Monday, December 21, 2009

Ronald Hutton's "Witches, Druids & King Arthur": Book Review

These collected essays examine mainly pagans past and present. The title may be pitching an historian's scholarship more widely. For Hutton, the leading expounder of the discontinuity between modern and ancient paganism, such a wider audience may welcome his work.

The essays are uneven in length and scope, and at times some drag. I found my attention wandering on and off, but I admit far less interest in magic than witches, say, and more in Druids than the Renaissance, for example. But all chapters make thoughtful points, and Hutton phrases his judgments with tact and care. He delves into controversial subjects and dismantles falsity. The title and cover may evoke an occult or stereotyped overview of these subjects, but these are advanced essays, geared for the educated reader. Perhaps those less knowledgeable may finish these thoughtful pages with a greater respect for an historian's approach to mythmaking.

"How Myths are Made" takes on the British Isles. Kilts, atrocity tales from the English Civil War, native Irish resistance, or "traditional" Welsh dress, among many examples, can be shown to be fabricated rather than verifiable products from long ago. I found some of his discussion on Irish republicanism, the topic closest to my own studies, to be at times overstated and simplified. But he does resurrect a broad range of delightful anecdotes to elaborate his contentions. As in the faithful hound-legend of Beddgelert, how the Russians were supposed to have infiltrated English ports early in WWI, Margaret Mead's islanders, Melville's "Typee," or how 120 years seems to be the maximum length one can "trust" any orally transmitted memory.

The next two essays explore Arthurian lore-- first how recent academia treats the historicity of Arthur, and then how Glastonbury became a New Age center full of dubious dabblers. The fourth one looks at length into "the New Old Paganism" and seeks to find how monotheism began to supplant polytheism among non-Christians in later antiquity. "Paganism in the Lost Centuries" examines strands of ancient belief that may have become enshrined, so to speak, in the Christian-dominated culture. These two are both densely written studies. For more on this field, by an author whom Hutton barely touches upon, see Pierre Chuvin's "Chronicles of the Last Pagans." (Also reviewed by me on Amazon US and this blog.)

"A Modest Look at Ritual Nudity" tries to find if this practice, contrary to Hutton's earlier thinking that only Wiccans practiced it regularly as worship, and not any ancient cult, may have existed way back. The evidence of course may be suspect as often we only have detractors to track for such charges. Yet Hutton shows here as throughout his scholarship an appealing open-mindedness to sift through masses of difficult sources on touchy subjects to find what seems most likely true.

For Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, Hutton returns to their familiar stories to find more pagan foundations than many Christian apologists do for their mythologies. Hutton argues that in the tension between their faith and their love of pagan tales and multiple gods, the two Inklings gained the power that marks their best work. Especially for Tolkien, Hutton reminds us that except for an "accident of publication" (231), the Middle Earth we know would have been preceded by the origin and creation myths of the gods later assembled after his death into "The Silmarillion," and if that work had been put out first, we'd likely read differently the rather understated mindset and populated mythos within "The Lord of the Rings."

In retrospect given two works on the ancient and modern Druids, published later this decade, Hutton's "The New Druidry" appears to be a warm-up for these books. He notes how 200 years of a "dream of syncretic universalism" for pagans in the wake of Romanticism appears to be waning. We see emerging in its place a more localized, land-based practice as becoming grounded by those reclaiming and reinventing "the old native religions." (249)

My favorite essay, "Living with Witchcraft," serves as a coda for his most famous study, "The Triumph of the Moon" (1999). This was the first serious history of modern British neopaganism. Hutton contrasts the patient reception it gained among current witches and pagans-- even as it revised their own origin myths often-- vs. the fears, contempt, and ridicule indulged in by many of his academic colleagues when they learned he studied witches and witchcraft. Even with tenure, he felt his career often at risk when engaging in sensitive research into what's a misunderstood, denigrated, and/or too overdramatized yet very under-explored topic.

Hutton reminds us, for some need so, of how past scholars fumbled their investigations into witchcraft. He shows how professors have toyed with their informants from the pagan community, and how cautiously he then had to tread to keep the confidences he established. His ethics and probity speak well for his difficulties, as he relates in compelling detail how controversial witches remain for the British audience. When learned clerics and esteemed dons scoff at the legitimacy of such research, one can only suppose how everyday folks regard witches and neo-pagans among them. Hutton represents the first sustained attempt to teach the public and the professoriate about the truth of modern witchcraft and its reasons for the same respect accorded other religious practices by today's neighbors.

By the way, the "nine million" supposedly executed in "Burning Times" for their "Old Religion" are shown an extrapolation of a 1793 figure of "9,442,994" from a unnamed local historian in the first chapter. (30) In this final section, Hutton shows how "Triumph of the Moon" sought a more sober revision of inflated discussion of witches past and present. (He estimates 40-50,000 probably died for witchcraft in Europe during Christian hegemony. [31]) (Posted to Amazon US 11-26-09)

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