- Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes by Philip Freeman
Ireland, Wales, Celts, Celtic culture, Gaul, Britain, mythology, medieval legends, Celtic literature, Celtic studies, Irish sagas, Ulster Cycle, Welsh legends
Freeman's Celtic Mythology is a basic introduction to some of the tales and legends preserved in Irish and Welsh medieval manuscripts. It comprises several sections, including an introduction, a brief pronunciation guide, a useful glossary for students, some notes on the various chapters, and a short bibliography. The first chapter provides a discussion of classical accounts pertaining to the ancient Celts, their culture, and aspects of their religion (primarily in Gaul and Britain), after which the book begins its presentation of the stories themselves.
The promotional materials on the inside jacket of the book make several rather surprising claims. The first—that "shockingly little is known of their [the Celts'] way of life and beliefs, because very few records of their stories exist"—seems to circumvent the existence of an enormous body of medieval Irish and Welsh literature (not to mention written materials from Scotland, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Man). In addition to numerous classical accounts that discuss Celtic culture and religion, there are other historical accounts and written sources as well, such as the early law texts, the annals, and a superbly rich and vast corpus of medieval Irish and Welsh poetry.
Recent projects in archaeology are also shedding new light on the dwellings, fortresses, and sacred precincts of Celtic speaking peoples in Ireland, Britain, and continental Europe, illuminating many aspects of their daily life, artwork, religion, trade, and the production of household objects and high status items by artisans and metal workers. Additionally, there have been numerous academic journal articles, collections of themed essays, and full-length book publications in the last ten to fifteen years in particular, that provide new editions, translations, and cutting-edge commentary on many aspects of the literature, exploring topics like native cosmology, medieval folk cures and charms, obscurity in poetic language, and more.
Having said all of that, the book in question is evidently meant to serve as an introduction to the medieval legends and tales of Ireland and Wales, apparently with an eye to bringing Celtic literature and culture into academic conversations about medieval European literature, and increasing awareness of these important cultural and historical influences and achievements (which is decidedly a good thing).
The second surprising claim is that in this book "for the first time, Philip Freeman brings together the best stories of Celtic mythology." Setting aside the problematic question of what constitutes "the best stories" in such a large body of material, there have in fact been quite a number of well-known and [End Page 294] accessible collections of early Irish and Welsh narratives in English translation. These include (in order of publication): Ancient Irish Tales by Cross and Slover, The Táin by Kinsella, The Mabinogi and other Medieval Welsh Tales by Ford, Early Irish Myths and Sagas by Gantz, The Celtic Heroic Age by Koch and Carey, Tales of the Elders of Ireland: A New Translation of Accalam in Senórach by Dooley and Roe, The Mabinogion by Davies, and The Early Finn Cycle by Murray, to name just a few.
It may be that what the publisher had in mind was an entry-level work suitable for the interested reader, as well as undergraduate level survey courses, that was recent and in print (to provide access to sufficient numbers of new copies for courses). While several of the books mentioned above are still in print, other than The Celtic Heroic Age, they all focus on either Irish or Welsh materials exclusively, whereas Freeman's work contains a nice selection of stories from both Irish and Welsh sources. While the books mentioned above provide translations of the tales in question, it appears that in this case the author has provided retellings of them. These are clear, lively, and accessible, which can help open up the literature to non-specialist audiences.
Another unique aspect of the book is that...