Friday, January 13, 2017

Mark Williams' "Ireland's Immortals": Book Review

How the Christian Irish regarded their island's pagan divinities, in medieval and modern times, comprises the two halves of Ireland's Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth. Mark Williams, an Oxford medievalist, unravels the tangled threads in texts that challenge even the skilled interpreter. Old Irish remains formidable for scholars, and the fact that the evidence exists only in copies centuries after its first renditions onto parchment, deep within already Catholic times, complicates any explicator's task. Dr. Williams remains steady throughout this study. His accessible style remains academic but blessedly free of jargon or cant. His glossaries summarize key concepts and his footnotes address arcane debates.

His history of the gods of Irish myth examines key writings left by the monks and scribes, from the period after conversion. Williams estimates that within a half-century after the Patrician period, Ireland would have been effectively under Christian control. Although pre-Christian practices may have endured, they diminished rapidly, despite the imaginations of later bards eager to insist on secret continuity with centuries nearly up to our own. Williams separates the archaic from the innovative elements inserted into these stories and chronicles preserved within monasteries. Although these tales and accounts were tamed, a "ferocious weirdness" persists in surreal or juxtaposed scenes, distinguishing imagery from the dour scenarios in Anglo-Saxon sagas such as {Beowulf}, for instance.

These Irish pre-Christian versions resemble (as in the Book of Invasions, a chronological origin myth of successive waves of those landing on the nation's shores) the configurations of Romanesque architecture.  Williams compares the sagas to these simple, repeating structures which are decorated with teeming surface details. The medieval corpus, furthermore, rises as a massive edifice, if resting on slender foundations. Pseudo-scholarship at its most ingenious labored to match biblical lore with Celtic supposition. This tension, concentrating around the meaning of the "god-people" the Túath Dé sustains itself within the literature Williams examines. As a blend of inherited narratives with concocted alterations shaped into a Christian mindset, these tales' impact faded by the end of the Middle Ages. The Irish seemed to lose interest. Only in the nineteenth century did curiosity revive about gods.

Part two delves into more recent re-workings of the myths of the Irish gods and goddesses. Romanticism, antiquarianism and the occult all generated speculation. W.B. Yeats and George Russell epitomized the poetic turn of the Celtic Revival at the end of the Victorian period, in the wake of a British passion for the classics and the pagan to counter the tamed, the scriptural and the stolid. Gods, as redefined by the Irish revivalists, emerge as "spiritual entities." Among the Anglo-Irish gentry emerge intellectuals eager to fabricate a past for their country, rooted in wisdom of the earth and appeals to the forces lingering, despite the reign of Christendom, supposedly on fringes of the Celtic homeland.

The ninth chapter introduces William Sharp (1855-1905). Taking on the feminine alter ego of Fiona Macleod, Williams engagingly shares this fantasist of Gaelic Scotland. In Fiona, we encounter a fabled "self-sequestered Highland visionary." Williams labels her as "an imaginary personage, albeit an alarmingly insistent one." Characteristic of this author's tone, he keeps his investigations lively even as he grounds them in careful judgment. He counters the bent suppositions and fey imagination lavished upon sources that, in modern times, create a "feedback loop." Williams analyzes distortions within American anthropologist Walter Evans-Wentz's The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. He adapted his Oxford dissertation oddly; this 1911 compendium persists as a New Age "crank piece."

For Mark Williams' predecessor at his university proved both an "exorbitant Celtophile" and a misled eccentric. Evans-Wentz conjured up the peasantry as informants for a pan-Celtic fairy belief system. He incorporated an unnamed mystic's testimony. Yet this was none other than George Russell. Williams reasons that Evans-Wentz betrayed a "spiritual crush on Russell." Testifying as to the endurance of this account lies beyond the scope of Williams' work, but he admits he had to cut a third of his own draft. The results remain impressive, even if the source of that apt John Cowper Powys colophon beginning Chapter Nine lacks attribution to that fabulist, as obsessive as many in this volume, of strange magic.

Nowadays, Williams tracks a second arc, again with diminishing attention to the old gods, among Irish writers. The Túath Dé and their replacements, the Túatha Dé Danann, as the Irish supernatural race, endure within the "wide uptake" by creative classes outside the isle. The fine arts alongside Celtic Paganism and Celtic Reconstructionism enshrine goddesses, notably the fire spirit of Brigit.

Unfortunately, opposition to the ancient forces still exists. Vandalism of historic sites and a modern sculpture to the Celtic sea-god testifies to the powers of these representations as feared by evangelicals. Unlike other cultures where monotheism replaced paganism, Williams concludes that in Ireland, a "restless refusal to resolve" the ambiguities of the survival of the venerable if often barely recalled deities within a Christian context distinguishes that island's literary legacy within the extant sources.

Fittingly, Williams ends his six-hundred page survey with a tribute to the late John Moriarty, a philosopher and shaman from County Kerry. Moriarty's "ecological and psychic sensitivity" to summon up again the mythic terrain's specters signifies the restoration of "imaginative vitality." In a nation divided by income inequality and sectarian squabbles, Moriarty's vision and Williams' precision combine. This learned volume contributes valuable insights that may guide all those who look to the Irish tales and Celtic heritage as a relevant force of energy.
(Interview with Mark Williams here. Amazon US 1/11/17 and Amazon British 1/12/17)

1 comment:

Bo said...

Thanks very much for this John! Very kind. :) I hope you're well.