A Celtic perspective on Caesar's Gallic wars

June 02, 1991|By Lynn Williams

DRUIDS.

Morgan Llywelyn.

Morrow.

456 pages. $19.95.

Visitors to Britain -- especially those tourists staying in ancienguest houses lacking central heating -- might find themselves thinking about the Romans.

When Julius Caesar's troops invaded the isles about 2,000 years ago they brought war and oppressive foreign rule. But they also brought such advances as paved roads, public baths, plumbing and, yes, central heating systems. When the Romans pulled out of the land they had colonized, the native Britons largely ignored these technological marvels instead of using them to help make the Dark Ages a shade brighter.

"Druids" suggests some reasons why.

Morgan Llywelyn's newest epic is set not in Britain but in what is now France, in the years during and just preceding what now are known as the Gallic wars. Our hero is Ainvar, who rises to the highest spiritual office in ancient Gaul. As pre-eminent druid of Gaul's loose collection of Celtic tribes, he is more than a priest; the scholars, mystics and healers comprising the Druid fraternity are believed to be the links between humanity and the "otherworld," with the ability to keep the universe in balance through magicand ritual. And in Ms. Llywelyn's novels one can never underestimate magic.

Unfortunately the Romans, while they are not immune to Druid magic, have a magic of their own -- the magic of sheer numbers and the will to conquer. When they begin invading the Celtic lands, the tribes, which are determinedly independent and usually at war with each other, must forge an uneasy alliance. One leader is able to unite them: the warrior Vercingetorix, who, although he disdains Druid magic, needs Ainvar to play Merlin to his Gaulish Arthur.

History, as the saying goes, is written by the victors, and the Romans (who not only won but had a written tradition in which to chronicle their victories) have always had the Gallic wars all to themselves. In view of this, Ms. Llywelyn -- a former resident of Annapolis who now lives in Ireland -- does a heroic job of not only presenting the Celtic side, but re-creating a culture that left few traces. Her bibliography includes both classical sources (including Tacitus, Livy and Caesar himself) and contemporary scholarship, but we can presume that much of her insight into the vanished Celtic world is the result of intuition rather than research; her previous books, several of them set in ancient Ireland, demonstrated her empathy with a culture that is wholly unlike our own.

Or is it? The author gives the tribal culture of the Celts -- which idealized the warrior's art for its own sake, practiced human sacrifice and held a concept of God unrelated to either the Judeo-Christian or secular humanist traditions -- a surprisingly contemporary appeal, while retaining its sense of mystery and foreignness. Many readers of historical fiction are romantics who have a bone or two to pick with the modern world, and the Romans, who love cash and power, are a bit too close for comfort. But the liberty-loving, nature-revering Celts, who are soaked in spirituality, see the earth as a goddess and live lives that may be brutal and short but are glorious nonetheless, are the kind of doomed heroes with whom it is a pleasure to identify -- albeit from an armchair in a centrally heated home.

Ms. Williams is a writer for The Sun.

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