Cycling through Middle Earth
Has Graham Robb found the true site of Arthur’s court? Did Oxford have a mystic significance for the Celts?
Hot rocks: modern-day pagans at Stonehenge. Image: John Batdorff
The Ancient Paths: Discovering the Lost Map of Celtic Europe
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)