Gwendolyn Morgan

title.none: Hutton, Witches, Druids and King Arthur (Gwendolyn Morgan)

identifier.other: baj9928.0405.006 04.05.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Gwendolyn Morgan, Montana State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Hutton, Ronald. Witches, Druids and King Arthur. London: Hambledon and London, 2003. Pp. xviii, 365. $30.00 1-85285-397-2. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.05.06

Hutton, Ronald. Witches, Druids and King Arthur. London: Hambledon and London, 2003. Pp. xviii, 365. $30.00 1-85285-397-2. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Gwendolyn Morgan
Montana State University

Witches, Druids and King Arthur is as much about how history and myth are created and recreated, interpreted and reinterpreted over time as about the title subjects. Taking three archetypal British icons as foci, Ronald Hutton examines what he terms "the interplay between fact and fiction in the making and analysis of history" (xi), to determine the forces which shape for any particular era. It is, in many ways, a history of the history of our perceptions regarding witches, druids, and King Arthur, not as cumulated facts but rather as widely differing expressions of successive eras' needs and ideologies in the political, cultural, and academic arenas. The picture emerging from Hutton's exploration is at once compelling and disconcerting, forcing us to recognize the weaknesses not only of our own complacent conclusions but of the very tools and strategies by which we reach them.

Hutton begins by debunking the reliability of standard historical sources. Fully trained academics may simply not see obvious archeological evidence if it does not conform to preconceived expectations, or alter it so that it does (the Trois-Freres Stone Age cave paintings); use imaginative literature in 'reconstructing the actual natures of past societies,' rather than accept it as a cultural entertainment product; trust oral tradition when twentieth-century studies indicate its short-lived reliability and that "the amnesia of popular tradition [begins] to set in within 20 years of the events". (20) Similarly, in a later chapter, the book questions the efficacy of anthropologists "going native," as in a recent study of modern wicca, for how can one at once fully accept the 'native' belief system only to reject it once one has again 'surfaced'? Common sense would dictate that either objectivity or understanding of the subjects, or both, must suffer. The book also places need fulfillment as central to the recovery or even conscious fabrication of 'ancient' traditions, as in the nineteenth-century invention of tartans and kilts for the Scots. Indeed, King Arthur's history is a case in point. Beginning with the twelfth-century Glastonbury hoaxes (stimulated by the Abbey's financial exigency and desire for political influence), Arthur's depiction and function change as he becomes the Tudor claim to the throne, a national hero for the eighteenth-century Antiquarians, and a primitivist-feudal ideal to nineteenth-century Romantics. The full blossoming of Arthurian historical research in the archeological and literary explorations of mid-twentieth century scholars, spearheaded by Alcock and Ashe, operates in the intersection of these earlier impulses with modern science and New Age spiritualism. His rejection in recent decades as a purely mythical figure seems, even to Hutton, inexplicable. Similarly, the waves of Glastonbury's reputation have swelled and receded, at first dependent upon Arthur's importance but in the twentieth century enjoying self-sufficiency and expansion with the growing interest in prehistory, particularly in Druids and Goddess Worship. As with Arthur, the new 'ancient' traditions associated with Glastonbury are impossible to prove, but equally impossible to disprove. Nonetheless, says Hutton, "[w]hatever their status as scholarship," they remain important as "part of an impulse to re-enchant the landscape which was one of the themes of twentieth-century British culture."

In his chapters dealing with paganism, and focusing primarily on druidry and witchcraft, Hutton expands upon and qualifies his earlier research on the subject. As far back as Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles (1993), Hutton highlighted the paucity of reliable contemporary evidence for pre-Christian practices in Britain, the extreme tenuousness of (frequently contradictory) conclusions drawn from it, and outright errors in identifying and interpreting evidence, and has concluded that there is, in fact, precious little we can say for sure about it. Later, with Stations of the Sun (1997) and Triumph of the Moon (2001), he advocated that rather we concentrate on such history as is better documented, and even on the forms of pagan worship (again, especially druidry and wicca) which exist today. The present book reiterates these positions. It also provides a thorough history of the revival of these spiritual systems in the nineteenth through the twentieth centuries. The examination of current practices is carried out with a rare combination of seriousness, sensitivity, and academic rigor from which many contemporary historians, literary critics, and anthropologists may learn much. Also provided, in chapter 4, is an important discussion on the relationship between magic and religion. Again, Hutton provides a history of the debate, stretching from ancient Egypt, through the early Christian and medieval eras, to the present day. The crux of the argument is that, although it can exist inside any particular spiritual system, magic can also operate independent of the practitioner's religion, being morally neutral. After reading Hutton's argument, any Anglo-Saxon scholar will recognize the highly ritualistic Christian magic in "The Nine Herbs Charm" and "Charm Against Unfertile Land," for example, as precisely this, rather than the fossilized remains of a pre-Christian past, or consciously Christianized relics of the same, as most scholars of the literature would have it. Moreover, Hutton offers the distinction that magic differs from prayer and other religious ritual in that it involves human control of the power inherent in the cosmos to a specific purpose.

Two chapters in Witches, Druids and King Arthur may seem tangential to the target subjects: "A Modest Look at Ritual Nudity" and "The Inklings and the Gods." The former is, says Hutton, another "contribution towards [his] views on the controversy between religion and magic, which are introduced in chapter 4" (personal email 3/27/04). Indeed, it is provided with the same acute historical analysis of practice and shifting perception which characterizes the entire book, although it does smack just a little of attacking popular conservative hysteria regarding wicca. The second, however, is a potent rebuttal of accepted critical consensus on Tolkien and Lewis as having produced solidly Christian works, suggesting and illustrating the heavily pagan influences on their protagonists and their fictional worlds. Given these authors' current sway among both academic and popular audiences, the chapter serves as a timely example of the very reinterpretation of evidence to support alternate "truths" Hutton illuminates throughout the book. Any scholar of The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia would find Hutton's refreshing analysis of the sometimes apologetic, sometimes exuberant celebration of paganism by the authors enlightening.

Although the book does not overtly focus upon it, the enduring and endlessly prismatic interest in the medieval era, and the constant reshaping of it, involved in the history of perceptions of witches, druids, and King Arthur in itself provides new material for consideration to medievalists in general, and in those interested specifically in medievalism itself. Perhaps most important to the latter are the final chapters, in which Hutton analyzes the social and political impact, and the tangible results of it in government policy and private practices, of the new druids, wicca, and even the returned King Arthur in the person of a modern druid chieftain. For example, like any social system, modern druids are subject to division along ideological lines and must make compromises and evolve practices to accommodate them; and their actions as a political force have led to important decisions, such as the re-opening of Stonehenge, as perhaps the greatest monument of British national and spiritual heritage, to the English people for personal spiritual expression. Both the dangers and the benefits of using the medieval past to define one's present runs as an undercurrent throughout. All in all, Witches, Druids and King Arthur is a rare find: chock-full of well-supported evidence drawn from multiple perspectives and fields, far-ranging in application, shocking, at times, in implications, meticulous in research and documentation. Moreover, it is pure delight to read, for Hutton has long been noted for his simultaneously learned yet eminently accessible style. And we can all do with a little shake-up from our complacency from time to time, to remember that "even the best and most rigorous research is likely to produce myths".