Book Review: Pagan Britain
by Ronald Hutton
Yale University Press, 2014
University of Bristol history professor Ronald Hutton’s new work is a weighty tome anatomizing the author’s abiding speciality: paganism in Britain, and in many ways the book resembles the most famous artifact from prehistoric Britain, Stonehenge: it’s big, it’s monolithic, it dominates its immediate setting, and it’s noticeably forbidding. There is hardly anywhere in these 500 pages any hint of the ebullience and infectious, winking humor that Hutton’s many thousands of students will remember. There are mildly-stated differences with other experts on prehistoric Britain such as Barry Cunliffe (whose Britain Begins covers a good deal of the same material and is as handsomely produced), and there are occasional winsome notes, as in the book’s opening pages when Hutton mentions the mental conflict he felt in using the modern Christian year-dating system when discussing pre-Christian times:
The matter cost me much aching of conscience, till I discussed it with a Roman Catholic friend, an Irishman. With the wit and geniality of so many of his nation, he replied that to use the traditional forms was itself a gesture of inter-faith co-operation, because Christians like him had employed the pagan names for days of the week, months of the year and constellations, for centuries without complaint. It therefore seemed to him an appropriate gesture of gallantry on my part, this time, to accord the chronological framework in return. His argument won the day, and so during this book I record the last two millennia as Years of a Lord to whom I owe no personal allegiance, but of whose followers I am frequently fond.
For half the book’s length – covering the huge majority of the roughly one million years hominid beings have inhabited what is now England (and which was for a very long time a peninsula of Europe) – Hutton deals with everything that’s currently known about the beginnings of culture and especially religion among peoples who are scarcely more substantial than shadows. Hutton dryly demonstrates the limits of our knowledge by stating everything we positively know about druids – in three short lines. But Hutton’s inquiries extend far beyond archeology … in fact, he does quite a bit of reading into the ground itself:
Certainly, however, the early Neolithic British were flamboyantly capable of changing the earth as much as honouring it. Not only did the work of stripping it of woodland continue through the millennium … but, whatever the purpose of these different kinds of monument, they all impose a dramatically visible human presence on the land. It was being transformed to the eye, on a large scale, and the speed with which varieties of impressive ceremonial structure appeared and mutated, all requiring enormous investment of energy, bears testimony to the confidence and exuberance with which Britain’s first farmers imposed their identities and beliefs upon it.
The second half of Pagan Britain brings us hurtling forward in time to the comparatively well-documented years between the arrival of Julius Caesar on British soil in 55 BC and the victory of Christianity in the 4th century. Here readers will find themselves on much more familiar ground, hearing the roll-call of pagan kings and queens and reading about the famous folklore, about which Hutton is good enough to make you wish he’d write a whole new book on the subject:
One of the most poignant moments in the cycle of stories surrounding King Arthur and one of the most famed in modern times, comes right at the end, when the faithful Sir Bedivere throws the king’s sword Excalibur into the lake from which it first came, and back into the keeping of the supernatural female figure who presented it to Arthur. At first sight, a lake si an odd place in which to find or deposit a sword, but it reflects a prehistoric reality, of the placement of weapons, and other pieces of metalwork – often very beautiful – in many watery places in the British Isles.
Pagan Britain can be tough going, especially in its first half, but on balance it’s a very impressive summing up, and it achieves many flashes of brilliance on the subject – perhaps bittersweet to its author? – of Christianity’s combatting and eventual supplanting the host of aboriginal religions it encountered when it crossed the water and got to Britain. Serious students of that fateful change won’t want to do without this book.