Book Review: Gods, Heroes and Kings

 

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Gods, Heroes, and Kings: The Battle for Mythic Britain

Reviewed by Jordsvin

 

     Gods, Heroes, and Kings, written by Christopher R. Fee and David A. Leeming and published in 2001 by Oxford University Press is a fine overall introduction to the mythologies of the pre-Christian inhabitants of the British Isles, who can be divided into two groups, each of which, in turn, has two subdivisions.  First came the Celts, both Goidelic (Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man) and Brythonic (Wales, Cornwall and the French region of Brittany).

     Most of the mythology of the Celts was written down long after the coming of Christianity to Ireland and Wales.  Many Deities appear in both literatures, but the precise relationship between the religions of the two main branches of the Celts is not completely clear. 

     Long afterward came the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, a loose assemblage of Germanic tribes who became the English and transformed most of the island of Great Britain into England (Angle-Land).  These newcomers wrote down little of their mythology, but a fair amount of it can be reconstructed by comparing off-hand references in works such as Beowulf with the much more extant mythology of Scandinavia, many of whose inhabitants raided and later settled in the British Isles during the Viking Era.

     While closely related, certainly more so than the religions of the Goidelic and Brythonic Celts, the precise relationship between the Troth of the Heathen Anglo-Saxons and that of the Viking-Age Scandinavians, as well as the relationship between both of them and the pre-Christian beliefs of the Continental Germanic peoples (German, Dutch, and Frisian speakers) will probably always remain a bone of scholarly contention.

     Despite being a work of more recent scholarship, Gods, Heroes, and Kings reflects in many ways the scholarship of the 1970’s and 1980’s, with considerable influence from the work of the late Joseph Campbell, author of the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces and the Masks of God series.  The prominent influence of this scholar rather surprised me, as his ideas seem to be at the present time somewhat out of favor.  However, just as in mythology and in clothing fashions, the popularity of ideas and theories in Academia can also have a cyclical element.

       The writing style is very readable, and the combination of a section retelling a myth with a section commenting on it is both effective and enjoyable to read.  The main idea of this book is that the battle for mythic Britain was not “a struggle between factions of ancient gods and heroes, but rather a war of attrition, a continual reformulation and assertion of age-old archetypes in the garb most appropriate for the audience who heard their stories” (p. 192).  Many of the mythic themes survived Christianization amazingly intact, and contributed to the uniqueness of the Christianity of the British Isles.

     Much attention is given to heroic themes, and the authors hold that the mythic Hero is actually Everyman (and Everywoman), and the Gods, including by implication Yahweh, are “competing masks of the same ancient beings,” and that the masks are just the surface of what they represent (p. 220).  Obviously, this is not a theological idea which most Heathens, nor for that matter most Christians would embrace wholeheartedly, but nevertheless it does open the door for fertile theorizing on such topics as the nature and essence of Divinity and the relationship between the Pantheons and Deities of different religions.

     The persistence of these mythical themes, both mythological and heroic, is due to the fact that “certain universal concerns remain constant: proper planting, fertile soil, a timely and sufficient harvest" (p. 220) and so “the battle for mythic Britain represents the ongoing attempt by humans everywhere to make sense of their present reality by drawing on those aspects of past traditions that fit the most appropriate mask” (p. 221).

     The chapter headings of this work provide a good idea of what it contains: "The Pantheons", already alluded to in this review, "Deity Types," "Sacred Objects and Places," "Heroes and Heroines," "Creation and Apocalypse," and "The Sagas" (in the broader sense of the term, not just the Icelandic ones).  The conclusion of the book is “Five Reflections on the Face of the Hero in the Medieval English Romance – Trials, Tribulations, and Transformative Quests.”

     As I read Gods, Heroes, and Kings, I found that my overall impression of the book kept going up and down.  The lack of footnotes is at least mildly disturbing in a scholarly work.  However, the inclusion of fine a “further reading” section together with an impressive bibliography partly makes up for this serious flaw.  I am left with the impression that it is trying to be both a scholarly and popular work, with mixed success.

     For the Heathen reader, this book is a fine introduction to some of the major extant Celtic myths, and a good overview of our own lore.  It is also a good beginning to the important and fascinating Heathen scholarly task of comparing and contrasting Germanic lore with that of the Celts, whose languages are related to our own tongues, and who are in terms of geography, history and culture even more closely our kin.  This is a question which most serious Heathen scholars will sooner or later find themselves looking at.  The book also provides much material for unraveling how ancient mythological themes continue to influence the core ideas of our culture, and shows one way in which our Gods and Goddesses managed to remain active among us during the centuries in which their worship, where it continued at all, was the furtive undertaking of a very few people.

     All in all, I do recommend that you read Gods, Heroes, and Kings.  It can be read and enjoyed on a number of different levels, and the fact that Oxford University Press chose to publish it says much.  In addition, it is nice for a change to review a book that is in print and readily available at a reasonable price!

 

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last modified 05/11/2004