Jun 7 2009 11:59am

Being clever with mythology: John James’s Votan and Not For All the Gold in Ireland

John James only wrote three books that I’m aware of: Votan, Not For All the Gold in Ireland, and the much more serious novelization of the Goddodin, Men Went to Cattraeth. They were all published as mainstream in the late sixties and republished as fantasy in the late eighties, and as far as I can see, nobody bought them. I don’t think they’ve ever had US publication. They’re historical novels with a tiny touch of the fantastic, but what makes them interesting is that they’re historical novels that purport to explain the origin stories for mythology—in Votan, the whole adventures of Odin from the various sagas, and in Not For All the Gold in Ireland, half of the Mabinogion and the Tain. They’re the kind of thing where the more you know about the mythology the funnier and cleverer they are, so of course I like Not For All the Gold in Ireland more, because Celtic myth is one of my specialist subjects.

Votan begins:

Well, if you really want to know how it was I came to be chained to an oak tree, half way up in the middle of nowhere, with wolves trying to eat me out of it, I’ll tell you. Of course, it’s not nearly as interesting as what happened afterwards, but you can piece that together yourself if you go down to any of the taverns around the Praetorian barracks and listen to that the soldiers sing. If you can understand German, of course.

The idea is that Photinus, a smartass Greek-speaking Roman in the first century AD, went out of the empire and got into complicated trouble, mostly caused by women, in which the exploits of Odin make sense, or almost sense, and Photinus comes to be worshipped as a god while continuing himself to worship Apollo. In Not For All the Gold in Ireland he goes to Britain and Ireland in AD 70 and while trying to get back a contract takes on the role of Manannan. Then he goes to Ireland, where there isn’t any gold, just as the Romans are about to conquer it, except that of course they don’t, and runs into the characters and events of the Tain. The book has one of those endings where everything goes down like dominoes.

I don’t normally like books that are intended to be funny. They don’t often match my sense of humour and I tend to get irritated by them. (I do not, for instance, like the Discworld books.) These are no exception, there are things in them that irritate me. But they’re so cleverly put together, and they know their material so very well that I’ll forgive them the occasional tedious joke about how the girls of Lutetia Parisii know nothing about fashion. Mostly the history, both inside and outside the classical world, is accurate to what was known as of when they were written, and while the idea of one Roman setting off so much mayhem is inherently ridiculous, it’s also charming, and not entirely intended seriously.

These are just the thing to keep your spirits up if you’re feeling a little under the weather.

Paul Eisenberg
1. HelmHammerhand
Thanks for making me aware of these, they sound quite up my proverbial alley.
2. Foxessa
Another forgotten trilogy, which was, alas, obscure even when published, is Leslie Barringer's Neustrian cycle: Gerfalcon, Joris of the Rock and The Shy Leopardess. They are stand alones, but if you read all three of them, they are a much richer reading experience. They too have hints here and there of real magic, and magic, or witchcraft, as it may well have been believed and practiced in the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries of Europe. I still re-read these books.

Here's a bit more information on wiki:

The entry states these three book are available in e-book format.
Paul Howard
3. DrakBibliophile
The Leslie Barringer books are available as ebooks. See:
4. Jon Meltzer
So, is this guy a first century Harry Flashman?
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
Jon: He's a lot closer to Flashman than anything else. He's not a coward, but he's not a heroic hero either!

Foxessa: The Shy Leopardess is the only one of those I've read, and I haven't read that for a long time and I'd forgotten all about it. They had it in the school library. I shall keep an eye out for the others.
7. Jeff Herbert
John James has long been a favourite of mine. Votan is brilliant as is the sequel. At the end of For All the Gold he and the other hero's are on ship heading west. I believe he planned a third book in South America with Photinus as the White God. I wonder... if this exists in his notes.

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