THE DRUID KIND is a sweeping, soaring, crashing, and enchanting
historical novel by Norman Spinrad, a distinguished author best
known for speculative or science fiction. In this book he creates a
fictional life for Vercingetorix, who lived in what is now France
in the First Century BC. Although a hero to the French,
Vercingetorix is not well known in this country --- especially
since so few of us now encounter the memorable sentence: "Gallia
omnia divisa est in tres partes." That is the opening line of
Julius Caesar's GALLIC WARS, which not only made Caesar's
reputation in Rome but also made generations of young Latin
students either love or hate him. What history knows of
Vercingetorix --- and, for that matter, of the Druids --- comes
largely from Caesar. The rest is legend ... but who can say that
there is not in every myth a core of truth, or else why would these
stories endure through the centuries?
Vercingetorix's historical truth is just this: He was a Celt, a
warrior who managed to get the several fiercely independent tribes
of Gauls to unite in a final battle against the Romans, led by
Caesar, at the Siege of Alesia in 52 BC. Under the leadership of
Vercingetorix, the Gauls came very close at one point to defeating
the great Roman Army, but in the end the Romans won because of
their well-organized battle tactics. Vercingetorix surrendered
himself to Caesar, was taken to Rome in chains for exhibition in
one of Caesar's triumphal marches, and was either assassinated
there or allowed to kill himself by falling on his own sword ---
the Roman death with honor --- six years later.
This is a stirring and heartbreaking framework for a novel, and
Spinrad makes the most of it. He begins when Vercingetorix is
fourteen and witnesses his own father's ill-timed and ill-fated
attempt to crown himself King of Gaul, using the crown of Brenn.
Brenn is another historical figure, a Vandal warrior who had sacked
Rome on his way through before settling Gaul with his warriors. For
his audacity, Vercingetorix's father is imprisoned and burned
alive, an execution the boy witnesses before being rescued from a
similar fate by the Archdruid Guttuatr.
Guttuatr spirits Vercingetorix away to the forest and educates him
as a Druid. This part of Spinrad's tale, so far as I've been able
to find out by doing some research of my own, is pure fiction. But
never mind, it's a fine idea and makes for some grand reading.
Better than grand, it's magical --- the Druids themselves couldn't
ask for more. Guttuatr is a great character, much more true-to-life
than Gandalf or Dumbledore.
At the banquet where his father had made the unfortunate
proclamation, Vercingetorix met Marah, the fair-haired daughter of
one of the Gallic chieftains whose tribe was being held together
primarily by the widow, Marah's mother. Marah becomes the kind of
woman most heroes have in their lives, the remote beauty worshipped
from afar --- though she eventually proves not entirely
unattainable. But Vercingetorix has another woman in his life too.
Her name is Rhia --- she is an amazon who teaches him the martial
arts and later becomes his faithful fighting companion.
There is historic precedence for having an amazon warrior alongside
Vercingatorix. Here, as in the rest of his tale, Spinrad pushes the
envelope of imagination, but not too far. He is extremely skilled
in taking his readers right up to, but never over, the top. In the
case of the amazon, those who like to check out the real history
behind the story may recall that the Celts who settled France,
England, Scotland, Ireland and parts of Spain and were in fact the
remote ancestors of so many people who ultimately ended up in the
United States, came originally from the steppes of Asia. They were
nomadic horsemen. One strain of these nomads went East to become
the Mongols, one went West and became the Celts, and along the way
it is most likely true that a substantial body of women warriors
broke off to remain in Asia Minor --- since called amazons. At any
rate, Rhia is another wonderful character.
What is best about this book is the language, which will transport
you. Spinrad tells a story that is chockfull of vivid details in
which the Celtic, Latin and Germanic cultures are all accurately
but never boringly brought to life. The battle scenes near the end
of the book are particularly arousing, and Vercingetorix's ultimate
surrender amid the bravery of his Celtic warriors is
Norman Spinrad has been living in Paris lately. The French should
be thankful to him, not only for making his home among them, but
also for bringing one of their epochal heroes to life.
Reviewed by Ava Dianne Day on January 21, 2011