Saturday, January 23, 2016

BOOK: Wade Davis, "The Serpent and the Rainbow"

Wade Davis: The Serpent and the Rainbow. New York: Warner Books, 1987. (First ed.: New York, Simon & Schuster, 1985.) 0446343870. xii + 371 pp.


This is a very interesting and unusual book about the phenomenon of zombification in Haiti. Apparently there have been over the years several well-documented cases of people who have at one time been pronounced dead, were buried shortly afterwards, and were found much later walking about very much alive, telling improbable stories of having been raised from the grave as zombies and forced to work as slaves of some evil voodoo priest.

Davis describes his travels in Haiti in an effort to find out what exactly is behind these events. His main area of expertise is ethnobotany, i.e. the study of how people use plants, particularly medically active ones; so his hypothesis is that victims of zombification are actually poisoned so as to appear dead, and are then exhumed again by the poisoner shortly after their burial. This notion was indirectly recognized even by the authorities: “Article 249 of the Haitian penal code [. . .] referred specifically to the zombi poison, prohibiting the use of any substance that induced a lethargic coma indistinguishable from death [. . .] should a victim of such poisons be buried, the act would be considered murder no matter what the final result” (p. 60). Davis even meets two former zombies (pp. 62–3, 86).

Chapters 5 and 11 are a fascinating brief overview of the history of Haiti. I must say that this unfortunate country seems to have really had as sad, bloody and brutal a history as any I've read about so far, and if Gibbon had written his famous statement (about history being “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind”) about Haiti, one could hardly accuse him of cynicism.

The French, who colonized Haiti, set up their plantations of sugar cane and other cash crops, and they soon instituted an extremely harsh system of slavery to work these plantations (see also pp. 232–3). During the years of the French revolution, the slaves revolted and after a decade of suitably brutal fighting (“Fifteen hundred dogs were imported from Jamaica and taught to devour black prisoners in obscene public events housed in hastily built amphitheaters in Port-au-Prince”, p. 67) managed to actually win independence from the French. But then the leaders of the revolt, beliving that the country needs to keep exporting crops to retain its strength and prosperity, promptly made efforts to re-establish the very same plantation system that had caused the revolt in the first place! (P. 70.) This led to further insurrections and eventually to a situation where the thoroughly impoverished country hardly exported anything and most of the land was in the hands of small peasants who practiced subsistence farming, and over whom the central government had only a tenuous hold (p. 71): “The urban elite, though proudly Haitian, turned to Europe for cultural and spiritual inspiration [. . .] In the hinterland, however, the ex-slaves created an utterly different society based not on European models, but on their own ancestral traditions” (pp. 74–5), including, of course, the voodoo religion (p. 76).

After some time and effort, Davis gains the trust of a voodoo practitioner named Marcel Pierre and gets him to make a sample of the zombie poison (pp. 101–114). Davis then tries to determine which of the substances contained in the ingredients (p. 122) might bring about the sort of coma that gets the victim mistaken for dead. Some of the fish used in the preparation of the poison turn out to contain tetrodoxin, an extremely powerful neurotoxin that is chiefly known from various species of pufferfish and causes the death of numerous people who eat these fish as a delicacy (e.g. as fugu, in Japan); pp. 134–40. The symptoms of tetrodoxin poisoning are similar to those associated with zombies, including the deep paralysis (pp. 140–2). Davis mentions cases from Japan of people being mistaken for dead due to fugu poisoning (p. 143).

Is it all in their heads?

This is the point after which I started finding Davis's efforts to explain the zombie phenomenon a bit unsatisfactory. As he rightly points out, tetrodotoxin can only explain how to get your victim to be mistaken for dead, but it doesn't explain why this victim should behave like a zombie after you exhume him/her — after all, Japanese survivors of fugu poisoning don't act like zombies (pp. 151–2).

“Pharmacologically it induces a certain condition, but that condition is mere raw material to be worked by particular cultural or psychological forces and expectations.” (P. 151.) That is, Davis's idea is that the Haitians are victims of their own belief in zombies: the victim, upon recognizing his/her symptoms, firmly and genuinely believes that he/she is turning into a zombie, and acts accordingly; see also p. 163.

By way of illustration of how societal beliefs and expectations may affect the cases of people mistaken for dead and/or buried alive, Davis mentions the 19th-century Victorian fear of premature burial (ch. 8): “At the root of the hysterical fear of premature burial was the fact that physicians recognized, and patients suffered, a number of peculiar conditions characterized by immobility and insensibility, and known variously as trance, catalepsy, cataplexy, and suspended animation.” (P. 157.) “Needless to say, these conditions are no longer recognized by the medial profession. [. . .] But for the Victorians these ailments did exist, and they were discussed seriously by the leading medical authorities precisely because people were succumbing to them.” (P. 159.) He also mentions similar examples from the culture of Australian aborigines (p. 160), and cases of WW1 soldiers who died of shock although they hadn't been wounded by anything (p. 161).

What is there in Hatian society and culture that enables this deep-seated belief in zombies and causes the victims of tetrodotoxin poisoning to play along with this whole zombification thing after they awake from coma? This is what Davis tries to find out in the last 1/3 or so of the book, which I found a bit less interesting than the rest of it, and the thread of Davis's investigations was a bit more difficult to follow. We get treated to numerous descriptions of voodoo rituals, and a long exposition of the voodoo religion's underlying mythology (including the Serpent and the Rainbow, a pair of deities; p. 213) and the various kinds of soul-like spiritual components that they believe each person to consist of (p. 218). A zombie is obtained by depriving a person of one of these components, the ti bon ange (‘small good angel’), which normally provides him/her with individuality and personality (p. 225). As for the ti bon ange itself, it can actually be captured and stored in a jar or bottle, and one such jar was shown to Davis (pp. 189, 200, 225); it is regarded by the believers as a kind of complementary zombie.

See pp. 226–7 for a handy summary of the zombification process: “For the vodounist the creation of a zombi is essentially a magical process. However, the bokor [i.e. the evil voodoo practitioner] in creating a zombi cadavre may cause the prerequisite unnatural death not by capturing the ti bon ange of the living but by the means of a slow-acting poison that is applied directly to the intended victim. [. . .] the victim receives the correct dose of the poison, wakes up in the coffin, and is taken from the grave by the bokor. The victim, affected by the drug, traumatized by the set and setting of the total experience, is bound and led before a cross to be baptized with a new name. After the baptism, or sometimes the next day, he or she is made to eat a paste containing a strong dose of a potent psychoactive drug, the zombi's cucumber, which brings on a state of disorientation and amnesia. During the course of that intoxication, the zombi is taken away into the night.” For more on the paste administered after the exhumation, see pp. 196–9.

One thing that I think is missing from this explanation is what happens to the victim afterwards. The zombies mentioned in this book were made to work practically as slaves, on somebody's plantation. Were they being given the drug all the time? If not, why didn't they escape? Was it because they were guarded well enough, or has all the traumatisation they had gone through, together with their honest belief in zombies (and their belief that they themselves are zombies now), deprived them of the will to resist?

The secret societies of Haiti

Anyway, instead of focusing on these questions, Davis's investigation veers into a different direction, namely the social infrastructure that makes the zombie phenomenon possible. Apparently there exist in Haiti a number of ‘secret societies’, which form a kind of social structure parallel and complementary to that of the state, and they actually exercise more influence on the day-to-day life of the people in the countryside than the state does (pp. 287–9, 314–6).

Similar secret societies exist in West Africa (p. 237), and the idea was brought to Haiti by the African slaves. Another source that contributed to the origin of the secret societies were the bands of maroons, i.e. runaway slaves who had fled into the hinterlands of the country and formed stable communities, successfully wresting the interior of the country from French control and conducting numerous raids on the plantations (pp. 233–6).

“In the minds of the urban elite, zombification might well be criminal, but [. . .] in the vodoun society it was actually the opposite, a social sanction imposed by recognized corporate groups whose responsibility included the policing of that society.” (P. 260.) “[T]he secret societies represented a legitimate political and judicial force in the vodoun society” (p. 264).

Davis eventually manages to establish contact with a secret society called Bizango or Shanpwel, and is even allowed to attend one of their gatherings (p. 286). There are examples of ways in which the society might help its members on pp. 273 and 292, and how its judicial apparatus works on p. 310. See p. 312 for an explicit list of transgressions that are particularly looked down upon. But some of the society's activities don't seem quite so commendable; in particular, it seems to have a ridiculous insistence that the night belongs to it alone, and is willing to enforce a kind of curfew, harassing or persecuting non-members who are found outside at night (pp. 273, 292).

At the end of the book, Davis even goes so far as to consider becoming initiated into the secret society (p. 327). He also says he had been offered the opportunity to witness a zombie in the process of being taken from the grave, but declined: “If the affair turned out to be fraudulent, I would have wasted the money. If [. . .] it turned out to be legitimate, I would have no way of being certain that the money had not been responsible for the victim's fate.” (P. 328.)


I enjoyed this book a lot. Apart from the contents themselves, there is also its style: unlike in a typical popular-science book, this one is written as Davis' first-person narrative of his research, his travels to Haiti, the people he spoke to and the events he observed. I think it works very well and makes this book even more enjoyable to read. Of course, in a way the author is lucky that he is an anthropologist, and a fairly adventurous one too — in most other fields, e.g. if he were a historian or a physicist, this sort of first-person-narrative approach would make for very boring reading :) Anyway, this first-person narrative approach also has its drawbacks, e.g. I sometimes found it difficult to keep track of the big picture in the story, to understand why he is doing whatever it is that he is doing at this particular time.

But my main complaint about the book is that, as an investigation of zombification, it feels somehow incomplete. Davis has identified the drugs involved in the process, and the secret societies that form the social background to it. But I missed a clear answer to the question of what causes a person, once zombified, to keep acting like a zombie — can it really be just due to the Haitians' vivid and honest belief in the reality of the whole zombification business? This explanation strikes me as unsatisfactory. It is clear that, at the end of the book, Davis' main interest is in the secret societies, but I wish that instead of dabbling in them he had directed his efforts towards a better understanding of the zombie's fate beyond the first few hours after his/her exhumation.


  • Davis' later book, Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie (1988). He also wrote several other potentially interesting books, unrelated to zombies.

  • On pp. 252–8, Davis mentions Zora Neale Hurston, an African-American anthropologist who did some pioneering research on Haitian secret societies in the early 20th century. She wrote about them in her book Tell My Horse (1937). It turns out that she was also a writer (see her Wikipedia page), and some of her novels might be interesting to read, e.g. Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). A generous selection of her works is available in two volumes in the Library of America.

  • In the 19th century, Haiti was one of the few independent countries that were not ruled by whites. As a result “American and European foreign correspondents had indulged their readers' perverse infatuation with what was known as the Black Republic, serving it up garnished with every conceivable figment of their imaginations. [. . .] cast the entire nation as a caricature, an impoverished land of throbbing drums ruled by pretentions buffoons and populated by swamp doctors, licentious women, and children bred for the cauldron.” (P. 254.) Some of the titles mentioned include:

    • Spenser St. John: Hayti: or The Black Republic (1880).
    • John Houston Craige: Black Bagdad (1933) and Cannibal Cousins (1934).
    • William Seabrook: The Magic Island (1929). Mentioned on p. 353.

    Davis comments: “It was no coincidence that many of [these books] appeared during the years of the American occupation (1915–1934), and that every Marine above the rank of captain seemed to manage to land a publishing contract.” (Pp. 254–5.)

Important zombie-related links

Labels: , ,

Saturday, October 24, 2015

BOOK: Lilio Giraldi, "Modern Poets"

Lilio Gregorio Giraldi: Modern Poets. Edited and translated by John N. Grant. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 48. Harvard University Press, 2011. 9780674055759. xxxv + 363 pp.

Giraldi lived in the late 15th and early 16th century and here gives an overview of what to him were ‘modern poets’ — people who were active in his own day and one or at most two generations earlier. The book is written as dialogues between Giraldi and several other poets and scholars; in the first dialogue, Giraldi gives an overview of contemporary Italian poets, and in the second dialogue, the other interlocutors present the poets of several other countries — Greece, Portugal, Spain, Britain, France, Germany (which is conceived very broadly; the section on German poets includes several Dutchmen, a Swiss, and a few others who happened to be active in Germany). In fact about half of the second dialogue again deals with yet more Italian poets, so that about 3/4 of the entire work is about Italian poets. I guess this is reasonable enough, as it's what Giraldi must have been the most familiar with.

The characters in his dialogue were based on real people, but I suppose that the conversation itself is Giraldi's invention. Admittedly, he doesn't make much use of the possibilities offered by the dialogue as a form — it's more like a sequence of long monologues than a conversation; each character holds forth a mini-lecture while the others listen without saying anything much. On the few occasions when the flow of conversation begins to veer off topic, Giraldi brings it sharply back onto the main subject of modern poets, which unfortunately prevents the whole thing from feeling like a pleasant and natural chat. Still, these occasional small bits of conversation do liven up the text a little bit, so having it structured as a dialogue wasn't an entirely bad idea.

This book was a much better read than I thought it would be; I was afraid that I would find it boring, but it was in fact a pleasant and easy read, although one that is best taken in moderate doses. Giraldi's approach seems to me very different than what one would expect in a modern-day book about the literature of a particular period. Nowadays you'd expect a book like that to include a moderately-sized set of major poets and discuss their work in some detail; on the other hand, Giraldi includes a very large number of poets in his book (I didn't try to count them but there appears to be more than 300 of them), but says very little about each of them, typically just a short paragraph. Sometimes he mentions titles of individual works of the poets, but more often he just gives a vague description of what genre they worked in and what were the overall qualities (or defects) of their work. He pretty much never discusses any individual work in detail. In fact I had the impression that he says more about the biographical facts of the poets' lives than about their work.

This idea of covering a large number of poets, and often organizing them simply by the region or town where they were active, was nice — a normal modern-day treatment that focuses on a few major poets would give you the impression that literature consists of a handful of isolated mountains of towering genius; but the impression you get from Giraldi is instead one of literature as a connected, varied landscape of rolling hills, with a slightly higher mountain here or there, and not a few marshes and bogs as well. I rather liked this picture, and I suspect it's closer to reality: poets don't work in isolation, they have contacts with each other, read and influence one another's work (and geographical proximity is a nontrivial factor in such things, probably even more so in Giraldi's day than now), and so on.

I couldn't help being impressed by the immense amount of work and reading that must have gone into Geraldi's book; he had to actually read the work of most of the poets he talks about (on a few rare occasions when he couldn't get ahold of some poet's writings, he says so and then refrains from commenting on that poet's work).

Another thing that made this book interesting for me was that almost all the poets he talks about were hitherto unknown to me. They may have seemed notable in Giraldi's time, but now 500 years later hardly any of them are familiar to the general public. If I had to think about Italian Renaissance poets, my first idea would be Dante and Petrarch, although I know that Dante is considered medieval and in any case both of these are much too early to fall within the scope of Giraldi's book. Next I would think of the epic poets — Ariosto, Tasso, and perhaps Pulci and Boiardo; of these, Tasso is too late for this book (which does however mention his less well-known father Bernardo Tasso; 2.142 and p. 337), and while he does briefly mention the others (Ariosto in 1.158; Pulci and Boiardo in 2.139), the problem is that he is mostly interested in neo-Latin poets rather than in those who wrote in Italian or other living languages. Anyway, that's more or less where my knowledge would end, so nearly all the Italian poets he mentions were new to me. Well, actually, I did recognize a few of them as I had read their work in earlier volumes of the I Tatti Renaissance Library: Gregorio Correr and his tragedy Procne (1.157), Vida and his Christiad (1.110–2), Beccadelli (“Panormita”) and his Hermaphrodite (1.56–8), Sannazaro (Giraldi mentions his Piscatory Eclogues and Virgin Birth, 1.33–4), Pietro Bembo (1.41–2; though most of what I read of him so far was prose rather than poetry), Pontano (1.37–8), Maffeo Vegio (1.54–5). There are also some whose work I haven't read yet but noticed their books in the ITRL series, e.g. Fracastoro and his epic poem Syphilis (1.175).

For other countries, it's even worse; I could hardly name any poets that worked in the period covered by Giraldo, so pretty much everything he mentions was new to me. I was curious what he'd say about English poetry, but even there it was clear that most of their famous early poets fall outside this period: the Elizabethans were a bit too late, and Chaucer was quite a bit too early. Skelton and Wyatt would be good candidates. Well, as it turns out, he talks about William Lily (2.53–4; I had never heard of him before), Thomas More (2.56; his Utopia is a rare example of a few words being said about an individual work, 2.58); he briefly lists, though not as poets, “Colet, Grocyn, Lupset, Richard Pace, the bishop of Rochester, and others” (2.57). Once again the thing is that he's interested in neo-Latin rather than vernacular literature. He ends the English section of the book by mentioning (2.59) that “[t]here were also some poets writing in their own native English language”, namely Chaucer (“from earlier times”) and Wyatt.

Among the French poets, the only one whose name sounded vaguely familiar to me was Jean du Bellay (2.64), but as it turns out, I got him confused with his younger cousin Joaquim du Bellay, some of whose poems I read years ago in Edmund Spenser's translation; but Joaquim is too recent to be included in Giraldi's work.

Listed among the German poets is one Matthias Illyricus (2.76), whose conspicuously non-German surname got me curious and sure enough, he was actually a Croatian protestant who lived much of his life in Germany (see p. 293 and also his wikipedia page). There's also one “Andrzei Kryczki from Poland” (2.84); I was surprised to see that the original Latin text refers to his home country as Sarmatia.

Occasionally I wished that the translator's notes were more extensive. I found myself wondering, when reading Giraldi's brief mention of this or that poet, things like: What is known of this particular poet today? How has his reputation held up, how does Giraldi's judgment of his work compare with that of modern-day literary historians? What are some of his principal works (Giraldi often neglects to mention this)? Have any of them been lost? Of those that are stil extant, where and when have they been published? But, of course, if all this had been included in the notes, the translator would effectively end up re-writing Giraldi's book, only at three times the length and with the benefit of modern knowledge; and that's hardly reasonable to expect from a volume like this one. And in fact much of this information is actually included, just not in the notes but as a separate “Biographical Glossary”, which runs to almost a hundred pages (i.e. there's more or less the same amount of text here as in Giraldi's two dialogues put together) and lists all the poets mentioned in Giraldi's work, in alphabetical order, with about one paragraph of information about each of them.

Giraldi on vernacular poetry

Giraldi values poetry in Latin much more highly than that in vernacular languages, and the way he turns up his nose at vernacular poetry is downright grotesque at times. In 1.160, he says: “all the good poets know Latin [. . .] By contrast, barbers and tradesmen [. . .] have turned their hand to poetry and are unworthy of being grouped with Latin poets”.

And in 2.139, after mentioning a few vernacular poets: “I would be going too far if I should wish to include all such poets here. For in that case I would have to include barbers, cobblers, and other tradesmen, many drawn from the very dregs of society. Because of the great numbers of such writers, some men, learned in other respects, have fallen into the heresy of not only wishing to give vernacular literature the same standing as Latin letters but even of wishing to elevate it over Latin literature, and they have even said this in their writings.” The translator adds (n. 69 on p. 248) that Giraldi's views were “by 1551 very much a rearguard position”. But if we ignore Giraldi's snobbishness for a moment, his quote is actually encouraging — a world in which even barbers and cobblers write poetry sounds like a splendid one indeed!

He has an interesting discussion on the origins of vernacular poetry in 2.140: “Some have traced it back to the Sicilians when their island became a kingdom. Most take it back to the people of Tuscany, the region that gave its name to the Tuscan language. Some others ascribe the beginnings to the people of Provence, the part of France that is now given that name.” He is exactly right on all three counts, but I'm surprised that he's so vague about this; either he *really* didn't care about vernacular poetry, or this stuff was in fact relatively little known in his time, being something like 200 or 300 years in the past by then.

“I think that I've spoken at sufficient length about the vernacular poets since even children chant out their songs everywhere in city squares and streets.” (2.151) Wow! Poetry that lives among the people! He says that as if it was a bad thing! Could it be that he was simply jealous because unlike neo-Latin, the vernacular poetry could actually be popular? As in, among the *people* and not just a bunch of pimply nerds in their basements (whatever the 16th-century equivalent of that was :P).


See pp. xxx–xxxi of the translator's introduction for extensive and very pedantic complaints about Giraldi's Latin :)

One Pietro (a.k.a. Pierio) Valeriano “is engaged in a multivolume work on the sacred literature of Egypt” (1.151). According to the wikipedia, he did eventually finish it.

Giraldi is often quite critical of the poets in his volume. Here he is complaining about a poet, Pietro Alcionio, who followed Cicero too closely: “if his prose gave off an odor, it would smell of an oil flask from Arpinum more than anything else” (1.152; Arpinum being Cicero's birth-place). Another author, Bernardino Donato, is even worse: “I have read some of his prose works, which smell of the oil lamp, but he certainly doesn't have the scent of the man from Arpinum” (1.176; the translator's note 72 on p. 241 explains that the oil lamp metaphor is meant to suggest that “the prose is learned, the result of long labor”).

The aforementioned Alcionio “often boasts to all and sundry that he is working on a tragedy on the death of Christ, in which, as he is wont to say, he uses every meter that ever existed.” :))) (1.152)

I was surprised by this observation: “it's easier to compose Greek poetry than Latin” (2.20).

“Etienne Dolet, a Frenchman, wrote many large volumes that I had never any intention of opening.” :))) (2.109) This was funny, but on reading his wikipedia page, his story is actually a sad one: “he was eventually arrested and burned with his books on orders of the theological faculty of the Sorbonne”.

2.156 mentions a poet with an unfortunate surname: Guillaume Bigot. I don't know if it's actually related to the English word bigot, although apparently this word does in fact come from French, according to (“derogatory name applied by the French to the Normans”).

Occasionally I felt that Giraldi's obsession with Latin as opposed to vernacular poetry extended to the point where nearly everyone who wrote in Latin was mentioned in his book, even if only to say that he unfortunately didn't produce any poetry. For example: “There is also Gabriele Falloppio, who turned his interests to medicine.” (2.170) Well, at least I learned whom the Fallopian tubes were named for.

Ariosto had a brother named Gabriele, who was apparently also a poet (2.179).

According to the translator's biographical glossary (p. 269), Elisio Calenzio (mentioned by Giraldi on 2.97) wrote (in 1448) a poem titled “Croacus or De bello ranarum, modeled on the Batrachomyomachia, ascribed to Homer”. I've always been greatly intrigued by the idea of a parody epic like this, so I'm glad to see that another one has been written. I recently saw an interesting-looking modern retelling of the Batrachomyomachia in a bookshop; it was written by one George (not R. R.) Martin and was mistakenly (or cunningly?) shelved among the various Game of Thrones books :))

Labels: , ,

Saturday, September 26, 2015

BOOK: Bartolomeo Fonzio, "Letters to Friends"

Bartolomeo Fonzio: Letters to Friends. Edited by Alessandro Daneloni. Translated by Martin Davies. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 47. Harvard University Press, 2011. 9780674058361. xviii + 233 pp.

Fonzio was a humanist author from Florence, and in the last part of his career a priest, who lived in the late 15th and early 16th century. This book contains a small selection of his letters to various people; apparently he mostly selected and edited the letters by himself, though he never quite got around to publishing them.

This is not the first time we've had a volume of letters in the I Tatti Renaissance Library — see my post from a few years ago about vol. 21, the letters of Angelo Poliziano. My impressions about Fonzio's book of letters are pretty similar to what I wrote back then about Poliziano's: they give us a few interesting glimpses into his life, especially as they are arranged chronologically, but most of them don't really have anything terribly substantial to say. Typical subjects include general expressions of affection to friends, and looking for patronage, either for himself or for his students or relatives. One thing that surprised me is how little detail these letters tend to go into, even when arranging things like jobs where I would imagine that more detail would be important. What if the recipient needs to ask for clasification or for more information? I imagine that waiting for messengers to carry the letters back and forth could take weeks.

Nevertheless, here are some of the letters that I found interesting:

1.16 — Fonzio has just returned from a trip to Rome, and is describing various sights to his friend Battista Guarini. This was pretty interesting, and some of the ancient ruins he describes have since been ruined for good (see n. 34 on p. 203). However, I was disappointed to read that much of his description is actually based on a book called De varietate fortunae, written some 25 years earlier by Poggio Bracciolini (see n. 27 on p. 202 and n. 37 on p. 203).

1.17 — a fine letter to the same friend, trying to console him about the death of his wife. I was glad to hear that Fonzio has no patience for the useless sort of advice that you find in the works of Stoic philosophers: “I do not ask that you should be the Sage of Stoic theory, which requires us to feel no anguish at all at the passing of deat friends. I do not share the view that we should never be moved by any human emotion.” (1.17.2) However, I'm not sure if Fonzio's advice is terribly helpful either: he points out that death is inevitable, the soul goes on to a more pleasant afterlife, and in any case Battista should just focus on his scholarly work to forget his grief more easily.

A nice pun from 1.21.2: “there's no medicine available for our sick body politic while the Medic's away” (referring to Lorenzo de' Medici's temporary absence from Florence).

Letter 1.22 is also very punny. Fonzio was sending some manuscripts to a French nobleman named Beauclair, first The Golden Ass and now a cookbook: “I have decided to take account not just of your stable but of your kitchen too” (1.22.2), etc.

1.24 — a delightful, no-holds-barred invective against Angelo Poliziano (he and Fonzio were rivals as professors in Florence at some point). “Your impudence will not further abuse my modesty, nor will that reckless insolence of yours any longer launch itself against my patience.” (1.24.1) “Was it some acquaintance with the liberal arts that gave you this puffed-up idea of yourself? — though if you had even a modest mastery of any of them you would not be so devoid of all traces of humanity.” (1.24.2) “The erudite and upright generally consign their thoughts to writing and do not conduct debates on the truth by means of disgraceful insults but with useful writings.” (1.24.4) Pot, meet kettle :))

He apparently spent some time in Rome, working for the church, but eventually left in disgust at the level of corruption he saw there. He gives an interesting and frank description of this in two letters from 1484, to Lorrenzo de' Medici (2.4) and to Bernardo Rucellai (2.5). See esp. 2.4.2&ndash3, 2.4.6–7, 2.5.5–6. “By God in heaven and our lord and master Jesus Christ, what powers of oratory would be equal to describing the vices of this [papal] court?” (2.4.2) “I could see that here no account was taken of either right living or true knowledge. [. . .] men here who dress in sheep's clothing and behave like ravening wolves [. . .] Their greed and wantonness can never be satisfied.” (2.5.5)

2.7 — an interesting letter about the discovery, in the April 1485, of a remarkably well-preserved corpse of a young girl from the Roman era. I was really looking forward to this letter as it's even mentioned in the publisher's description on the front flap of the dust jacket; however, I was a little disappointed as it goes into less detail than I had hoped for. On the plus side, Fonzio actually made a drawing of the corpse and its sacrophagus, which is included in this volume on p. xviii.

Anyway, the amazing thing is how well-preserved it was: “rather pale and as if she had been buried that very day [. . .] small ears, a short forehead, dark eyebrows, the eyes beneath shapely and bright. The nose was still intact, and so soft that if it was pressed by a finger it would flex and yield. The lips were a pale red, the teeth snow-white and small, the tongue from the roof of the mouth all scarlet. The cheeks, chin, neck, and throat — you'd think they belonged to a living person.” I find this hard to believe, TBH; I wonder what really happened. The only hint of a possible explanation appears early in the letter: the corpse was “lying on its face, covered by a layer of fragrant bark two inches thick; all of the inside of the casket was likewise smeared with the same fragrant mixture like some sort of plaster”. Fonzio says that her name and the period in which she lived are unknown as no inscriptions were discovered on the tomb. “Two days after it was found, by order of the Conservators it [= the corpse] was taken to the Capitol amidst vast throngs of people”, but unfortunately Fonzio doesn't say anything about the subsequent fate of the body.

Several other contemporary authors mention this event; the translator's note 18 on p. 209 recommends a suitably obscure 19th-century German paper: Christian Hülsen, “Die Auffindung der Römischen Leiche vom Jahre 1485”, Mittheilungen des Instituts für Österreichische Geschichtsforschung 4(1883):433–49. (To be honest, it isn't that obscure — the journal appears to have been scanned by Google at some point and you can find it on Or if you feel like you have too much money, Messrs. de Gruyter will be happy to sell you access to another scan of this article for a mere 30 euros! :)))) In any case, my German is a bit too rusty to read Hülsen's article, and he quotes the text of the original descriptions of the corpse in Latin, which I don't understand at all, so I had to look for some other source. A bit of googling led me to Rodolfo Lanziani, Pagan and Christian Rome (1892), pp. 295–301 — see this excellent web page; Lanziani includes Fonzio's drawing as well as generous extracts from three other contemporary descriptions. This event is also mentioned in Symonds's Renaissance in Italy (Vol. 1, The Age of the Despots, ch. 1).

2.10 — the senate of the Republic of Ragusa offered Fonzio the job of a professor there; he was pleasantly surprised by this as he hadn't actually been asking for anything of that sort. In this letter, he politely refuses their offer. I found this episode interesting as an example of the strong ties between Dubrovnik and Italy during that period.

There are several letters to various Hungarians, including some to king Matthias Corvinus himself. The king was trying to establish a new library and Fonzio prepared for him “a book listing all authors, ancient and modern, pagan and Christian, in every field of learning, which I have compiled with considerable labor and care, so that you can see how the library should be arranged” (2.13.1; from a later passage in the same letter it appears that Fonzio also helped organize the copying of some books in Florence). I wonder if Fonzio's list is extant and published somewhere; unfortunately I didn't notice anything about this in the translator's notes.

2.19 — a perfectly decent letter but one that becomes funny when read by an incurable pervert like myself. A friend is asking Fonzio for help with finding a suitable servant, and Fonzio's reply makes him sound like a high-class pimp: “I have looked and do still look with all energy and persistence for a youth such as you seek, one fitted for reading, writing, serving, and carrying out all your orders. But there's a remarkable shortage of such young men here [. . .] I'll press on, however, with the gramar schools, I'll investigate the households of citizens, I'll write to all the nearby towns.”

The letters in this collection cover a span of more than 45 years. Of course, a lot happens in such a long period, which led to a few touching moments: in letter 1.20, we see Fonzio writing (in 1480) to the head of the monastery which his younger brother Mauro had just entered; and then in letter 3.1, written in 1506, a much older Fonzio mentions with some regret the recent death of Mauro and several other friends and relatives. For the reader these two letters are separated by a couple of days, by a few dozen pages — and yet behind this there was twenty-six years, long enough for poor Mauro to live out the bulk of his life, and to die.

There are several letters on theological subjects ahd church politics, mostly written late in his life, after he had become a priest (see e.g. 3.4, 3.5, 3.9). In 3.5.7, he refers to Dante approvingly as “that fine poet and great theologian”.

3.8 — a nice overview of various ancient Roman units for distance, area, weight, etc. I don't doubt that all this stuff is already written up in a Wikipedia article somewhere, but I'd never read it there so I found this letter quite interesting. The Romans appear to have delighted in unnecessarily inventing lots of specialized terminology for this: “A triens is a third of an as or four ounces, a quincunx five ounces, a semissis half an as or six ounces, a septunx seven ounces.” (3.8.9)

3.12 — an interesting letter on how to become an eloquent orator. Fonzio presents all this as a quotation of advice given to him by his old teacher, Bernardo Nuti; I liked his sober ideas about avoiding excessive reliance on the rhetorical theory and imitation of classical authors. This was like a breath of fresh air compared to the unreasonably extremist positions about which I read some years ago in the ITRL volume on Ciceronian Controversies. “The system, though it was devised by noting down the sayings and writings of the eloquent, does not in itself make men elouent [. . .] Whether they had earlier learned such rules or had never come across them, they never thought of them when they were speaking.” (3.12.7) “[I]t is better, safer and more laudable for a talented writer to trust in himself and not tread in another's footsteps.” (3.12.16) His recommended approach sounds a bit romantic: “There's no briefer or easier way than a burning love of virtue and a noble thirst for glory [. . .] keep this always at the forefront of your mind, attentively rereading for yourself all the authors that may guide you to eloquence, finding out and arranging in your own mind all that they write” (3.12.8).

A couple of the letters in this collection are basically fakes — written by Fonzio but not actually sent to their recipients: 1.18 (which is basically a short autobiography of Fonzio's early career, dated 1472 but apparently written some 20 years later, according to note 42 on p. 204), 1.19 (a discussion of the immortality of the soul, suitably full of theological wharrgarble, based on a theological book which Fonzio had written earlier in his career; see the translator's note 49 on p. 205).

There are a few glimpses into the mechanics of how letters were actually sent back then — as there was no postal service in the modern sense, it was up to the sender to find a messenger that would actually carry the letter. “Your letter reached me at Rome, but I decided not to write back since I had no messenger I could rely on” (1.16.1). “Though the importance of the matter calls for greater leisure and more prolonged examination, I shall use your same messenger to set out the whole question as best I can” (1.19.2). “Since leaving your country [Hungary], I have so far written you nothing because on the journey I had no one I could send to Buda” (2.13.1).

I was impressed by the editor's notes at the end of this book — Fonzio and the recipients of his letters lived around 500 years ago, and yet it has been possible to find quite a lot of detail about nearly all of them. The translator says on p. 193 that the notes are a condensed form of the notes in Daneloni's Italian edition of Fonzio's letters. Unfortunately, it appears that Daneloni died in 2014 (see this obituary) before he could finish the second volume of his edition (the first volume having been published in 2008). :(

Labels: , , ,

Friday, September 18, 2015

Miha Mazzini bingo!

Bingo je igra na srečo, podobna tomboli. Dobiš kvadrat s 5 × 5 naključnimi števili, nekdo potem žreba števila in ko so enkrat izžrebana vsa števila iz ene vrstice ali stolpca tvojega kvadrata, zavpiješ ‘bingo!’ in si zmagal. Sčasoma so se na internetu pojavile sarkastične različice binga, npr. bullshit bingo, v katerem namesto številk nastopajo nakladaške fraze, ki jih radi uporabljajo managerji in podobni ljudje — ko si na nekem sestanku zaslišal že vse fraze iz neke vrstice ali stolpca svojega kvadrata, zavpiješ ‘bullshit!’ in si zmagal. No, ali pa vsaj fantaziraš o tem. Obstajajo tudi številne sarkastične različice binga za in proti raznim političnim ideologijam in podobno (npr. tule).

Ker rad prebiram kolumne Mihe Mazzinija (čeprav se z njim v skoraj ničemer ne strinjam — on ves čas kritizira ravno tiste lastnosti slovenske družbe in narodnega značaja, ki so meni najbolj všeč: pasivnost, egalitarizem, tarnanje, nostalgični spomini na socializem, navezanost na nepremičnine itd. itd.) in ker sem opazil, da se v njih večino časa vrti okoli majhnega števila enih in istih tem, mi je prišlo na misel, da bi lahko naredil bingo kvadrat tudi za njegove spise.

Na hitro sem še enkrat preletel njegove članke na iz zadnjih dveh let, izbral 24 pogosto omenjanih fraz in idej ter jih naključno razporedil po kvadratu. Tole je rezultat :)

podložniki rihtanje odgovor­nost prazno­verje Cankar
nepre­mičnine 70. leta Trstenjak pasiv­nost janze­nizem
narcisizem ustvar­jalnost bonus polje egali­tarizem izselje­vanje
progra­miranje jugo­nostalgija slovenska mati kult fizičnega dela tuji gos­podarji
stati inu obstati tarnanje Facebook antropo­logija teorije zarot

Labels: ,

Saturday, September 12, 2015

BOOK: Boccaccio, "Genealogy of the Pagan Gods" (Vol. 1)

Giovanni Boccaccio: Genealogy of the Pagan Gods. Vol. 1: Books I–V. Edited and translated by Jon Solomon. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 46. Harvard University Press, 2011. 9780674057104. xxxvii + 887 pp.

I didn't particularly enjoy reading this book, but I couldn't help admiring the author's gumption: he boldly waded into the unholy morass that is ancient Greek and Roman mythology and tried to arrange all the various mythological entities into one huge genealogical tree!

Judging by the translator's introduction (p. xii), he was neither the first nor the last person to make a compendium of classical mythology, though I'm not sure if other authors also tried to arrange everything into a genealogical tree. In any case, I imagined it would be obvious enough to everyone that ancient mythology is simply too messy, incompletely known, and internally inconsistent to be neatly arranged into one huge genealogy. Sure, you could extract numerous small genealogical fragments from it — Aeneas is the son of Venus, who is the daughter of Jupiter, who is the son of Saturn, etc. — but for many minor characters mentioned in ancient mythology, we probably simply don't have enough information about their ancestry to reliably place them into a genealogical tree.

Besides, when the same character is mentioned in several sources, they are often inconsistent with each other. Boccaccio, like other authors before him, tried to work around this by imagining that sometimes several characters with the same name got conflated into one, so that when things get too inconsistent, you can simply pretend to resolve them by disentangling one character into several different ones, who lived at different times and did different things. Thus you hear mentions of things like ‘the first Jupiter’, ‘the second Jupiter’, and so on (among other things there are at least five Minervas, 4.64; four Apollos, 5.3.1; three Aesculapii, 5.19.7 — incidentally, most of this stuff seems to be coming from Cicero's On the Nature of the Gods). On the positive side, this numbering of Jupiters provided the translator with the opportunity to sneak an excellent pun into the text (2.4.1): “Eusebius writes that Jupiter copulated with her [= Niobe] before any other mortal, and so he was the first Jupiter, for the others come much later.” :]

I wonder if the ancient Greeks and Romans themselves really thought of their mythology as being interconnected into one huge genealogical tree. Frankly, I doubt it, and as a result I doubt if works like Boccaccio's really help us understand ancient mythology any better. His genealogy just gives us an illusion of order and completeness where most likely no such things ever really existed, even during the ancient times themselves.

I can definitely sympathize with the impulse to do this sort of things, the fannish urge to present an orderly overview of some fictional universe that has delighted us — it's the same impulse that drives the contributors to many wikis and other such websites nowadays. I myself, many years ago, toyed with the idea of making a huge genealogy of the characters in Tolkien's works, but fortunately I came to my senses and abandoned it before wasting too much time on it. And similarly I couldn't help wishing that Boccaccio had recognized his effort with the pagan genealogy as futile and spent his time doing something else. We know that he was a great writer in his own right — he wrote the Decameron, after all — how interesting it would be if he had written his own retellings of the stories from ancient mythology, similar to the ones written more recently by people like Gustav Schwab or Robert Graves.

Instead, what we got here is a curious reference work where I'm not quite sure who is intended to benefit from it. (Boccaccio actually wrote it on commission for the king of Cyprus; p. viii.) If you want to find information about a particular mythological character, it isn't easy to find without an alphabetical index (which this edition has, of course, but I doubt that the manuscript copies of Boccaccio's time had anything of that sort; although it seems that the first such index was compiled soon after his death, see p. x). And it isn't terribly suitable for reading from cover to cover either, or at least I found it boring to read that way. Insofar as it contains retellings of stories from ancient mythology, these retellings tend to be very minimalistic, bare-bones, matter-of-fact abridgements which retain very little of the charm of the original stories.

(There are some exceptions to this, e.g. the story of Cupid and Psyche in 5.22 is written up nicely and with a reasonable level of detail. In fact as soon as Boccaccio steps away from making terse summaries and inane interpretations of ancient myths, he immediately begins to write in an interesting an engaging way; see e.g. 4.68.5–10 for the delightful tale of the discovery of a giant man's body in a cave near Trapani in Sicily, which he claims occurred in his own time; I wonder what was really behind this story.)

If someone unfamiliar with ancient mythology tried to acquaint himself with it by reading Boccaccio's genealogy, he would probably end up wondering why people are making so much fuss about such a boring jumble of absurdities. Still, I guess the problem is that I'm looking at his book too much from a present-day point of view, and thus I'm missing the real point — in the 14th century, when he wrote it, it was probably a very valuable reference work since so few other things of that sort were available.

A big part of Boccaccio's book are his attempts to find some quasi-reasonable explanations behind the various events and factoids mentioned in ancient sources. Boccaccio can't seem to bring himself to admit that most of the stories from ancient mythologies are basically random assemblages of bits and pieces that emerged over the centuries through the efforts of countless people involved in re-telling the stories to each other. Instead, he is determined to find some underlying deeper meaning behind every detail. He usually claims that a mythological character was based on a real person whose actions and personality traits were gradually inflated into the claims we now find about that character in ancient myths. These explanations required no small amount of ingenuity on Boccaccio's part, although much of the time the resulting explanations are just as ad-hoc and arbitrary as the original myths themselves. And of course it's easy to come up with several wildly different ‘interpretations’ of the same story — but in Boccaccio's eyes, that's a feature and not a bug (see his interesting discussion in 1.3.6–8).

A fine example of this sort of interpretations from 1.12: Tages was said to be “a son of Earth from an unknown father [. . .] the earth became a little swollen” and a local farmer, after a little digging, unearthed the little Tages. The baby quickly “became an old man” and “taught the locals the art of divination” (1.12.1–2). Boccaccio's heroic attempt to make sense of this mess: “It could be that there was someone who was studying divination for a long time [. . .] living apart from other humans, he suddenly appeared a learned man from an unknown place. And perhaps because he seemed to come out of a cave, it was said that he was the offspring of Earth. Alternatively, he appeared unexpectedly before the eyes of a man cultivating his fields, as if he came out of the glebes, and was called the son of Earth by the rustic people” etc. (1.12.4)

See also his hilarious interpretation of the Pygmalion myth in 2.49.4. And the story of Europa being abducted by Jupiter in the form of a bull turns into a tawdry tale of white slavery in 2.62.3 (Mercury, who also helps in the process, must be “some procurer leading a maiden from the city to the shore, or a beguiling merchant promising to show her jewels if she will climb aboard his ship”; the Jupiter/bull thing must be “a ship on which the emblem was a white bull” — practically the ‘Free Candy’ van of the ancient world). In 4.10.5–8 there's a rather moralistic interpretation of the tale of the Minotaur (Pasiphae = the human mind; Minos = reason; the bull that seduced her = “delights of the world”, etc.); similarly, he has a thorough interpretation of the story of Orpheus in which Eurydice stands for “natural concupiscence, which no mortal lacks” (5.12.7). See 4.46.5 for a rare occassion where he admits defeat: “In this story there are so many contradictory aspects of both the events and time periods that not only odes it eliminate any credibility in the story but it makes it utterly impossible to find any semblance to the truth.”

Many of his interpretations are based on ‘etymologies’, which I put into scare quotes since I suspect that most of the time they are based just on random similarities between words and not on a real etymological relationship. Thus we learn that Earth is called Terra “because she is ‘tread upon’ [teratur]’ ” and Tellus “because ‘we take [tollamus] from her’ ” (1.8.5) etc. And death is mors because “she ‘bites’ [mordeat] [. . .] or from ‘Mars’ [Marte] who is the murderer of men; or in that death is ‘bitterness’ [amaror]” (1.32.4) etc.

The scope of this work is impressive — this volume contains just one third of it, and is already one of the thickest that we've seen so far in the ITRL series. Boccaccio includes not just well-known gods like Jupiter and Athena, but also various abstract concepts (Eternity in 1.1, Chaos in 1.2, Night in 1.9, Fame in 1.10, etc. etc.) and numerous minor, utterly insignificant characters that just happen to be mentioned somewhere in passing in some ancient work. (In 4.46 he even mentions Isis and Apis, which I imagined more as part of Egyptian mythology than Greco-Roman.) And he clearly put in a huge amount of effort in combing through his sources, which range from ancient authors like Ovid and Cicero to medieval reference works of Isidore, Fulgentius, Rabanus and others (see the very interesting introduction by the translator, pp. xiv–xv). I was also awed by the translator's effort — while Boccaccio usually just cites his authorities by name, the translator then hunted down the title, chapter etc. of the passage which Boccaccio must have had in mind at that point, and all this is included in the notes at the end of the book. For the right sort of readers, I imagine such things must be extremely valuable.


I was interested to learn that Homer apparently had a teacher named Pronapides — this is the first time I've heard of this. See the translator's note 49 on p. 794: “All of Boccaccio's nearly one dozen citations of Pronapides of Athens, traditionally said (e.g., Diodorus of Sicily 3.67.5) to be the teacher of Homer, were derived from Theodontius.” See also the very interesting wikipedia page on Theodontius.

“Sleep is said to be the son of Erebus and Night because it is caused by moist vapors, rising from the stomach and blocking the arteries, and calm darkness.” (1.31.5) :)))

There's a very interesting paragraph on the definition of a day (1.34.4). Nowadays we are used to the idea of a day lasting from midnight to midnight, which appears to be derived from an ancient Roman custom while other ancient nations did it differently: for the Athenians, a day was from sunset to sunset; for Babylonians, from sunrise to sunrise; and for the Etruscans, from noon to noon (“This custom is still observed by astrologers”).

Nowadays rape is considered to be a very grim subject, but in ancient mythology it always comes across as downright merry. From 1.25.1: “While happily hunting in the forest, with her spear she inadvertently struck a satyr who desired to have his way with her. Amymone called upon Neptune for assistance. But the maiden Amymone, once the satyr was chased away, suffered from the greater god what she would not suffer from the satyr, and conceived with Neptune and gave birth to Nauplius.” You can practically imagine Neptune unzipping his pants while saying ‘I guess this is simply not your lucky day:)))

Apparently there's also a myth that myrrh, an incense-bearing tree, was initially a girl named Myrrha who was turned into a tree after seducing her father into some hot incest action (after her transformation, she gave birth to Adonis); 2.52.

There's a very interesting chapter on Dido, which mentions another (and even sadder) version of her story, very different from what we find in Virgil. In both versions she starts as a widow; in Virgil, she then falls in love with Aeneas and eventually commits suicide after he departs for Italy. But “Justin says that the Carthaginian leaders, under threat of war by the king of the Massitani, ordered her to marry [. . .] she requested a specific day on which she would promise to go to her husband [. . .] drawing a knife which she had secretly taken with her, she said, ‘Noble citizens, as you wish I go to my husband’; and after saying those words she killed herself, choosing death rather than staining her purity.” (1.60.3–4)

A very odd claim from 3.3.2: “as sailors say, saltiness is mixed into only the surface of sea water, while ten paces below the water is found to be sweet.”

Even more odd ideas from 3.21.4–5: “in the wombs of females there are seven chambers suitable for conception: there are three on the right side of the uterus, and an equal number on the left, and one in the middle [. . .] When those on the right receive the seed, they produce males, those on the left females, while those conceived in the middle are born having both sexes, and we call them Hermaphrodites.”

Venus apparently had a belt or cestos; “Lactantius says [. . .] that Venus did not wear this belt except for reputable marriages, and on account of this every other type of intercourse, in which the cestos is not worn, is called ‘incest.’ ” (3.22.10; and see also 4.47.4.) (Judging by, the second part of ‘incest’ actually comes from castus ‘chaste’.)

Boccaccio has a sudden outburst of skepticism in 4.18.5: “Lactantius used to say [. . .] and some other things which should be laughed at more than written about”. And in 4.24.2: “Fulgentius [. . .] pours out the longest, and in my judgment, the least apposite abundance of words”. And I love his sour tone in 4.30.4, disagreeing with some earlier interpretations: “There are, moreover, those who want this Hercules to be Perseus and the Hesperides to be the Gorgons; they are entitled to their opinion.” For someone who lived in a glass house, he sure liked to throw stones :))

I was surprised to see that he considers Pandora to have been a man, not a woman (4.45; citing Fulgentius).

One of the advantages of living in ancient times was that you could write the most obvious absurdities and people a thousand years later would still quote them as valuable bits of information: “The crow, as Fulgentius says, unique among the birds, has sixty-four mutations of voice” (4.28.65; and see also 5.3.8). Sometimes I wonder if the ancient authors ever deliberately decided to troll posterity by including this sort of things in their books :)

An interesting superstition from 6.3.8: “if laurel leaves are bound to the head of someone sleeping, they say he will see true dreams”.

You thought christianity has weird relics? The Greeks had the rattle of Dionysus! “Albericus adds, saying it was affirmed by Remigius, that at Nysa they preserve the rattle of Father Liber as evidence that he was nurtured there.” (5.25.14)

A gloriously silly interpretation of the story of Thyoneus, who stole a cow and was therefore pursued by the peasants; his father, the god Bacchus, helped him by transforming him into a hunter and the cow into a stag. “I think that he was a thief, and because the peasants were drinking heavily when they went to find their cow, he demonstrated to them with ease that he was a hunter and the cow a stag.” (5.27.2)

From 5.42.1: “When Bacchus took a liking to her, he deceived her, as Ovid says, in the guise of a grape, and ravaged her.” Talk about putting the rape into grape :))) I tried to find out more about how exactly this was supposed to work, but didn't find anything useful. The translator's note cites Ovid's Metamorphoses 6.125, where Ovid is actually telling the story of Arachne's weaving contest with Minerva; Arachne's work depicts many scenes from mythology, and Bacchus disguised as a cluster of grapes is one of these. Ovid just mentions it in passing, without going into detail.

There's an interesting but sad story behind the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (5.49). The nymph Callisto was raped by Jupiter and gave birth to a son, Arcas; Juno was angry at her (where's the logic in that?) and transformed her into a bear; Jupiter, the idiot, instead of transforming her back into a human, decided to ‘help’ by transforming her son into a bear as well, and then by transforming both into constellations. When it cames to idiot gods, the ones from Lovecraft's mythos are paragons of sanity compared to those from Greek mythology...

By the way, speaking of huge genealogical trees, I recommend the following website: It's a genealogical tree of stupendous proportions which includes all sorts of actually existing historical persons, mostly royalty and aristocrats, but then goes without interruptions all the way back to bona fide mythological gods like Poseidon, Cronos, Uranus and Chaos... :))

Labels: , ,

Saturday, September 05, 2015

BOOK: John James, "Votan and other novels"

John James: Votan and other novels. London: Gollancz, 2014. 9780575105508. xi + 737 pp.

This book contains three historical novels (Votan, Not for All the Gold in Ireland, Men Went to Cattraeth) originally written in the late 1960s. I had never heard of John James before, but the subject matter sounded interesting, and this edition contains an introduction by Neil Gaiman, who praises them highly, so I decided to give this book a try. And I'm very glad that I did, as I enjoyed all three novels greatly.



Votan is something between a historical novel and a fantasy one, based on an interesting premiss: what if a good deal of pagan Germanic mythology was in fact little more than vaguely remembered and heavily embellished stories of real events involving some perfectly regular (if remarkable) people? In Votan, these events take place late in the 1st century AD and are told in the first person by their main protagonist, a Greek named Photinus. He is a young man from a rich merchant family, himself a canny (and greedy) trader, a not incompetent physician, highly skilled at con games and sleight-of-hand tricks, an inveterate womanizer, and a devotee of Apollo — but mostly in one of his darker manifestations, as Apollo Paeon, the god of destruction (p. 42).

<spoiler warning>

At the beginning of the story, we find Photinus living in Vindobona, at the outskirts of the Roman Empire, where his family had been exiled for political reasons (p. 4). Sleeping with a married woman gets him in trouble and he is obliged to leave the city in a hurry, so he joins a small group of Germans travelling north (p. 23), hoping to open up a new trade route for amber (to bypass the territories of the Cat Men and the Thuringians, who are currently in control of it; p. 16). They are attacked by Cat Men, members of a hostile Germanic tribe (p. 37), and Photinus is wounded and separated from his companions; to evade pursuit, he climbs a tree and even chains himself to it to make sure he won't fall down if he falls asleep or unconscious (p. 42); but he loses the key and ends up being stuck on the tree for nine days full of pain and delirium until he finally manages to extricate himself (p. 47; a well-known episode from actual Norse mythology). He is found and saved by another tribe, the Polyani (‘from their word for the river meadows’, p. 50, so judging by this name they seem to be Slavic rather than Germanic, though I wouldn't expect to find Slavic people this far to the west, at least not at such an early date; the wikipedia mentions a Polani in the area of present-day Poland), who find his ordeal on the tree and his survival nothing short of miraculous and a clear sign that there must be something divine about him. Thus begins the legend of Votan Allfather (the various Northerners have trouble with his Greek name Photinus and end up corrupting it into Votan, p. 10; the Allfather bit seems to be a result of their pattern-matching his experience with some of their earlier legends, p. 48). Besides, the name Votan immediately leads them to connect him to their pre-existing beliefs in a sky-god called Wude (pp. 8, 79).

Photinus would probably have a hard time dispelling these tales even if he wanted to, which he doesn't as they are useful to his purposes. He continues vaguely northwards and eventually reaches the land of the Asers, another Germanic tribe, which seems to control most of the amber trade (p. 61). The geography of this novel is always a bit vague but my impression is that the Asers seem to be living approximately in southern Denmark or so. Their leader is an old man named Njord, ruling from his palace called Valhall in the trading town of Asgard (p. 69). Photinus makes good use of his business acumen and his familiarity with all sorts of useful knowledge that is widely known among civilized nations such as Greeks but not so much in the North (p. 88). Soon he becomes a respected and influential member of the ruling clique; he introduces improvements into their amber trade business (p. 73), starts distilling liquor (‘Honeydew’, pp. 82, 85), mediates political disputes (p. 101), spreads the art of runic writing (p. 93; another link to the real-world Odin myth), etc.; for his trouble, they give him a horse famous for its swiftness (Sleipnir, “He was fast too, some people used to say he must have eight legs”, p. 74), and eventually he even marries Njord's daughter Freda (p. 89).

Various further adventures follow; notably, at one point a storm (p. 127) blows his ship to Pictish territory in the north of Britain, where Photinus finds himself forced to marry Bithig, sister of the local king (p. 148). The Picts turn out to have very “old-fashioned” (p. 154) ideas about kingship: the throne is inherited not by the king's son but by his nephew, so Photinus's role in the whole business is merely to stay married to Bithig for a year (and hopefully get her pregnant), at the end of which time the Picts intend to kill him and eat his corpse. Fortunately he manages to run away in time (p. 159).

Photinus's stay in the North ends in a dramatic way. Loki, a partly estranged member of the Aser ruling family (who has mostly been staying away from Asgard, running his own trading outpost of Outgard; p. 53), seems to be jealous of Photinus's influence and the growth of his trade, so he provokes a dispute (pp. 110–4, 180) which eventually breaks into an all-out war (pp. 191, 201, 207); Asgard is sacked by Loki's army, Valhall burned and most of the Asers killed, including Photinus's wife (pp. 209–16); the amber trade will be ruined for years (pp. 220, 222). Photinus returns to Vindabonum (p. 220), but the tales of his exploits will live on in the North; and thanks to his profligate womanizing, he will end up being the father of most of the up-coming generation of kings of the various Germanic tribes, who will be proud to consider themselves “Votan-born” (p. 218; another link to actual old Norse myths about Odin).

</spoiler warning>

I enjoyed this novel a lot, especially the idea of writing a story that corresponds to Germanic mythology but explains it mostly without supernatural elements. It was pleasant to discover these correspondences while reading the story, and I guess that someone who's more familiar with Germanic mythology than me would have even more fun with this (Neil Gaiman in his introduction to the present edition, p. ix, recommends looking things up in google and the wikipedia while reading this novel, which strikes me as a good idea but unfortunately I didn't have internet access where I was reading it; well, at least I looked some of this stuff up while writing the summary above).

Admittedly, this close connection with mythology does have a few downsides; some parts of the story struck me as a bit picaresque and hard to follow, with lots of incidents and characters being introduced for which I saw no really good need in the story as such, but which I guess had to be introduced because they are present in the underlying mythology. I guess the problem is simply that I'm more accustomed to putting up with unnecessary complicated nonsense in mythology than in genre novels. One example of such an episode: at one point, Donar travels to the land of the Scrawlings for no particularly obvious reason (p. 108), and returns with what he claims are teeth of the World Serpent, though they are really just mammoth tusks (pp. 115–8); hence the myth of Thor's fights with the World Serpent.

An interesting device whereby the author was able to introduce a few more connections to actual mythology occurs in pp. 62–6: one of the Asers, named Tyr, likes to invent tall tales and entertains other guests at a tavern by telling them. We listen to his tale of his encounter with a nobleman named Fenris; in an effort to sleep with one of Fenris's daughters, Tyr tries to bind his arms and in the ensuing brawl, Fenris cuts off one of Tyr's hands. Judging by the wikipedia, the mythological Fenris was actually more a wolf than a man, but he did bite off Tyr's hand at some point and we also find the efforts to bind him with various types of ropes, just like here in James's novel. On p. 66 Tyr says that he also has other tales, including one “about Loki and a horse, rather indecent” — well, again judging by the wikipedia, there is an actual Norse myth saying that Loki at one point assumed the form of a mare, had sex with a stallion and later gave birth to Sleipnir, who would later become Odin's own horse (this story is also briefly alluded to on p. 74 and again in a hilarious passage on p. 113).

There's also an amusing tale which pretends to explain the origins of Odin's ravens, Hugin and Munin. On p. 79, Photinus travels to a desolate heath littered with remains of the Roman legions that had been defeated long ago in the battle of Teutoburg Forest; he carries away various valuables, but also some legionary standards in the form of eagles. Later, being asked what they are, he passes them off as ravens, and the names “Hoogin and Moonin” (p. 92) are given to them by a Finnish king who happens to be present. “People said later that it was my ravens that told me all I knew. It was not; it was those same people themselves, a word here, a phrase there” (p. 103).

I was somewhat surprised to see the author mixing up so many non-Germanic elements into the story. I already mentioned Photinus's trip to Pictish Britain above, though I don't know if it's based on anything concrete in Celtic mythology or not. There's also the presence of vaguely Slavic tribes where I wouldn't expect them (Polyani, p. 50; two other Slavic tribes are mentioned there, the Rus and the Lesny). Some Finns also make an appearance, and we encounter names familiar from the Kalevala (spelled in a curious way with hyphens: Jokuhai-inen, p. 91; Leminkai-inen, p. 118), though I didn't have the impression that the similarity between e.g. the Jokuhainen in Votan and that of the Kalevala goes any further than just the name itself. I thought that drawing these various non-Germanic elements into the story made for some unnecessary complexity but I guess the author felt they would make the story more interesting and picturesque.

One thing that did bother me about this novel is that supernatural elements aren't completely absent from it. In my opinion, if the underlying idea of the story is ‘what if Germanic mythology was based on overblown accounts of some real events’, then the events in question should actually be something that can happen and doesn't involve supernatural elements. But here, Apollo Paeon actually speaks to Photinus in visions on several occasions (pp. 42–7, 77, 107, 219), usually enjoining him to bring chaos and destruction upon the North; maybe we are meant to imagine that Photinus had been hallucinating and now simply honestly describes his experiences, thinking that he really was talking to a god; or maybe we are meant to consider him an unreliable narrator (he is a slippery and tricky fellow, after all); but I still found the presence of the supernatural to be a bit annoying. Or consider the episode early in the book, where a mysterious Germanic “Holy Man” (p. 9) named Joy (who may or may not be another manifestation of Apollo Paeon, p. 219) leaves a spear stuck into a tree and which then Photinus easily pulls out while his companions were unable to do so (p. 25); that's another annoying supernatural element. (The spear, known as Gungnir, becomes an important part of the Votan legend; p. 70.) And there are a few occasions where we get to see what might be extremely impressive stage illusions and sleight-of-hand tricks, but which frankly look more like something that couldn't be done without supernatural influences (pp. 138–9).

I think the author made a good decision in not trying to portray the ancient Germanic world as more exotic than it needs to be, and for example he often uses English-ified forms of names to make them look more familiar: thus for example we have “Outgard” for what the wikipedia calls, much more pedantically, Útgarðar; we have “Asers” (singular: “Aser”) for what is otherwise usually known as Æsir (singular: Ás); the Chatti are more commonly referred to in the book as “Cat Men” (p. 205; TBH it isn't obvious to me if the name Chatti actually has anything to do with cats); and the Germans disparagingly refer to the Finns as “Scrawlings” (pp. 61, 91, 116–8), a word which we usually encounter as skrælings and which was used by e.g. the Vikings in Greenland to refer to Eskimos and American Indians.

Photinus the man of his time

I liked the fact that the story is told by Photinus himself, in the first person. He has a pleasantly chatty style of storytelling and the author took care to have Photinus show the sort of opinions and attitudes that you would expect a man of that time to have. In hindsight, some of the things that Photinus and other characters in the book are up to would be considered atrocities nowadays, and I was wondering if we were meant to be shocked by them. But to Photinus, such things as slavery, executions, rape, looting and pillaging are ordinary things which he describes in a matter-of-fact way, and they didn't come across as shocking, just like they don't when you find them described in actual ancient myths and legends.

In particular, he regards slavery as essential to civilization: “A civilized man, if he is to live a full life, has to be backed by power not only to grind corn, but to cut and carry fuel and mine metals and smelt them. But the Brits, if they will not use slaves outside the household, are doomed to barbarism for ever” (p. 343); “we use slaves only in large groups, and only in tasks which no free man will do, which no freed man will continue in. And if there were anything better than the fickle, mischievous, unhealthy slave to give up the power we want to break stone or pull ploughs or build, then we would use it. But there is, and can be, nothing else in nature that will ever serve” (p. 494).

Photinus on geography:

  • “Now whether the Land of Norroway is a part of Germany or an island no man knows, but if the shallow sea balances our central sea, as it must if there is any logic on the earth, then that great desert land, where a man may walk to Scania, must be a Northern Africa.” (P. 104.)
  • On being told of “a land where fire spouts from the earth and the rivers run hot with steam” (Iceland?), Photinus says: “That sounded reasonable enough, for there must be a burning mountain in the north to balance Etna in the logic of the world.”
  • “The Alps are fifty miles high, we know that because Pliny has measured them, and I think that these mountains west of Isca must have been at least ten miles to the tops.” (P. 454. See Pliny's Natural History 2.65; what he really seems to be saying is that the terrain gradually rises over the distance of 50000 paces, not that the mountains themselves are that high.)
  • “Ireland lies half-way between Britain and Spain. Let us then sail west, passing north of Ireland, and in a few days we shall be in the harbour of Gades.” (P. 535.)

Photinus on future technology:

  • “There's absolutely no future in trying to use horses to pull vehicles, unless you can find some way of not tying the harness around their necks, and if nobody's thought of a way by now they never will.” (Pp. 135–6. This problem is solved by the horse collar, which according to the wikipedia was invented in China around the middle of the 1st millennium AD and reached Europe in the 10th century.)
  • He says on p. 376: “there's no future in earth coal”. But Rhiannon is wiser: “It will be the salvation of the Isle of the Mighty [= Britain].”

Photinus on physics:

  • “Everyone knows that a ship floats because the weight of the timbers press down on the water and the heavier the ship the better she will float” (p. 419; this understanding of buoyancy strikes me as somewhat dubious).


Another thing I greatly enjoyed both in this novel and in its sequel are the numerous funny passages. A frequently used technique is to make something funny by inverting modern expectations. For example, nowadays we think of bagpipe music as horrible noise that couldn't possibly appeal to anyone except those hairy barbarians from the Scottish Highlands. But to Photinus, bagpipes are the hallmark of civilization, a sublime pinnacle of human achievement: “and a bagpiper in front of us, and it was a wonderful thing to hear that civilised music in a savage land” (p. 143). “It was wonderful in that desert place to hear real civilised music again. The pipes are the absolute peak of human achievement in music making.” (P. 149.) I can only assume that the writer is trolling us :)

Photinus also likes to invert modern stereotypes of cold-blooded, rational northerners and simpleminded, voluble southerners. In his day, of course, it was just the other way around, as the Mediterranean was the seat of civilization. “I pulled myself together, forced myself to think like a solid unemotional Greek, not like one of those volatile northerners” (p. 207). And on noticing Pryderi's vigorous gesticulation: “Northerners need more room to talk than do we unemotional southerners” (p. 286).

Photinus bragging about his conmanship: “Did I tell you, once in Alexandria I sold the Pharos to three different people in one day, and another day, the whole Library?” (P. 57.) And: “There are plenty of men who can boast that in Alexandria they sold the Pharos to visiting Arab chiefs. I sold it there once to an Alexandrian.” (P. 306.)

There are a few inevitable jokes about British weather: “long cool winters and their long cold summers” (p. 288); “there is no need to believe the tale I have heard, that the Druids hide the Temple and the Hill in the mist, for why should a magician labour to raise mists in that island that is full of mists all day and all year long?” (p. 143). “Two days without rain are a wonder in that country. Two days of sun are a miracle” (he says this of the Pictish country in the north of Britain, p. 152).

Uncle Frazer sends his regards

Some years ago I read the first couple of volumes of James Frazer's famous Golden Bough, which focused on the idea that early monarchies had their origin in magical thinking in which the king was responsible for controlling fertility and other natural phenomena, and might if needed even be sacrificed in various rituals to ensure these things. Apparently modern anthropologists don't think highly of Frazer's work, but his ideas influenced and inspired numerous writers and artists, especially in the earlier part of the twentieth century. So I was interested to notice some Frazerian elements here in Votan as well.

For example, the Saxons are convinced that their fields derive their fertility from their king. Their current king, Edwin, unfortunately appears to be infertile: “In the old days, of course, there would have been no hesitation, he'd have been ploughed in to make the barley grow the first barren spring” (p. 121); and they have other magical uses for the king as well: “There's the herring shoals to foretell, and the whales to call to shore” (ibid.), “The king is the luck of his people” (says queen Edith on p. 123). Fortunately for Edwin, his wife Edith arranges to get herself impregnated by Photinus, who is happy to oblige (pp. 123–124). This episode also provides one of my favorite puns in the entire book; after they are done, Edith, who acts as if the whole thing is merely a part of her customary worship of the Mother goddess, thanks Photinus with the sentence (p. 125): “Votan, you came when the Mother called.” :)))

Incidentally, Edith also describes the transition from the idyllic, peace-loving, matriarchal cult of the Mother goddess to the present evil patriarchal worship of the sky-god: “The Riders came out of the east. They worshipped only the cruel sky that sends snow and sun to torment us. They swung their great iron swords from their high, high horses” etc. (p. 124). The idea of such a transition is nowadays mostly considered ahistorical, but it was remarkably widespread in the 19th century and a good deal of the 20th, when you could find it in anthropology, in fiction, and in some odd intersections between archaeology, new-age crackpottery, and second-wave feminism. Fascinating stuff; I read a whole book about it years ago — Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory by Cynthia Eller — and this reminded me that I should some day also read her other book on this topic, Gentlemen and Amazons, which focuses on the origins of this myth in the 19th century.

The Picts also mention a connection between kings and fertility. When Photinus complains about the prospect of being killed and eaten after being married to the king's sister for a year, Taliesin the druid explains: “The King must die for the harvest, we've got a good king, let's have the next king's harvest instead.” (P. 156.)

Not for All the Gold in Ireland

This is a sequel to Votan and I guess it does for some bits of Celtic mythology what Votan tried to do with the Germanic mythology; but as I know even less about the Celtic mythology than about the Germanic one, I wasn't really in a position to notice any such correspondences, so I was mainly reading this novel for the sake of its story as such.

<spoiler warning>

The story is set a few years after the events of Votan and is again told by Photinus. I found the setup of the story very amusing. The sentence of exile on Photinus's family has been lifted and they live in civilized lands again. His bumbling cousin has bribed a high imperial official to obtain the monopoly over the importation of all gold from Ireland into the Roman Empire, but he then promptly gambled away the deed of monopoly to some Celtic ruffian named Gwawl (pp. 229–30). Now it's up to Photinus to follow Gwawl, get the deed back and then arrange for the gold trade to actually get started (after which the family's business agents in Britain can probably handle it from there).

By the time Gwawl is ready to sail from Gaul to Britain, Photinus has already made arrangements to ensure that he will do so on a ship under Photinus' control (p. 245), at which point Photinus takes the monopoly deed (p. 252) and abandons Gwawl at sea in a tiny boat (p. 255). On reaching Britain, Photinus finds that opening up the gold trade with Ireland won't be such a simple matter. In Londinium, he is introduced to two Celtic noblemen, a Briton named Pryderi (p. 285) and an Irishman named Cuchulainn (p. 480), also known as ‘the Setanta’ as he is a prominent member of the Setantii tribe (pp. 291–3). They tell him that the Irish have imposed a strict embargo on all trade with the Roman Empire (p. 273), for they know that “the Eagles follow trade” (p. 523; i.e. starting to trade with the Romans will sooner or later provide them with an excuse to occupy your land, as had indeed happened in Britain less than a century before, p. 274).

But Ireland is far from politically unified; there are four independent kingdoms, and at any point one of their kings is considered the High King of all Ireland (p. 286), but often has little or no practical influence over the other three, and the position is highly unstable (p. 484; “had the last forty-three kings not died a violent death, however and whenever enthroned?”, p. 495). Currently, the king of the western kingdom of Connaught is the High King, but the Setanta's uncle Conchobar (p. 495) is king of the northern kingdom, Ulster, and wants to reclaim the high-kingship for himself; the Setanta is trying to raise and outfit an army for this purpose (p. 294). In exchange for Photinus's help, especially with the raising of weapons, the Setanta promises him that when his uncle takes power, he will lift the embargo and allow Photinus to export as much gold from Ireland as he likes.

Pryderi and the Setanta find it prudent to pass Photinus off as a Celt during his travels in the British Isles, which is in fact not even entirely false, for his mother was from a Celtic family in Galatia in Asia Minor (p. 293). He somewhat implausibly remembers the names of her ancestors more than twenty generations back, and based on this information the two Celts even figure out which clan he technically belongs to: “ ‘Plain, isn't it?’/ ‘Obvious,’ agreed Pryderi. ‘Son of Lear, he is.’ ” (P. 296; they also determine which animal he must therefore refrain from eating: swans, much to Photinus's disappointment.) He has also learned the British language passably well on his way there (from a British slave-girl named Cicva, whom he had bought for that purpose and then released upon reaching Britain; pp. 236, 268).

Now Photinus, disguised as Manannan the Galatian Celt, travels westwards with Pryderi to confer with someone named Master of the Western Sea (p. 294). This seems to be a minor British ruler in an area where the Roman presence is next to nonexistent, and he might be able to help them ship the Setanta's warriors and their weapons from Britain into Ireland when the time is ripe. Along the way, they have a few episodes which I thought belong more to a fairy-tale than a novel. Photinus, never a man to miss a business opportunity, crafts some shoes (p. 303), shields (p. 323), and saddles (p. 334), and sells them in market towns along the way; each day the best and last of the items he has for sale is bought by a mysterious and beautiful woman named Rhiannon, who is always accompanied by flocks of birds (pp. 308, 369, 403; there's the annoying supernatural element again) and who pays with a single gold coin each time (pp. 309, 329, 338), thereby confirming his impression that he is indeed on the right track to reach gold. They also find themselves pursued by Gwawl at one point but manage to shake him off (pp. 355–65).

Upon reaching the coast (p. 382), it turns out that the Master of the Western Sea is none other than Caw, whom we briefly met in Votan (p. 165) — Photinus stole his boat after escaping from his forced marriage in the Pictish country, and perpetrated some fairly gruesome violence upon him in the process. Caw seems surprisingly phlegmatic about this and agrees to help Photinus. Pryderi gets married (p. 387) — to none other than Cicva, who is actually Caw's niece (p. 358)! Come on — what are the odds that, of all the British slave-girls that Photinus could have bought in Rome to learn British from, he happened to buy the one who was in fact from a Celtic princely family and who will end up marrying the man to whom Photinus was introduced after his arrival in Britain? At some point, a coincidence is no longer just a coincidence but enemy action a cheap deus-ex-machina style plot element.

Photinus also attends a curious Celtic religious ceremony, which takes place at midwinter once every 49 years at the Glass Mountain (pp. 409–17). In the ceremony, he and Rhiannon act as representations of certain deities and dispense advice to the believers. It ends with a feast where everyone eats their taboo dishes (Photinus eats swan, Rhiannon skylarks; p. 416). You can't help noticing that there are lots of vaguely Christian elements in this ceremony, though the Britons themselves don't seem to know or care about this background; they do however remember that these things were brought by an old Syrian man a little less than a hundred years ago: “he had the spear, and he had the cup, and he had a sprig of the thorn”, which he used to worship and which the Celts would later incorporate into their ritual (p. 417).

Soon afterward, Gwawl shows up again and nearly captures Rhiannon, but she runs away and apparently escapes to Ireland in a small boat. Photinus hadn't originally been intending to go to Ireland himself but now decides to do so, hoping to find her again (pp. 443–5).

We saw earlier that Photinus's new Irish ally, the Setanta, is trying to raise an army in Britain and ship it to Ireland, but one of the problems with this is a shortage of weapons, as the Romans had disarmed the British Celts pretty thoroughly. Here's where Photinus can help; thanks to his family's connections in high places, he is able to gain access to stores of confiscated weapons kept by one of the Roman legions in the area (p. 452). But as it now turns out, Photinus is really planning to betray his Celtic allies; he makes arrangements for two legions to invade Ireland in a few months (pp. 432, 451), after the Irish have been sufficiently weakened by the war between the Setanta and the previous High King (p. 464). The island would then easily be occupied by the Romans and Photinus's gold trade would be much smoother.

The Setanta's invasion of Ireland now begins (pp. 455, 460–3) and initially goes rather well. Photinus is there as well, watching the Ulster army defeat the previous High King near Ireland's ceremonial capital of Tara (pp. 470–81). To claim the gold that had been promised to him, Photinus now takes a small detachment of men and travels towards the gold-bearing rivers in the south of Ireland (pp. 502–3). However, it seems that all the gold is long gone; the locals have an old traditional “gold dance” in which the moves seem to mimic activities such as panning for gold, refining it and even trading it, but they have completely forgotten what the dance represents, and Photinus himself finds very little gold (pp. 508–12).

The story ends with a few very dramatic, and to me completely unexpected, reversals. Photinus finds himself having to retreat from an unexpected attack (p. 512) of the army of the eastern kingdom of Leinster, ruled by none other than Gwawl, who now captures Photinus and his friend Aristarchos (p. 519). After the northern and western armies annihilate each other (Cuchulainn's northern army is already melting away, the men deserting as soon as they have gathered up enough plunder; p. 518), Gwawl will easily claim the High Kingship for himself. It further turns out that Rhiannon is really his cousin (p. 519) and has been in cahoots with him all along, informing him of Photinus's moves and plans (pp. 524–5). Gwawl is also aware of the planned Roman invasion of Ireland and has arranged to prevent it by instigating barbarian invasions of Roman territory from northern Britain and Germany, thereby keeping the legions busy (pp. 525–6). This is in fact why Gwawl had been in Rome at the start of the book — he was trying to learn if Rome had any designs against Ireland, and managed to come across Photinus's cousin and his monopoly deed by chance (p. 524 — there's another implausible coincidence).

Photinus gets Gwawl to release both him and Aristarchos by defeating him at the game of fichel (similar to chess; pp. 520–8). They sail off in a small boat and are soon picked up by a ship operated by Madoc, one of Caw's men; also on board are Taliesin, Cicva, Rhiannon, and an unknown Christian from Bonnonia. Although Photinus feels as if Rhiannon had betrayed him, it turns out that she had in fact been protecting his life all along (p. 534). Since they have enemies in so many other places, they decide to sail westwards from Ireland, hoping to reach Spain (p. 535). (Of course sailing west from Ireland would take them not to Spain but to America; this might be an allusion to an actual Welsh legend about a man named Madoc who is said to have sailed to America in the 12th century.)

</spoiler warning>

I think I liked this novel even better than the previous one. The story felt more coherent and I enjoyed all the grand schemes and surprising reversals, especially towards the end of the story.

Unfortunately I wasn't in a position to enjoy the links to Celtic mythology as I'm not sufficiently familiar with it; but a bit of searching in the wikipedia shows many of these correspondences — see the links in the plot summary above. From Welsh mythology (mostly the Mabinogion), we have Gwawl, Pryderi (son of Pwyll, pp. 265, 278, 428), Rhiannon, Caw (I couldn't find a wikipedia page for Caw, but there is one for his son Hueil, who is also mentioned in this novel; pp. 309, 322, etc.), as well as Photinus's Celtic pseudonym, Manannan (but as Photinus himself points out, there's also an Irish sea-god of the same name, p. 297). From Irish mythology (the Ulster cycle), we have Cuchulainn the Setanta, his uncle Conchobar, his druid Cathbad (p. 489), queen Maeve (Conchobar's former wife and now more recently married to the king of Connaught, p. 494). The druid Taliesin, who appears both here and in Votan, seems to be inspired by a semi-legendary bard of the same name (though of a later date).

I have occasionally, years ago, made a few half-hearted attempts to read up on Celtic (and also Germanic) mythology, but I found that I could never really get into it the way I could get e.g. into Greek mythology. I wonder why that is. I can't really believe that one mythological tradition is in some meaningful sense better than another. Perhaps it's simply that my first encounters with Greek mythology were at a somewhat earlier age, when one is more susceptible to such things? Or is it just a coincidence of language and spelling which makes the Celtic names look so outlandish that I can't even keep the names of the characters straight in my head? (But that seems to be a weak argument. If one can remember Agamemnon and Klytaimnestra, why not also Cuchulainn and Conchobar?)

But there does seem to be something about it, for even here in James's novel I had a bit of a hard time keeping up with all the Celtic names and remembering who's who. What probably also adds to the overabundance of characters is the fact that the story mixes two different and, as far as I understand, otherwise not particularly closely related mythological traditions.

Much like in Votan, there are some supernatural elements (see e.g. Photinus's sacrifice at Tara, mentioned above) and implausible coincidences. An example of the latter: on p. 339, the gold coin which Rhiannon gives to Photinus turns out to have “been struck in the Old City, in my home, in my very house, by my own ancestor. These coins showed common ground between Rhiannon andmyself. They were not chosen foolishly.” Right.

A very fine old Druidic motto, mentioned by Rhiannon on p. 346: “The truth against the world.” There are many mentions of it on the web, though I couldn't find any that would explain precisely what they meant by it. The first hit when I googled the phrase, however, was the home page of some conspiracy theory crackpot :))


An interesting theme that occurs several times in this novel is language. Photinus learns British early in the novel and is later surprised to find that Irish is different enough to be quite unintelligible (pp. 455–6; that surprised me too; in any case, Photinus quickly learns Irish as well, p. 465). He occasionally makes comparisons between the various languages he knows:

  • “Germans can't learn to speak Greek, their tongues are too short, and they had great difficulty with the initial Ph of my name.” (P. 10.) And similarly in Men Went to Cattraeth: “Oh, no they [= Anglo-Saxons] cannot speak the tongue of the Angels [= British] like us, not Latin, because their tongues are too short.” (P. 569.)
  • Photinus remarks on his agent, a heavily romanized Briton: “It was when you had him worried that you could hear the touch of the woad in his voice, in the adenoidal sibillants and in the collapse of all grammar into a continuous passive voice and a flood of impersonal verbs. The British tongue is one that is best spoken slowly by an old man, as Latin is by a middle-aged one at court, and as Greek is made for the slangy arguments of the markets of Alexandria and Tyre.” (P. 273.)
  • The sibilant and adenoidal thing also appears in Men Went to Cattraeth (p. 551): “Men there are from Mona, who speak strange and sibilant, as if they had adenoids.” (TBH I have the impression that everyone has an adenoid, but with some people it gets swollen and needs to be removed.)
  • “It was easy already to fall into the Brits' manner of speech, and after speech comes thought, and after thought comes life, and love. If you talk in Latin and think in Latin, you must be dignified, and think in dignity, because there is no short or easy or comfortable way of saying anything in that language. But in Greek, as we speak it all along the coasts of Asia and into Alexandria, from Massilia to Trapezus in the Caucasus, everything is easy and full of slang and comfortable ways of thought. And yet, in this unconventional tongue, it is always possible to say what you mean, and to know that it will only have one meaning to anyone who listens. But while the Brit's tongue is also full of slang, it is vague and imprecise and soft at the edges, and behind the plain meaning of everything said you have to look for another hidden meaning.” (P. 302.)
  • “he had that easy flow of language and wide vocabulary and subtle sense of rhythm which are common to all Britons [. . .] he was about to launch out again into one of his interminable sentences, the only saving quality of which was that like all the Britons he was careful to begin each one with the main verb” (p. 372).

I suspect that this sort of vague, impressionistic comparisons between languages are mostly bullshit, but they're delightful to see anyway. James also tries to give a Celtic flavor to the speech of some of his characters by employing some very curious grammatical constructions such as, I guess, would result from translating too literally from Celtic languages into English. A typical feature is that the subject of a sentence is an “it” that doesn't really refer to anything in particular, and what would normally be the subject is in fact buried in a subordinate clause; the results tend to appear vague, sometimes nearly incomprehensible, and usually quite funny:

  • Leo Rufus on p. 273: “And is it thinking then that it is you are, that it would be making it any easier for you to go to Ireland and to return again? [. . .] The less that it is that it is that it is being said about it, that is the better it is that it will be.”
  • Taliesin on p. 353: “And there is true it is what you are saying”.
  • Rhiannon on p. 354: “And where else is it thinking you are that I am going?”
  • A miner shows coal to Photinus, p. 373: “If it is not knowing that you are, [. . .] then it is guessing you will have to be.”
  • Madoc offering seal meat to Photinus, p. 392: “If it's wearing it you are, then it's eating it you can be.”
  • Even Photinus himself: “This is an island of deceit and duplicity and mists indeed, I thought, and if ever I heart the truth about anything, then it's lucky I'll be. ” (P. 306.)

Some of the Celts also have a curious tendency to pile on synonyms in a way that nobody but a lawyer would do in English. Pryderi is probably the most frequent perpetrator of this, but the finest example is the following masterpiece from a coal miner on p. 372: “Easy it is to be hearing, and understanding, and knowing, from your question, though it is very well you are speaking the language of the Gods, and only making a few mistakes in the grammar, and in the order of the tenses and in the mutations, and sometimes being indistinct in your appreciation of the fine gradations of meaning, that it is from far away and from foreign parts and from a distant land that you have come, and travelled, and ridden.”


There are some loose ends in this story that I don't know what to do with. In particular, a man who is obviously a Christian occurs several times in the novel, practically following Photinus step by step throughout his journey: he draws a fish in a tavern at Bonnonia (p. 241) and a Sator square in Londinium (p. 289); he appears again in Cunetio (p. 342), dropping hints which fly right over Photinus's head (“ ‘There is one flock, and one shepherd: one vineyard and one true husbandman.’/ What that meant I had no idea, and so I only said back:/ ‘And a pretty small farm that must be, brother.’ ”); he attends the midwinter festival on the Glass Mountain and grumbles about it (pp. 410, 414; perhaps because it's got so many christian elements that he regards it as a perversion of actual christianity), he even ends up on the ship that's taking Photinus and others into the west at the end of the novel (pp. 532–3). Yet we never learn who he is or why he's doing this; and Photinus himself doesn't pay any real attention to him, nor reacts to his hints. (He is shocked to hear that the christians ignore the official cult of the emperor; p. 535.)

Photinus's outlook is, just like in Votan, completely pagan, he doesn't seem to be even aware of christianity, which suits me just fine since I'm a rabid anti-theist myself. Nevertheless, I found his religious ideas confusing and wasn't quite sure what to make of them. In Votan, he considered himself a servant of some kind of evil form of Apollo, and spoke to that god several times in visions; near the end of the novel (p. 219), Apollo Paeon praised him for bringing chaos into the North and dismissed him from his service. (In Not for All the Gold in Ireland, this Apollo is often regarded as identical with the Unconquered Sun: by Photinus's uncle on p. 235, by Taliesin on p. 351, and by Photinus himself on p. 379.)

Thus in Not for All the Gold in Ireland, Photinus is now a servant of “Those Below”; their exact nature, or how Photinus came to serve them, are not explained, but there are a few illustrative bits of infomation:

Photinus says on p. 235: “Wherever you go, you find different Gods for this and that. But the Gods Below are the same everywhere.”

On pp. 446–7, Photinus and Pryderi sacrifice to the Gods Below before their forthcoming invasion of Ireland. Photinus offers gold coins and a diamond-encrusted fake eye; Pryderi offers a dead man's head. “Weighted with silver, the head went straight down to Those Below. And I have no doubt it pleased them more than Gold or diamonds.”

The most substantial explanation of the Gods Below comes on p. 472, where Photinus is making a sacrifice on the plain of Tara on the night before the big battle; this ritual actually calls up a number of dead spirits which give a good fright to the High King's men and thus materially affect the course of events, pp. 473–4. “To bring the friendly dead was one thing. To bring the just Gods was another, those who favour no man, who cannot be persuaded. Thoth and Adeimantus. But all the night I stood upon the mound in the cold dark, the worst May frost in a man's life, and the sweat upon my skin froze within my clothes. I sang the words I may not here repeat in the language none may know I speak, and at last the great Judges of the Dead stood beside me to judge the High King and all the host and condemn them for all the evil they had done. But they judged the host of the North also, and they judged me. But that I did not know./ Last I sang up the named and the nameless Gods Below, the gods who do not care for justice or for right or for any man, and it is these gods above all who rule the world from their place below, rule the Sun and the Earth and all the other gods. They hate all things living, and they seek only to draw us down to themselves and suck out our life. These are the gods that no man worships, but the gods do: that men and gods fear, and will never tell their fear. They feed on souls. I promised them food in plenty.”

So they seem to be some kind of impersonal forces of nature or of entropy; I must admit this all sounds delightfully creepy and evil, and the contrast between the ‘just Gods’ and the ‘Gods Below [. . .] who do not care for justice’ reminded me a little of Lovecraft's The Other Gods.

Rhiannon is also described as “Queen of Those Below” (p. 351) and “Mother of Those Below” (pp. 379, 386; and on p. 375 a coal miner upon meeting her literally prays to her as if she is a goddess).

Also on the subject of religion, here's a hilarious misunderstanding between the Polyani people and a Christian missionary from Votan (p. 52): “At the end, they had been forced to do what he seemed, to the best of their understanding, to be asking them to do. They ate him and drank his blood.”

Where is Photinus from?

Photinus never quite says where exactly he's from; he refers to his home town vaguely as “Old City”, a phrase which struck me as delightfully ominous :) On p. 339 he says that Alexander the Great, being a Macedonian, was “as far from the line of Themistocles or Solon as we of the old towns of Asia”. So I guess his home town was in Asia Minor and might not even have considered itself quite fully Greek. This fits together well with the fact that his mother was a Celt from Galatia, which is also in Asia Minor (p. 293).

Another vague hint of its easterly location is on p. 439, where he says to Rhiannon: “I will take you with me back, through Rome and through Ostia, past Brundisium and Athens, through Alexandria and Byblos to my own home in the Old City.” But it isn't exactly clear to me when it would make sense to go “through Alexandria and Byblos”; one is on the coast of Egypt, the other on the coast of Lebanon, so if you're coming from Rome (or Athens for that matter), surely you will sail to either one of those two cities (whichever is more convenient for the continuation of your trip) but not both. And neither of them makes much sense if your ultimate destination is in Asia Minor.

We know that the Old City has a “Sanctuary” (pp. 42–3, 77) or Temple (p. 107) of Apollo Paeon; “[t]he God came from the Islands long ago and chose his own Temple” (p. 42). The Old City is also mentioned on pp. 293 and 418, but without any new information.

Civilization and its discontents

By the time of this novel, most of Britain is under Roman control, but Pryderi is one of the few British princes that still resist it (the Romans regard him as a major nuisance, p. 428), as does his father Pwyll (pp. 265, 278). What I found extremely interesting were the discussions surrounding his reasons for this resistance. Basically, Pryderi subscribes to the old-fashioned warrior ethos where the whole point in life is to go about slaughtering, looting, pillaging, raping, etc. An advanced, sedentary, urbanized civilization based on the rule of law, such as that of Rome, has nothing of interest to offer to him.

Photinus, unsurprisingly, takes precisely the opposite view. He has no interest in the warrior culture, but he likes making money, and civilization provides him with a better environment in which to do so. They have an interesting conversation about this on p. 436, where Photinus points out that Pryderi could gain both wealth and power by submitting to Rome (the Romans tended to leave a good deal of power in the hands of formerly independent Celtic princes, as long as the taxes were paid and Roman laws generally adhered to): “‘The future lies in the towns, Pryderi. It is the Guild of Shoemakers and the men who peddle earth coal who will rule this land in the end. Submit, Pryderi. There is no other way to power. [. . .] I know what it is. You are jealous of the Irishman, the King's nephew, the Setanta. You want to be like him, to lead a fianna, to ride into great battles, to topple monarchs and empty thrones. It is too late, Pryderi. Submit and be rich and happy and have power.’ ” Pryderi replies: “ ‘I might be richer than I am, and have more power, but I would not be happy’ ” and adds his motto: “ ‘never to forsake a friend, or forget a wrong, or forgive a Roman’ ”.

By contrast, Ireland is free of Roman rule and the old chaotic warrior culture is still in full swing there. Photinus has a few chances to observe it in action during the Setanta's military expedition. He surveys the carnage in the aftermath of a battle (p. 465): “I looked at the huddle of weeping, bleeding, naked bodies. This, I thought, is what Pryderi would want, this is what the other island [= Britain] was like before the conquest, when every king was as good as any other king, and any man as good as his master if only he were strong enough. But the legions would settle that; as brutal perhaps in the first months, but in five years there would be roads all across the land, and inns by them, and even Rhiannon could ride unguarded and unharmed wherever she liked.”

And on watching the Setanta ride to war, he comments (p. 499): “This, I thought, is how Pryderi would like to ride, at the head of an army, sweeping a country bare of women and food and beasts, and it is only for preventing this that he has his hatred for Rome. Oh, yes, war is a fine thing for nobles and leaders, even in defeat; but for the defeated, or the weak on either side, there is little to be said for it, and if you can think what that little is, then tell me, because I cannot think what it is.”

Photinus points out that the Irish hardly even understand the point of civilization (p. 492): “They had no real idea what the Empire was about, or what the army was for. They saw it not as a great union of peace and trade, held together by an army of engineers and builders and messengers and administrators: they thought of it as a despotism in other interests than their own, symbolised by the fierce shield wall of the legion. The Irish knew well the rule of their own custom: but the rule of law that we live under in the Empire was beyond their comprehension.”

I think this is one of those situations where both of them are right, and it's *so* frustrating! Emotionally, I agree with Pryderi; my ideal is basically the Riders of Doom scene from Conan the Barbarian, and I don't see how anything that civilization is able to offer could compare to it. Even if you become a CEO and take over your rival company — even if you become your country's president and push it into war and win that war — even then, nothing you will get to do in your moment of triumph will involve riding a goddamn horse with a Basil Poledouris soundtrack in the background and whacking at your enemies with a giant-ass two-handed axe! Even if you were to win a war, you still won't get to walk in triumph down the main avenue of your enemy's capital city, while a tearful populace is made to throw rose petals in front of your feet, with the Imperial March from Star Wars playing in the background and all. No matter what you do, Conan's best in life will continue to elude you. Screw you, civilization, you miserable, boring old spoilsport!

And yet, and yet — of course Photinus has a point. We live better under civilization, on average (and there can be more of us too, although I don't see that as a good thing); especially those of us who wouldn't be princes like Pryderi. Of course a good deal of Photinus's defense of civilization is hypocritical nonsense; he praises it as a “union of peace and trade” with “the rule of law”, as if he didn't know perfectly well that a civilized state (especially one like the Roman Empire) is merely a way to organize violence and plunder more efficiently and on a larger scale; its elites always make sure that trade mostly serves to enrich them and that the rule of law mostly exists to make the population easier to control, while the laws are written in such a way that they defend and advance the interests of the elites rather than of the rest of the population. (In any case, it is of course normal that Photinus turns a blind eye to these things, since he himself is from a rich and influential merchant family, so all the systems of a civilized state work very much in his favor.) But no matter how poorly Photinus defends it, it's nevertheless true that civilization has many things going in its favor; it's nice to have a computer and indoor plumbing, and no matter how deeply I despise the very idea of law, I have to admit that I'd fare much worse if I had to depend entirely on wielding a large axe for my safety. And that's the problem with this whole thing; both barbarism and civilization are deeply unsatisfying, each in its own way, and we end up miserable under both of them.

Basically, I love Pryderi for his attitude where he says “I might be richer than I am, and have more power, but I would not be happy”. Civilization is like a Siren, constantly trying to seduce you with ‘come join us, we have cookies (and peace and trade and rule of law and roads and public health etc. etc. etc.), all you need to do is abandon all your natural impulses!’ And we all crawl to it, because of course we do, and hate ourselves for doing so. But Pryderi here says defiantly: fuck you, I'm not buying what you're selling. Rationally, civilization is always the better choice, which indeed is why we all choose it; but that inevitably means that the only way to assert any sort of freedom for oneself at all would be to spit in its face, like Pryderi does here. And this is why he has my admiration; he is an actual, real, authentic human being in a way that someone living under civilization cannot possibly be. Plus, he gets to whack at people with a giant axe.

Hot bestiality action!

One thing I like about early monarchies are the utterly bizarre ideas they have about the monarch's role and his relationship to the state. A common idea is that the monarch is somehow married to the state (and brings fertility to it, as we already saw above). But the real charm of this idea lies in the details, which are what separates the real men from the weaklings. The Doge of Venice, for example, would simply throw a wedding-ring into the sea during his ‘marriage to the sea’ ceremony. But the Irish king, or so the story goes, would actually screw a horse in public during his coronation ceremony! (And before you ask: yes, the horse was female — a white mare in fact. What, did you think they were some kind of sick perverts?! :P)

Photinus witnesses this spectacle on p. 496, and is suitably shocked: “I will not tell what happened then, because there are things a man may stomach only to do in darkness in the rites of a mystery, but to do it in broad day in sight of ten thousand people as the High King must do — I will not speak of it. I will only say that I was sorry for the horse.” :))

The event also provides one of my favorite puns in the entire book: “the day that Cuchullain held the white mare for Conchobar to mount” (p. 525). :)))

(Incidentally, tvtropes says that there isn't much actual evidence of bestiality, and that the main source for it, Gerald of Wales, is not the most reliable.)

From watching the antics of the candidates in the U.S. presidential campaign, I can't help feeling that the times might be getting ripe for a return of man-on-horse action into politics. All we need is to get at least one dissolute billionare to support the idea and tie his donations to it, and we'll have the Republican candidates gangbanging that horse live on Fox TV like there's no tomorrow! :)))

Photinus's itinerary through Britain

Much of Photinus's journey through Britain can be reconstructed pretty closely and goes more or less directly in an east-to-west direction:

I'm a bit unsure about the next step, Arberth (p. 360). Everything I could find about it on the wikipedia and elsewhere suggests that this is modern Narberth in Wales, and that town is in fact often mentioned in connection with actual medieval Welsh stories and legendary characters which were the inspiration for James's novel. The problem with this is that Arberth is about 150 miles away from Cunetio, and yet Photinus seems to cover the distance in a single night, while dragging the bound Lhygod along (p. 357). (For comparison, that's about twice the distance from London to Cunetio, which took several days and more than 60 pages.)

After Arbeth, the geography of the novel gets a little more vague: Photinus enters “the Summer Country”, with features such as “Glass Mountain”, “Apple Land”, “Lead Hills”, and “Deer Moor” (p. 377). The Summer Country seems to be a direct translation of the Celtic name for Somerset. Apple Land seems to be likewise a direct translation of Avalon, a mythical island which in turn is thought to correspond to Glastonbury (which lies in Somerset, so we seem to be on the right track). Glass Mountain probably refers to the nearby hill called Glastonbury Tor, whose Welsh name literally means “Glass Isle”.

If we need any further proof that Photinus really is in Somerset at this point, we can find it on p. 419 where he sails “across the Severn Sea” to Isca Silurum (Caerleon, Wales). This makes sense if he started in Somerset, whereas e.g. if the Summer Country had been in Wales, he wouldn't need to cross the Severn Sea to reach Caerleon.

But if Photinus really went to Somerset, this counts against the idea that Arberth corresponds to Narberth in Wales, because looking at the map shows us that going from Cunetio to Somerset through Narberth is a huge detour, which nobody in their right mind would take. An alternative explanation for Arberth might be based on the following passage from p. 359: Grathach refers to the mound of Arberth as “Hill of the Sun, or the Hill of Sul, who is our Goddess of the Sun”. The wikipedia says that this goddess, Sulis, was worshipped at Bath — and looking at the map shows that Bath lies very nicely on the way from Cunetio to Glastonbury. So perhaps this is the location that the author had in mind, and he just borrowed the name of Arberth to gain some bonus associations with old Welsh literature.

I'm not sure if we can trace Photinus's movements through Somerset any more precisely. He travels through marshy country, and Caw's home is “under the bluff edge of the hills on the Western side of the Summer Country” (p. 382). According to the Wikipedia, there's a marshy area called Exmoor in the west of Somerset, so perhaps that's where Photinus went.

Links to Google Maps: with Narberth, with Bath (and continuing to Caerleon).

When do these stories take place?

Neither Votan nor Not for All the Gold in Ireland say explicitly which year(s) they are taking place in, but there are a few hints scattered here and there through the novels. In Votan, we have:

  • Photinus (pp. 4–5) refers to “their late Sainted Majesties Nero or Galba” — Galba died in AD 69.
  • Otho (p. 16) remembers that “Sixty, seventy years ago, this was a great place for the Amber trade” and that these good times ended after “Herman came. First he beat the Romans up in the north [. . .] We had our Good King then, my grandfather Maroboduus”. So this early part of Votan is happening about 2 generations (and less than 70 years) after the battle of Teutoburg Forest (this battle was in AD 9).
  • Tawalz says (pp. 51–2) “long ago, in Grandfather's Grandfather's time, a man came talking about a God, who hung on a tree, and was wounded with a spear” etc. So if this novel is happening 4 generations after a Christian missionary reached Tawalz's people, this could hardly be earlier than the 2nd century. This seems inconsistent with other time-related passages quotes above. (Maybe we aren't really dealing with a Christian missionary? Odin also hung on a tree (for nine days) and was wounded with a spear. But on the other hand Tawalz later mentions eating his flesh and drinking his blood, which would definitely fit in well with the hypothesis that he was Christian, and I couldn't find anything similar in the Wikipedia page for Odin.)
  • Photinus says (p. 78): “I had known old men who had heard at first hand about old Claudius raving through the palace when he heard, how he cried,/ ‘Varus, Varus, bring me back my legions.’ ” This seems to be another reference to the battle of Teutoburg Forest, thus agrees with Otho's citation above. However, I'm confused by the emperor's name; that battle was in AD 9, when the emperor was Augustus, not Claudius (who ruled during AD 41–54).

So this would suggest that Votan is taking place somewhere in the last quarter of the first century or so. Next, in Not for All the Gold in Ireland we have:

  • Photinus (p. 227): “A hundred years ago, now, His Sacred Majesty the Emperor Claudius had conquered the fertile southern quarter of the island”. The Roman conquest of Britain started in AD 43 and gradually continued for several decades. Photinus probably refers to the early phases of the conquest.
  • A local official (p. 329) mentions “the municipal by-law ‘Whatsoever person’ of the seventh year of the Emperor Hadrian”. This suggests the story is taking place no earlier than AD 124 (Hadrian's reign started in AD 117).
  • Taliesin (p. 416): “until, oh, just ninety-eight years ago, there was no cauldron here on the Glass Mountain’; and then Caw explains that this cauldron, or cup, was brought at that time by an old Syrian man together with other things that are obviously Christian relics: “he had the spear, and he had the cup, and he had a sprig of the thorn”. So the events of this novel must be taking place at least 98 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, probably a bit more to take account of the time it took the Syrian to reach Britain. Well, this doesn't tell us much that we don't already know from the quote from page 227 above.

So this second novel seems to be taking place in the second or third quarter of the second century. Fitting these estimates for both novels together is made harder by the fact that Photinus doesn't strike me as being *that* much older in the second novel than he was in the first. From Otho's quote it's hard to put Votan any later than around AD 80, and from the Hadrian quote we can't put Not for All the Gold in Ireland sooner than AD 124, so there is a gap of some 44 or more years between them. Even if Photinus started in Votan as a young man, he'd have to be in his sixties in the second novel, and I have a hard time imagining him as that old. The rigors of the journey would have to take a big enough toll on him that we'd have to hear something about it. Besides, his uncle is still alive (p. 227), which also suggests we should expect a less advanced age for Photinus. If we take the ‘hundred years after the Roman conquest’ datum as our basis, it gets even worse; that would put Not for All the Gold in Ireland well after AD 140, with a gap of 60 years between the two novels.

Men Went to Cattraeth

Although this novel is not a sequel to the previous one (Not for All the Gold in Ireland), it was also inspired by a bit of very early Welsh literature, namely Y Gododdin, a series of elegic poems about a battle at Cattraeth and the men who died there, written by a poet named Aneirin. James explains in an introductory note (p. 539) that we don't really know exactly when the battle of Cattraeth took place or who was involved in it, so this novel is a kind of attempt to imagine what sort of conditions might have given rise to the events described in the poem.

The story is told in the first person by Aneirin, “pre-eminent chief poet of the isle of Britain” (p. 544) and mostly takes place in the late 5th century AD (during the reign of “Theodoric in Rome and Zeno in Byzantium and Clovis in Gaul”, p. 541), when Aneirin was a young man, though he is now several decades older (p. 697) and occasionally refers to later events as well. Britain is a very different place than it was in Not for All the Gold in Ireland; there, in the 2nd century, most of Britain was under Roman rule (imposed barely a century earlier), which the Britons were grudgingly and unwillingly putting up with. By the time of Men Went to Cattraeth, these same Celtic Britons have become heavily Romanized, indeed they consider themselves to be Romans and Christians and civilized people, and are tremendously proud of all this, looking down upon the pagan Germanic barbarians who are now invading their island. Indeed the Britons consistently refer to themselves as Romans throughout this book (the only exception to this seem to be the Picts, who had never been part of the Roman empire; p. 549); sure, it's been several decades since the legions evacuated the island, but ‘we Romans’ are still here (p. 599). (At first I thought this was a bit silly, but TBH the Greeks had been doing the same thing for many centuries before and after, and nobody seems to be complaining about that.)

The departure of the actual Romans from Britain naturally left a bit of a power vacuum; British leaders started fighting amongst themselves, and some were happy to accept help from Germanic tribes who wanted to settle on the island (pp. 598–9, 703 — incidentally, the Romans had a similar excuse when starting their invasion of Britain in the 1st century). I don't see how anybody could be surprised by what happened next; once they got established on the island, more and more invaders came from the mainland, so that now, some fifty years later, large parts of Britain are already under Germanic control and the Celtic Britons are being pushed to the periphery, from where they are fighting an increasingly desperate struggle against the invaders. (See the Wikipedia for some useful maps of early medieval Britain: 1, 2, 3.)

Aneirin grew up on the edges of this struggle, at the court of king Eudav of Mordei (pp. 549, 623–4), a region lying just north of Hadrian's Wall. South of it lies the land of Bernicia, which has been held by the Anglo-Saxons for some 30 years already (p. 636). Mordei itself has increasingly been turning into a debatable region, suffering frequent raids, until eventually, about a year before the events of this book, Eudav was killed in a raid, his hall was altogether destroyed and the area is now basically depopulated (pp. 549, 628, 636); the British population has either fled or been enslaved by the invaders. Aneirin himself spent some months in captivity among the Saxons and has only recently been rescued during a successful British military campaign (pp. 549–50, 613).

<spoiler warning>

At the start of the novel, we find Aneirin travelling to the hall of king Mynydog of Eiddin, a country lying just north of Mordei. Mynydog is planning a large war against the Saxons, hoping to repopulate Mordei and perhaps even weaken their hold on Bernicia. He receives help from numerous other British rulers: the rich king Evrog of Dumbarton sends him armor and weapons (p. 551), the gallant and charismatic (p. 687; but annoyingly overconfident) prince Owain comes from Cornwall to lead Mynydog's army (p. 563), warriors from numerous British kingdoms sign up as volunteers (pp. 551–2), and Mynydog also seems to be arranging an alliance with the British kingdom of Elmet a bit further south.

Aneirin's initial plan is not to join Mynydog's expedition; he just wants to see Bradwen (pp. 551, 564), king Eudav's daughter, whom he knew and fell in love with during his days at Eudav's court (p. 549). However, it turns out that she is not interested in anybody other than Owain (p. 607), so Aneirin decides to join the army anyway to forget his disappointment (p. 572).

After several months of preparations, the British army sets off towards the south (p. 611). It consists mainly of about 350 well-trained and -geared horsemen, which apparently counts as a “huge army” (Owain's words, p. 576), especially in view of the fact that the Saxons don't have any cavalry of their own (“they find it hard enough to manage oxen”, p. 554). Additionally, there is also an infantry of about 2000 peasants (p. 612), many of whom are originally from Mordei and now intend to settle there again, to help rebuild the province (their families will join them there once the war is over; p. 635).

The campaign starts well; the cavalry moves ahead and encounters no resistance in Mordei; they even rebuild king Eudav's hall (p. 633). However, the peasants in the infantry are so demoralized by the devastation they find in Mordei that they turn back north; the prospect of rebuilding their homes in what is now practically wilderness, under the constant threat of Saxon raids, is simply too daunting (pp. 639–40). At this point, it would probably be reasonable for the cavalry to turn back as well, but surely nobody in their right mind would expect a bunch of knights from early medieval heroic literature to be reasonable: after all, they gave Mynydog an oath to fight the Saxons, infantry or no infantry (pp. 645–6).

So they press on into Bernicia; they soon start encountering Saxon villages, in which they thoroughly slaughter everyone and everything that can be slaughtered, and burn or smash everything that hadn't been alive to begin with (pp. 654–7). Aneirin notices that there has been a curious shortage of men of military age in these villages (p. 657); and sure enough, next thing you know, a huge army of Saxons shows up. A small detachment of Britons is taken by surprise and slaughtered (p. 659), but later the rest of them score a victory against the Saxons near the ruins of the town of Cattraeth (pp. 667–71; “empty for generations”, p. 686).

However, there are still plenty of Saxons left alive and ready to fight, they have just been scattered temporarily. The Britons celebrate their victory with a big feast in the nearby hall that formerly belonged to the local Saxon chief, Bladulf (p. 674); soon they are all completely drunk and unable to defend themselves from a surprise Saxon attack in the middle of the night. To make matters worse, their horses are scattered in the process, which deprives them of their main advantage relative to the Saxons (p. 682).

The Britons manage to make their way on foot to the nearby ruins of Cattraeth, which is protected by a wall (p. 684). The Saxons generally hardly dare to even enter a city and certainly wouldn't know how to besiege one (pp. 588, 662, 687), so the Britons are hoping they can hold it until either the Saxons give up and go away (p. 687), or until an army from Elmet comes to rescue them (pp. 694–5).

They manage to repel the initial Saxon attack, though with considerable losses (pp. 688–91). Bladulf's brother (who appears to be some sort of intersex dwarf) is sent by the Saxons to negotiate (pp. 693–701), and he manages to kill Owain with a concealed dagger and run away (p. 702). About a third of the remaining Britons rush after him in rage, only to be slaughtered by the much larger Saxon force (p. 703). Only about a hundred Britons are now left inside the town walls, many of them badly injured (p. 704). Most of them leave the town after nightfall, some hoping to make their way back to Eiddin and some to establish contact with the allies from Elmet; but nearly all of them are killed soon afterwards (pp. 707–9). Aneirin and a few other badly wounded Britons stay behind, and soon only Aneirin is left alive, composing death-songs for his comrades (pp. 710–4).

The Saxons finally show up in the city and Bladulf is remarkably magnanimous; despite numerous cases of mutilation of corpses earlier in the book, the Saxons now bury the British dead according to British customs (p. 716); they take care of Aneirin until he recovers (pp. 715, 722–5), and then let him go (Bladulf is suitably grim on p. 715: “ ‘Death is a reward for victory [. . .] Those who are defeated must live, and regret it. [. . .]’ ”). The novel ends, much like the previous one, with a few surprising revelations. Bladulf tells Aneirin that he got advance warning from Mynydog about the approaching British army (p. 726). Anerin travels to Eiddin to confront Mynydog about this betrayal, and Mynydog explains that he knew that the allies from Elmet wouldn't be coming at all, and that Owain wasn't the sort of leader that could unite the squabbling British tribes well enough to take on the Saxons (pp. 731–2). Mynydog used the war as a distraction to send his little nephew safely to his father's house, confident that he will one day become the leader of all Britons and suceed in driving away the Saxons. Although this nephew has been mentioned many times earlier in the book, we only learn his name now — it's Arthur (pp. 733–4).

The campaign was in fact not a complete failure; the destruction of numerous Saxon villages and the surrounding farmland led to famine and has seriously weakened their position in the area (pp. 720–720). And from various passages scattered throughout the book, we see that Arthur would later in fact eventually manage to drive the Saxons out of a large part of their territories in Britain. As for Aneirin, he becomes a monk and spends the rest of his days composing poems in memory of the warriors who rode to Cattraeth (p. 736).

</spoiler warning>

Great migrations

For me, one of the best things about this wonderful novel is that it gave me a vivid picture of what had until now only been a dry historical fact. History was one of my favorite subjects at school, and I still remember a lesson that must have occured somewhere early in the second year of secondary school. In what certainly can't have been more than 45 minutes, we learned about the great migrations of the early middle ages. There were plenty of them, and not much time, so that the whole thing ended up being little more than a bulleted list: starting with the Huns, moving on to the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Franks, Vandals, Langobards, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, then our own Slavic ancestors, and finally the belated migrations of people such as Magyars, Bulgarians and Vikings; ding, end of lesson. And so, one of the items on that bulleted list was the fact that at some point, Angles, Saxons and Jutes settled in Britain. I had never given it much thought. There were a dozen such migrations, all more or less alike.

But if you think about it a little more closely — what must that have been like? None of those migrations was into an empty country (unless perhaps you include the Vikings in the whole process and count Iceland and Greenland as sufficiently empty). Nor were they instantaneous events; each migration must have been a process that took years, decades and quite possibly centuries; thousands, probably millions of people were caught up in each of them. And on the receiving end of each such migration there must have been an increasingly terrified population fighting an increasingly desperate fight against an unstoppable invading juggernaut that was gradually but inexorably rolling over their country, taking it over, and destroying everything thew knew and cared about. I can hardly even begin to imagine how miserable they must have felt.

Now, I suppose that in a certain sense, one is rationally aware of these things — the notion of a migration (into a non-empty country) obviously implies all of that. But I had never before given much thought to this, until reading this novel, which paints a very vivid picture of what the Germanic migration into Britain must have felt and looked like from the point of view of the Celtic Britons. A somber tone pervades the whole story; even before you find out just how bad the outcome of the war will be for Owain's army, you can imagine that it won't end well, partly from observing their grim fatalism (“We knew that who came, who rode, would not return, and that was our fate, settled by the Virgin”, p. 649) and partly from the fact that there's only three hundred of them, and that's no way to drive invaders out of a country the size of Britain. And what is more, even though Aneirin ends his story on a somewhat optimistic note, reporting on Arthur's successes in the decades following the battle of Cattraeth, you can't help knowing what Aneirin didn't know — that in the long term, his side *was* doomed and that eventually, the Germanic invaders would indeed suceeed in occupying most of the island.

Hating on the invaders

Another thing I liked about the book is that it gives you a very good sense of the deep, grim, relentless hatred that Aneirin and his compatriots feel towards the invaders. The Britons in this novel never refer to the Germanic invaders by any other name than “Savages”; they are frequently described as vermin (p. 621), as rats (p. 699), as not human (pp. 569, 593–44, 652, 700), as mindless hordes (pp. 638, 689); Aneirin hates them and everything they stand for, everything about their way of life: that they grow wheat instead of oats (“wheat, that evil plant”, p. 595; “filthy wheat”, 642; “barren wheatfields”, p. 655; “we set the evil wheat alight where it grew”, p. 656), and they smell of it too (“stinking of wheat”, p. 628; “the strange almost-sweet smell of wheat flour, leavened with yeast”, p. 665; “wheat-stinking, ale-stinking breath”, p. 700; “stench of unwashed wheat-eaters”, p. 725); that they make their bread with yeast (p. 654); that they use larger ploughs than the Britons, and have them drawn by oxen instead of by horses (pp. 595, 718); that they drink beer instead of (or in addition to) mead (pp. 654, 674); that they live in clustered villages instead of scattered ones (pp. 646, 653); that they don't practice transhumance and graze their animals in the uplands (pp. 646, 652); that they raise their own children instead of sending them away to be fostered by distant relatives and friends (p. 652); that their hair is the wrong shade of blonde (Aneirin praises Owain's hair as “corn with the touch of gold that gives it life, not the dull yellow tow of the Savages”; p. 564); but perhaps most of all, that they don't care about forests and about hunting and gathering food in them (pp. 641, 656–7, 726) — to the Savages, the forests are merely something to be cut down as soon as possible to make space for more wheat fields, and to turn the wood into charcoal to power their smiths' furnaces (p. 628).

Aneirin portrays their impact on the wilderness in such a negative light that you could put some of the passages from this book, with minimal modifications, next to those describing orcs in The Lord of the Rings and you'd have a hard time telling them apart from each other:

  • On p. 631 he describes how the Savages, to avoid the trouble of cutting down trees, simply stripped the bark from them and left them to die: “through the summer the tree will dry slowly [. . .] The next spring, the leaves will not bud again. The trees will be dead. [. . .] But all the life of the high forest was gone. [. . .] All this the Savages had done.”
  • “The woods were dead, every tree ringed with the cruel saxes, dead and withered away. The deer had gone out of these woods on to the high moors. The land was dead. The land had been killed.” (P. 634.)
  • “A man may fell an apple-tree in spite, or even, demented by fury, hack at a rowan. It takes more than fury, it takes time and patience to ring a tree, to strip the bark away as high as a man can reach. And this was not one tree, but a thousand thousand trees. [. . .] It was the care and patience of all that witless horde, working for weeks on end, all across Mordei, like the spread of a blight. They had quietly, thoroughly killed the kind forest, that shelters our beasts, that gives us nuts and berries and hides the deer we eat. They killed the trees that should have given us fuel and house timbers for a hundred years. All this they destroyed in malice.” (P. 641.)
  • “And what do they do, when they have killed the trees, and burned them, as we have seen them do this year in Mordei? They pull out the stumps and they plough the ground level, to turn the fruitful forest into barren wheatfields.” (P. 655. I particularly like the contrast between the fruitful forest and barren wheatfields — usually we'd expect the adjectives to be reversed.)

On some other occasions I couldn't help wondering if the Britons' interest in the preservation of nature was inspired by 1960s environmentalism (the novel was first published in 1969). E.g. Owain on p. 555 criticises the Savages for their high-intensity agriculture (at least relative to British practices): “It is a sin against the Virgin and against God, to multiply cattle, or people, or crops, without heed. For the earth is the Lord's, and he gave it to us to keep, and not to destroy.”

Aneirin makes it clear that he cares a lot more about British wildlife than about the Savages. After decribing the slaughter of several Savage villages, he comments: “The wolf and the bear, the kite and the buzzard came flocking into the houses for easy meat. Why should they not feast, and why should we not feed them? They were our wolves, our kites.” (P. 657; later on the same page he adds: “ugly straight fields would be changed to pleasant marsh”.) “The bodies of the Savage dead we left. This was Bernicia. Were not the wolves here ours to feed?” (P. 673.) Precent on p. 708: “Every stag that grazes, every moorhen that nests where we have burnt the farms and blocked the ditches is our memorial.” Aneirin on p. 714, as Cattreith is littered with corpses of his dead comrades: “These were our kites, our buzzards: why should we not feed them?”

In another echo of modern environmentalism, the Savages' disregard of forests bites them back when the British destroy their fields and villages shortly before harvest time: “they had cut down the wide forests where any man of culture and civility, where any Roman, could find food and clothing for the taking at this time of the year./ These Savages, being tied to one crop, and not knowing how to use the forests of the land, how to hunt deer or how to search for nuts and fruit, faced a whole year on half-rations.” (P. 721.)

Aneirin welcomes the destruction of Savage farmland: “The valleys were laid waste. The trees would grow again, the deer and the duck come back, the fields would flood and merge and vanish as if the wheat had never grown. Our sons would hunt again over that land” (p. 726). Sounds like the world's most misanthropic nature conservationist :P

Some of the British rants against the Savages look like recycled WW2-era anti-Japanese propaganda, just with rice changed to wheat :)) Owain says on p. 646: “All these Savages are warriors, they are brought up to nothing else. Among us, our mothers pray that we will grow up to be poets and the pride of our families and our Kingdoms. Savage mothers only pray their sons will be good fighters. And they live on a handful of wheat a day. So underfed, it is no wonder that though they are all ready to fight, any of us is as good as a dozen of them, and that on foot.” And Aneirin on p. 665: “a line of dun ants, frugal as the ants, not knowing what art or poetry or civilisation is, needing only each man his handful of wheat to live. Satisfied with that little too.”

As we've already seen in this last quote, another frequent complaint of Aneirin's is that the Savages do not appreciate poetry, or in fact culture in general. The contrast with the Britons could not be greater:

  • “They had no Poets, and certainly would take no notice of them if they had. They aren't like us. For us poetry is the whole reason why men live. Not for them.” (P. 566.)
  • Owain says of the Irish: “they know that the true aim of a kingdom is to nurture poets.” (P. 568.)
  • One of the most beautiful passages in the entire book occurs on p. 712, as Aneirin's comrades are slowly dying all around him: “And Gwanar said, and it was the last time he spoke, ‘Poetry is the crown of the nation, and the chief product of the Kingdom. If we have died only that a poem is made, then we have died for a better thing than ever we lived for.’/ And no one contradicted him, because it was a self-evident truth, as clear to the eye as is the difference between black and white, or the truth that the many is more than the one. This was the truth we proclaimed against all the world, that there is more in life than the mere growing of wheat, and breeding till the whole land is covered by the soles of men's feet, and the blue sky is blackened by the smoke of the smiths' fires, and the song of the little birds is drowned by the harsh voices of men talking in dead-footed prose. Our open, wild land is a poem in itself, even if no man sings in it: and thus we had died to keep it.”

Some of the (dis)information Aneirin repeats about the Savages is hilarious, e.g. on their shipbuilding techniques: “They glue the planks together with Roman blood, and sew them with the sinews of Christians.” (P. 590.) On the other hand he does debunk the claims that they are cannibals (p. 590).

Savages are people too

One of the most touching scenes in the book happens well before the actual start of the campaign. A ship full of Savages, mostly dying or already dead, drifts towards the coast and is found by a patrol of British soldiers. One of the Savages, an old man, tells a truly piteous tale of how they came to settle in Britain to escape dire poverty in their homeland. In fact, they are an extended family of what we would now call environmental refugees: “The water is rising. Some of the marshes used to be fields when he was a boy. They can no longer grow enough wheat to live. They cannot go away inland, because they are afraid of the people who live there. So they have to set out to sea to find a new land.” (P. 595.) They regarded Britain as a fertile land of opportunity, indeed a partly empty one after the Romans left it, and they remembered that a generation ago earlier settlers from their country had been welcomed by the Britons (pp. 598–9). But due to unfavorable winds and having next to no seafaring experience, they ran out of food and water, and spent the last few days watching their close relatives die and trying to resist eating their seed corn and killing their last ox, which they would need to pull the plough (without which they couldn't grow wheat in their new homeland); pp. 596–7.

Oh, and the Britons? While the old Savage is telling his story, they are busy killing the ox, throwing the seed wheat into the sea, smashing the Savages' ploughs, pots, querns and other implements, and destroying the rigging of their ship (pp. 593–4). You can practically feel the mixture of shock, sadness, anger and despair in the old man's voice at seeing this: “ ‘And what have we done to you? What has changed? When first our people came here, you welcomed us. [. . .] You were glad enough to have them then, to have more men in your empty Island. [. . .] I remember, myself, the talk about Hengist, how he sailed, in my grandfather's time. [. . .]” ” (P. 598.) “ ‘What shall we do now? How shall we live? You have stripped the clothes from our backs. You have broken our plough, and killed the poor ox that was to pull it, that was dearer to us than our children, because we kept it alive though they died. You have scattered our seed corn into the sea, that we thought dearer than our own lives, because we starved rather than eat it. You cannot do all that to us, and not feed us. [. . .] How else shall we live?’/ I gave him Cynon's answer, before Cynon spoke it./ ‘We do not care how you live, so long as you do not live here.’ ” (P. 600. Note the “before Cynon spoke it”; Aneirin is acting as interpreter here but the answer is so obvious to all the Britons that he doesn't need to wait for Cynon to say anything.)

The Britons throw the old man back into the ship and push it away to sea, and although they seem to disapprove when one of them throws a torch onto it (causing the ship to burn and sink soon afterwards), it seemed to me that this at least saved the Savages from an equally certain but slower and more painful death (pp. 601–2).

This scene is one of the very few places in the book where we get to see the Savages as people too, and can feel sorry for them as well and not just for the Britons. I was almost prepared to reverse my opinion and start seeing the Britons as the bad guys of this story.

But then, as Aneirin is quick to point out: sure, the Savages come all humble and weakened and in small numbers at first, but after a while they settle down and multiply and before you know, half the island belongs to them. They start by begging for food while they wait for their first harvest, but before long it would escalate to stealing and rape; “I had seen Bradwen herself feed them, a hundred times, down in Eudav's Hall, and at the end they had come back and burnt the Hall for her charity.” (P. 597.) Aneirin himself spent a year as the Savages' slave not long ago (p. 599). And as for Hengist, sure he had been welcomed at first — and then he killed the popular and powerful British king Vortigern “at his own board” (p. 559).

In fact a theme that frequently runs through Aneirin's complaints is that the Savages, due to their farming techniques (wheat instead of oats, bigger ploughs that are pulled by oxen instead of horses, so they can go deeper, etc.), can support a higher (and faster-growing) population than the relatively less-intensive agriculture of the Britons (see e.g. pp. 655–6). If so, this whole conflict is similar to what has been going on all over the world for thousands of years, as farmers displaced hunter-gatherer societies due to their ability to support a denser and higher population. Here in early medieval Britain it wasn't farmers vs. hunter-gatherers, but more intensive farmers against less intensive ones.

Be that as it may, and despite all the fine words about fighting for poetry and culture quoted earlier, Aneirin concludes this episode with a much more materialist explanation of the conflict: “There is no more to power than wealth./ Wealth does not come to those without power,/ [. . .] For no new wealth can ever be created/ And Power is indivisible and single./ [. . .] It was to keep our own wealth and power that we went to Cattraeth.” (P. 603.)

This was a really touching scene and although it was written some 45 years ago, I couldn't help being reminded of the present crisis with large numbers of refugees or migrants trying to enter certain parts of Europe. Nobody will doubt that they are very reasonably trying to escape genuinely terrible circumstances at home, but at the same time, the countries they are trying to move into aren't exactly empty, and admitting the migrants in sufficiently large numbers will inevitably change their destination countries beyond a point that their existing inhabitants would be happy with. I wonder what will eventually come of this. We can't really deal with this sort of situation the way Aneirin would, i.e. with a war of extermination; on the other extreme is the approach that currently seems to be preferred by the politicians, which is to deride as somehow illegitimate any opinions that are unwelcoming to the migrants; and I'm not particularly happy with either of these two extremes.

By the way, the only other passage in the book where the Savages are really shown as people comes near the end, after the disaster at Cattraeth. Aneirin, the only survivor, is captured by the Savages; their chief, Bladulf, lets another Savage, Ingwy, decide Aneirin's fate, for Aneirin had killed Ingwy's brother, father, and son. “He [= Ingwy] had been weeping, and the tears had made runnels on his face. Black blood was clotted on his arms, and on the naked saxe in his hand. His left ear was cut almost away from his head, and hung by a shred of skin. He hesitated a little. Then:/ ‘What is one more dead among so many? Let him live.’ ” (P. 715. The detail about weeping is particularly notable — as recently as p. 708, Aneirin had claimed: “The Savages do not weep.”)

The pleasant warmth of hate

I imagine that in typical high-fantasy stories, orcs and other such beings are put there so that you have someone you can hate on without feeling bad about it, because they aren't human and are deliberately designed in such a way that it's easy to hate them. But it's more fun to hate on people than on non-human monsters, and that's one of the nice things about this book: Aneirin hates on the Savages in the same way that you would hate on orcs, and through him you get to vicariously experience the pleasures of this kind of hatred without anything much of its downsides.

In fact, I suspect that the main reason why I liked to read about the countless examples of Aneirin's deep hatred for the Savages is that it brings me a feeling almost of relief — finally someone who understands me and feels reasonably and naturally about these things. In our modern societies, the prevailing virtue is one of tolerance; it is preached at us every day from countless sources; we are told to be tolerant and to treat people equally regardless of their nationality, culture, religion, race, appearance, and other such characterstics. I suppose this has its good sides; it promotes peace and trade, and serves the interests of those who would otherwise find themselves oppressed and persecuted. But apart from that, it's just yet another in a long list of annoying, unnatural things that civilization constantly rams down our throats. I don't think it's natural to be tolerant towards those who are different from us, or to want to interact with them; if it were, society wouldn't have to expend so much effort on promoting these things. My natural reaction, whenever I encounter a foreigner of any description, is still ‘aieeee! a foreigner! you should hate him! quick, kill! kill! kill! before he kills you!’ and I have to consciously remind myself ‘wait, no, you're supposed to act as if he was a normal person, even though he's just a foreigner’. And then I have this odd feeling of dissonance as I'm standing there having a nice civil conversation with the nice foreigner, but at some level it feels somehow wrong, as if a subconscious voice was telling me ‘wait, this is wrong, you're supposed to be *strangling* him, not talking to him’.

And that's why it feels like a relief to read about Aneirin's society in this novel; the idea of tolerance, of having people of different nations living peacefully together in the same area, is simply nonexistent here. It doesn't occur to anyone. Nobody even hints at it. In this book, the thing to do when a bunch of foreigners shows up and tries to settle in your country is to regard them as vermin and make an effort to exterminate them before they do the same to you. It's horrible, but it's also so naturally obvious and so refreshingly honest! And it's not an extreme, fringe idea the way it would be today; in Aneirin's world, it's simply the default way of looking at these things. Reading about it was simply *pleasant*, like a vacation in an area that suits you better than the place you normally inhabit. Reading about Aneirin's hatred, and empathising with it, allowed me to vicariously experience a little of that pleasure of hate which is denied to us in the modern world, hell-bent on tolerance and multiculturalism as it is.

The old-fashioned sort of war

Normally, when I imagine a war, I think of the kind of war between states that is common in the last few centuries. One king makes war upon his neighbor; they grow tired of it after a few years, and sign a peace treaty; some territory changes hands, the victor is glad to receive his new taxpayers (who will one day also become his new conscripts), maybe he tries to pressure them a little into assimilating, but basically life goes on.

But the warfare in this book is different; it's the old-fashioned sort of war; it's personal: when the Britons fall upon a few relatively defenceless Savage villages early in their campaign (p. 656), they not only kill all the men and rape all the women, they then make the women fill up the ditches around the fields to make sure the land turns into marshland again, then they kill all the women as well; they carefully burn everything that can be burned, the corpses, the buildings, the fields; they take the trouble to break everything that can be broken, destroying all the Savages' tools, ploughs, querns and so on; they fill up the wells with corpses to poison them, etc. etc.

The term ‘living space’ has been made notorious by the Nazis, but basically this is what the Britons and the Savages in this book are fighting for. It's a war of annihilation for both sides; the whole point of taking over a territory is that you kill off the previous inhabitants, restore it back to the state it was in before they ever got there, and settle it with your own people. I don't often get to read about wars pursued with quite this level of determined white-hot hatred, which made this book even more interesting.

Are we the baddies?

An odd feeling of dissonance occured to me every now and then while reading this novel. I cheered on the Celtic Britons throughout the story, and felt almost as much hate for the Savages as Aneirin and his comrades do. And also more generally, I feel a great sense of sympathy for the Celts, these tragic losers of European history, who used to control so much territory in ancient times and later went on to lose nearly all of it.

But then, when I think about it, you could shift the story of this novel just one century forward and about a thousand miles in a roughly east-southeastern direction, and you could end up with a very similar story of partly Romanized Celts fighting an ultimately hopeless struggle against barbaric invaders — except that in this case, the invaders in question would be my distant ancestors. And they were more thorough than the Savages of Aneirin's story too, for in my country there weren't any Celts left after the migration period, nor did any of their writings survive (if they had written any to begin with). I hope that ‘our’ Celts were mostly assimilated rather than killed, but still — I couldn't help feeling vaguely hypocritical while hating on the Savages in this book.

And yet, and yet — you could shift the time of the novel a couple of millennia back and keep it in the same place, and write a very similar story, except that this time it would be the Celts that would be the bad guys, taking over huge swaths of territory from their previous inhabitants, of whom we don't even remember the names, let alone their languages or anything else about them. There are precious few spots in the world that are inhabited by the descendants of the first people ever to settle there (though I heard that a few islands in the Pacific qualify). The more I think about this, the more I agree with the old epigram about history being little more than the record of crimes and misfortunes.

Title and epigraphs

Each chapter begins with an epigraph consisting of a few lines from Y Gododdin, the early medieval poem that inspired the novel. They are quoted in both Welsh and English, taken from John Williams' edition of 1852 (useful links: scans on, Project Gutenberg e-text (lacking the critical apparatus), another page with the Welsh text and several other translations). In fact James seems to have modified Williams's translations a little, mostly I think for the better — I can't comment on them as translations from Welsh, of course, since I haven't got the slightest clue about that language, but Williams's style strikes me as a bit creaky and ponderous, and most of James's modifications seemed to improve matters a bit.

In particular, the phrase “Men went to Cattraeth” is one of James's deviations from Williams' translation, where it's alawys “Heroes” instead of “Men”, and often “marched” instead of “went” (the phrase occurs frequently in Y Gododdin, especially at the beginning of individual elegies, e.g. 8–14). Skene's translation of 1868 (searchable text, scans) uses “The men went”, so James might have adopted the phrase from there (although I don't see any other signs of Skene's influence in the translations of the epigraphs).

There's an old saying that poetry is what gets lost in translation, but occasionally I couldn't help feeling that Williams deliberately wrung every last bit of poetry out of his translation and discarded it mercilessly. Consider the following three lines (elegy 24, ll. 3–5), which appear as the epigraph to ch. 11 (p. 650):

Bu trydar en aerure bu tan
Bu ehut e waewawr bu huan
Bu bwyt brein bu bud e vran
There was a noise in the mount of slaughter, there was fire,
Impetuous were the lances, there was a gleam like the sun,
There was food for the ravens, there the ravens did triumph.

Now, as I said, I don't have the slightest clue about Welsh. But even so, it seems obvious that the original has all sorts of nice poetic ornaments of which there's not even a trace in Williams's translation (which also has the defect of being nearly twice as long as the original). The original seems to have a rhythm, all three lines seem to rhyme, there seems to be a good deal of alliteration in the last line, and the word “bu” repeats itself in an interesting way. (Well, this last bit seems to actually be mostly present in the translation, in the repetition of “there”.)

I was interested to see that vran means “raven”, as it's nearly the same as the word for a crow in Slavic languages (and words for crows and ravens tend to overlap a great deal; after all, these birds are similar and closely related). I'm always happy to see these old Indo-European connections showing up in unexpected places.

(Also on the subject of Indo-European connections, I was interested to learn from p. 627 and elsewhere that the name ‘Saxons’ comes from a type of knife they used, called a ‘sax’ or ‘seax’. According to the Wikipedia this is ultimately from proto-Indo-European *sek- ‘to cut’, which I imagine is also the root of our words like sekati ‘to cut, hack’, sekira ‘axe’ and so on.)

In any case, I was glad to see these bits of Welsh at the beginning of chapters. As always, I'm in awe at the spelling habits of Celtic languages, and Welsh seems to be one of the few languages where the readability of a text would not suffer even if you passed it through rot-13 :))) Here's a particularly impressive example (epigraph to ch. 6, p. 611): “Gwyr a aeth gatraeth yg cat yg gawr/ Nerthmeirch a gwryrnseirch ac ysgwydawr/ Peleidyr ar gychwyn a llym waewawr/ A llurugeu claer a chledyuawr”. Rationally, I know damn well that most of this seeming unreadability is simply due to the fact that they use w and y as vowels, but still — my first thought on seeing that was ‘you could have a cat walk over the keyboard and the results would probably be more readable than this” :P

The Britons in this novel, by the way, have a much better opinion of their language: it's “tongue of the Angels” (Aneirin on p. 569), “blessed language of the Angels” (p. 722),


The Britons in this novel are technically christians, but their christianity is of a very peculiar sort. By far the most important feature of their religion is the Virgin, who is probably mentioned at least 20 times, which is about three times as much as all other elements of christianity put together. These other mentions are: “Virgin and her Son and the Dove” (p. 651); “For One and the Virgin!” (p. 653); “Go with God” (p. 666); “Blessed Trintiy” (p. 717); “worship of the Virgin and her son, who likewise went to their Cattraeth” (p. 736); “Virgin and all her saints” (p. 712). Another mention of the worship of saints (p. 614): “Many, too, called on the saints they worshipped, on Josephus or Jesus or Albanus or Spiritus.” The Britons are keen to destroy old pagan (Roman?) idols and images if/when they find them (p. 650).

Aneirin does seem to have a few supernatural beliefs that are unrelated to christianity: he mentions the “Little People” (pp. 588, 630), “Dwarves” (p. 628), “Vergil the Magician” (pp. 628, 631, 650; which sounds odd but is actually true: the ancient Roman poet Virgil was vaguely remembered in medieval and later folklore as a prophet, magician etc.). On a semi-related note, some of his notions of history are very sketchy: Hadrian's Wall, we are told, was “raised in one night, complete from sea to sea, by the Magician Vergil, at the bidding of King Hadrian. This was one of the works that Hadrian did for the pleasure of his leman Cleopatra.” (P. 631.) :)) Or perhaps Aneirin has the same idea that I've recently read about on G. R. R. Martin's blog: ‘when truth becomes legend, print the legend’.

The Savages, meanwhile, are still pagans; Aneirin doesn't take much interest in their religion, except insofar as it provides him with another reason to hold them in contempt. He mostly describes it at demon-worship (pp. 569, 588, 701); they sing “spells and hymns to their demons” (p. 688); they sacrifice animals to their “Wind God” before a voyage (p. 596); they have “powerful wizards, who make their strong swords” (p. 588), and Bladulf's “wizard” also acts as a healer (pp. 714–5).


There's an unusual number of misprints in this novel; I found 16 and there might of course be some more that I overlooked (whereas I didn't notice any misprints in Votan and Not for All the Gold in Ireland earlier in the same volume). Some of them seem to be OCR-related (“eandles”, p. 676), and many involve a word partly or completely missing and replaced by a semicolon that doesn't belong there (which TBH could also be OCR-related).

Honi soit qui mal y pense: “the little boy hid under the table between us and sucked at a marrow bone, with plenty of meat on it, that I slipped down to him” (p. 610).


I initially thought I'd finish my posts about this book by saying which of the novels in it I had liked best, but I realized I can't really choose a single favorite. They're all excellent and have a wealth of interesting things and ideas in them. The first two are a bit more light-hearted with plenty of funny passages, while Men Went to Cattraeth is quite a bit more grim (which is perfectly fine, sometimes one is in the mood to read something grim). It's also a bit more realistic and there are fewer supernatural elements in it than in the first two novels (not that there are excessively many in those two either); I considered that to be a plus since I'm not too keen on mixing fantasy with history. On the other hand, the first two had links to things I was at least partly familiar with, i.e. old Norse mythology, whereas Men Went to Cattraeth had links only to things with which I had until now been almost completely unfamiliar (but on the positive side, I learnt a bit about early medieval Britain alon gthe way). So, anyway, they were all good, each in a slightly different way. The Wikipedia says that James wrote another novel set in ancient Britain, Bridge of Sand (1976); hopefully I'll get to read that one as well some day.

Labels: ,