Review: Celtic Bards, Celtic Druids

sci-fi

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.

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About whitecatgrove

The musings of a Druid priestess, singer, poet and musician in Upstate New York.
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2 Responses to Review: Celtic Bards, Celtic Druids

  1. ChrisG says:

    Is this the same R.J Stewart who wrote “Celtic Gods and Goddesses?” if memory serves, I seem to recall that there is another author named R.J Stewart who is a fluffy hack from Llewlyn who takes other people’s works and paraphrases them. I bought her books by mistake, and unloaded them on Ebay. It sounds like something the other R. J. would write.

    As for Iolo, I think he made up an entirely new tradition. In his day,the Pagan scene looked a bit diferent from today’s. That is to say there *was* a Pagan scene, it seemed to not have the idea that it was acceptable to invent a tradition. Either he genuinly believed he was recreating an old faith, or he was saying that because nobody at all would listen to him if he said he was creating it.

    I’m not keen on the Luddite style of thinking either. We developed our modern life ways because there was something lacking in the old ways.
    We came up with immunizations because we were tired of having funerals for our infants and children year after year who died of Rhubella, Chicken Pox and the like. I’m not sold on the idea that modern life is so soul destroying. In the “old days” people seldom left their home town and knew little about what was going on outside it. We had to do so much with manual labor it was possible to be truly exhausted at the end of a day that lasted sunup to sundown. And so on.

  2. White Cat says:

    I think the other gal is DJ Conway, who did her own Celtic Wicca book. RJ’s Celtic myth book was quite good (and had execellent pictures, I might add). I’d be happy to loan it to ya.

    You know, I actually don’t have a beef with Iolo’s system and I can understand why he tried to present it as ancient knowledge. Simply put, you couldn’t *have* a Pagan scene in his day. If born today, he’d have much fewer problems! And if it works, well, go for it!

    My problem is touting his work as historical and the “true path” of Druidry. It’s simply not that. It’s old, older than most Pagan paths are today; his was probably one of the earliest “modern” paths. But to say that’s what the ancients did is just misinformation.

    Of course, we do Irish stuff so we’re a bit less likely to run into old Iolo; he stuck to the Welsh.

    Did you get through the Proto-Indo European book yet?

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