The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think (Book Review)

When I first saw the title of Mark Williams’ new book, The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think, I have to admit, I was… concerned. If it weren’t for the fact that I know and trust Mark when it comes to medieval literature (he was my second year Old Irish teacher and dissertation supervisor), I might have thought it was a pop psychology book about the inherent mythic structures in our brains, or something similar.

However, I do trust Mark, and I also know first hand that authors don’t always choose their titles, so I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. And the blurb makes it pretty clear that we’re not talking about any mythic brainwaves: if these stories have shaped the way we think, it’s in the sense of shaping how we think about Irish and Welsh myth/culture, not in the sense of defining our daily approach to interpersonal relationships.

(Which is… good. Because I seriously worry about anyone who bases their approach to interpersonal relationships on the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, since, uh, yikes.)

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed Ireland’s Immortals and still find it a super useful reference book, so I figured I would get my hands on Celtic Myths and see what Mark had to offer on this occasion, hoping for a new go-to recommendation for people who come to me looking for guidance on what to read to learn more about medieval lit. I finished the book this afternoon, sitting on my landlords’ roof (… don’t tell them), and I thought I’d give you my thoughts.

The tl;dr is that this is a great introductory read, but if you’re expecting short blog posts, you’re definitely in the wrong place, so you’re getting way more detail than that. No, I was not paid to write this review; yes, I bought this book with my own money, etc. Though if anyone wants to give me a sponsorship deal for yelling about medieval literature on the internet, my DMs are open…

A photograph of "The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think" by Mark Williams. It's a bright sunny day, and there's a tree turning autumnal red in the background.
Rooftop reads: climbing out of the window with a book is my new favourite hobby on sunny days.

First of all, Mark makes it very clear from the beginning that this is a book aimed at the general reader. Unlike Ireland’s Immortals, which sought to hit that sweet spot between being an academic/scholarly book and also an accessible work that the general public might enjoy, that means Celtic Myths doesn’t contain footnotes (though there is some ‘further reading’ listed at the back). Quotes are given only in English translation, and technical terms are kept to a minimum; generic “Celtic scholars” are referenced rather than bogging the text down with names. This may be frustrating to those who want to follow up on specific points, but probably makes for a much easier and less daunting read for the newcomer.

Each chapter explores a different story, giving a rundown of the original material and then discussing its afterlife over time, and some of the ways the story has been reworked and developed. Throughout the book, there are pictures (including a number of full-colour plates), showing how characters and stories have been conceptualised over time, from fourteenth-century manuscript illustrations to Hellboy II.

Since I’m not a ‘general’ reader, I found that I was already familiar with almost all of the book’s content; though I’m not an expert on the Welsh side of things, I’ve done enough Welsh lit to be passingly familiar with the stories and poems in question, and there was nothing in the book that I’d say was brand new information. Of course, some of that is because Mark himself was my lecturer for a while: in chapter 3 (“Merlin: From Wildman to Wizard”) there were a number of details I was pleased to find I already knew, only to realise a few minutes later that that was because I got them from Mark, in a lecture he gave about medieval ‘wildman’ stories, Merlin, and Suibhne.

This is great, though, because now it means I finally have an alternative to trying to cobble together explanations for people based on my own undergraduate lecture notes, which are frequently chaotic if they exist at all — I can instead pass them this book, knowing that it covers the same material in a far more coherent way. I get a lot of people asking me questions about medieval literature (mainly Irish, but occasionally Welsh) or looking for reading recommendations, and I’m always looking for books that I trust to be both accurate and accessible.

(Obviously, having been taught by Mark means I’m also inclined to agree with a lot of his interpretations, since he played a significant part in shaping my own approach to Celtic literature. I wouldn’t say we agree 100% of the time, and there are a couple of details in the Cú Chulainn chapter where I’m inclined to quibble with the simplified explanations given, even though I know you can’t go into all the complexities in a general-purpose book like this. But it does mean I’m predisposed to find his conclusions believable: we belong to similar schools of thought.)

I had hoped that I’d be able to make use of the book myself as a sort of general-purpose reference book — sometimes I find it useful to have more ‘introductory’ material around when I can’t remember where I found something, because it can save me time hunting. Unfortunately, since this book has no footnotes and few direct quotes or citations, I don’t think I’ll be adding it to that particular shelf in my library, because unless it’s something where I can cite this book directly, I’d have to go off and do my own detective work to get a more detailed reference. However, as a scholarly reader, I am well aware that I am not the target audience, and this isn’t meant as a criticism — just a note for anyone thinking of picking it up who is wondering whether it’ll suit their purposes.

So who is the target audience? Well, I admit I have no sense of how easy it would be to follow if you came to the book with absolutely zero familiarity with any of the content, because it’s now too many years since I can remember what it was like not to know who Cú Chulainn is. But I’d say this is a really great book if your primary exposure to this material is via T.W. Rolleston or Peter Berresford Ellis or anyone else who offers “Celtic Myths & Legends” in one convenient volume, and you’re looking to understand why actually, it’s all a little more complicated than that. It’ll probably also suit people whose exposure to Celtic myth has been through retellings or reworkings in popular culture, and who want to know whether Neil Gaiman’s Mad Sweeney or Guillermo del Toro’s Nuada really bear any resemblance to their medieval namesakes — people who are trying to figure out what the “real myth” is behind the retellings.

Spoiler alert: “real myth” is both an oxymoron and a complicated metric to apply to anything Celtic, as Mark demonstrates. He uses the word “myth” critically throughout the book, explaining some of the difficulties with using this term for Celtic material. Some scholars use it pretty freely, even for late material, while others try not to use it at all, and still more are somewhere in the middle — Mark generally falls into the third category, acknowledging the mythic content in texts while also foregrounding their medieval or early modern literary context and origin. He discusses the dates and contexts of different texts, looking at how some of the most famous “mythological” material is actually the product of named authors centuries after when most people would have imagined it to be composed, and examines the tension between “pagan” ideas and the Christian context in which our medieval literature was produced, and how contemporary events shaped the literature as we have it.

He does this in a non-judgmental way, acknowledging that many people feel a personal and/or spiritual connection to material, even if it isn’t ancient, and exploring the ways that “late” material may still be an authentic part of a country’s literary and cultural heritage. But he’s also frank about aspects of popular “Celtic” culture that are modern inventions, and how they came to be, looking at the lasting impact of Iolo Morgannwg (Edward Williams), James Macpherson (inventor of the poems of Ossian), and others who shaped our modern conception of Celtic literatures.

I think the Introduction of the book in particular is vital reading for those new to dealing with Celtic material on anything other than a surface level. Mark points out how many popular treatments are second- or third-hand information, often a long way distanced from their source material, regurgitated uncritically (particularly online). I see a lot of misinformation online, where people misinterpret what the Irish texts say or even just make stuff up from nowhere, and it spreads powerfully quickly, including ending up in published books and guides. Mark doesn’t dismiss the value of these stories as creative works and folk traditions, but warns readers to be aware of what is and is not a genuine part of the historical tradition.

“The upshot is that the afterlife of a given story tends to dominate, to the extent that it completely obscures the medieval original behind a heavy veil of romantic nationalism and, in a few cases, outright fraud. As a result, popular handbooks often depend on retellings of retellings, in which dubious ‘truths’ about Celtic myth are endlessly recycled: these retellings can lie a long way from the primary sources and take on a facticity of their own. People may want to include elements of such retellings in their own creative endeavours or spiritual life — which is of course absolutely legitimate — but some of these ‘well-known facts’ rest on fragile evidence.”

Mark Williams, The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think, p. 12.

In each chapter, Mark considers some of the uses to which the medieval stories have been put. If I’m honest, I would have liked more detailed analysis of some of these — particularly in the Cú Chulainn chapter (how predictable of me), where he touches on the use of images of Cú Chulainn for political purposes. The image of the dying Cú Chulainn has been utilised for both republican and unionist causes, with the same image being used for the statue in the GPO as in loyalist murals in Belfast. I’ve read a couple of really interesting articles on the topic, but it’s something I’d love to know more about, and Mark only gives it a glancing treatment. But, that’s my background speaking — the very fact that I’ve read some academic articles on the subject is a sign that I’m not the “general reader” here.

Still, I’d have liked to hear more of Mark’s thoughts on some of the pop culture he discusses (The Owl Service as a reworking of the Fourth Branch, The Call as an interpretation of the Túatha Dé, etc). I suppose that would be a different book, one focused on textual reception for those already familiar with the stories, rather than one aimed at introducing newcomers to the tales behind the pop culture they’re familiar with. I do think that’s a book the field needs (though I know there has been some work on this already) and when I initially read the blurb of this one, I hoped maybe this might be it, but on most levels, it’s not.

There is slightly more Welsh material than Irish material in the book: five chapters about specifically Welsh material, four about specifically Irish material, and one about Brutus and origin legends which explores both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Lebor Gabala. Where there are parallels or relevant examples from the literature of the “other” country, Mark draws them in, but he’s keen to stress that Irish and Welsh material are not interchangeable, nor as similar as they’re often painted to be in popular thinking. And for those wondering why a book about “Celtic” myth seems to make little mention of Scottish, Cornish, Manx or Breton material, Mark addresses this in the introduction: the bulk of the early literature that we have is from Wales and Ireland, making them his primary focus, though other Celtic-speaking areas are referenced where relevant.

So that’s the content, but what about the style? Well, while this one doesn’t include either the word “sexcapades” or the word “glitterati”, both of which showed up in Ireland’s Immortals and helped secure it a place on my “favourite academic books list”, it’s still plenty entertaining. The humour is often understated, but undeniable, and it definitely doesn’t feel like slogging through dense academic prose. The pictures also help, as does the fairly large print…

(Listen. I’m in the middle of Thesis Hell. I need all the help I can get when it comes to actually absorbing any information.)

So while as a scholarly reader I found myself wanting more — more detail, more discussion of textual reception, more direct quotes — I would have no reservations about recommending this to any general reader looking for a solid introduction to some of the most famous figures in Irish and Welsh literature: Taliesin, Merlin, Finn, Deirdre, and so on. If you want a way in to Celtic mythology that’s grounded in actual sources and up-to-date on recent scholarship and academic interpretations, this is it, and a much better starting place than most of the “Celtic Myths” books on the market.

If, however, you’re looking for a more detailed scholarly investigation into the mythological side of the Irish tradition, go for Ireland’s Immortals. Almost five years after its publication, it’s still one of my go-to recs — but this one is a great addition to the list, particularly for those who are brand new to the material.

You can buy The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think on Amazon UK (affiliate link; if you buy via this link I earn a small commission) or at your local bookshop or wherever you normally buy books, and likewise with Ireland’s Immortals.

If you enjoyed this post and want to enable me to continue buying books like this so I can tell you about them, please consider dropping a couple of quid in my tip jar!

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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