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Christopher R. Fee & David A. Leeming. Gods, Heroes, and Kings. The Battle for Mythic Britain

Sophie ALATORRE
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Christopher R. FEE, & David A. LEEMING. Gods, Heroes, and Kings. The Battle for Mythic Britain. Oxford University Press, 2001, 242 pp., €14.48, ISBN 0-19-513479-6

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1A reassessment of British mythology has long been overdue, and Gods, Heroes and Kings is to be regarded as a stimulating contribution which helps to situate Anglo-Saxon tales in the mainstream of Medieval literature. Myths, pagan and Judeo-Christian beliefs, classical narratives: such vast material forms the backcloth Christopher F. Fee and David A. Leeming have undertaken to explore, thanks to an erudite comparative approach. Obviously, their book first aims at giving readers a new image of Medieval British literature. Because this period was a real confluence of various mythic trends, both authors collected approachable sources on the Celts, the Romans, the Saxons and the Vikings so as to amplify the voices of the ancient pagan gods that still speak to us today.

2First, Fee and Leeming deal with the Pantheons, mainly the Germanic and the Celtic ones. Obviously, some important texts, such as Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda (1220 CE) or Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum, composed in the early thirteenth century, have illuminated many aspects of Germanic mythology. Curiously, four of the primary gods survive to the present time in the modern English names for days of the week: Tuesday is named after Tiw, Wednesday after Wodan, Thursday after Thunor and Friday after Frige. After having thoroughly examined the specific manifestations of each deity, the authors conclude their analysis on Weland, the smith of the Germanic gods… His saga appears to share many common points with the story of Daedalus, “that master craftsman of classical mythology” (61). Fee and Leeming then probe the Celtic pantheons, telling us how Celtic culture was transmitted, and describing its four primary festivals linked to seasonal and agricultural cues. At this point, we realize to what extent the organization of such mythic material is a tricky endeavour, but the authors successfully preserve a sense of order in their book. Among the attention-grabbing anecdotes, we learn thanks to several Roman sources that the Celtic gods of Gaul had a surprising kinship with the deities worshipped by Julius Caesar. To quote but a few instances, Lugh — or Lleu in Wales — was the equivalent of Mercury, Mabon that of Apollo, and Ogma that of Hercules. Medievalist Christopher Fee and mythology scholar David Leeming develop these links before eventually narrating the story of the family of Don, a character belonging to the Welsh pantheon.

3Chapter II underscores the significance of deity types, examining both Celtic and Germanic manifestations of archetypal deity figures. Fee and Leeming first pay attention to the “Supreme Being”, a deity (the Dagda or Cernunnos for the Celts, and Odin for the Scandinavians) standing for the dominance of the father in the home and of the male in the marketplace and on the battlefield. They continue with the characteristics of the “Great Goddess”, already represented by Upper Paleolithic (30,000 — 7,000 BC) and early Neolithic figurines, and those of the “Dying God”, becoming the planted seed in the fertility cycle. Of course, the authors do not neglect the well-know figure of the “Trickster God”, described as “self-centered, amoral, possessed of seemingly insatiable appetites and (…) prone to disgusting deeds” (88). There were a myriad of Germanic and Celtic Tricksters, and their stories are briefly narrated and commented upon by Fee in a clear but academic style. Lesser Gods or Spirits are not forgotten, and readers eager to know more about giants, elves and harmful spirits will be satisfied.

4The third part of the study is devoted to sacred objects and places, and begins with the signification of the World Tree which usually provides a metaphor for the cosmos, reaching both the heavens and the underworld. The development of the Cult of the Cross, for example, found a fertile soil in Britain where its expression was, in some aspects at least, Germanic. As for sanctuaries and numinous places, they are often unlikely spots (a sacred oak, a hill…) where heroes meet. The attention Fee and Leeming rightly pay to sacred sites is also centred on places associated with the Arthurian legend and Germanic sacred spaces; but here, the authors manage to propose their readers an efficient synthesis much shorter than their previous developments.

5As was to be expected, the two Professors then focus on heroes and heroines who have always spoken most clearly to the human imagination. To delve into the hero's stature, they explains first how he is conceived. It therefore comes as no surprise that they choose to remind us of the strange story of Arthur's birth (following the tales of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Thomas Malory), before stressing his quest adventures. Readers are then brought to explore the meanings of the search for the Holy Grail or of Sir Gawain's quest for the Green Chapel. At this point, a particularly important aspect of the hero journey is emphasized: the descent to the underworld. Fee behaves himself as a real story-teller and does not hesitate to narrate once again Beowulf's journey into Grendel's Mere or even Christ's sojourn in the Underworld (called “The Harrowing of Hell”). Moreover, because the Northern European invaders brought a great variety of hero-monsters stories to the British Isles, the author also recalls the heroic battles with monsters. What is interesting in his approach is that even though he never puts well-known myths aside (the story of the Hebrew Judith's heroic struggle against the Assyrian Holofernes is brought to light in spite of its relative familiarity), he generally goes beyond common knowledge to deliver a variety of interpretations, fortunately escaping simplistic comments. The last development of this fourth part logically ends on the rebirth or apotheosis of heroes such as the Norse Baldr, who was killed by his brother but who eventually returned form the underworld to reign over the world.

6The work's next chapter is entitled “Creation and Apocalypses”, and lays on the fact that creation myths often play an important role in the re-creation of order when things have fallen apart. The creation stories of the British Isles display three very different visions of the human and divine roles in the universe. Snorri Sturlusson, in his Prose Edda, tells for instance of a strange creation derived from both fire and ice. But Fee's talents are most remarkable when, exploring unknown territories, he embraces more obscure tales. For instance, we learn about Cesair and the creation of Ireland or Amairgen and the singing of Ireland. Concluding this part, the author also pays attention to the visions of the apocalypse in the British Isles, and underlines the great number of doomsday visions in Anglo-Saxon literature.

7Eventually, the most absorbing part of the volume addresses Icelandic prose literary works of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries…. in other words, the sagas. Starting with sagas of Norse Britain, the authors choose to narrate the story of King Harald Hardradi, who is supposed to have won seven feet of English ground. Then, they set on comparing this narrative with other sagas, whose heroes generally elude easy definitions. The themes interwoven throughout this chapter chart new and innovative journeys through the British Isles's folkloric tradition. Fee keeps on reading and retelling the stories of Anglo-Saxon authors, who drew upon the previous Germanic oral traditions. To give us a clearer idea of sagas coming from Anglo-Saxon England, he relates two epic accounts of historical confrontations between the Anglo-Saxons and their adversaries, both Norse and Celtic and concludes this section with two examples from Beowulf. Next, readers are given a detailed perspective on the Irish sagas divided into three types: the mythological cycle, the popular heroic cycles, and the cycles of the kings. Although each type is carefully documented, one may wonder at Fee's choice of presentation of his primary sources, for he often omits to specify where he took his extracts from and how he made his choice. This effect of collage could have been avoided quite easily, had the author delivered more information. As for the sagas of Wales, they seem to be essentially contained in a collection of eleven medieval tales known as The Mabinogion (composed from the eleventh to the mid-thirteenth centuries). The reader is thus inevitably brought to recall the existence of four independent Welsh sagas which are, interestingly, a combination of folk history and popular themes but whose narrative depth seems rather poor when compared to the previous stories…

8The conclusion — as big as the previous chapters — is not a real one since Fee and Leeming do not provide us with a synthesis of their research, but actually go on unearthing the layers of the British Isles' folkloric tradition. More precisely, this last part consists in five reflections of the face of the hero in the Medieval English romance. The authors deal with such themes as that of the sacrificial quest, the love quest to the underworld (based on Sir Orfeo's story), the penitential quest and the notion of redemption in “The Wife of Bath's Tale”, the hero's trial by fire, and the hero's trial by tribulation (based on the transformation of Sir Isumbras, which apparently is a classic example of a reformulation of the hero's coming-of-age transformation). All these developments are well-informed, but the most demanding readers could well expect a longer discussion on the reception of the quoted excerpts. Then, in a short section called “Final Word”, Fee deftly reminds us that the battle for mythic Britain proved to be “a slow, laborious ground war of sorts, and its foot soldiers were mythic archetypes of gods, legendary sagas of mighty heroes and of lesser men” (220). In the end, Gods, Heroes, and Kings seems to have convincingly demonstrated that myths and sagas are actually nothing more than human attempts to make sense of reality by drawing on past traditions…

9Ultimately, this solid bulk of scholarly knowledge may seem too descriptive, with a vast number of reformulated mythic stories threatening to undermine the dynamics of the book Yet it also provides illuminating insights on the modalities of (re)creative writing in the Middle Ages. Undoubtedly, medieval literature specialists will find matter for thought, even though the bibliography appears somewhat limited for such a vast topic and the lack of an index proves surprising in such a pedagogical work, written by two Professors who have based their study on the classroom treatment of the myths and sagas. One could also add that bringing welcome clarity into a mythic maze of cross-references, the authors sometimes adopt a scholarly tone which might have been replaced by a more playful style. However, this study, which really provides valuable informative account of the British Isles' folkloric tradition, will no doubt be helpful to students willing to explore the immense amount of mythic material only partly analysed here.

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Sophie ALATORRE, « Christopher R. Fee & David A. Leeming. Gods, Heroes, and Kings. The Battle for Mythic Britain », E-rea [En ligne], 4.1 | 2006, document 2, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2006, consulté le 26 juin 2017. URL : http://erea.revues.org/309

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