I don’t socialise or correspond exclusively with people who share my fascination with the distant past. In my experience, everyone’s heard of Stonehenge, the Druids, the Roman invasion(s) and King Arthur, but far fewer have heard of Avebury, Silbury Hill or Vortigern, while that number dwindles further at the mention of the Cursus, Vespasian’s Camp and so forth.
So, if we think of ‘early Britain’ as a dark cave on a hillside, everyone knows it’s there, but few people approach the entrance to peer inside. Some do, of course, and they see familiar visions inside in the form of Stonehenge, the Druids and a few others, but then they shrug and turn away. Some determined others wander inside in an attempt to ascertain the precise nature of this huge, dark cavern, and they find faint pools of light around Silbury Hill, Avebury and the writings of John Aubrey, for example. Sometimes these pools of light join up, enabling parts of the cavern to be dimly discerned, and there are notable glows around the works of archaeologists such as Professor Mike Parker Pearson and others.
However, these pools of light are placed in an irregular and almost haphazard fashion, leaving enormous voids of darkness in this cavern and in some places, the murky shadows give way to pitch blackness. What Dr Robin Melrose has done with this engrossing book, however, is to light a number of candles in this dark cave, enabling anyone with the will to do so to venture further inside, where they can see a faint illumination where there was once just endless night. In some cases, as well, some of the pools have become bigger and joined with their neighbours to brighten some of the more impenetrable corners of the cavern.
My particular interest lies in the study of stories and words, while I have far more than a passing interest in the obsession our ancestors had with the skies. As such, the very first page of Dr Melrose’s book had me instantly captivated and it kept my fascinated attention every step of the way. Not only is it an absolute treasure-trove of new ideas, new thinking and mesmerising gems from the past, but there were a number of occasions when I gasped out loud at some insight he’d produced, or some connection he’d made. One or two concerned ideas or suspicions I’d vaguely entertained before now, but was unable to make any sense of until Dr Melrose brought his impressive linguistic skills to bear upon them.
Better still, Dr Melrose has entertained ideas that I’d simply never heard of or conceived of before, and I like to think that over the years, I’ve given these assorted matters a great deal of thought. The sheer amount of detail is fantastic, with explanations of the meanings of a multitude of words that have a direct bearing on early Britain, while I was overjoyed at the profusion of mentions of fires in the sky, Mound People, visits to the Underworld, magicians, shape-shifters, migrations, oracles and numerous other matters that can hardly fail to capture the imagination.
The sheer pleasure I derived from reading this book is such that I’m not going to specify the nature of the different arguments put forward by Dr Melrose, simply because I want anyone else who reads it to enjoy the act of discovery as much as I did. I’ll just say that I was truly fascinated to read what Dr Melrose had to say about the venerable Geoffrey of Monmouth and his writings, but this book contains much else besides that I’m sure others will enjoy greatly. The best way I can describe it is to echo the words of Howard Carter on entering Tutankhamen’s tomb, when Lord Carnarvon asked him if he could see anything.
“Yes, wonderful things!”
Personally speaking, this book marks a turning point. I’m as interested as anyone else alive in archaeological discoveries and in what the archaeologists and other relevant experts have to say about these things. I’d dearly like to know more, particularly about the Cursus, and I follow these things as best I can and as time and circumstances allow. However, there are only so many times I can go over the ‘current wisdom’ about the ancient Druids, for example, without heaving a very weary sigh indeed, so this book was a real revelation for me as far as this ancient priesthood is concerned.
If anyone’s after food for thought on the subject of early Britain, then “The Druids and King Arthur” by Dr Robin Melrose constitutes of feast of sometimes strange dishes, but always ones that invigorate a jaded palate. I’ve read it just the once so far, but it’s certainly a volume that I’ll be returning to.