I don’t often give up on books. No, my philosophy is akin to that of a parent at the sidelines of a T-ball game. No matter how awkward the child is or whose it is, you cheer. You stay the whole game. You resist the urge to check the stock reports on your smart phone while Jimmy or Janey is up at bat.
But after 100-plus pages of Graeme K. Talboy’s The Way of the Druid, alas, I had to give in to temptation. I had to — metaphorically, at least — pick up the smart phone and check the stock reports. And Facebook. Or read the back of a cereal box — anything but read that damn book.
Amazingly, it received a scad of good reviews on Facebook, which makes me scratch my hair and wonder if we were indeed delving into the same tome.
One hundred pages into the book, and the reader has no idea what modern Druid orders actually do or believe (other than, say, the importance of truth and justice — which, I think, is endemic not only to all religions, but all cultures anywhere and anytime. I mean, who doesn’t think their culture is based on truth and justice, no matter how perverted the actual applications may seem?) Flipping through the book, near the end it contains the description of the usual “Pagan Eight” cycle of holidays, and touts meditation. Admittedly, this is a rather short section and, as mentioned previously, in the back of the book.
So, what does the book actually contain? It does have the standard rundown of Celtic history, with the Saxons painted as genocidal monsters and the Romans as imperialistic monsters. (Frankly, I hate that kind of tarring. Both the Saxons and the Romans were a complex people with complex — and polytheistic — cultures. And the Celts weren’t some kind of pacifist angels. They, too, were warriors and conquerors.)
Admittedly, we don’t know the nuts and bolts of Celtic religion — or Druidic practice — because they were based on an oral culture; the Celts had a writing taboo for matters of the sacred. This doesn’t, however, keep Talboys from waxing philosophical on all of their deeply held beliefs, which he claims he knows by looking at their artwork and cultural artifacts. In fact, waxing philosophical appears to be the entire purpose of the book, including the entire meaning of religion, the “personalistic” and “organicistic” nature of the Celts (his words, not mine), etc. A peeve of mine: English has the largest vocabulary of any language in the world. You don’t need to make words up. If another language encapsulates meaning better than the English word does, you steal it and use it; that’s how English has historically worked.
In short, the book is a string of pretty language and footnotes that ultimately means nothing. It’s going on the library book sale pile. I’m profoundly disappointed, considering the aforementioned positive reviews.
I am not against Pagan philosophy. Brendan Myers does it well in The Other Side of Virtue as does John Michael Greer in a very different book, A World Full of Gods. They use copious examples from literature, religion and history to prove their points, even if those points are complex. At no point do they ever assume a set of beliefs for an entire culture sans evidence — also known as, in more direct terms, making shit up.
I admit that I have a disconnect with books written from the British traditions of Druidry, which are far more akin to Wicca than, say, Celtic polytheistic religion. A case in point is another recent read, Penny Billington’s The Path of Druidry, in which Druidic practice consists largely of taking walks in the woods. Now, connection with nature is important to many Pagan paths, but where are the Gods? She does include archetypes from the seasonal cycle (similar, again, to Wicca) and excerpts from the Mabinogion, but the specific identity of those Gods — presumedly Welsh, judging from her cultural sources — is absent. It’s not an awful book; there are things that I can recommend in it, but…. I’ll end the sentence with a sigh.
I find it rather odd that it’s the British Druids who are airy-fairy, freeform hippies and the American ones who are set on the more religious aspects of the faith (the Gods and spirits, offerings, loose reconstructions of ritual structure, even if those reconstructions are probably historically off-base). Stodgy American Druid — I embrace it.