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The Celts were smarter than we think

Graham Robb is an ambling historian. His best-known book, "The Discovery of France," was based on his travels over 14,000 miles of road by bicycle. France, he argued, is not the culturally homogenous whole it's typically assumed to be, but an assemblage of distinct and often insular local cultures. As Robb sees it, history, and especially its concealed but detectable residue, can be better understood up close, by putting your feet on the ground where it happened.

Perhaps fittingly, then, Robb's new book, "The Discovery of Middle-Earth," constitutes a detour. I should state immediately that this work has nothing to do with J.R.R. Tolkien, and was published under the title "The Ancient Paths" in the U.K., where Robb lives. But "The Discovery of Middle-Earth" might well appeal to the more cerebral and historically inclined portion of the Tolkien fan base, and the title is not inappropriate: Long before Tolkien adopted the name Middle-earth for his imaginary land, the term was used by Celtic and Nordic people for the world we inhabit, halfway between the realm of the gods and the underworld.

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