Collections of essays by major historians can be a mixed bag. Ronald Hutton's new collection is one of the better ones. This is a collection of nine essays where Hutton tries to shed light on the murky world of magic and myth. The book begins with an essay on how myths were made, and then follows with two essays on King Arthur and Glastonbury. The next two essays deal with the problem of modern paganism and its connection to ancient paganism. The first deals with ancient paganism and the second deals with its convoluted path to the present day. Then we have a chapter on the existence of ritual nudity, one on Christianity in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, one on modern druids and a final chapter on Hutton's experience writing his previous book on modern witchcraft.
What is the result of this interesting concoction? Let's start off with some problems. The essay on druidism is somewhat dry and is largely about complicated internal squabbles among modern druids. The opening chapter starts off by pointing out how modern Celtic nationalism is based on myths. We learn about the story (first told by Hugh Trevor-Roper, to whom the book is dedicated) of how the kilt was not the ancestral uniform of the Highlanders but was designed by an English businessman in Scotland in the 1700s who wanted more convenient clothing. Much of the origins of Welsh and Cornish nationalism come from romantic English sympathizers. But the discussion of Irish nationalism is disappointing. Who, after all, is Hutton trying to refute in pointing out that many nationalists have English, Norman and Protestant origins? Everyone in Ireland knows that Wolfe Tone and Parnell were Protestants. It is Unionism, not Republicanism, that defines Irish nationalism as no more than a whining Catholic sectarianism. And Hutton's deflation of the "myth" of Drogheda, based mostly on one contentious recent monograph, ignores the hundreds of thousands who died in the course of Cromwell's supression of the Irish rebellion. Finally there is a certain undue sympathy towards the mystics and magicians he is covering. In his deflation of the remarkable claims about Glastonbury Abbey, that Arthur's bones are buried there and that it is where Joseph of Arimathea came to England, he goes out of his way to suggest that they could conceivably be true. At one point he refers to modern paganism as an "entirely valid religion" that, notwithstanding its claims to the contrary, dates no earlier than the first decades of the twentieth century. That is all very liberal and tolerant, but one wonders what an "invalid religion" would be like.
Having said that however, much of the rest of the book is interesting and useful. To turn back to the opening chapters on myths, not only do we learn of the origins of the quite false statistic that nine million people were killed in the witch trials, we also learn of the limits of oral history. Contrary to what many people have thought, oral traditions become dramatically less accurate after a century or so. Hutton goes on to describe how he tried to use oral traditions to supplement his earlier histories of the English civil war and was maddeningly unsuccessful. Sir Henry Ireton supposedly defends the honor of a daughter he did not have, Oliver Cromwell dies a non-existent violent death, Charles II's fate is confused with his father's, major events go by with some areas completely forgetting them, while others "remember" non-existent romantic trivia. Meanwhile the Cornish, who in the 16th century rebelled against the rise of Protestantism, now remember themselves as Protestant heroes. We also learn the most recent research on King Arthur. The earliest reference to him comes in the early ninth century. In the seventies there was a surge of archaeological research which supposedly proved Arthur's existence. Hutton shows that it proved nothing of the sort, but is cautious about the idea that Arthur never existed. We also learn how Tolkein's and Lewis' fantasies deviate from Christianity. In the two chapters on late paganism we learn about the traditions of late paganism and how they were transferred to the modern day. There is much talk about neoplatonism and the mysterious Sabians and the Arabian city of Harran, but Hutton is clear in showing that there was no direct continuous tradition from either source. When some of this neoplatonism surfaced in the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, they were mostly used by intellectuals who wished to use classical insights to strengthen Christianity. Hutton reminds us that the old distinction between religion (supplication to a God) and magic (invoking divine power for one's own ends) is still possible and still alive. Although modern pagans use ideas from neoplatonic and Egyptian magic, Hutton notes the contrast between modern optimism and late classical pessimism, the abstinence of the past with the sexuality of today, as well as the modern Pagan appeal to the people and the strictly minority and mysterious nature of the late paganism they invoke. There are many strange areas of the past that have been ignored by historians and are now dangerously infested with cranks. Ronald Hutton is a fine guide to these obscure areas.
This is another excellent book from Ronald Hutton. On first reading the chief delight for me is Prof. Hutton's marvellously wry and gentle style, with its keen eye for absurdities and inconsistencies in documents and the historical record, but always extending a delicious good grace to those whom he treats. Every essay in here is fascinating, moving nimbly between literary reception of texts, anthropology, historiography and sociology.
Its pages are rich with insisght and the fruits of learning, which makes for interesting reading in itself, but the pleasure is doubled by Hutton's wonderfully present and human yet always couteous prose style. Very highly recommended indeed.