Monday, November 01, 2010

Finn Mac Cool!

Our books today are organically connected through the living tissue of the Silent Majority! Many of you wrote to thank me for my recent appreciation of the fiction of Rosemary Sutcliff, and a couple of you expanded those thanks by mentioning other writers who've been somewhat overlooked by the masses – including the mighty Morgan Llywelyn ('mighty' here purely in the aesthetic sense, since the lady herself would fit comfortably inside the your average bread-box).

And what better way to bridge the gap between those two authors than with the same subject matter? For in 1967 Sutcliff wrote The High Deeds of Finn Mac Cool, and in 1994 Llywelyn wrote Finn Mac Cool – two novels separated by 25 years, both dealing with the legendary Irish hero Finn Mac Cool and his band of greyhound warriors, the Fianna. Those legends have been adapted many times in Irish literature, most notably and tiresomely in Joyce's Finnegans Wake, and with good reason: Finn's story, the Fiannaidheacht in all its glory, represents the last glinting of bright sunlight on the shield-bronze of of Irish mytho-history. Almost immediately after the period of its flourishing, Christianity swept through the island like a plague, converting heroism to piety and transforming sensible, healthy polytheistic violence into a bureaucratic monotheism wrapping even more systematic violence in the cloak of hypocrisy. CĂș Chulainn and his ilk withered at the first poisonous touch of the Beatitudes, and all that remained was for well-intentioned geldings to travel about the country dutifully collecting oral traditions, asking every stooped, ancient old Oisin “So tell me, what filthy, heathen tales were you foolish enough to believe, before we came?”

The story of Finn and his men is one of the best of those stories, as both Sutcliff and Llywelyn clearly saw. And both decide to retell the story in intentionally anachronistic phrasings, to put before their readers the sound and feel of vanished days. Here's Sutcliff on the grueling initiation rituals of the Fianna:
It was not easy to join the Fianna, and many tried and failed, for Finn ruled that no man should become one of the proud brotherhood without passing many tests. A warrior must be skilful as well as brave, and to prove his skill, the young man who wished to join their number must first, with only a shield and hazel rod, defend himself against nine men posted all around him while standing in a hole in the ground, so that he could not move from the hips down. If one of the spears they cast at him so much as grazed his skin or drew one drop of blood, he was not taken. Then his hair was plaited into a score of braids, and he was hunted through the woods by others of the Fianna; and if he was wounded or run down, if his spear trembled in his hand, or a single strand of hair broke loose from its braiding, or if a dry twig cracked under his running feet, he was not taken. Then he must leap over a branch set at his own height above the ground, and run under another set level with his knee, and still running he must pull a thorn out of his foot without slackening speed. If he passed all these tests, he must still know the Twelve Books of Poetry, and be able to recite long passages from them; and he must have by heart a score or more of the ancient tales in which was hidden the secret lore and the history of Erin. And if he could do all these things, he was taken.

And then a quarter of a century later, here's Llywelyn on the same subject:
He had not been a day in Tara before everyone knew he was a changed man. He radiated a white heat. If before he had been ambitious for himself and his fennidi, now he was manic, demanding more than was humanly possible even for them. He fell upon the men Goll had been satisfactorily drilling and forced them to double their exertions, driving them out of some exploding force of his own that eventually communicated itself to them until they were as frantic as he. Javelins were hurled farther that day on the Hill of Tara than any javelin had ever been hurled in Erin.

Thus began the epoch of the Fianna. During its duration, it would create imperishable legend.

Men who had been born to subjugated tribes and raised in louse-ridden, flea-infested huts stinking of urine and rotting meat would be elevated to a form of nobility, admired and emulated, entertained royally and laden with gifts of the finest craftsmanship. Every child would know their names. Every poet would celebrate their deeds. They would range the length and width of the island as Cormac Mac Airt consolidated his control, bringing all Erin under the overlordship of Tara as even his grandfather had never done.

There's a great glance of both writers striking a clean, epic tone, and both of them sustain it wonderfully for the lengths of their Finn books. Of course we've already covered how many other wonderful books Sutcliff wrote, and the same goes for Llewelyn: in novel after novel (most certainly including her masterpiece, The Lion of Ireland, which deserves a consideration of its own here at Stevereads, in another big post on epic historical novels), she writes strong, evocative prose designed purely to entertain. There's a thorough lack of pretension about her writing that plants her squarely in the great Irish tradition of Mary Lavin and Liam O'Flaherty – her prose doesn't, as it were, mess around: it gets down to business right there at the kitchen table; it weaves strong, simple stories by the fireside. She trusts always that she need not tell her readers that valor is better than spite, that there's a strength in virtue, and that there need be no apology for things having a beginning, a middle, and an end.

I don't know how directly Llywelyn might have been influenced by Sutcliff – certainly she had to feel a presence over her shoulder while writing Finn Mac Cool – but in any case, those old legends produced two fine books that look very good side-by-side on the shelf.

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