Name a British myth, one of the people before the Angles and the Saxons. Okay, now name one other than Arthur. I daresay many of you are still naming myths – I imagine the crowd who reads this knows their Mabinogion, their Cailleach and Scathach (ten points to every pedant who just went “excuse me, Gaelic”). Still, who knows their Brennius and Belinus, their Locrinus and Gwendolen? Here I bet on few, and I have a treat of sorts for those who don’t in Joy Chant’s The High Kings.
It’s a curious sort of book. About a third of it is given over to tales of the above, mostly drawn from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. About a third is given over to framing device tales, in which bards of Arthur and his contemporaries in a Romano-British world tell these stories. And about another third is given to brief historical notes on the Ancient Celts’ culture. Arguably this book isn’t fantasy in the slightest, although it’s usually put there. It’s also arguable whether anything that came out of Geoffrey’s mouth can be considered a British myth too but what they lack for in definite authenticity, they make up for in entertainment.
And Chant does very fine work on them. She doesn’t particularly expand on them – I think she even simplifies one or two (the Children of Llyr in particular) – but she writes cleanly and with a love for the culture and idiom. They come to life in her hands. If the book contained nothing but these recountings it would be worth the price.
The Arthurian framing devices are pleasant reads that completely eschew any supernatural angle, settling for a probable historical guess at their concerns and words. The scenes are mostly domestic tableaus, with the closest we get to adventure and battle being a tale told on the night of Mount Badon. The thing I like most about them is their sense of sadness for a disappearing world, and a determination to bring it back.
The notes on the Ancient Celts are things you can get anywhere and if you’re interested in this sort of thing, are things you’ve probably seen before. Still there might be a few tidbits you’ve not seen.
All in all, The High Kings is an enjoyable read that covers an obscure part of British mythic traditions. It won’t make anyone’s life a hugely better place but for those interested in such things, it’s well worth checking out.