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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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem