After a bit of a break to give me time to read ahead, we move forward to Part Three of Graham Robb’s The Discovery of Middle Earth, in which the author attempts to defend the premises elaborated in Parts One and Two. This will be the final part of my review.
At the outset, I have to confess to some confusion. Robb has told us that Caesar is accurate in describing the Druids, but Caesar tells us in Gallic Wars 6.21 that the Germans differ from the Gauls significantly, yet Robb wants us to believe they were all Celts in one big system. Here’s Caesar:
The Germans differ much from these usages, for they have neither Druids to preside over sacred offices, nor do they pay great regard to sacrifices. They rank in the number of the gods those alone whom they behold, and by whose instrumentality they are obviously benefited, namely, the sun, fire, and the moon; they have not heard of the other deities even by report.
Now, many of the sub-rectangular enclosures are in Germany, while the Druids, Caesar asserts, were not in Germany. So how can Caesar and Robb both be right? How did Germany end up in the Druid system? It’s all so muddled and confusing, especially when Robb later decides that the Germans—who built so many of those rectangular enclosures—were not in fact under the jurisdiction of the Druids. Make up your mind!
In Part Three, Robb makes ridiculous assertions that he has trouble seeing are the product of his own mind, not the facts on the ground. He asserts that, after drawing imaginary lines connecting various Celtic settlements, he could abstract from these lines angles he chose to read as “the closest approximation to pi in the ancient world.” This takes the form of the angle of the sun on the winter solstice, which he reads as the angle of the hypotenuse of a right triangle that he cannot show to have a foundation in reality as it depends on the Celts (a) recognizing latitude and (b) using the modern system for counting degrees—and having done so before the Greeks invented latitude around 200 BCE, and did not quite master by the time of Ptolemy.
From that triangle, with legs in a ratio of 11 to 7, he then divides 11 by 7 to produce a number equal to approximately half of pi. He presents not a shred of proof that this imaginary triangle ever existed in the Celtic worldview, and at any rate, he then attributes to whole thing to mystical secret Egyptian knowledge carried to the Celts by the Greeks.
So which is it? I thought the imaginary lines were solar angles. Now they’re Pythagorean geometry approximating pi. Logic would suggest one or the other, or both, are coincidental. That he then explains how his lines could be surveyed using Roman-era technology without pi argues against his ideas.
He then suggests that the Celts migrated into Gaul and Iberia following a geometric pattern dictated by the angles they hadn’t yet learned from the Greeks, according to astrological-geometric systems not yet invented, and traveling into territory they had not explored but apparently wanted to live in because of math. He goes so far as to suggest that old descriptions of a forest in Bohemia as being “nine days wide” referred instead to nine minutes of latitude—which, obviously, had not yet been accurately measured. When he extends his imaginary grid lines to Delphi in Greece, the silliness of his system becomes plain: The Celts were in it with the Greeks even though Robb reports that the Celts fought against the Greeks at a battle near Delphi in 279 BCE?
Robb thinks that the Celts chose to raid Delphi over any other site because they followed magic map lines (across both land and open water no less!), not because Delphi was rich with the treasures of Greece but because it aligned with Rome and a Celtic site in Gaul. (He doesn’t believe Delphi had much worth stealing, let alone fabulous mounds of gold; unable to conceive of “melting down,” he asserts that the gold and silver bullion recovered by the Romans in 106 BCE could not have been the treasure since it was in bar form.) He neglects to note that the Celts had raided non-magic-line sites in Thrace and Macedonia in 298 BCE and 280 BCE and were pushing south into Greece as a result of Roman incursions into Celtic territory north of the Po that had sent ripples throughout the Celtic world.
Interestingly, on page 147, Robb’s map of southern France accidentally reveals what he had kept hidden up until now: There are other Celtic cities, including some named Mediolanum, that do not fit his imaginary Via Heraclea sun line. Oops.
After this, he asserts that the Druids masterminded a trans-European economic policy to both promote economic prosperity and to lay the political and economic foundations for what would become modern Europe. He then claims Vercingetorix lost to Caesar because he based his strategy on Robb’s imaginary solar lines, and to prove this, he chooses to identify the unknown site of the Gallic War’s last battle with the spot on the map where some of his solar lines converge. He offers no real reason to place it there other than his map. Afterward, he offers a revisionist history of the Gauls under Rome which emphasizes cultural continuity and resistance to Romanization.
Part Four begins with Robb’s assertion that he intended to end the book with Part Three but became convinced that the Druids’ magic mapping science crossed the Channel to Britain. His evidence starts with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fictive Historia Regum Britanniae (3.5):
Especially careful was he [King Belinus] to proclaim that the cities and the highways that led unto the city should have the same peace that Dunwallo has established therein. But a dissension arose as concerning the highways, for that none knew the line whereby their boundaries were determined. The King therefore, being minded to leave no loophole for quibbles in the law, called together all the workmen of the whole island, and commanded a highway to be builded of stone and mortar that should cut through the entire length of the island from the Cornish sea to the coast of Caithness, and should run in a straight line from one city unto another the whole of the way along. A second also he bade be made across the width of the kingdom, which, stretching from the city of Menevia on the sea of Demetia as far as Hamo's port, should show clear guidance to the cities along the line. Two others also he made be laid out slantwise athwart the island so as to afford access unto the other cities. Then he dedicated them with all honour and dignity, and proclaimed it as of his common law, that condign punishment should be inflicted on any that shall do violence to other thereupon. (trans. Sebastian Evans)
Robb conveniently feels free to discount any part of this passage he dislikes as Geoffrey’s error, including everything after “width of the kingdom,” which he considers wrong because it is not on an east-west line—as though modern geographical conventions applied then. He makes his own width line and uses that one instead.
This, Robb asserts, “has the mark of the Druids,” especially since Belinus, he says, was really the Celtic light god, whose solar-style rays marked the Druid highways. This god, Belenus, cannot be confirmed to be a god of light; not enough information survives. He is instead best known as a god of pastoralism to whom a fire festival was dedicated. (The connection to light comes from proposed etymologies of his name, which may relate to words for brightness or shining, but similar meanings lay behind the name Zeus, who is decidedly not the sun.)
Robb tries to apply his Gaulish “system” to Britain, and he envisions a geodetic system encoded into Welsh myth, tracing the path of mythic dragons as “solstice” lines and basing his calculations on a meridian running through Whitchurch in southern England. He believes that the British Druids created their own measurements to account for differences in solar angles in Britain, basing their calculation on 53.13 degrees east of north and a magic ratio of 4:3 to generate triangles. (In Gaul it was 57.53 degrees and a ratio of 11:7.) His proof is based entirely on assuming he is right about the meridian and then gaping in wonder that a 3:4:5 triangle can be drawn between it and Oxford using as the hypotenuse the path Robb assumes the dragons in the “Meeting of Lludd and Llevelys” in the Mabinogion followed when Lludd carried them from Oxford to Dinas Emreis—apparently in a perfectly straight line, and a straight line on flat Mercator projection map, no less. (Again, all this presumes the existence of an accurate map of Britain prior to 200 BCE.)
Robb continues with more discussions of which cities line up along which lines, and he asserts the Boudica used the solstice lines during her rebellion. Two of these lines converge at an Iron Age fort and temple at Camulodunum with an accuracy of less than one degree, and one line points from the corner of the temple straight to London. I’m surprised Robb doesn’t go whole-hog and assert that this was King Arthur’s Camelot since so many fringe writers want to make Arthur a pagan sun god. … Oh, silly me… He has another candidate in mind. But not for another few dozen pages.
As the book heads toward a close, Robb tries to apply his system to Scotland and Ireland. He says that Macbeth chose the site of his last stand, Lumphanan, because it was on the Whitchurch meridian and that the Jacobite rebels in 1746 suffered defeat on a line that supposedly exactly bisects Scotland. He tries the same in Ireland, but when he can’t fit Tara into his system, he asserts that the site “may have been used only sporadically, or acquired its eminence only later.” The site dates back to the Neolithic.
Returning to Britain, he finds that Christian churches are also on the Druid system, but only after 800 CE, when apparently the secret Druids started offering up their maps to the Christians. Robb says that his computer software located Camelot (actually the defunct Camelot theme park) near the former site of the Martin Mere freshwater lake, along another “node” of his system. He claims Arthur followed the Celtic sun god and that the Dark Age kingdoms were consciously designed around old Celtic solar geomancy; therefore, the theme park may have accidentally found the right site for its placement. Either that or the whole system simply produced random results for any given site.
The book finishes with what I imagine must be Robb’s confession that this entire exercise is a joke. He tells readers that the restaurant where he swore his editor to secrecy over his discovery is bisected by one of his magic meridians, and that his whole system may be nothing more than “the ruthless ingenuity of the unconscious mind.”
This whole book was endlessly confusing: Robb conflates cultures, time periods, and geographic locations and picks and chooses at will to create alignments that exist only on a flat, Mercator-projection map of the world. On the terrestrial sphere, they vanish into random disorder. He wants his system to have been founded in 400 BCE but for the Celts to have already had perfect geographic knowledge of Europe in order to follow it into the lands where they eventually would discover it. The system starts at the last place the Celts found, the Sacred Promontory in Portugal, but is somehow centered in the middle of France, unless it’s also centered in Oxford, or mid-Scotland, mid-Ireland, or any number of other places where the pan-European Druid system decided to be local rather than global.
I also learned that Robb feels it’s OK to decide that uncertain or unknown locations can be assigned to nodes on his system and then used as “proof” that the system is right. He did this in at least three locations in the book.
In the end, I have to concur with Classical historian Ian Morris, who wrote this week in the New York Times that Robb’s book is so much hot air, imagination, and wishful thinking, muddled by a severe lack of scholarly discipline and attention to important details methodological regularity:
Robb’s story is fascinating, but discipline doesn’t seem to concern him very much. “The Discovery of Middle Earth” is certainly not as free-and-easy with reality as Erich von Däniken’s “Chariots of the Gods” (which describes how aliens came to earth in ancient times) or Gavin Menzies’ “1421” and “1434” (which describe how 15th-century Chinese fleets crossed the whole world’s oceans and started the Italian Renaissance), but it still has more in common with them than with conventional history.
I will, however, give Base Art Co. credit for a gorgeous jacket design, and Norton credit for a beautiful layout of the book. The crazy books always have the best production design.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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