Book Review: The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains

Lilaia Moreli - Words Are Sacred

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Amongst the pages of Frederick Marryat’s gothic novel, The Phantom Ship, lies a short tale titled The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains. A supernatural yarn filled with strange events meant to haunt the reader, it narrates the tragedy of a family brought to despair and annihilation under odd circumstances.

In the vast expanse of Transylvania, Krantz, a serf, commits  double murder by killing his wife and lord for having engaged in a sexual affair during his absence. Fearing the punishment he will surely receive, he decides to flee with his three young children to an isolated area where none will be able to trace him, thus ending up in the Hartz Mountains.

But the Hartz Mountains conceal within their harshness and cold beauty a horrifying secret. One night, a white she-wolf howls without intermission for hours. Krantz takes the bait and leaves his hut to give chase…

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Book Review: The Child that Went with the Fairies

Lilaia Moreli - Words Are Sacred

518G4wvSZFL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s short story The Child that Went with the Fairies narrates the tale of a poor widow and her four children living in a sublime Irish landscape. While the three youngest are outside playing and the sister and mother are busy doing their tasks, the youngest of all the siblings, Billy, is taken away by the ”Good People” as the fair folk are called in the story. Little Billy returns to his family from time to time until one day he vanishes altogether, never to reappear, and is considered dead.

On the surface, The Child that Went with the Fairies, resembles a typical, supernatural tale where a child is kidnapped by some otherwordly folks under mysterious circumstances and is forever torn apart from his loved ones. But Le Fanu is an astute writer who knows how to add layers upon layers of meaning, rendering his work…

View original post 1,829 more words

Book Review: The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains

index

Amongst the pages of Frederick Marryat’s gothic novel, The Phantom Ship, lies a short tale titled The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains. A supernatural yarn filled with strange events meant to haunt the reader, it narrates the tragedy of a family brought to despair and annihilation under odd circumstances.

In the vast expanse of Transylvania, Krantz, a serf, commits  double murder by killing his wife and lord for having engaged in a sexual affair during his absence. Fearing the punishment he will surely receive, he decides to flee with his three young children to an isolated area where none will be able to trace him, thus ending up in the Hartz Mountains.

But the Hartz Mountains conceal within their harshness and cold beauty a horrifying secret. One night, a white she-wolf howls without intermission for hours. Krantz takes the bait and leaves his hut to give chase to her. As he comes a stone’s throw away from her, though, and is about to shoot, the beast suddenly vanishes. A few minutes later, a huntsman appears followed by his young daughter.

Krantz offers his hospitality to the pair of  strangers and not much time has lapsed when he decides to marry Christina, the huntsman’s daughter, first having sworn by a peculiar oath imposed by his new father in law.

 “I swear by all the spirits of the Hartz mountains, by all their power for good or for evil, that I take Christina for my wedded wife; that I will ever protect her, cherish her, and love her; that my hand shall never be raised against her to harm her. And if I fail in this my vow, may all the vengeance of the spirits fall upon me and upon my children; may they perish by the vulture, by the wolf, or other beasts of the forest; may their flesh be torn from their limbs, and their bones blanch in the wilderness: all this I swear.”

Thus, married life starts, but it is far from a blissful one as the menacing oath foreshadows. Christina turns out to be far from the loving and caring ideal of the woman as the Victorians conceived her. Instead, she abuses her stepchildren and abandons her marital bed at night in order to prowl in the forest in the form of a vicious she-wolf.

The Victorians held fast to strict rules regarding women. The female was supposed to exhibit traits of docility and sexual submission, recognizing the power and absolute dominance of the male. Women displaying traits that flouted such notions such as strong sexual urges and passionate appetites were deemed a disgrace and an abomination who had to either be excluded from polite society or to forcibly jump on the bandwagon of meekness.

In the tale, Krantz’s first wife is described as ”more beautiful than virtuous”, a phrase that denotes her vast carnality, something which makes her deserving of her tragic fate. Similarly, Christina conceals a carnal nature, for beneath her beauty a fierce longing for the flesh is concealed. However, Christina takes this carnality to a whole other level, her behaviour even more appalling than the first wife’s. She doesn’t seek for a lover, but devours the little bodies of her husband’s children, her hunger for the flesh acquiring a literal meaning.

Plato had talked of the wandering uterus claiming that ”when remaining unfruitful long beyond its proper time, it gets discontented and angry, and wandering in every direction through the body causes all varieties of disease.” The fact that Christina wanders at night by rejecting her conjugal state and that of motherhood can be interpreted by Plato’s theory as a symptom of hysteria caused by her empty womb. A common belief in the Victorian culture as women not bearing children frequently were thought to suffer from anxiety, nerves and agitation.

Christina’s abhorence to motherhood and her domestic responsibilities incite her to not only beat her stepchildren but to eventually devour them alive. Hearing the howl one night, the oldest son, Ceasar, rushes outside. Later, his mutilated body is found. Christina comments that he must have been hunting the white she-wolf and couldn’t fight off the powerful beast. The male legacy is threatened as the family’s oldest heir lies dead.

It is only after the youngest child, Marcella, is killed that Christina’s bestial nature is disclosed. Seeing his stepmother abandon her bed, Hermann, the only surviving offspring, stalks after her only to see her devouring the remains of Marcella at the little girl’s grave. He dashes inside the house to call his father who, with horror, sees “his wife in her nightdress, on her hands and knees, crouched by the body of Marcella, tearing off large pieces of the flesh, and devouring them with all the avidity of a wolf.”

Struck by the dreadful scene of cannibalism, Krantz drops his gun, the phallic symbol of male dominance. Hermann, as the surviving male heir picks it up and gives it back to his father, forcing the patriarch to come to his senses and assert his authority over his wife, by shooting at the beast.

In the end, a surprising reversal of the werewolf trope takes place. Dead, instead of returning to her human form as it usually happens in the werewolf lore, Christina  remains in the semblance of the white she-wolf. Perhaps a reminder that beneath the glossy camouflage of gentleness and sweet domestication that women present, the voracious beast is always ready to leap to the surface.

Having read this tale multiple times, I found myself conflicted because one could, also, interpret it as going to the entirely opposite direction. Instead of being a story of expression of male Victorian fear and obsession regarding the untamed nature of women and the need for their suppression, it could be viewed as a cautionary tale that warns readers about the dangers of such a catastrophic suppression.

Nothing is known about the first wife. Nor about the second. Their background and character history is a blank canvas. However, a few things are known about Krantz that don’t help the reader picture him in a particularly flattering light. We read that he’s moody, brusque in his manner and violent towards his youngest child. Nothing is mentioned openly, but there lurks throughout the tale an unspoken implication that perhaps it’s Krantz’s male dominance that caused both his wives to disregard their domestic duties and abandon their passive respectability in order to answer their undeniable call to freedom. A freedom gone awry after so much brutal suffocation.

The reader is left wondering: if Krantz didn’t act as a swinish symbol of male power and brutish control, would his first wife seek a liaison outside marriage and would Christina abandon her marital bed at night and sadistically murder his children? Marryat perhaps might be suggesting here that a system of female subjugation to male authority leads to monstrosities and deeply unnatural consequences that can only end in tragedy for everybody involved.

Last, I believe there’s room for a third interpretation (if not for many more). Leaving aside for a moment both patriarchal and feminist perspectives, the story can be read as a narrative of justice. A justice that hovers between the human and the divine laws. Krantz, having caught wind of his wife’s unfaithfulness, ”surprised her in the company of her seducer! Carried away by the impetuosity of his feelings, he watched the opportunity of a meeting taking place between them, and murdered both his wife and her seducer.

”Conscious that, as a serf, not even the provocation which he had received would be allowed as a justification of his conduct, he hastily collected together what money he
could lay his hands upon, and, as we were then in the depth of winter, he put his horses to the sleigh, and taking his children with him, he set off in the middle of the night, and was far away before the tragical circumstance had transpired. Aware that he would be pursued, and that he had no chance of escape if he remained in any portion of his native country (in which the authorities could lay hold of him), he continued his flight without intermission until he had buried himself in the intricacies and seclusion of the Hartz
Mountains.”

Krantz flees the scene of the murder, dreading the consequences of his action. Secluded in the Hartz Mountains, he has escaped from the claws of the human law. However, punishment cannot be evaded, and Krantz has only managed to fool himself in thinking so. As it turns out, he cannot  avoid the punishment meted out by some higher forces residing in this world.

After Krantz kills Christina in the semblance of a white she-wolf, the huntsman returns to the hut and demands to see his daughter. When Krantz lashes out and tells him all that has happened, the huntsman replies, ”Mortal! We have power over those only who have committed murder. You have been guilty of a double murder: you shall pay the penalty attached to your marriage vow. Two of your children are gone, the third is yet to follow and follow them he will, for your oath is registered. Go.  It were kindness to kill thee.  Your punishment is that you live!”

Here it is important to remember that as Hermann, an adult now, narrates this tale to his friend, Philip, the second makes some philosophical and ethical remarks. We read, ”The great principle of all evil fulfils his work of evil; why, then, not the other minor spirits of the same class? What matters it to us, whether we are tried by, and have to suffer from, the enmity of our fellow−mortals, or whether we are persecuted by beings more powerful and more malevolent than ourselves? We know that we have to work out our salvation, and that we shall be judged according to our strength; if then there be evil spirits who delight to oppress man, there surely must be, as Amine asserts, good
spirits, whose delight is to do him service. Whether, then, we have to struggle against our passions only, or whether we have to struggle not only against our passions, but also the dire influence of unseen enemies, we ever struggle with the same odds in our favour, as the good are stronger than the evil which we combat. In either case we are on the ‘vantage ground, whether, as in the first, we fight the good cause single−handed, or
as in the second, although opposed, we have the host of Heaven ranged on our side. Thus are the scales of Divine justice evenly balanced, and man is still a free agent, as his own virtuous or vicious propensities must ever decide whether he shall gain or lose the victory.”

Could the hunstman’s final confrontation with Kratz reveal to us the story’s deeper meaning? If the supernatural forces are in league to deliver justice upon the mortal world and leave the innocent untouched, then the roles are suddenly reversed. Krantz is the villain and the destruction Christina wreaks is merely in the service of just punishment. Where the human law has failed, the law of a superior force is ultimately enacted.

Philip comments about the existence of evil spirits that delight to oppress man and good spirits that work in his favour. Having read the tale on the Hartz Mountains, it becomes evident that what Philip expresses takes on another meaning in the end. Horrific as Christina’s actions might seem to the reader, Marryat might be implying that justice is poetic and the guilty only suffer according to the proportion of the offense they have committed.

A strong case of no rest for the wicked.

 

 

 

 

Book Review: The Ruby

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Painting by Frederick Howard Michael, Titania, 1897

”The Ruby” is a short story from the collection El Azul written by the Nicaraguan poet and writer Rubén Darío. An exquisite sample of Hispanic Modernism, ”The Ruby” narrates the story of how the titular gemstone was first birthed into the world.

The gnomes, labourers deep within the entrails of the earth to extract precious stones, find themselves in great turmoil when their leader, Puck, announces that a Parisian alchemist has constructed, through the means of sympathetic magic, a false ruby. Having travelled to Paris himself, Puck has snatched such a false stone from the golden chocker of a sleeping woman and has brought it as proof back to his fellow gromes who imprecate the alchemist as a blasphemous impostor.

Then, he proceeds to narrate the true tale regarding the events that led to the natural creation of the ruby. One day, the gnomes were in strike and they crawled out of the dark belly of the earth and into the sunlight. Puck came across a river into which a few stunning, mortal women were bathing. One of them catching his fancy,  he grabbed her by force and took her to live with him back into the subterranean cave.

Puck adored the woman, toiling night and day to pluck out the gemstones so as to scatter them all around his bed where the woman passed her days in languid nakedness. The woman, though, didn’t reciprocate his feelings because she had promised her heart to another and they had found a unique way of communicating with each other. From the depths of the dark cave, she sent her sighs to her lover and they, penetrating through the crust of the earth, reached him. In return, her lover had taken to kissing the roses of a garden and every time he scattered his kisses, the woman moved her lips as if receiving them.

One day, Puck, having sweated to pull out a passel of diamonds, threw away his hammer recklessly, a gesture which smashed the diamonds into tiny pieces, and went to sleep. He woke up because of the pained sounds the woman made. The hammer having created a hole in the cave’s wall, the woman saw this as a chance to escape and unite with her lover. But in her haste, she didn’t pay attention to the diamond-littered ground, stepped on it and fell, cutting her feet and the rest of her body. From her flowing blood, the diamonds turned red, the woman ending up lifeless.

And that’s how the rubies came into the world.

Having heard the tale, the gnomes crush the false ruby and start dancing with joviality, surrounded by the glimmering beauty and light of the precious stones wedged into the cave’s walls.

In the end, Puck sings out a hymn to the Woman, his last phrase, ”¡Y tu, Mujer, eres – espiritu y carne – toda Amor! (And you, Woman, are – spirit and flesh – all Love!).

Upon the first reading, ”The Ruby” comes across as a typical child of the Hispanic Modernist movement: magnificent descriptions, evocation of the senses, references to mythological beings, tones of fantastic elements and a love story swimming in a sea of nostalgia and romanticism.

In fact, the lush descriptions and the beauty of the prose stand out to such a degree that an unsuspected reader unfamiliar with the movement might come to view this as nothing more than an enjoyable yarn that excites and awakens the imagination.

But ”The Ruby” is much more than a pretty fruit of an overactive mind. Rubén Darío had something meaningful and important to get across and he found a very clever and moving way of delivering his message.

”The Ruby”, through the embedded love story, takes the form of an allegory. Puck compares and contrasts most vividly the birth of the false and the true ruby. The false is created effortlessly, with cheap materials and quickly. On the other hand, the real one requires suffering, blood, disregard of danger and genuine passion.

In a nutshell, Darío concludes that imitation lacks lustre and substance while originality is full of life, an honest baring of the soul. In the battle between hocus pocus and love, the latter is crowned victor.

But Rubén Darío is not merely interested in the general idea of imitation and originality. One of the most significant themes of Hispanic Modernism is that of art itself. The Nicaraguan artist takes a definitive stance and declares that real art disdains pale tricks. Instead, it demands effort and pain and fervency and unquenchable longing.

True literature is a fruit of blood, passion and love. For, after all, as Puck remarks, ”Cuando el hombre ama de veras, su pasión lo penetra todo y es capaz de traspasar la tierra (When man truly loves, his passion penetrates everything and is capable of piercing through the earth).

 

 

 

Book Review: The Child that Went with the Fairies

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Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s short story The Child that Went with the Fairies narrates the tale of a poor widow and her four children living in a sublime Irish landscape. While the three youngest are outside playing and the sister and mother are busy doing their tasks, the youngest of all the siblings, Billy, is taken away by the ”Good People” as the fair folk are called in the story. Little Billy returns to his family from time to time until one day he vanishes altogether, never to reappear, and is considered dead.

On the surface, The Child that Went with the Fairies, resembles a typical, supernatural tale where a child is kidnapped by some otherwordly folks under mysterious circumstances and is forever torn apart from his loved ones. But Le Fanu is an astute writer who knows how to add layers upon layers of meaning, rendering his work ripe for various interpretations.

Le Fanu begins with lush, orgiastic descriptions of the Irish nature with bogs and hills and range of mountains. This is the very landscape where Le Fanu himself grew up and lived, thus the tale is presented as a true account.

In the tale, superstitions abound. They are not to be ridiculed. Instead, they are taken seriously and even the priest employs natural means to repel the fairies. The mother, who espouses all this legacy of supernatural tradition, passes it onto her oldest daughter, Nelly. This is a rich cultural identity that has to be transmitted to the younger generations. The local inhabitants possess a strong culture with long-standing traditions that give them a distinct national identity.

As we read the story, we come to realize that one of the themes permeating the narrative is that of haunting. The hill in which the fairies reside casts a shadow that looms over the landscape, frightening the people of the village. But it’s not only their physical presence that terrifies the people but, also, the traditions and strange tales of fear that accompany them. These creatures have the ability to cross the threshold between the world of substance and the world of illusions, between life and death, between form and spirit. The natural laws that govern humans do not touch them. Therefore, they are the ”Other”.

But the field of haunting doesn’t pertain to the fairies alone. The dead can haunt as well. Death, either literal or figurative, is a spectre that torments the family. Billy is considered dead by his mother and siblings. When he comes back to his family’s cabin, only his two young siblings can see him due to the fact that they, too, have come in contact with the fairy realm. The mother and eldest sister, due to being devout guardians of the traditions and cultural legacy, cannot. Later, Billy’s brother will keep on seeing him sporadically and being haunted by his memory. In this way, fairies become a symbol of death.

Another very important theme in the story is that of appearance and illusion. The fairy lady’s beauty and charm are repeatedly stressed. She tosses apples at the children and uses glamour so as to distract them and entices Billy with kisses and caresses. The siblings, despite sensing the malice of the fairies, cannot resist and ”take a bite”. They cannot realize the danger the fairies represent as they are too young to pay heed to their mother’s teachings and warnings. They are too stunned by the lady’s allure. While they’re chasing the apples, they are literally chasing after illusions that will never be materialized or fulfilled, but will only make them stray from the path of safety.

Woven into the narrative is the polarity between the ”we” and the ”other”, or  between the nation and the imperialistic power to be more precise. If we substitute the word ”fairy” with ”English”, the tale is viewed under a different light. Le Fanu, conscious of his identity as Irish, makes a merciless critique against the imperial dominance of the English. All the riches and the glorious display of formality of the fairy ceremony hint at the presumed superiority and authority of the English dominance. By virtue of its own long-standing tradition and aristocratic birth, it converts into a predator preying on the one it considers weak and easy to possess.

It is at this point that Le Fanu bares his writerly teeth most aggressively. By striking a comparison between the imperialistic power and the fairies,  it becomes evident that since the fairies can rule only through the means of illusion, therefore the imperialistic power lacks substance. Thus, it is unnatural and rotten.

But the fairy lady is not the sole representation of the idea of ”Otherness”. Le Fanu takes care to describe the lady’s companion inside the carriage: a black woman. The black woman is an inherent part of the imperialistic power and its bitter fruit, namely slavery. One could say that her role in the story is, at best, nebulous. It never becomes completely evident what her function is and what her relationship to the fairy lady is.

Le Fanu, once again, returns to his favourite theme, that of the contrast between essence and perception, truth and illusion. The exotic, dark sight of the black woman strikes the children with terror while they are enthralled by the fairy lady, for they perceive malignity in the first who is laughing with some kind of inside joke and beauty in the second.

But appearances can be mortally deceptive. Is the black woman shaking with amusement or fear because she knows what dreadful fate awaits the children at the hands of the fairy lady? Is she stuffing her mouth with a handkerchief so as not to let her amusement be heard or does she force herself to be quiet out of fear of the fairy lady and therefore doesn’t cry out a warning to the children to save them? Is she truly mad at the children or terrified at the thought of what is about to happen to them?

In this case, the black woman doesn’t represent a powerful, aggressive other, but a repressed figure living in perpetual terror under the iron force of imperialism. Her regal, colourful garments suggest that she comes from a rich cultural background. But her position now perhaps indicates that she’s not part of an independent nation anymore but a slave with a strangled voice not allowed to speak. Having that in mind, perhaps the black woman functions as a warning as to what happens when nations or cultures are dominated by others. Le Fanu remarks that her face is a ”death’s head”. In that manner, she maintains a connection with the dead or perhaps one could even point out that her role in the story is to function as a death knell for poor Billy.

While in many fictional works youth and innocence are praised, in this tale they become the very qualities that condemn the children. The siblings cannot perceive the threat coming their way.  Troubled by the fearsome aspect of the black woman, they are unable to read ”the writing on the wall”. The person who could be their saving grace is viewed as a malevolent figure while the person who wishes them harm is seen as the angel.

Nowhere in the story is the notion of illusion highlighted more than in the figure of Billy. When the child is last seen inside the cabin he is haggard and his clothes are in tatters. The great splendour of the fairy realm is nothing but a sham. Billy has found no nourishment, no warmth and no affection. He is a tragic figure because while he straddles two worlds he doesn’t belong to either.  He is a double ”Other” both in the world of the mortals and in the fairy dimension, stuck in the threshold of two cultures, condemned to wander between these two but never living fully in either anymore.

For all intents and purposes, Billy becomes a figure without identity, without roots. He is dead or perhaps a ghost. In essence, he is wiped out of existence. The fact that he doesn’t have a headstone where he can be properly buried by his family and mourned speaks volumes. There’s no place for him in his family anymore because his identity is non-existent. In fact, Billy is not unlike the black woman. In losing his cultural identity, he becomes an immaterial shadow.

We cannot delve into the mind of Le Fanu so as to claim with certainty what the intended message of the story is. Is the Irish writer providing the reader with a cautionary tale about the danger of what happens when one becomes estranged from their own cultural background and national legacy? Is the focus of the story the evils that befall one from the loss of cultural identity?

As is the case with Carmilla, Le Fanu relishes the game between reliability and unreliability. Credibility and perception are challenged. Are we as readers to believe the children’s tale? Or are we to believe that the villagers and their ways are sound? Are the fairies the wicked ones or are they pitiable figures suffering from malicious and ignorant superstitions? Most importantly, are the children the only ones who misjudge the idea of ”Otherness” or do the adults have to plead guilty as well?

The figure of Billy certainly raises some intriguing questions. We’re often reminded of his beauty. Blonde, blue-eyed and the youngest of the siblings. Is his attractiveness something that sets him apart from the other members of his family? It certainly is. If we take this fact into consideration, can we say that he was naturally destined to be alienated and marginalized by virtue of his physical aspect? Was he doomed from the start?

When reading the story, one notices there’s a common link that connects Billy and the fairy lady. They are both pleasing to the eye, and that’s why they are attracted to each other. Once again, the notion of perception takes the central stage. Both cultures judge based on appearances and surfaces, unable to view the ”Other” as the ”Other” truly is. In a society where illusions and senses reign supreme, what hope remains for unclouded and unbiased judgment?

How is the ”Other” perceived? Is the ”Other” the surface we regard or is there some kind of deeper essence? Are we to project onto the ”Other” our fancies and preconceived ideas or are we to peel away the blindfold and peer into the objective reality?

Is Billy dead or is he forgotten because he embraced another culture? Is he marginalized and estranged by virtue of his association with the fairies or is he an outcast by his family due to his natural ”Otherness”? Is he forced into another culture because his own repels him? But if Billy is a pariah in the mortal world, he doesn’t seem to fare much better in the fairy realm either.

The existence of the black woman adds another layer to the story, highlighting the fact that it’s not a simple matter of ”us” versus ”them” mentality. There are various types of ”Other” and various reasons for the base of ”Otherness”.

Le Fanu has given us a story where the English and Irish cultures violently clash. The issue of identity is an extremely complex one, thus making it difficult to define it and come to a resolution. What is an identity and which are its proper characteristics? Who is the one to give us an identity? Are we born with one or is it forced upon us by our environment? If we happen to differ, can this identity be revoked despite not this being our fault? And if we lack an identity, are we practically non-existent or can we choose an identity ourselves and belong within a culture without fear of rejection due to our ”Otherness”?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Love in the Western World

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Love in the Western World is an impressive and singular scholarly work penned by the Swiss writer and cultural theorist Denis de Rougemont. In this mammoth of a book, Rougemont takes a deep breath and plunges headlong into the ocean, eager to stir the depths of our subconscious and bring to light that which hasn’t ceased tormenting the western culture for whole centuries: the polarity between Eros dressed as passion and Love dressed as Agape.

Etymologically speaking, passion derives from the Greek word ”πάσχω” which means ”to suffer”. Therefore, passion means suffering. And this is the thread Rougemont is eager to unwind in order to unfold his analysis. In the book, the basis of the study begins with the quintessential Celtic myth of the star-crossed lovers Tristan and Iseult. After all, this love affair covers a rich, fertile ground ready for the harvester’s hand: drama, intensity, passion, obstacles, infidelity, courtly love, melancholy, adventure etc. There could be no better myth for the work at hand.

We read that, ”What stirs lyrical poets to their finest flights is neither the delight of the senses nor the fruitful contentment of the settled couple; not the satisfaction of love, but its passion. And passion means suffering.”

Rougemont doesn’t get carried away with romantic ideas. On the contrary, he delves into the heart of the matter, bringing to the surface the dark truth that lies at the bottom of perhaps the most enduring and celebrated European myth.

Rougemont, with his remarkable insight, maintains the idea that what propels the actions and decisions between the lovers is not the love the one nurtures for the other, but the narcissistic love that each one harbours for one’s own self. Tristan and Iseult become involved with each other, entangled in a deadly game due to a magic potion they accidentally consume. A potion destined for Iseult and her future husband and Tristan’s uncle, king Mark of Cornwall.

The lovers are drenched in desire. But it’s not a desire burning for the beloved person. It’s a desire that flares up every time an obstacle rises in their way. It’s a desire for passion. In other words, it’s a desire for suffering, for frustration, for adventures. Every time they are about to be exposed before the king’s eyes, their desire magnifies tenfold, for the risk looming over their heads kicks up their adrenaline.

Separation and reunion. That’s the endless circle into which they’re running. Lost to the outside world, as if dead to every other stimulus, they are not interested in possessing each other. What they care about is their own selfish pleasure and satisfaction, their own excitement, their own longing for more suffering that energizes them.

The myth of Tristan and Iseult is a tragic story, a delicious torment that surpasses the boundaries of good and evil. It’s a true romance in all its nostalgic glory.

Rougemont writes that, ”To love in the sense of passion-love is the contrary of to live. It is an impoverishment of one’s being, an askesis without sequel, an inability to enjoy the present without imagining it as absent, a never-ending flight from possession.”

Rougemont observes that the myth equally conceals and discloses its terrible secret through a mystical language carried by the tradition of the Druids and later the trobadours. And what exactly is that secret? None other than love. But it’s not a love for the beloved person. It’s love for the idea of love.

Tristan doesn’t love Iseult and neither does Iseult love Tristan. Both are in love with the idea of love. They don’t need so much each other’s presence. It’s the absence that ignites their passion, leading them to a triumph of a most narcissistic nature.

In Wagner’s work Tristan wonders, ”For what fate? The ancient tune tells me once more: to yearn – and to die. No! Ah, no! That is not it! Yearning! Yearning! While dying to yearn,
but not to die of yearning!” 

But this love for love cleverly hides an even darker truth: love for death. Death is the final destination. The only destination that can liberate them from their terrible passion. By dying, Tristan and Iseult retaliate against the magic potion and all the maelstrom it generated. This was always what the lovers longed for. This was the ultimate truth they weren’t even aware of. A truth that turned against them in the end.

Rougemont traces the religious origins of the myth in platonism, druidism and manichaeism. The dialectics of Eros introduces something of a most extraordinary nature, for it has to do with a desire that doesn’t diminish, that can find satisfaction nowhere, that evades its completion in this world because it longs to embrace everything. Its final goal is to reach the Infinite, to seek union with the Divine.

Eros despises the terrestrial pleasures because it’s a desire without end whose fruition lies beyond this world.

Rougemont always returns to the polarity between Night and Day, between life and death, between desire and obligation. Desire and obligation spring from courtly love that later turns into an heresy, Catharism. The damsel in courtly love is always married to an older, noble man. Always loyal and unapproachable, she is merciless and cold to her young lover to whom she pays no attention. The damsel becomes his mistress and the lover her vassal.

And if marriage is nothing more than a political pact between two families, it becomes patently clear why love outside of marriage wasn’t viewed as infidelity by the travadours but as an ideal relationship which merited poetry and songs and eternal praise through a carefully crafted and mystical language.

Eros is an askesis, a withdrawal within the self, an impoverishment where the outside world languishes and the inner world becomes intoxicated.

The exceptional psychology of the cult of Eros is revealed through language, a language that at the same time has the potential to tell lies and reveal what it truly wants to express. It’s a language preserved through the conviction that others won’t understand what it wants to convey. Therefore, in this misunderstanding, the very essence of passion isn’t understood, thus saved.

Rougemont then proceeds to bring to the table the concept of love as it has been portrayed in literature through Petrarch, plays by Corneille and Racine, the myths created by Don Juan and Sade and the movement of Romanticism.

Of particular interest is the parallelism Rougemont draws between love and war, between the military and the sexual instinct. The proof of this lies in the vocabulary applied. ”Cupid’s arrows”, ”the battle for love”, ”the siege of the lady’s body and heart”, ”the conquest of the object of our desire”, ”the defences that can be lowered”, ”the prisoner who can be won”, ”the sweet defeat and surrender”, ”the vassal into which the lover is turned”.

Imperialism is seen as a desire without end, a desire to conquer nations because the need for new territories arises. But war signifies death in the manner that love dressed as passion signifies death, even though nobody admits this openly.

Rougemont concludes his work with a burning issue that still remains pertinent: fidelity and the crisis of matrimony. Far removed from the social, political and historical context that gave birth to the myth of Tristan and Iseult, our society views marriage under a completely different light. Iseult might be a symbol of the ideal woman, a woman we can never possess and, if we possess her, she loses her idealistic qualities. And the same applies to Tristan.

But Eros is saved when transformed to the Christian concept of Agape. Infidelity arises when the idealistic object of our dreams enters into our possession. Once possessed, the dream wanes, and we find ourselves on the prowl, seeking for a new object on which to project our passions and desires. Agape, though, isn’t based on reflections or illusions, but on equality. Man and woman are treated as equal beings, not as romantic projections of mythic and dream-like proportions. The narcissistic desire withers and dies, giving its place to love and the desire for the well-being of the beloved person.

Love in the Western World is definitely an ambitious work that attempts to unearth the secrets of Eros-passion and Agape-love through historical, cultural, religious and philosophical dimensions. It’s not a book for everyone. I found it equally fascinating and bewildering. It opened my eyes to a lot of things I hadn’t considered before and, although it’s not a book that can be absorbed with the first reading, it has offered me plenty of food for thought. I will certainly come back to it many times in the future.

Love in the Western World strikes at the heart of the western culture, providing answers and challenging our notions regarding a matter still very much relevant to our existence. Almost 80 years after its initial publication, it remains meaningfully modern, for it still hasn’t finished saying what it has to say, as is the case with all good works.

 

 

Is Selfishness the Key to Happiness?

The Bookshelf of Emily J.

I’m sure most of us would immediately answer “no” to the question the title poses. I do. I think self-care and self-love are important in order to be able to share love and affection with others, but I don’t think selfishness leads to happiness.

However, one of the characters of Anita Brookner’s Hotel Du Lac (1984) thinks that selfishness is just what everybody needs in order to be fulfilled. Mr. Phillip Neville preaches this doctrine to the protagonist, Edith Hope, an apt name for a woman who in the end decides to ignore his advice.

Here’s what Mr. Neville believes.

The secret to contentment “is simply this. Without a huge emotional investment, one can do whatever one pleases. One can take decisions, change one’s mind, alter one’s plans. There is none of the anxiety of waiting to see if that one other person has everything she desires, if she is…

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Quo Vadis: Book Review

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Quo Vadis, written by Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, is a work of historical fiction published in 1895. The novel takes place in Ancient Rome during the reign of emperor Nero and the plot revolves around the love story between a pagan, Roman patrician, Marcus Vinicius, and a Christian girl, Lygia.

A hothead warmonger who has served in the military in Asia, once he returns to Rome, Marcus stays in the house of the former general, Aulus Plautius, to recover from his injuries and rest. There, he sees for the first time the general’s adopted daughter, Lygia, who is a royal hostage. He falls madly in lust with her and tries with the help of his amoral uncle, Petronius, to possess her.

But the world into which the beautiful Lygia and her adoptive mother move is a far cry from the world into which Marcus lives and therefore tension and conflict arise.

On one hand, initially Marcus represents the Roman empire in all its violent and decadent glory. Used to indulge his own whims and desires, Marcus seeks nothing more than his own selfish pleasure, and so attempts to take Lygia according to the traditional Roman way: by applying force.

On the other hand, Lygia with her goodness, purity and humble Christian upbringing is a breath of fresh air against the corruption and viciousness of Nero’s court.

When Petronius convinces Nero to hand Lygia to Marcus as his personal slave, Lygia and the rest of the Christians come up with a plan. Lygia is hidden in the Christian catacombs. From this moment on, Marcus embarks on an anguished search for her throughout Rome.

When he finds her with the help of a Greek, private investigator, he tries to abduct her but ends up getting hurt when Lygia’s bodyguard, Ursus, attacks him. Instead of killing him, the Christians nurse him back to health.

Already the seeds of Marcus’s spiritual transformation have been planted. Marcus, deeply moved by the compassion the Christians show him and the kindness with which Lygia treats him, begins to question his own actions and gradually sees Lygia as something more than the mere object of his lust, as a person with a soul and emotions.

His change and his spiritual journey have been set in motion.

Quo Vadis is one of the top novels ever written for me because Sienkiewicz is a master of pathos. Written during the Romantic movement in Europe, it contains a lot of scenes brimming with romantic ideas and sentimentality. However, Quo Vadis is profoundly humane in its approach.

I maintain the idea that the human psyche and its deep exploration is the essence of good literature. And that’s exactly what this novel delivers. The relationship between Marcus and Lygia has the ability to move the reader because it functions on two levels. On the first level, we’re exposed to a most beautiful and passionate love story. On the second level, Marcus and Lygia represent the violent clash between the old world that is Rome (sadistic, vindictive, bloodthirsty, materialistic, malevolent, unstable, and ultimately deadly) and the new era Christianity brings (full of love, kindness, peace, respect and forgiveness).

One of the themes that takes central stage in the novel is love. What is love? What does it mean to love someone? How can love affect a person’s life? In Western literature, love has long been associated with both life and death. Quo Vadis is no exception.

Through his love for Lygia, Marcus sheds off his old skin and gains a new one. Eros becomes a revolutionary force that blows up Marcus’s soul. Gradually, he begins to realize there’s a whole world beyond inane self-seeking pleasure and selfish cruelty. By staying with the Christians for some time in the catacombs, he becomes aware that all the foundations of the empire are stinking, festering, falling into decay.

Marcus views the world through Lygia’s eyes. He becomes so devoted to her that his love for her reaches the point of divine adoration. And here enters a very interesting question. Sienkiewicz raises the issue of change. Can people reconsider and change? Can they smash their past and arise anew? Marcus proves that a spiritual awakening, a hopeful resurrection is possible.

His love gives him the opportunity to be reborn, to gain a new life full of meaning and purpose. He proves that humans are not flat, static beings condemned to die the same as they were born. They can rethink their actions, repent, change their mind and heart, mature and grow. They can be influenced and reshaped under the right circumstances.

Marcus’s initial emotions and thoughts as expressed in this passage:

But, first of all, he was unwilling and unable to be reconciled with fate, for never in life had he so desired anything as Lygia. It seemed to him that he could not exist without her. He could not tell himself what he was to do without her on the morrow, how he was to survive the days following. At moments he was transported by a rage against her, which approached madness.

He wanted to have her, to beat her, to drag her by the hair to the cubiculum, and gloat over her; then, again, he was carried away by a terrible yearning for her voice, her form, her eyes, and he felt that he would be ready to lie at her feet. He called to her, gnawed his fingers, clasped his head with his hands. He strove with all his might to think calmly about searching for her,—and was unable. A thousand methods and means flew through his head, but one wilder than another.

are vastly different from his later behaviour when he asks for Lygia’s hand with her consent as expressed in this passage:

And he stretched forth his hand, as if taking Heaven as witness of his love; and Lygia, raising her clear eyes to him, said,—

“And then I shall say, ‘Wherever thou art, Caius, there am I, Caia.’”

“No, Lygia,” cried Vinicius, “I swear to thee that never has woman been so honored in the house of her husband as thou shalt be in mine.”

For a time they walked on in silence, without being able to take in with their breasts their happiness, in love with each other, like two deities, and as beautiful as if spring had given themto the world with the flowers.

They halted at last under the cypress growing near the entrance of the house. Lygia leaned against his breast, and Vinicius began to entreat again with a trembling voice,—”Tell Ursus to go to the house of Aulus for thy furniture and playthings of childhood.”

But she, blushing like a rose or like the dawn, answered,—”Custom commands otherwise.”

“I know that. The pronuba [The matron who accompanies the bride and explains to her the duties of a wife] usually brings them behind the bride, but do this for me. I will take them to my villa in Antium, and they will remind me of thee.”

Here he placed his hands together and repeated, like a child who is begging for something, —”It will be some days before Pomponia returns; so do this, diva, do this, carissima.”

“But Pomponia will do as she likes,” answered Lygia, blushing still more deeply at mention of the pronuba.

And again they were silent, for love had begun to stop the breath in their breasts. Lygia stood with shoulders leaning against the cypress, her face whitening in the shadow, like a flower, her eyes drooping, her bosom heaving with more and more life. Vinicius changed in the face, and grew pale. In the silence of the afternoon they only heard the beating of their hearts, and in their mutual ecstasy that cypress, the myrtle bushes, and the ivy of the summerhouse became for them a paradise of love.

But their happiness is short-lived. Enraged by Marcus’s harsh treatment, Chilo double-crosses Lygia and the Christians, condemning them to endless torture and painful death.

Nero, to gain poetic inspiration, burns Rome, but the Christians are blamed instead. Lygia is imprisoned. From that moment, the tension escalates and the novel enters into suspense territory. Marcus and Petronius do everything in their power to free Lygia. When all fails, Marcus retains his faith in Christ. In some of the most gruesome scenes ever written in fiction, the Christians are killed and eaten alive by wild animals as entertainment in the arena.

Chilo repents, but is brutally killed by Nero’s court, though first forgiven by the man he hurt most. And here Sienkiewicz raises another important issue, that of forgiveness. Do people deserve to be forgiven after generating so much suffering and evil? The answer is not an easy one. After all, forgiveness is a personal matter. Perhaps, the point the Polish writer is trying to make is that it takes tremendous strength and courage to overcome the pain one has inflicted and forgive them.

Marcus is definitely strengthened as a character through his own suffering. He hopes and prays, proving that he possesses, indeed, a lion of a spirit. At this point, when all seems lost, love morphs into a death call which Marcus is more than willing to answer.

But the suffering of Vinicius surpassed human endurance. From the moment that Lygia was imprisoned and the glory of coming martyrdom had fallen on her, not only did he love her a hundred times more, but he began simply to give her in his soul almost religious honor, as he would a superhuman being. And now, at the thought that he must lose this being both loved and holy, that besides death torments might be inflicted on her more terrible than death itself, the blood stiffened in his veins. His soul was turned into one groan, his thoughts were confused. At times it seemed to him that his skull was filled with living fire, which would either burn or burst it. He ceased to understand what was happening; he ceased to understand why Christ, the Merciful, the Divine, did not come with aid to His adherents; why the dingy walls of the Palatine did not sink through the earth, and with them Nero, the Augustians, the pretorian camp, and all that city of crime. He thought that it could not and should not be otherwise; and all that his eyes saw, and because of which his heart was breaking, was a dream. But the roaring of wild beasts informed him that it was reality; the sound of the axes beneath which rose the arena told him that it was reality; the howling of the people and the overfilled prisons confirmed this. Then his faith in Christ was alarmed; and that alarm was a new torture, the most dreadful of all, perhaps.

Marcus and Lygia are an entity to the point where Marcus simply cannot exist without her. He tries all means possible to save her. He pleads, he begs, he speaks to influential people, he offers money. All in vain. When he becomes convinced that Lygia won’t be alive much longer, he bribes his way to her cell. In a scene of incomparable, emotional beauty and poignancy, he stays with her, both of them praying and bound in love. He has already decided that after her death he will declare to everyone that he himself is a Christian, so that they will kill him and thus go to Heaven with her.

For three days, or rather three nights, nothing disturbed their peace. When the usual prison work was finished, which consisted in separating the dead from the living and the grievously sick from those in better health, when the wearied guards had lain down to sleep in the corridors, Vinicius entered Lygia’s dungeon and remained there till daylight. She put her head on his breast, and they talked in low voices of love and of death. In thought and speech, in desires and hopes even, both were removed unconsciously more and more from life, and they lost the sense of it. Both were like people who, having sailed from land in a ship, saw the shore no more, and were sinking gradually into infinity. Both changed by degrees into sad souls in love with each other and with Christ, and ready to fly away. Only at times did pain start up in the heart of Vinicius like a whirlwind, at times there flashed in him like lightning, hope, born of love and faith in the crucified God; but he tore himself away more and more each day from the earth, and yielded to death. In the morning, when he went from the prison, he looked on the world, on the city, on acquaintances, on vital interests, as through a dream. Everything seemed to him strange, distant, vain, fleeting. Even torture ceased to terrify, since one might pass through it while sunk in thought and with eyes fixed on another thing. It seemed to both that eternity had begun to receive them. They conversed of how they would love and live together, but beyond the grave; and if their thoughts returned to the earth at intervals, these were thoughts of people who, setting out on a long journey, speak of preparations for the road. Moreover they were surrounded by such silence as in some desert surrounds two columns far away and forgotten. Their only care was that Christ should not separate them; and as each moment strengthened their conviction that He would not, they loved Him as a link uniting them in endless happiness and peace. While still on earth, the dust of earth fell from them. The soul of each was as pure as a tear. Under terror of death, amid misery and suffering, in that prison den, heaven had begun, for she had taken him by the hand, and, as if saved and a saint, had led him to the source of endless life.

Petronius was astonished at seeing in the face of Vinicius increasing peace and a certain wonderful serenity which he had not noted before. At times even he supposed that Vinicius had found some mode of rescue, and he was piqued because his nephew had not confided his hopes to him. At last, unable to restrain himself, he said,—

“Now thou hast another look; do not keep from me secrets, for I wish and am able to aid thee. Hast thou arranged anything?”

“I have,” said Vinicius; “but thou canst not help me. After her death I will confess that I am a Christian and follow her.”

“Then thou hast no hope?”

“On the contrary, I have. Christ will give her to me, and I shall never be separated from her.”

But Lygia, naked, unconscious and tied upon the back of an auroch inside the arena, is saved at the last moment when Ursus fights against the beast and kills it with his bare hands. Moved by the intense suffering of the couple, the people of Rome take them both under their protection.

The novel ends with Marcus and Lygia living happily married far away from Rome. Nero dies a degrading death and after the passage of centuries Christianity rules over an once debauched city.

Sienkiewicz is clever enough not to fall into the trap of fanaticism, religious blindness or preaching. He’s never absolute in his portrayal of either side. Not all Christians are kind and loving as shows the case of Crispus, a Christian zealot who verges on fanaticism. Not all pagans residing in Rome are dissolute as shows the case of Lygia’s adoptive father, Aulus Plautius, and Nero’s former mistress, Acte. And somewhere in the middle lies the case of Petronius and his former slave turned lover, Eunice, both representing the last good qualities of the old world: beauty and poetry.

In fact, he fell asleep. When he woke, the head of Eunice was lying on his breast like a white flower. He placed it on the pillow to look at it once more. After that his veins were opened again.

At his signal the singers raised the song of Anacreon anew, and the citharæ accompanied them so softly as not to drown a word. Petronius grew paler and paler; but when the last sound had ceased, he turned to his guests again and said,

“Friends, confess that with us perishes—”
But he had not power to finish; his arm with its last movement embraced Eunice, his head fell on the pillow, and he died.

The guests looking at those two white forms, which resembled two wonderful statues, understood well that with them perished all that was left to their world at that time,—poetry and beauty.

Petronius , indeed, represents an interesting philosophy that contrasts both with the Christian worldview and with Stoicism which was prevalent at that time in Rome. As he writes to Marcus,

There are only two philosophers that I care about, Pyrrho and Anacreon. You know what they stand for. The rest, along with the new Greek schools and all the Roman Stoics, you can have for the price of beans. Truth lives somewhere so high that even the gods can’t see it from Olympus.

Petronius stands for beauty, aesthetics and harmony in a world that devours its own flesh most horribly. And it is exactly this type of philosophy that enables him to face his death with a quiet dignity.

The existence of various philosophies, ideologies and cultures paints Quo Vadis with so much brightness.

If one asked me what is the purpose of literature, I’d reply that it is to move and shake up the reader. Quo Vadis definitely managed to do that. For me, the novel’s originality doesn’t stem from its plot or rich world-building. For me, the originality stems from the excellent exploration of the human soul and the enormous pathos that comes with it.

Quo Vadis is a novel that appeals to the heart. It touches and inspires in most unexpected ways. It’s a profound study on love, strength, faith, spirituality, personal growth, forgiveness and human endurance.

There are many beautiful parts in the novel, but the one who stood out for me, besides the scene with Marcus and Lygia in the prison, is when Marcus talks to Petronius about Lygia after their marriage.

Because I love her immortal soul, and because we both love each other in Christ; for such love there is no separation, no deceit, no change, no old age, no death. For, when youth and beauty pass, when our bodies wither and death comes, love will remain, for the spirit remains.

If that is not a frank and deep emotion that humbles and inspires, then I don’t know what it is.

So, for those of you who haven’t read Quo Vadis, grab a copy and sink your teeth in the book. If not for anything else, the novel presents one of the most fiery and heartening love stories ever written in the history of literature. And in a time like ours where people are so consumed with their own interests and personal gain, we have the need to read such stories even more.

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: The White People

Penguin cover

Arthur Machen’s The White People had been on my reading list for a long time.

The story starts as a singular, philosophical study on the nature of good and evil and evolves into a chillingly delightful tale brimming with dark, paganistic rituals, weird occurrences and sorcery only to break off abruptly on the cusp of some kind of supreme revelation.

The beginning of The White People offers to the reader an intriguing intake on the topic of saints and sinners. Cotgrave and Ambrose discuss the nature of sin. According to the second,

”So you see that while the good and the evil are unnatural to man as he now is—to man the social, civilized being—evil is unnatural in a much deeper sense than good. The saint endeavours to recover a gift which he has lost; the sinner tries to obtain something which he was never his. In brief, he repeats the Fall.”

To better illustrate his point and make his companion understand, Ambrose gives Cotgrave to read The Green Book, a pocket book written by a 16-year-old girl he once knew.

The girl, whose mother is dead and whose father leaves her on her own to take care of the affairs of his profession, is raised by her nurse who dedicates most of her time in initiating her into a queer, dark world through the narration of songs and fanciful stories.

The girl drinks the stories in, and the more she surrenders to the secrets she’s exposed to, the more she descends into another dimension through waxen idols, mounts and hills, pits and wells. And all this, as she spends most of her time sauntering into the black woods, uttering bizarre rhymes.

She refers to odd things like the Aklo letters, the Chian languages, the great, beautiful Circles, the Mao Games, the chief songs, the Nymphs, the Dôls, Jeelo and voola. Did the girl suffer from bouts of a superactive imagination? Did she have a mystical power to conjure the universe that haunted her imagination into the real world? Perhaps. As Ambrose hints,

”A child’s imagination always makes the heights higher and the depths deeper than they really are; and she had, unfortunately for herself, something more than imagination. One might say, perhaps, that the picture in her mind which she succeeded in a measure in putting into words, was the scene as it would have appeared to an imaginative artist.”

Was the girl ever truly touched by the White People and the fairies? It is never made clear. Ambrose remarks that,

”Powerful and sovereign medicines, which are, of necessity, virulent poisons also, are kept in a locked cabinet. The child may find the key by chance, and drink herself dead; but in most cases the search is educational, and the phials contain precious elixirs for him who has patiently fashioned the key for himself. She had poisoned herself—in time.”

Machen is not a writer who employs blood and gore to horrify the reader. No, he has an uncanny ability to freak out the reader by painting a creepy, unnerving atmosphere through allusions and cryptic references which are never fully explained.

The White People reads as a misty, dream-like, stream of consciousness tale sprung from the depths of childish imagination. It’s a dark triumph of fantasy and horror bound to excite and intrigue the mind.

 

Book Review: A Brief History of the Celts

 

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With plans to write a historical novel that deals partly with the Celts of the Iron Age, I had to make a serious research into the Celtic society and study its structures and the way it functioned. Ellis’s A Brief History of the Celts provided me with a good and solid material for a start.

The writing is clear, precise and easily understood, making the book accessible for anybody who wishes to become familiar with the topic. Ellis offers details and cites many sources, thus making his work reliable. But he doesn’t get lost in them and that’s positive because it makes the book informative and not heavy and dry. He focuses his efforts on deconstructing the biased myths the Romans perpetuated, shedding light on the true identity of the Celtic peoples.

The Celts were not child-like savages fond of blood and war as the Romans had painted them. They had created a vast civilization with their own beliefs, philosophy and religion that extended all over Europe and not only. What made a great impression on me was the fact that the various Celtic tribes had built an incredible net of communication between them in both Europe and Asia. Something that indicates the close bonds they shared as well as the fact that they were conscious of their identity and common ancestry.

Ellis gives us a glimpse into the various aspects of their world such as their warriors, their philosophy, their intellectual caste of the Druids, the position of women, their cosmology and their literary tradition.

We have only scratched the surface so far. Our knowledge of this civilization grows day by day. What we have discovered until now is stunning, but it’s only the tip. The future surely has a lot more to unearth before our eyes.