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This Happy Breed of Men, This Little World/This Precious Stone Set In A Silver Sea

Most of us will recognize the following:

There is not one foot of British ground, not one handsbreadth of soil in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales that has not been drenched with blood — my own blood — the same that courses through my veins. In every war, I have had kin on both sides.

All over the Isles they have marched and countermarched, fought, bled and died, or conquered — men whose blood is in me: Gael, Briton, Saxon, Dane, Norman; Irishmen, Scotchmen, Englishmen.

Along comes an Oxford geneticist, Dr. Stephen Oppenheimer, to assert that all of the Britannia-bloodying tribes and peoples Howard listed were in fact “immigrant minorities compared with the Basque pioneers who first ventured into the chilly, empty lands so recently vacated by the great ice sheets.” His article “Myths of British Ancestry” serves as a calling card for his 2006 book The Origins of the British: A Genetic Detective Story , which occasioned a New York Times article this week, “A United Kingdom? Maybe” by Nicholas Wade.

For Oppenheimer, author of the earlier Out of Eden: The Peopling of the World, the British Isles are “a genetic time capsule of southwestern Europe during the ice age.” He regards the notion of “a grand iron-age Celtic culture in the center of the continent, which shrank to a Western rump” once the legions marched north and westward, as hopelessly outmoded, and drop-kicks “migrationism,” that war-fueled motor of “The Hyborian Age,” on the basis of fact-gathering employing Y chromosomes and maternally bequeathed mitochondrial DNA. Prior to its repopulation by far-striding Iberians, Oppenheimer posits an unpeopled Britain “wiped clean of people by glaciers that had smothered northern Europe for about 4,000 years.” (But can we be sure? What about the ancestors of the Worms of the Earth?) He speculates that the possibly non-Celtic Belgae who straddled the Channel may have been responsible for English as “a separate, fourth branch of the Germanic language before the Roman invasion,” and draws upon the work of Dr. Peter Forster of Anglia Ruskin University, who, as the NYT article puts it, sees “the Angles and the Saxons [as] both really Viking peoples who began raiding Britain ahead of the accepted historical schedule.” Ahem–score one for Robert E. Howard!

Although Oppenheimer doubts the genetic impact of the Celtic, Saxon, and Danish influxes, the NYT article does go for fair-and-balanced by mentioning the work of Mark Thomas of University College, London, who estimates that Hengist, Horsa, & Co. “wiped out substantial numbers of the indigenous population, replacing 50 to 100 percent of those in central England,” judging from the near-identical twinning of English Y chromosomes to those of Norwegian and Frieslander men.

Nicholas Wade understatedly observes “The implication that the Irish, English, Scottish and Welsh have a great deal in common with each other, at least from the geneticist’s point of view, seems likely to please no one,” and we can be certain that neither Howard nor Lovecraft would have been likely to Basque in the afterglow of Oppenheimer’s revisionism (What is it with guys named Oppenheimer and explosive paradigm-shifts?) And now I will probably set off a stampede for the exits by bringing in a third figure of a stature at least equal to HPL’s and REH’s, but my excuse is another invasion mentioned by Wade, that of the turf of “historical linguists” by geneticists eager to dust off a technique for assigning dates to language “mutations” called “glottochronology.” Enter J. R. R. Tolkien, who gave his lecture “English and Welsh” at Oxford on October 21, 1955 (which just happened to be the day after The Return of the King was published!) As is well-known in Tolkien studies, his invented language Sindarin was in part a tribute to the beauties of Welsh, and in the lecture he readily admits that the Cymri tongue rather elvishly “belongs to [the land] with a seniority which we cannot overtake.”

Tolkien quickly chastises “the view of the process which established the English language in Britain as a simple case of ‘Teutons’ driving out and dispossessing ‘Celts’ as altogether too simple. There was fusion and confusion.” He anticipates Oppenheimer by insisting from his philological perspective that “neither Celtic nor Germanic forms of speech belong in origin to these islands. They are both invaders, and by similar routes. The bearers of these languages have clearly never extirpated the peoples of other language that they found before them.” We can imagine a withering stare directed at both Howard and Lovecraft when Tolkien follows the word “races” with the remark, “whatever that much-misused word may mean in the long-blended history of western Europe.” A reference to “Julius Caesar’s ill-considered and deservedly ill-fated incursion” suggests that JRRT might have enjoyed both Mundy’s Tros of Samothrace and “Kings of the Night.”

Where Oppenheimer interprets the paucity of surviving place names with a burr or brogue to them in the “English” part of the island as disproving a thoroughly Celtic Britain, Tolkien in his lecture invokes the “ancient pre-English, pre-Roman name of Kent” and speculates (with professional longing) about “fragments of forgotten Neolithic or Bronze Age tongues, celticized, romanized, anglicized, ground down by the wear of time” (exactly the effect, of course, that he simulated so brilliantly in the nomenclatures of Beleriand and Middle-earth). And now, an aside from a northeasterner/New Englander — when it comes to enduring place names, the difference between unconvincing overdubs and transplants like “New York,” “New Hampshire,” or “New London” and autochthonously rootsy names like “Connecticut” and “Massachussetts” makes the latter seem as embedded in their native soil as fossils or mineral deposits.

The professor makes short work of any oversimplified opposition of the kilted or woad-smeared to the dragon-prowed:

The inhabitants of Britain “are and were not either ‘Celts’ or “Teutons” according to the modern myth that still holds such an attraction for many minds. In this legend Celts and Teutons are primitive and immutable creatures like a triceratops and a stegosaurus (bigger than a rhinoceros and more pugnacious, as popular palaeontologists depict them), fixed not only in shape but in innate and mutual hostility, and endowed even in the mists of antiquity as ever since with the peculiarities of mind and temper which can still be observed in the wild incalculable poetic Celt, full of vague and misty imaginations, and the Saxon, solid and practical when not under the influence of beer.

(The dinosaurian simile in that passage is a delightful reminder that Tolkien had only just deployed the most memorable of all crypto-dactyls on the battlefield of ROTK: the Lord of the Nazgul’s featherless, fetid, and fell flying steed) He continues “According to such a view Beowulf, though in English, must, I should say, be far more Celtic — being full of dark and twilight, and laden with sorrow and regret — than most things that I have met written in a Celtic language.” Must. . .be far more Celtic; nowadays it’s difficult to read that without thinking of Seamus Heaney’s much-loved Beowulf: A New Verse Translation from 2000.

Ah well, here’s hoping this is of at least passing interest; although the generalization might not hold true for Howard fandom as a whole, REHupa has always been dominated by Irish-Americans, the Scots-Irish, and, yes, a few Anglo-Saxons rooting for Athelstane. Sure and the cultural, as opposed to genetic, gulfs between the peoples of the Isles set in a silver sea aren’t going anywhere, especially in historical or fantasy fiction (see Guy Gavriel Kay’s wonderful 2004 novel The Last Light of the Sun for a collision between only slightly fantasticated “Welsh,” “Saxon,” and “Norse” cultures). My opinion, as someone who, like REH, is burdened with an Anglo surname? Chances are, this is all just another Sassenach trick — they can only be trusted about as far as I can toss the Tower of London.