The Celtic Realms by Miles Dillon and Nora Chadwick

To write a reading response to this book would suggest that the book had good points and bad ones. Unfortunately, this assumption is not true. The only good thing that came out of this book is a working idea of what to look for while reading a book, especially a history book.

In the first chapter MD takes us through an introduction of the Celts, their history, their culture and their religion. MD puts forward a few good theories but fails to develop them. However, the main theory that he puts through was the idea that the Celts first appeared as an entity around 2000 BCE. He was not convincing with his theory and yet the rest of the book this theory is mentioned as if it was already an established fact or at least a working theory.

The second chapter is supposed to be about the history and geography of the British Isles to the end of the Roman period. The main theme of this chapter is a presentation of where the Celtic tribes are found in Britain and where they might have come from as well as a general record of the Roman conquest of Britain. Also a brief description of Ireland and her importance. In this chapter the author mainly uses Ptolemy as a source to give a picture of some of the major tribes that were settled in the British Isles. The maps provided by the author are very general and what the author talks about in this chapter needed a more complete set of maps. Nora Chadwick in this chapter seems to be choosing carefully from the sources to give a picture of what SHE thinks is Celtic. This chapter should have been divided into two chapters to give a more complete picture. One chapter to talk about the main tribes and where they were in the British Isles, and one to give a historical record of the Roman invasion of Britain. This chapter was lacking in putting forward any theories that support WHY these people settled in that specific place.

Nora Chadwick in chapter three is attempting to examine the situation among the “Celtic Kingdoms” within Britain after the Romans have gone, to look into the ways they attempted to consolidate their political integrity and to deal with their border difficulties and to give an account of the history of the Celtic peoples on the outer edge of Celtic Britain. By the end of that chapter I was not convinced of anything she wrote. Britain before the Romans could have been made up of mainly Celts but Britain after the Romans is a different story. Surely the Romans mixed with the population as is their custom and with the addition of the Saxons to the mix it is hard to call the kingdoms (if there were kingdoms) Celtic.

The next chapter, also written by Nora Chadwick, tries to trace the development of the Picts, the last settlements in Western Britain and to give a short history of the Isle of Man. Of the objectives set out only the bare facts were established, the history was very confusing and her annoying habit of throwing out names instead of developing a chronological order of events made it so. She gives us no reasons behind the trend of the Irish moving into Scotland and Wales, yet expects us to believe that Wales was more stable than Ireland and Scotland after the Romans left?

The next chapter is all about the Early Irish Society, and Myles Dillon gives us a human look into what the early Irish Society may have looked like and a brief glimpse into the Welsh one. Unfortunately as with the work of Myles Dillon in this book the chapter was too short with the author taking too much time to get to the interesting points. Myles Dillon talks about a few practices that the irish had and can be attributed to the Indo-European culture like the practice of the different kinds of marriage and kingship.

In chapter six we go back to Nora Chadwick and her idea of relaying history. In this chapter a skeleton outline of the events of three centuries of history in Ireland, Scotland and Wales that include the Viking raids. As usual Nora Chadwick prefers one group of people to another by saying that the submission of the Welsh to the Anglo-Saxons is a good thing. Nora Chadwick jumps around the timeline leaving in her wake a mass of confusion. I would have though the best way to write this chapter is to build a timeline and work close to it, but that is not what she does.

In the chapter about the Celtic religion (which incidentally was the most disappointing chapter in my opinion) Nora Chadwick tries to look at the religion and mythology of the Celts by confining herself to the Celts in Gaul and the British Isles. I don’t think that mythology and religion of the Celts are one of her strengths (if she really has any), she seems to have mixed up humans and deities, and even genealogies of some of the gods. Her aim was to use the Britain as a bridge between Ireland and Gaul to give us an idea of what the Religion was like but that aim was never realized.
Celtic Christianity and its literature was butchered by Nora Chadwick in the eighth chapter of this book. If a person like myself who knew very little about Celtic Christianity and read this chapter would come out pretty much the same as when they went in, if not worse. All you would get from this chapter is her usual love of names, and her obvious distaste for the pagan beliefs.

Language is a very important thing in culture. The chapter written by Myles Dillon should have conveyed that unfortunately that did not happen. Myles Dillon gave no background as to where this language came from and talked about it as if we already knew. His treatment of the Ogham alphabet was minor at best. He shows the same trend as Nora Chadwick that everything is better once it had its contact with the Mediterranean culture. I think MD’s choice of literary examples are bad. He could have chosen more interesting and known sources, to spark interest in people when they read his writings.

The next two chapters were about Irish and Welsh literature. As an introduction to Irish literature, the chapter on Irish literature is adequate. MD touches on the four cycles of the Irish Myths giving examples of the most famous stories in each. He also touches on the basic ideas in the myths. He gets so caught up in quoting myths that he doesn’t develop the ideas in Irish Mythology and how they can be used to learn more about Irish society and thought. I was really disappointed in his handeling of Welsh mythology. He didn’t mention the Welsh triads and all he did was tell the stories behind the myths with no commentary on it or analysis at all. We are not told how typical these Welsh myths are or how they can show their Celtic side.

The last chapter was a look at Celtic art by Nora Chadwick, I believe it is one of her “good” chapters even though a lot of the time she was contradicting her self. She alternated between being impressed by the art and considering it inferior.

As a whole the book lacked references to the materials it presented; and when references were given they were presented to be discredited or they were obviously biased to a certain point of view (namely the authors’).

The authors presented ideas (sometimes good and sometimes bad) without giving sufficient support or argument for them. A good example would be the authors’ idea that the Celts were barbarians that Rome brought civilization too. The theme seems to persist throughout the book.

The authors give their purpose for writing this book as an attempt to trace the history of the Celts from its remote beginnings through the formation of the separate Celtic Kingdoms in the British Isles, and down to the end of their independence. They failed miserably in their attempt.

The book was written with the authors taking the view that the Celts were not civilized until they came in contact with the Roman, and Greek cultures and later with Christianity. Nora Chadwick especially had the view that Britain (as apposed to Ireland) was more advanced because of the influence of the Romans. Her attitude was very evident in all her chapter. Myles Dillon certainly had the same attitude to a lesser degree.

Choosing this book depended on the topics which were reflected in the names of the chapters. They appeared to give a good introduction to all the vital areas of Celtic Studies. However, reading the chapters certainly made me regret my decision.


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