Those who assume that The Discovery of Middle Earth is yet another work exploring the writing of J.R.R. Tolkien are (for better or worse) wrong... but understandably so. As author Graham Robb explains, the name of Tolkien's mythical world is taken from the Norse/Germanic "Midgard," an analogous name to the Celtic/Gaulish "Mediolanum," a word still attached in one way or another to dozens of sites throughout Western Europe.
In "The Discovery of Middle Earth," Robb sets out to establish the momentous contributions made to the arts of cartography and communication by the once-great Celtic peoples, who at various points in history spread all the way from modern-day Turkey to Ireland. In the process, he consults old documents, interviews experts, examines artifacts, and bicycles more than 26,000 kilometers across France, taking his readers along with him.
Places named Mediolanum, and their apparent significance as coordinates on a sophisticated Celtic system for mapping the world, are at the center of "The Discovery of Middle Earth." Also key, and much explored by the author, is the Via Heraklea – an ancient path that starts at the southwestern tip of the Iberian peninsula and traces a direct route to the north and east into the Alps, journeying directly into the rising sun of the Summer Solstice.
At the heart of "The Discovery of Middle Earth" is a profound meditation on the nature of knowledge itself: not just its discovery or intrinsic value, but also (and perhaps centrally) how susceptible it is to being lost or corrupted. The Via Heraklea may be the example that Robb picks apart in detail, but other examples dance like flames throughout the pages of the book: the Antikythera Mechanism, a gear-driven mechanical "hand-held computer" from the 2nd Century BC that acted as a complex calendar and navigation aid; the immense loss of ancient Druidic scholarship, which lived and eventually died through oral memory; and the burning of the Library of Alexandria, one of the great tragedies of the ancient world.
The author's flair for describing long-disintegrated artifacts and technology is inspiring and in keeping with the theme of discovery and decay. Here's Robb describing the burial chariot of a Gaulish noblewoman:
"It had wide-angle steering, and the wooden coach work was suspended above the chassis by tiny, twisted metal colonnettes that seemed to flaunt their gravity-defying frailty. This was a vehicle fit for another world. It may never have run on the open roads of Middle Earth, but it proves that the technology existed, and that the beauties of mechanical efficiency were appreciated, four hundred years before the Romans brought their civilization to Gaul."
And it's difficult not to read his words on the Gaulish "vocal telegraph" – an organized system of shouted news that could move data across the land at the speed of 24 kilometers per hour in a pre-industrial world – without shaking your head in wonder.
But as beguiling as the book often is, it's also sometimes maddening. It feels as though Robb has written two different books and combined them under one title.
One book is a scholarly thesis arguing in favor of an underlying Celtic geography to Europe, still discoverable to those willing to travel extensively and painstakingly sift through etymology, geography, history, and geometry. There's no escaping the fact that this particular book is intriguing, but it flew over this reader's head on numerous occasions; after a certain number of painstakingly presented geographic diagrams, it becomes unclear whether the author has resoundingly proved his point, or merely buried the general reader in a landslide of selectively edited evidence intent on proving a specific thesis. (For every map demonstrating, for example, lines connecting towns of a particular name or origin, I wondered about all the towns not depicted, and what alternative theories could be developed about them – and whether those theories might not have equal or greater supporting evidence.)
The second book that Robb has put together is a wonderful, lively, thought-provoking romp through history and geography. At the heart are the Druids, reduced by modern popular culture to a bunch of hooded, rustic weirdos fit for an episode of "Scooby-Doo" but are, historically speaking, an elite and profoundly powerful band of scholars who underwent 20 years of schooling in arts including the law, religious observance, diplomacy, science, and the machinations of the heaven. Robb praises the "Druids' genius for marrying mathematics and geography" and watching him work backward in time to decipher their thoughts is a true joy.
If you've ever suspected, hopefully, that there might be whole hidden, half-forgotten bodies of knowledge to rediscover, or hidden highways to walk, take heart: "The Discovery of Middle Earth" will take you on a grand tour of the ancient world's secrets.
James Norton is a Monitor contributor.