"Anyone who writes about Druids and mysteriously coordinated landscapes," Graham Robb admits, "must expect to be treated with suspicion."
Indeed, although the Druids were the learned elite of the ancient Celts, they are better known today as the inspiration for such flaky goings on as the gathering at Stonehenge of ersatz Druids in white robes celebrating the summer solstice. (Stonehenge actually antedates the Druids by millenniums.) They seem an odd subject for the critically praised biographer of Balzac, Hugo and Rimbaud, a historian whose previous works seldom look back further than the French Revolution.
And "The Discovery of Middle Earth" is an odd book. Robb believes he has discerned, "in effect, the earliest accurate map of the world," created not on paper but in a network of sacred sites oriented around the Via Heraklea, a legendary route that runs from the southwestern tip of Spain to the Alps.
Many eye-glazing pages of maps, astronomical data, and mathematical calculations follow to support Robb's carefully elaborated theory: The Celts, led by their Druid priests and teachers, organized their territories — and expanded into new regions — based on scientific long-distance surveying methods, and this organization reflected their belief that "our world is a Middle Earth whose sacred sites correspond to places in the upper and lower worlds."
This worldview is very foreign to the secular modern mind, and Robb's ability to respectfully and compellingly elucidate it is what makes his book intermittently fascinating. The historical reality of a continent-wide map fashioned by Druids is possible rather than proven.
The historical value of Robb's vivid portrait of Celtic culture is unquestionable, however. Viewed through the contemptuous eyes of their Roman conquerors in the first century BCE, the Celts were drunken barbarians whose religious practices were either incomprehensible or unspeakable. (Druid rites did in fact involve human sacrifice.) This book, by contrast, depicts a vibrant pan-European community collectively guided by its Druid priests and teachers.
Robb doesn't condescend to the importance of myth and fable in their efforts to make sense of the world, pointing out that these stories often had a basis in observed physical reality. The Druids studied nature and the skies with considerable rigor; "science and technology were the means of discovering the designs of the living gods."
Their interpretation of these designs shaped the Celts' history. Whether you accept Robb's diagraming of a vast cosmic geography defined by arrow-straight lines across the Iron Age landscape or not, it's probable that the mass Celtic migrations from the fourth to the second century BCE were directed by the Druid leadership; certainly some powerful imperative prompted hundreds of thousands of Celts to spend years organizing their transplantation from prosperous homelands to the far-flung corners of their known universe.
Only an understanding of the Celts' profound belief in the sacred significance of particular places can make explicable the seemingly suicidal strategy of Vercingetorix, leader of the final resistance to the Romans in Celtic Gaul. He didn't summon all of the allied Celtic armies to a hilltop town that could easily be encircled and starved by Julius Caesar's army because he was a blunderer; he did it, Robb argues convincingly, because Alesia was "the mother-city" held in honor by all Celts and hence the appropriate site for a battle whose outcome would be determined by the will of the gods.
The Romans considered this attitude the mark of a superstitious primitive; Robb recognizes the validity of a belief system that acknowledges many aspects of life are not under human control. He reminds us that the Druids did not vanish with the conquest of Gaul but strategically retreated to Britain, where they played a role in the fierce local resistance to Roman rule.
Their influence remained so potent that the emperor Claudius banned them in AD 54, a century after Vercingetorix's defeat. A culture of such tenacity, which at its height sprawled from the British Isles across Europe to Turkey, merits the full, sympathetic evaluation Robb gives it here — even if it's enveloped in a grand scheme of "solstice lines" and "solar paths" that is more suggestive than entirely persuasive.
Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."
The Discovery of Middle Earth
Mapping the Lost World of the Celts
Norton, 448 pp., $28.95
Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times