Double-Header Book Review: The Celtic Empire by Peter Berresford Ellis and Celtic Empire by Clive Cussler

photo of a statue showing Celtic warriors in chariot

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If you’re anything like I was (prior to my Celtic history enlightenment), your version of the history of the ancient Celts probably goes something like this:

The Celts were a bunch of fierce, tribal warriors who painted themselves blue and gave the Romans tons of grief. Originally from Gaul (i.e. Old France—France before it got all Frenchified), the Celts ended up in Ireland and Scotland and other territories on the fringes of northwestern Europe, where elements of their culture (e.g. their language, their music) continue to this day.

Bada-bing bada-boom, put a golden torc around my neck and let’s call it a day. That’s Celtic history.

Only…I knew this wasn’t the whole story. Recognizing my own profound ignorance, I set out on a quest for a definitive book on Celtic history so that I might expand my measly, meager, mite-sized knowledge of the subject. 

Luckily, historian Peter Berresford Ellis, author of A Dictionary of Irish Mythology, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, and The Mammoth Book of Celtic Myths and Legends, had produced such a book in 1990, facetiously titled The Celtic Empire. 

Facetiously, because (and this was something I did already know) the Celts never maintained a centralized empire the way the Macedonians did under Alexander the Great, or the way the Romans did under Julius Caesar. Ellis admits as much in the opening pages of his book:

“I have chosen the title The Celtic Empire for this history perhaps somewhat mischievously. Any resemblance to empires as we know them…is in fact spurious. There emerges no known sustained series of Celtic emperors having supreme and extensive political dominion over numerous subject peoples.”

source: The Celtic Empire: The First Millennium of Celtic History, 1000 BC – AD 51

So, why give the book such a title? Apart from the purposes of evocation and provocation, Ellis provides the following justification:

“[D]uring the period of Celtic expansion, Celtic tribes and confederations of tribes spread through the ancient world challenging all who opposed them and settling as the dominant people in the areas they conquered. In this fashion they spread down the Iberian peninsula, into northern Italy and east through what is now [the Czech Republic and Slovakia], along the Danube valley as far as the Black Sea, moving on into Asia Minor…”

source: The Celtic Empire: The First Millennium of Celtic History, 1000 BC – AD 51

While the Celts lacked an emperor and a centralized, far-reaching government, as a collection of tribes they still managed to dominate much of Europe. And it is through the lens of these Celtic conquests that Ellis organizes his eye-opening book.

With each chapter, we follow the Celts as they storm the battlefields of Italy, the Iberian Peninsula, Cisalpine Gaul, Greece, and beyond. Only in the closing chapters do we learn about the Celts of Ireland and Britain.

Admittedly, the chapter on Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain is my favorite. While at times Ellis’s The Celtic Empire can feel a bit dry—it is a history book, after all—the more narrative-driven portions, such as Caesar’s invasion of Britain, are riveting. You can almost feel yourself trudging through the surf into the onslaught of Celtic arrows and javelins. Alternately, you can imagine yourself riding in a Celtic war chariot, the spoked wheels thundering beneath you, their scythes mowing down enemy combatants.

irish warrior in chariot wielding spear
“Cuchulain in Battle”, illustration by J. C. Leyendecker in T. W. Rolleston’s Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race, 1911 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

And at this point I must ask the question: 

How is it that a book of history can be more captivating than a book of adventure/fantasy fiction?

This is what my mind wrestled with when I started reading Celtic Empire (2019), authored by the late Clive Cussler and co-authored by his son Dirk Cussler. The latest installation in the Dirk Pitt series, I uncovered the book by chance while searching for a copy of Ellis’s similarly titled work of history, and I took this discovery as a sign from Lugh (or perhaps Lir would be more appropriate).

Because here’s the thing: I grew up on Clive Cussler. I am very, very familiar with the aquatic adventures of NUMA-operative Dirk Pitt and many of the other characters of the Cusslerverse. My father, a former scuba enthusiast who’d done a brief stint in the Navy, kept piles of Clive Cussler paperbacks around the house. I devoured them. They were fast-paced. Action-packed. And always there was some intriguing bit of history and/or mythology at their core.

When Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came out back in 2008, my reaction was: What the hell is this story? You could buy the rights to virtually any Clive Cussler novel, replace Pitt with Jones, and (Sahara notwithstanding) you’d have a sure-fire hit on your hands.

Well, that’s what I thought back then, anyway.

A few pages into Celtic Empire, I wasn’t sure I could finish reading it. The word “horrendous” comes to mind. But I kept telling myself, no, this is the genre; it’s not meant to be a literary masterpiece; just ignore the prose and focus on the story, like you would with The Da Vinci Code or any other Dan Brown novel.

But focusing on the story didn’t help. Not a bit. It is a globe-trotting, convoluted mess of coincidences, quips, and clichés. And the worst affront of all: In a novel titled Celtic Empire, there is hardly any content pertaining to Celtic history or Celtic mythology. Spoiler alert: The big “reveal” is simply a retelling of a theory that an Egyptian princess, Scota, is an ancestor of the modern Irish and Scottish.

This theory is such a nothing-burger in the scope of Celtic history that Ellis spends less than a page on it in his book. Here’s what he writes about it:

“Irish traditions has it that Milesius married Scota, the daughter of the Pharaoh, and two sons Eber and Amairgen were born in Egypt. A third son, Ir, was born on the island of Irena near Thrace after Milesius and his followers left Egypt. A fourth son, Colpa, was born on the island of Gotia. Milesius eventually returned to Spain. Here he learned of the death of Ith, given as his nephew, in Ireland – slain by Mac Cecht, Mac Cuill and Mac Greine, the three sons of Ogma, the Irish god of eloquence and learning – and he decided to take revenge by conquering Ireland. But he did not reach Ireland, although his wife Scota did. She was killed fighting the De Danaan and was buried in Kerry. It was Milesius’ sons who carried out the conquest and became the ancestors of the Gaelic people of Ireland. Although the story is classified as mythology, frequently mythology is based on fact and the native origin-myth of the Irish has enough correlation with historical fact to make it a case for fascinating speculation.”

source: The Celtic Empire: The First Millennium of Celtic History, 1000 BC – AD 51

And speculate the Cusslers did, though little of it is fascinating. Their novel eventually takes the main characters—after much dallying in El Salvador, Washington D.C., Detroit, and Egypt—to Ireland, where in a very Moana-esque scene some ancient ships are discovered inside a secret island cave. (And of course, the island in question is Skellig Michael, because of course it is.)

photo of Skellig Michael off the Irish coast
Skellig Michael

In the end, the “Celtic Empire” referred to in the novel is effectively… Ireland, which makes even less sense than the “Celtic Empire” of its non-fiction title twin. Because even when Ireland was united under a High King at Tara, it wasn’t an empire; it was a kingdom. What’s more, if the novel is assuming an Egyptian origin of the Irish, wouldn’t the title “Egyptian Empire” be more fitting? I mean, you’d think at least a few Celts would show up in this story about a Celtic Empire.

But I digress…

Choosing a favorite part of the Cusslers’ Celtic Empire is a daunting task, but if I were forced to at harpoon-point, there is a very Bondian subplot at a Scottish castle involving mind-control that I at least found entertaining. (And of course, said Scottish castle is on the banks of Loch Ness, because of course it is.)

With such a rich history to pluck from, it boggles the mind that the Cusslers went this route with their story. For example, did you know that the ancient Celts once sacked Delphi, home of the sacred oracle, and made off with all of the treasure that folks had left there in tribute? That’s a real thing that happened! And Ellis spends a whole chapter on it in his book. Where is that adventure novel? The Lost Treasure of Delphi. Should I start writing it? (Fine, I’ll start writing it…)

Looking back, I’m forced to wonder: Have the Dirk Pitt novels always been as bad as Celtic Empire, and my teenaged brain was just too underdeveloped to notice it, or has there been a slip in quality over the years as the younger Cussler increasingly took over the reins from his late father? Being the cynical blue-collar bastard that I am, I’m always dubious of children riding the coattails of their parents, so I suspect the latter.

That being said, I wish the novel were better. I really wanted to like it.

If I could turn back time, I’d get my hands on a copy of Peter Berresford Ellis’s The Celtic Empire sooner and send it to the Cusslers so they could make their Celtic Empire the fantasy/adventure masterpiece I wanted it to be.

Grab your copy of The Celtic Empire by Peter Berresford Ellis.

Irish Myths rating: ☘️☘️☘️☘️ (4/5)

Per the publisher: “European recorded history north of the Alps begins with the Celts. At their height, they stretched over the ancient world from Ireland and Britain to Turkey and Czechoslovakia, from Belgium and Gaul to Spain and Italy. They sacked Rome, invaded Greece, and even attempted to take over the Egypt of the Ptolemy pharaohs. Yet theirs was an empire without an emperor, a civilization that encompassed the continent but had no central government. To tell its history, Ellis matches his storytelling talents with the firsthand and classical accounts of the Celtic empire.” Learn more…

For the morbidly curious, check out Celtic Empire by Clive Cussler.

Irish Myths rating: ☘️ (1/5)

Per the publisher: “The murders of a team of United Nations scientists in El Salvador. . . A deadly collision in the waterways off the city of Detroit. . . An attack by tomb raiders on an archaeological site along the banks of the Nile. . . Is there a link between these violent events? The answer may lie in the tale of an Egyptian princess forced to flee the armies of her father three thousand years ago.” Learn more…

P.S. Love Celtic history and Celtic mythology?

I have a hunch you’ll enjoy Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy.

Per the publisher: “A collection of 17 short stories, NEON DRUID mixes urban fantasy and Celtic mythology, creating a universe where lecherous leprechauns and debaucherous druids inhabit the local pubs, and where shapeshifting water spirits from Scotland and sword-wielding warriors from Ireland lurk in the alleyways. Stories range from tales of supernatural horror, to street-level fantasy adventures, to farcical, whiskey-drenched fairytales.” Learn more…

P.P.S. Prefer audiobooks to traditional books? You can snag 3 months of Audible Premium Plus for free using this link.

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