In the winter 2010 to 2011, I wrote Druidry and Meditation. It was not a difficult process, it took me a couple of hours to hammer out the basic form I wanted the book to take, and then just weeks of typing, refining, checking and getting it done. I knew what I wanted to say, and that probably helped.
I’m working on Druid book number two. I started last autumn with the same kind of plan for the shape of it, and the first draft went just as smoothly as Druidry and Meditation had. I enjoyed a brief period of feeling rather pleased with myself. And then a nagging, uncomfortable suspicion set in. I’d accidentally written a history book.
I did not set out with the plan of writing a history book, exactly, but the whole thing got away from me. I’m used to fiction developing its own momentum, but had rather assumed non-fiction books would behave themselves and do as they are told. Apparently they don’t, and the muses of non-fiction are as fickle and challenging as any others.
The major problem with having accidentally written a history book, has everything to do with my not being a historian. I read a lot. I have a degree in English Literature and am in the habit of exploring in fields that are not my own. I am however, painfully under-qualified for the thing I ended up doing. So the last few months have involved frantic reading and re-reading of books, borrowing books, buying books and generally trying to prop up my less than perfect understandings not only of the known history of druidry, but the way in which history itself is crafted as a narrative.
I’ve just read Stuart Piggott’s ‘The Druids’ and frankly, my brain hurts. I can’t recommend that one as being beautiful prose. I wonder what I would have made of it, if I’d read it before I read any of Ronald Hutton’s work.
One of the big problems for pagan readers who want to learn about historical paganism, is that the books are a nightmare. On the one hand you get the highly speculative and unfounded new agey stuff, which may or may not have some real history in it. On the other, you get the hardcore academic stuff, which is harder to find, not easy to read, and often written about pagans, rather than for pagans, which can result (as with the Piggott) in a hostile tone and attitude that make the reading feel like some masochistic form of penance. We’ve got Ronald Hutton, but there’s only one of him, and he does do an admirable job of trying to be accessible and academically solid, and not hostile, and not overly romantic all at the same time.
Ownership of history is very important. Written history has always belonged, by definition, to the literate and educated, which tends to mean the wealthy, and the powerful. Literacy might be almost universal in the western world these days, but ownership of the written word isn’t. Ownership of history isn’t universal. Making history is a selective process, because that’s the only way great swathes of time and multitudinous life can be rendered coherent. The stories told are picked by the story teller. If your community doesn’t have a story teller, a history maker, then your history is in someone else’s hands. Most people in the wider world encounter Celts and Pagans not through our own writings, but through sensationalist and often misleading depictions in the media.
There’s plenty of reason to think that the druids of old took responsibility for learning and conveying the history of their people. In trying to write about history in just the broadest of ways, I’ve become very aware of what there is, and isn’t. I’m aware that the sources we tend to draw on – Roman, Welsh, Irish, all exist in translation, and which point we’re mostly at the mercy of the translators. I know enough French to know that there are usually words that do not translate tidily from one language to another, and that in substituting in an approximate, some vital nuances can be lost. I also know that texts out of context, with no sense of who the author was writing for, literary conventions of the time, and so forth, are much harder to meaningfully assess. This gives us a lot of problems.
It brings me back to the question of just how important ancient druidry is for modern druidry? I feel strongly about history as inherently important. It is the story of our tribe. I’m not sure we will ever get decent ownership of that, much less enough information to feel comfortable that we do know who the ancient druids were.
This has turned into a bit of a ramble, not least because my brain is fried. I shall go back to working on the current book, and see if I can hammer out something meaningful. Watch this space…