May 16: Racism!

Celtic racism, that is -- we're back in Renan's Poetry of the Celtic Races, back when an academic was proud to talk about all the different races, and how the shapes of their ears proved they'd never learn Latin, or something. Of course, for something like Renan's essay, you could substitute "peoples" for "races" and you'd be perfectly fine, since this is a historical appreciation, not a prediction that Celtic-type people will always and everywhere have a "singular vivacity" when it comes to their "deep feeling for nature."

Renan was a Celt himself, from Brittany, Land of Forgotten Celts. And today he's talking about the Welsh, which means you're going to chip a tooth on the consonant-heavy names:

Kilhwch, the son of Kilydd, prince of Kelyddon, having heard some one mention the name of Olwen, daughter of Yspaddaden Penkawr...
Well, of course you'd hear the name "Olwen," it's the only word there that doesn't sound like a tape going backward. And while "Owen" is a fashionable kid name in these parts, you hardly hear anyone at preschool picking up little Yspaddaden.

Thus begins a long tale (characteristic, we are told of the Mabinogion) involving Arthur and the seeking of Mabon the son of Modron. It has the characteristic of all folk tales, which is that the original audience for folk tales were people who had nothing to do during those long winter nights in Wales, and so weren't driven crazy by repetition. Arthur and Kilhwch consult an ousel, stag, owl, and eagle, and finally ride on a salmon's shoulders to Gloucester. After all this (and believe me, I am summarizing), Renan says, "We shall not follow the Cymric hero through trials the result of which can be foreseen." Great.

Right at the end Renan says something kind of provocative, which I think you'd never be allowed to try in today's academy, although it's the kind of thought you'd hear on Bill Moyers, maybe:
...every time that the old Celtic spirit appears in our history, there is to be seen, re-born with it, faith in nature and her magic influences. One of the most characteristic of these manifestations seems to me to be that of Joan of Arc. That indomitable hope, that tenacity in the affirmation of the future, that belief that the salvation of the kingdom will come from a woman,—all those features...are in many respects Celtic...The cottage of the family of Arc was shaded by a beech tree, famed in the country and reputed to be the abode of fairies. In her childhood Joan used to go and hang upon its branches garlands of leaves and flowers, which, so it was said, disappeared during the night. The terms of her accusation speak with horror of this innocent custom, as of a crime against the faith; and indeed they were not altogether deceived, those unpitying theologians who judged the holy maid. Although she knew it not, she was more Celtic than Christian. She has been foretold by Merlin; she knows of neither Pope nor Church,—she only believes the voice that speaks in her own heart.
For those of us temperamentally inclined to believe that there's nothing new under the sun this is interesting, although Renan warns us, in a footnote, that we can't handle the maybe-its-a-truth: "very few people are capable of delicately appreciating questions of this kind, relative to the genius of races."

Yes, well, I guess the 20th century proved that.

0 comments: