On Tuesday morning I had the good fortune to hang out and drink coffee with Graham Robb—while pestering him with questions about his books and his background—as he is in briefly in the US to promote his new book, The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts. Robb is the author of Balzac: A Life, Victor Hugo, Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris, and The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War, all of which have earned PW starred reviews. Not a bad haul, though you’d hardly guess it from how humble he is in person.
As one might guess from the above titles, British, Oxford-trained Robb is rather enamored with France; his background is in French Literature (he received his PhD. at Vanderbilt, where he studied Baudelaire) and his first few books were academic works (written in French). Though the French in which he produced those works was the rigid, scholarly variant, his popular books in English are witty and charming, full of deep insight yet still wicked fun.
Robb’s ability to straddle worlds is obvious in his latest book, where he goes back through layers of history to the pre-Roman Europe of the Celts. This ease of movement across contexts could easily be chalked up to his time spent in both France and the US. He and his American wife—whom he met during his time in Nashville—live on the English-Scottish border and spend a good deal of time in France. They don’t own a place in France, however; rather they go there to take extended bicycle tours, a practice that has produced its fair share of research for multiple projects, including his work on the Celts. In this latest instance, it was trying to retrace the mythical Heraklean Way in southern France that led to a surprising discovery (which he lays out here in our q&a with him).
As a native New Englander, I’m wholly unaccustomed to walking around outside and finding shards of ancient pottery or other such trinkets of lives lived 500, 1000, or even 2000 years ago. This is not the case in Europe, where the ruins and artifacts of previous human habitations are regular features of the landscape. There, one can bike past mounds that are the overgrown remnants of ancient forts and stumble across pieces of metal or ceramic dug up by some farmer when he tilled his field. If one pays attention, long-disappeared cultures start making their presence known, though in odd ways.
Celtic culture, of course, is mostly known to Americans via Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, but it was continental in origin. They traded and fought with the Romans, among others, though now they’re remembered as being a strange, mystical sort typified by the figure of the druid. Robb told me that there are some cultural hangups in England about druids, as there is a notable neo-druid subculture there whose beliefs (think New Age, pagan, nature spiritualism) have little, if anything, to do with actual Celtic druidry. One of the best aspects of the book is getting to learn about real druids, as we actually know a decent amount about their lives and practices.
He had to run to his next scheduled appearance, so I didn’t get to ask him the 1000 other questions I had in mind (mostly more about druids). But I’ll hopefully get to track him down the next time again soon. Maybe on a bike ride through France.