I have previously enjoyed but been disappointed by Graham Robb‘s Discovery of France and Parisians. Discovery of France was more about the geography and identity of France than I had expected – in hindsight, it was inevitable for a country with such strong regional identity. Parisians told the history of Paris through a series of short stories. It was an interesting approach, but many of the stories weren’t that compelling in themselves.
With The Ancient Paths, I looked before I leaped and was a bit worried by what I found. A startling theory about the wisdom of the druids, discovered by Robb taking a map and drawing straight lines between Celtic sites? He insists it’s not like Ley Lines? One for the library then!
His theory is that the Celts located their cities and built roads along lines of meridian and solstice, often at significant intervals. He also looks at Celtic buildings and art and traces their shapes within solar inspired geometry. These feats would required more scientific knowledge than they are usually credited with, and Robb is eager to give them that credit (possibly too eager!). Robb shows his working throughout and has clearly put a lot of effort in, sometimes cycling long distances to visit sites of interest. Unfortunately, it doesn’t sit well for me. There are too many things that could easily be coincidence; too much complexity in drawing it together. It’s all a bit psuedo-science.
In presenting his theory, however, he tells the history of the Celts and their defeat and assimilation by Rome. There is a lot to like here, Robb is a good writer and the story of Caesar’s Gallic Wars and various Celtic migrations are told well. He also gives compelling descriptions of visiting these sites in the modern day. These do give a hint at a complex civilization that has perhaps been unfairly tarnished as “barbarians”, but perhaps Robb should have stopped there.