July 15, 2010


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Druids: A Very Short Introduction, by Barry Cunliffe, Oxford University Press, 2010, 145 pages.

A word about the Very Short Introduction series from OUP: they’re not all that short. They’re small, easy to stick in a pocket or handbag, but they still contain a lot of words. They’re just written in very very small type.

That said, I do think they mostly live up to the tagline, “stimulating ways in to new subjects.”

There are 200+ books in the series, on everything from Art Theory and German Literature to The Laws of Thermodynamics and The History of Medicine, each written by an academic expert on the subject.

One of the newest is this entry on Druids.

Don’t expect bullet points and inset boxes; this is not Cliff’s Notes. It’s written in straight prose with academic parlance — what do you expect from an emeritus professor of European Archaelogy at the University of Oxford? — but with every paragraph separated from the next by a blank line, lending an impression of bite-size pieces. Complex, erudite pieces, but bite-size.

“The literature on the Druids and the world that they inhabited is huge, varying from the sober and scholarly to the frankly lunatic,” Cunliffe writes — all the more reason to pick up this VSI as a starting point. And for some of us, an ending point: between these covers is just enough to make you not completely ignorant if someone mentions “druid” at a cocktail party. In fact the last chapter, titled “So, who were the Druids?,” might do it for you. We don’t exactly know the answer, so much of this book is given over to competing theories and evidence. Cunliffe ends by discussing modern “Celtomania” and neodruidism — self-styled pagan types calling themselves druids and gathering for the summer solstice, etc.

There’s apparently a new VSI book on the Tudors as well, which might be of interest to those of you who’ve been watching the Showtime series.

Whatever your interest, Oxford’s Very Short Introductions are a good place to look. See www.oup.co.uk/general/vsi for a complete list of titles. B+ — Lisa Parsons