Bardism

Tom Shippey

  • Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain by Ronald Hutton
    Yale, 491 pp, £30.00, May 2009, ISBN 978 0 300 14485 7

When I first met Ronald Hutton, at a conference in Montana ten years ago, he remarked that if you looked at a modern book on druids, what you were likely to find was a number of chapters about ancient druids – about whom we know very little – followed by a perfunctory coda on modern druids, about whom we know a great deal. Wasn’t this, he asked, obviously the wrong way round?

That looks like a rhetorical question with only one sensible answer, but there is a case to be made the other way, as Hutton indicated in Witches, Druids and King Arthur (2003). The same could be said about King Arthur as about druids. On the one hand we have the ‘historical King Arthur’, about whom we know effectively nothing – not even whether such a person existed, for there is no contemporary evidence for him at all, and the closest approaches to it (Gildas’s sixth-century account of the ‘ruin of Britain’ and the Welsh poem Gododdin) either do not name him or may contain later legendary interpolations. On the other hand, we have a King Arthur with a secure birthdate and a clear biography, whom one can even meet and talk to. He is ‘a modern English Druid chieftain’, a Farnborough biker who, following a visionary experience, changed his name by deed poll to Uther Arthur Pendragon, formed a group of activists called the Loyal Arthurian Warband (LAW) and devoted himself to protest movements on civil liberties and environmental issues. Hutton asks who is the more real: the ‘historical’ leader who may never have existed, or the modern man whose existence is undoubted? He recognises, though, that the question does not have only one sensible answer, for while the modern man is definitely there (indeed here), his whole role ‘depends on the acting out of a set of myths’. You might say that he is only playing at being King Arthur, though that would not be quite right, since he is perfectly serious in his beliefs. Just the same, the ‘real’ King Arthur, if there ever was one, was presumably not playing at being anything. There is a difference, though one cannot exactly call it being more real, or more serious, or even more genuine: just first-order and second-order.

All of this applies to druids, and to witches too. Hutton discussed the origins of Wicca in The Triumph of the Moon (1999); The Druids – whose dust-jacket repeats the case made in the ten-year-old conversation reported above – appeared in 2007. Blood and Mistletoe is the heavyweight version of the latter, almost four times as long, with full scholarly apparatus, organised chronologically rather than thematically. It might have been subtitled ‘everything you need to know about druids’; and if someone were to ask, ‘But what does anyone need to know about druids?’, the answer would be that their history tells us a good deal about ‘changes in British culture during the past half-millennium’. It has been a great help to his project that Hutton is on good terms with modern druids, who have often had an adversarial relationship with sceptical academics.

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