Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Celtic Mythology by Philip Freeman

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In a 1937 letter to Stanley Unwin, J R R Tolkien said he felt a certain distaste for Celtic myths ‘largely for their fundamental unreason. They have bright colour, but are like a broken stained glass window reassembled without design’.

Having read Philip Freeman’s engaging Celtic Mythology,  I can’t disagree with Tolkien’s stained glass window analogy – in fact I think it’s a particularly apt one – but I certainly don’t share his antipathy towards these ancient tales from the Celtic West – of Cú Chulainn,  Briccriu Poison Tongue and Taliesin. Yes, they’re wildly improbable and often downright bonkers, but that’s part of the attraction. They’re tales which were passed down through the generations by word of mouth – and grew in the telling – in the days when ordinary people could neither read nor write.

They’re vivid and rambunctious stories from the Celtic fringe – of heroes, villains, gods and kings, all living, loving and fighting in a strange twilight world of the past where the veil between the here and the hereafter is disconcertingly permeable and the normal laws of physics are conveniently suspended for the duration.

Philip Freeman  relates the tales in an uncluttered and fairly modern style, which you’ll find either refreshing or irritating. I eventually fell into the former camp, once I’d realized that Celtic Mythology is not intended as a detailed and systematic analysis of its subject but rather as a primer, reworking complex and often confusing inter-related tales (those window fragments) into an accessible introduction for the general reader.

Freeman wears his extensive learning very lightly indeed and his obvious enthusiasm for his subject is infectious, as is his impish sense of humour. (Does the source material for the story of The Boyhood Deeds of Cú Chulainn REALLY contain the line ‘Send forth the naked women!’?)

At a little shy of 300 pages including introduction, pronunciation guide, endnotes and index this is not a book for anyone who is already familiar with the mythology of the Celtic fringes and wants to explore further, but if you know little to nothing about the Tain, Taliesin or the Mabinogion, then it’s an excellent place to start.

 

Oxford University Press. 2017. ISBN: 978-0-19-046047-1. 272p.

2 comments on “Celtic Mythology by Philip Freeman

  1. Desperate Reader
    June 26, 2017

    This sounds interesting. I read the Tain and the Mabinogion many yea s ago, but got hopelessly bogged down by the former. A good basic introduction would have really helped.

  2. Moira
    June 27, 2017

    It’s definitely Celtic Mythology lite … but as you say, that’s not a bad thing. I too read the Mabinogion many years ago and my overwhelming memory of it is confusion. Here, it’s condensed down to about 32 pages.

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Acknowledgment

  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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