Celtic Bards, Celtic Druids is a collaborative work by R.J. Stewart and Robin Williamson. I picked it up with high hopes, since it was recommended on a Druidic reading list (precisely which, I have since forgotten). I also have a soft spot for Stewart’s previous work, Celtic Gods, Celtic Goddesses, one of my few mementos from a trip to Salem at the age of 18. The latter book has some truly wonderful pictures and, to the best of my memory, seemed true to its subject matter.
Celtic Bards also features artwork. Alas, Chris Down — while amazingly talented at Celtic knotwork and semi-abstract patterns — doesn’t have a talent for the human figure, and his drawings were a distraction rather than a draw. Otherwise, the book has two main functions: as a collection of tales and stories translated and/or collected by the two authors, and a collection of several essays putting the Bardic and Druidic traditions into context.
The tales are decent enough — the ancient ones, as well as some of the folk tales. Of course, there are compilations aplenty of Irish and Welsh stories and myths; in that regard, this is a relatively slim and modern addition to the field.
I don’t care as much for the authors’ modern poems and stories. I don’t object to their inclusion — after all, part of the book’s purpose is to illustrate storytelling as a sacred art — but they simply aren’t to my taste. An example: the lengthy story, “Merlin’s Return,” depicts the wizard conducting magic to send the spirits of modern soldiers to the afterlife. It reads as the typical anti-modernity fantasy, in which the dysfunctional modern world finds its salvation in quasi-medieval myth and magic, a time believed to be healthier to the land and the human spirit. Personally, I don’t believe in romanticizing the past. (Being a woman, much of human history wouldn’t have been conducive to my personal development, health or basic sanity, but that’s a rant for another day.)
The rather simplistic modernity-is-bad theme seems to run as an undercurrent throughout, which irks me. Also irksome were the essays, which rehash Iolo Morganwg’s cosmology of the three rings of existence and his vision of the Bardic system. It wasn’t the inclusion of Morganwg’s works so much that bothered me, but the belief that his vision represented an ancient system and the true origins of Druidry. At worst, he was a plagiarist and liar; at best, he invented a working system that is meaningful to people today. No matter what way you hash it, though, Iolo didn’t unearth ancient lore.
Stewart’s final essay, “Magical Story-telling,” was intriguing in its premise: storytelling is a magical act and can be used as such. It certainly does help a culture transmit its sacred knowledge and understandings to the next generation. And oral tales do make use of the ancient “art of memory,” which relies on visual content to cue the storyteller’s memory. Is the art of memory magic? You can use it for such, perhaps, but in its day it was eminently practical; it was a way to remember information before the written word. (Ogham, which he doesn’t mention, was used for that purpose as well.)
As an aside: he uses the tarot as an example of sacred storytelling; on the contrary, tarot was a secular card game, not a storytelling device. (Since regular playing cards can also be used for divination, its history as a card game doesn’t take away from its usefulness as a magical tool. Anything that creates random patterns can be used for divination.)
He ends with an exploration of magical story in modern times, but cautions against the use of magical story for psychotherapy. Such stories must have roots in tradition, he claims. And with both, I ask myself: Why? Who determines tradition, or what constitutes “therapy”? If the use of a story is profoundly healing to an individual’s psyche, is that not transformative, mystical, powerful? The movie Avatar deeply touched many viewers; could that story not be sacred to them? Or superheroes, which people have followed religiously since childhood? Or, in my case, Elfquest or Tolkien?
What makes a story sacred?
Stewart tries to answer this, but he comes off as wagging a finger at modernity and not answering the larger questions. I might try to think about and process that a bit, coming up with my own answers.
In final summation: the book earns two and a half half-told tales out of five. You could do better and you could do worse.