earth belongs in would explode in swirls of subatomic particles if it ever brushed against Eco’s antilibrary. But, even if it does not belong in Eco’s library, it does belong in another Eco chamber. Like Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, Discovery of Middle Earth satirizes independent scholars who start drinking their own research. Though it lacks the deep scholarly verve and meticulous revelry in small details that makes Eco’s masterpiece a feast for readers, Discovery of Middle Earth is more approachable to readers who might get lost in Foucault’s weeds of arcana but who want more than the thin swill of the Dan Brown corpus.
The protagonist of The Discovery of Middle Earth (a thinly veiled pastiche of best-selling British highbrow tourist guide author Graham Robb) is an English independent scholar who spirals down into madness as an artifact recovered in the backyard of his Oxford cottage leads him to discover a previously unseen “Celtic” geography of lines drawn across Europe by “Druids” so contemporary that they would not be out of place at a Davos symposium. Soon enough he starts seeing this pattern staring back at him from obscure rural corners of France and later Britain and Ireland. As with all madness, he first becomes one with the pattern and then descends below that oneness when he finds the pattern staring back into him.
As he unravels, the pretensions of the self-reverential by self-referential auto-didactic are lampooned. The scholar comedically cherry picks from Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de bello gallico. He elevates Caesar to multicultural anthropologist when Caesar comes, Caesar sees, Caesar supports his mania. He dismisses Caesar as a lumpen proletariat boor when Caesar leaves, Caesar blinks, Caesar disses his mania. The author’s joke on his protagonist is obvious: for Caesar to be a consistent informer of any reimagining of ancient Gaul, Caesar’s history must be above suspicion. You can’t have it both ways.
Ha. The reader gets the joke.
In the lead character’s ravings, The Celts are a doom-laden lot, led like giant blond sheep to the slaughter by eerily modern Druids. The Druids construct a sort of proto-European Union, acting as sacrosanct and impartial arbiters who smooth the frictions between feuding tribes and lead them to orderly settle west to central Europe on sites carefully chosen for their adherence to a Druid discovered system of meridian-esque lines and connected by remarkably straight roads.
Seeming intersections abound:
- Hannibal, a self-appointed Herakles aware of these straight lines and straight roads after growing among Celts in Hispania, followed one prominent “Path of Herakles” from the Sacred Promontory through the Pyrenees and southern France until it crossed the Alps at the Matrona Pass.
- Druids launch Celtic raids against Rome, Delphi, and other places, not for loot but because they fell on fateful intersections of those lines.
- The Celts line up to be slaughtered by the boorish Caesar at Alesia because it’s an auspicious spot and Druid prophecy said it must be so. Later Roman massacres of resigned Celts like the battle of Watling Street are consigned to the same genre of Celtic death by meridian.
- The Romans hunt down the Druids like the proto-Knights Templar they were, exterminating their last redoubt on the Sacred Isle (itself crossing an auspicous line) like an army of knuckle-dragging Phillip the Fairs.
Satire of The Da Vinci Code, a target ever ripe, finds its way in. The English scholar, deep into self-referential madness, wanders into a rural French chapel and reflects on how the blood spattered Christ, hung upon the cross, was a direct and more bloody descendent of the antiseptic human sacrifice Druids oversaw in their sacred groves. Why, he muses, this chapel is merely a continuation of Celtitics with the addition of other (Roman) means.
Throughout, modern geographical information systems are lauded for the empowerment they bestow on even the lowliest of cranks. Google Earth. What sins are committed in thy name.
By the end, the English scholar is drawing imaginary lines through Britain and Ireland, consulting with the local tourist bureau of the smear on a map he promotes to Arthur’s Camelot, and raving about London coffee shops on the right meridian. His fictional work within this work of fiction can, as Wikipedia does with the Historia, be damned with faint praise: “Historians have a difficult time deciding what is historical fact and what is merely legend, making the book a reliable read for someone studying historiography, but unreliable for someone seeking historical facts”.
The moral of the story: any sufficiently advanced historical scholarship is indistinguishable from the History Channel. Scratch a Druid, find a Knights Templar. The Discovery of Middle Earth is not powerful enough to cure the crimes it savages. Only a true masterwork of satire can do that, as Cervantes was ultimately the cure for Geoffrey. In Don Quixote, King Arthur met his antimatter twin. In The Discovery of Middle Earth, the Druids only meet a whoopee cushion.
Recommended for the lover of things Celtic in your life. For example, one of my nephews once liked Lord of the Dance. He even danced to it. He had a good excuse though: he was two years old. He didn’t know better.
7 thoughts on “Unhistory Friday: The Discovery of Middle Earth”
I warmly commend John Morris’s The Age of Arthur, A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650. It contains lots of (as far as I can tell) genuine Dark Ages history of Britain, Ireland, Brittany, and bits of the continental littoral, with lots of creative guesswork about Arthur and other Romano-Britons being used to fill the enormous gaps in historians’ knowledge.
It was copyrighted in 1973: I’d love to read someone’s account of whether much that he had to say has stood the test of the last forty years. Have archaeology, or linguistics, or place name studies, or anything else proved some of his guesses wrong, some right?
To give you an idea of the vividness of his writing, he describes the early raids of the Anglo-Saxons westward from their enclaves in the East of England, and the eventual success of the Britons in pushing them back there. After that he refers to the enclaves as “reservations”. You gotta laugh.
An enjoyable fiction series that seems to be well sourced for history is The Saxon Chronicles” which I have read some of.
I enjoyed The Age of Arthur as a teenager, reading it three times over. When it was reissued in paperback a few years back, I even purchased a copy.
Reading about 410-600 Britain since, there’s no one development that makes the unfolding of events in that period clearer. The known sources now are the same sources known to Morris 40 years ago. Morris plays with a weak deck. Perhaps he overplays his hand. I don’t think he abuses his sources any more than many other “Arthurian scholars” I read and decidedly less than many of the more prominent one.
Three recent podcast episodes I’ve listened to give a thorough overview of current thinking on the era:
“Cervantes was ultimately the cure for Geoffrey.”
When will we have a cultural masterwork to humiliate and debunk Frankfurt School Marxism, in its popular guise as Political Correctness. A long, rambling, discursive, picaresque novel of a young man naively traveling through the modern world inadvertently exposing the malice and stupidity of the whole of modern thought would be a good Quixote-like literary exercise, for someone with the talent and stamina to do it.
Ha ha. Yes. The stomach for it, too.
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