New books — From the November 2013 issue

New Books

Download Pdf
Read Online
( 2 of 3 )

Graham Robb, author of Unlocking Mallarmé and Parisians, has a talent for looking beneath the surface of landscapes as well as lives. One result of his turn of mind is his brilliant 2007 book, The Discovery of France, in which he explores (literally, by bicycle) the regions of the country formerly cut off from one another (and from Paris) by geography, language, and culture. While researching that book, Robb writes in The Discovery of Middle Earth (W. W. Norton, $28.95), he “read about an enigmatic name — Mediolanum — which the ancient Celts had given to about sixty locations between Britain and the Black Sea.” He also happened to be living in a cottage near Oxford where shards of past ages turned up as a matter of course, where mysteries like the Uffington White Horse — a 374-foot-long geoglyph incised into a hillside during the Bronze Age and filled with chalk rubble — abounded. Robb began examining his maps in a new way: Gaul, he noted, was not exactly linked together by the Roman roads of standard histories. Instead, the romanization of Celtic Gaul during and after Caesar’s Gallic Wars depended on, and papered over, an earlier culture that was much more sophisticated, both technologically and philosophically, than historians have realized. Beneath the Roman roads lay a system of Celtic roads and settlements that had been planned according to mathematical calculations of the solar angle at the summer and winter solstices and that for hundreds of years sustained a complex culture stretching from Ireland to the Balkans. In fact, Christianized Romans of the Early Middle Ages expropriated holy Celtic sites and figures and turned them into monasteries, convents, and saints — for example, the Celtic “god Lugh acquired chapels dedicated to a ‘St Luc.’ ”

Robb is most focused on establishing the geographic validity of his thesis — that druidic calculations of the angle of the sun at the summer solstice underlie much of the way modern Europe is laid out. The most important of the primeval roads was the Heraclian Way — allegedly the route traveled by Heracles when he performed his twelve labors. Beginning at Sagres, the southwestern-most point on the Iberian Peninsula, it travels in a more or less straight line through Narbonne and Nîmes to the Montgenèvre Pass in the Alps. Robb suggests that Heracles was actually the Celtic god Ogmios subsumed into Greek myth. Once the Heraclian Way is mapped, the rest of France, followed by England and Wales, then Ireland, falls into place, and certain enigmas are illuminated, such as why first-century b.c. Celtic coins with horse motifs have turned up in a network of digs across Europe, and why Celtic walled settlements in Britain and Gaul are awkwardly shaped (rhomboid rather than rectangular). “Why would carpenters and roofers whose wooden houses were greater feats of engineering than any Greek or Roman temple have tolerated such a poorly drawn and inconvenient plan?” Robb asks. The answer is “spectacular” even to him.

Toward the end of The Discovery of Middle Earth, Robb is gratified to discover that some of his ideas are now being independently proved (or at least supported) by evidence from the field. The spot where the Celtic queen Boudica seems to have crossed the Thames, following a solstice line, is “a site of no apparent interest” — except it turns out that on just that spot stood a fortress of “earth ramparts and deep defensive ditches” predating Roman Londinium by hundreds of years. Fear of “treasure-hunters” has forced archaeological authorities to keep the site secret since its discovery in the 1980s. Revelations must, of course, be received with some skepticism, but The Discovery of Middle Earth is an intriguing and stimulating read by an author whose previous works have been, one after the other, precise, self-aware, and enlightening.

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $23.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Share
undefined

More from Jane Smiley:

New books From the September 2013 issue

New Books

New books From the July 2013 issue

New Books

New books From the May 2013 issue

New Books

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2019

Trash, Rock, Destroy

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Make Way for Tomorrow

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Red Dot

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Gimme Shelter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Body Language

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

Close

You’ve read your free article from Harper’s Magazine this month.

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.