Cycling through Middle Earth

Has Graham Robb found the true site of Arthur’s court? Did Oxford have a mystic significance for the Celts?

The Ancient Paths: Discovering the Lost Map of Celtic Europe
Graham Robb
Picador, 416pp, £20
 
In 1190, the chronicler William of Newburgh was reading Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain with a rising sense of irritation. “Everything this man wrote,” he concluded, “was made up.”
 
Geoffrey’s account of the creation of Britain, completed in about 1136, is the principal source for the Arthurian legends and the story of King Lear. Geoffrey claimed that he had based it on a book in Welsh belonging to his friend Archdeacon Walter of Oxford. Walter’s book never emerged but the scepticism of William of Newburgh and others had no effect on Geoffrey’s success.
 
In reality, the History was not entirely made up. Some of the stones at Stonehenge were indeed brought from Wales, as Geoffrey asserted, but it is the vividness of the story that has given his book its enduring influence on poetry, drama and popular culture. Today, the knights of the Round Table attract few literal believers and professional historians have forgiven Geoffrey. Yet in the shadowy, unmapped terrain that is north European prehistory, where there are monuments but few written records, the boundaries between myth and fact are still contested. The alignment of standing stones, the patterns of Celtic decoration and the fragmentary accounts of classical authors are interpreted and fought over by archaeologists, classicists, astronomers and mystics. This is the terrain across which Graham Robb has chosen to travel, by bicycle.
 
A scholar of French culture, Robb decided that he would make a transcontinental cycling expedition along the Via Heraklea. This is the route that Hercules is said to have taken from the coast of the Iberian Peninsula, the westernmost point of the known world, up through France, where he smashed through the Alps in godlike fashion, creating the pass at Montgenèvre, and went on into Italy.
 
Planning his route, Robb joined the surviving sections of the ancient way on the map and noticed two things. First, he found that when projected in both directions, the line goes straight for 1,000 miles and ends at Montgenèvre; second, that the diagonal he had drawn corresponded to the angle of the rising sun at the summer solstice (and of the setting sun in midwinter) as it would have been at a Mediterranean latitude 2,000 years ago.
 
At this point, both author and reader pause, the author to wonder whether this is not some sort of “historical hallucination” and the reader, if at all familiar with the literature of the earth mysteries movement, to look out for certain telltale phrases. “Cosmic coincidence”, “mysterious harmony”, “a thrilling sense of hidden mechanisms” – all duly occur as maps and lines multiply to create a web of pan-European connections spun out of the years of research and bicycling that followed Robb’s initial insight.
 
He is often in at least two minds about his theories. “As soon as a geometrical pattern is imposed on the inhabited earth, significance rushes in like water into a channel dug into a damp field,” he remarks, before careering off along another line that may be an ancient solstice marker or a wild tangent.
 
It is true that the prehistoric world has become more visible in the past 100 years. It was aerial photography in the 1920s that revealed the traces of structures comprising banks and ditches for which the generic term “henge” was coined as late as 1932. Robb has relied on digital maps and mapping software. The route he traced in detail would have been invisible to users of paper maps without a team of researchers and a desk “the size of an aircraft hangar”. It is therefore impossible to assess fairly what the results amount to without repeating all of his research. Has he found the true site of Arthur’s court? Did Oxford have a mystic significance for the Celts?
 
Those attempting to weigh Robb’s argument against facts may be discouraged to find how heavily it depends on the Druids. Druids, the bane of archaeologists who have tried in vain to weed them out of the history of Stonehenge, remain controversial and compelling. Robb produces an elaborately detailed account of their society and ideas, down to a description of the “Druid school uniform”, yet among his many sources, one striking omission is the work of Ronald Hutton. Hutton has, in the past five years, produced two exhaustively researched accounts of Druidry. He points out that the primary sources would fill at most a dozen pages and are partial and contradictory, and that the only one that might be first-hand is by Caesar, who had his own axe to grind. In short, we know almost nothing for certain about the original, Iron Age Druids. Robb may not agree with Hutton – writers on the Druids rarely do – but he might have acknowledged the problems that his research poses for a theory that builds so much on so little.
 
Robb renames the Celtic world “Middle Earth” and has a chapter called “Paths of the Gods” – references to Tolkien and Erich von Däniken that do nothing to help his credibility. They seem more like attempts to have it both ways in the manner of Geoffrey of Monmouth: to be right and romantic. (Geoffrey’s History is the source for one of Robb’s rediscovered paths, the causeway of Belinus.) Those who enjoy a mixture of myth and archaeology, who admire a vivid metaphor and a fine turn of phrase, will find much in this book to enjoy. The intellectual heirs of William of Newburgh, however, will be less satisfied.
 
Rosemary Hill is the author of “Stonehenge” (Profile Books, £8.99)
Hot rocks: modern-day pagans at Stonehenge. Image: John Batdorff

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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