Saturday, March 18, 2017

Philip Freeman's "Celtic Mythology": Book Review

 Cover for 

Celtic Mythology
This professor of Classics and Celtic Studies, Harvard-trained, brings a compendium of interwoven tales, from sources translated from a wide variety of his predecessors. The contents cover the earliest deities, the Book of Invasions, the Wooing of Etain, tales from the Tain and the Ulster Cycle, and stories from the Irish otherworld. Then, a few on Finn the outlaw, before the Mabinogi are related in four stories, followed by three more Welsh stories and sagas. Finally, Christian saints Patrick, Brigid, and Brendan gain attention in this slim, but accessible collection.

A quick sample of the tone. Cu Chullain asks his charioteer: "Where on earth are we?" He replies: "'I have no idea, my lord.' He continues, "But I don't think we're in Ulster anymore." (125) Not Kansas either, but the everyday register of these stories makes them meaningful for us. Too often either scholarly versions are antiquated (if in public domain) or New Age-tinged florid reckonings divorced from academic rigor and narrative control. Professor Freeman stays grounded.

It's lightly annotated with introductions and endnotes, clarifying where the texts originated and variants in meaning here and there. But the learning's worn lightly, for this volume is aimed at the general reader. While Irish-published resources remain, and predecessors such as Oxford's translation by Sioned Davies of the Mabinogi and Penguin's anthology of Irish themes by Jeffrey Gantz, the updated version of Philip Freeman's colloquial versions is welcome. I'd have liked Breton, Scots, Manx, and Cornish topics to widen the Celtic scope, however. (Amazon US 2/16/17)

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