So, in the last week-ish, I have read two books. They were gripping and amazing, and both were read for entirely the wrong reasons. They were The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff and The Tain, Thomas Kinsella's version -- and, according to Kim McCone (Irish philologist) one of the finest translations for the common reader. (That said, I'm totally hitting the Cecile O'Rahilly version of recension 1, to which I have access and which access will be duly abused.)
The Eagle of the Ninth is, theoretically, a children's book, though how far it is specifically a children's book is debatable: The main character is of the age of majority, and most of his actions are as intense as they would be in a "mainstream" novel, albeit without much of a sexual component. The novel relates the story of Marcus Aquila, a young centurion in the roman army circa. 125AD-ish. He has been sent to Britain, where he is to take over command of a small frontier outpost. The takeover goes smoothly enough -- but within the first three chapters, the outpost has suffered a raid by marauding Dumnonii (I think), and, although the outpost is still held by the Romans, Marcus himself has had to leave the military. In the raid, he suffered a severe injury to his leg, which leaves him more or less crippled throughout the remainder of the book -- which, incidentally, goes on for a further 18 chapters. We hear about the leg.
Marcus' adventures really only begin, however, when he moves in with his uncle, a retired military man who now calls Britain his home. There, he encounters a young gladiator, Esca, who is a captured native Briton. He buys Esca as a slave -- and then volunteers to go on a mission into the wild north, to recapture the eagle mascot of his father's legion.
Oh yes, Marcus has his backstory: His father disappeared when he was very young, vanished in the wilds north of Hadrian's wall. The eagle of his legion -- without which the legion cannot be re-formed -- was lost there, too. Marcus dreams of being able to re-create his father's legion, and of retrieving the eagle and his father's honor. What follows is the tale of Marcus' travels north of the wall, trying to find the eagle. Along the way, he uncovers the truth about the end of the Ninth Hispana, and learns to live with life as it now is for him -- although Marcus is a young man, the book elegantly explores the idea that this is the last adventure of this kind he may ever have, his last opportunity to be a man of action in this particular way.
The setting was beautifully realized, too: The strangeness of the British natives was well-developed, and the reader easily caught the sense that she was reading about a completely different culture, one that has nothing to do with England and Englishness as it now exists. The author's love of history comes through in geeky detail (because I know my kind when I encounter it), such as her precise description of a British-style chariot, and the British characters' obsession with horses and their breeding. The relationship between the main character and Esca, the Briton who is helping him in his quest, is also well-handled. In fact, the only odd note in the book is the fact that the main character, who must be in his early twenties, is shown to be falling in love with a girl who has scarcely entered her teens. While this may have been acceptable in the time of the Romans (and there's some debate about how young they really did marry back then), it seems odd and kind of creepy to a modern reader.
However, the book easily transcends the young adult literature ghetto into which it has been shunted, and I recommend it highly. Of course, as I said, my reasons for reading it are all wrong, and are, in fact, singular: The release of the film of the book, combined with the book's ready availability around the school where I work, prompted me to read it. It am very glad I did; it was an excellent guide to how to write historical fiction.
Then I got on to The Tain.
The Eagle of the Ninth is a book that is said to be for children, mostly, I suspect, because it doesn't contain overt, gratuitous or graphic violence or sexuality. The Tain has all of those things, plus cussing pregnant women, bizarre shonen-animesque fight scenes, and casual references to bodily functions that we now build small, tiled rooms to hide. Did I mention the violence? And the homosexually-charged shonen-animesque fight scenes? Those were there, too.
Anyway, The Tain is Thomas Kinsella's version of Táin Bó Cúailnge, or, in English, The Cattle Raid of Cooley. This is an Irish myth cycle, which exists in three versions, two of which are more or less complete, though dating from long after the story was originally conceived, told, written or however you'd like to put it. The plot centers around Ailill and Mebd, the king and queen of Connacht, going on a cattle raid into neighboring Cooley (names here Anglicized to protect people who have tongues) to steal Dunn Cúailnge, the Brown Bull of Cooley.
The death toll is astronomical.
Because Mebd and Ailill didn't realize that they would be up against Cúchulainn, the seventeen-year-old war prodigy who can, apparently, turn himself inside out to further his success in battle (which transformations are, in the sole misstep of the book, translated as "warp-spasms" by Kinsella). He was also, the reader realizes with discomfort, wooing women, making babies and killing people by the age of five or so. At the beginning of the book, he pledges himself to Emer, but this is, apparently, forgotten fairly soon, because he has a child with another woman (which he kills by accident, because the kid looked at him wrong or something). He tends to run around in a silk apron, which is all kinds of wrong. He also has seven fingers on each hand and seven toes on each foot and seven pupils in each eye -- and is also, apparently, good-looking enough that the women following the Connacht army climb onto the shoulders of their men to have a look at him.
The comparisons to shonen anime are intentional, mind you, and serve a deeper purpose here: Like the best of that genre of popular culture, The Tain is both more than faintly ridiculous ("[He cast the gae bolgas] from the fork of his foot, and sent it casting toward Ferdia [...] and [it] went coursing through the highways and byways of his body so that every single joint was filled with barbs." I'm not kidding. Pages 196-7, OUP paperback 1970, if you don't believe me. And that's without the "millstone" that is apparently under Ferdia's... apron.) and intensely moving: Just after the parenthetically-quoted scene, Cúchulainn movingly mourns the loss of Ferdia, who was his foster brother (when he was training with the mother of his baby). This is after the seventeen-year-old has been the only man guarding the borders while all the other men of Ulster are down with the sickness (which was set on them by one of the aforementioned cussing pregnant women). Cúchulainn's desperation is as moving as Hector's mother weeping on the walls of Troy, and having to fight his foster brother to the death is the last straw. Fortunately, that's about when the Ulstermen finally get their act together and start kicking some Connacht ass.
Kinsella's retelling does a fantastic job of remaining true to the style of mythology, keeping in many of the long lists of names of people who never again appear in the story and the topographical digressions that would make Hardy blush (never have directions for getting from point A to point B been so slaveringly detailed as here). However, he never loses sight of the characterization: Cúchulainn, for all his ridiculous skill, is still seventeen, desperately trying to defend his home turf when no one else can; Fergus, the exiled Ulsterman who helps Ailill and Mebd on their stupid, vain raid, is convincingly conflicted about his role in the conflict. It is Mebd, however, who emerges at the most hilarious and unprecendented times. Her character is so modern, so fresh and funny and foul-mouthed, she might have walked off of the set of a modern action movie. From the pillow talk at the beginning, which sets the whole idiot-ball rolling, to the climactic battle scene (for the sake of delicacy, we'll say that her femininity sure can pick a time to show itself), she is both the reason for the plot -- it was her pride that set the Connachtmen on the cattle-raiding path -- and a great mover thereof. Besides that, we are told that she can hold her own in battle, and wields a big damn sword while riding around in her chariot. (And suggesting that three thousand men be killed because, as a unit within her army, they're too good at everything and will piss everyone else off. She does that, too -- quite early on, in fact).
In this case, I have one marginally valid reason for reading: I've had an idea in the back of my mind, which has so far manifested as about a thousand words of word-processor document, for a retelling of Táin Bó Cúailnge among the... hill people of the Appalachian mountains. (In mine, Donn Cúailnge is a mechanical bull heisted from a local bar when it went belly-up. And Cúchulainn is renamed Koocherlain -- or Koo for short.) This will, however, require further research, and many more giggles about millstones and the general bizarrerie of the thing.
The less valid and more pressing reason, however, is my long-time love for the Epic Rocking EP brought to you by some bookish person from Portland. Yes, it's all Colin Meloy and his friends' fault. (Not that I'm complaining.)
At any rate, the book I'm reading now has a picture of a big bloody ax on the cover. Hello, half-0term break! Where have you been since I received my copy of this axe-fronted book several days before my American friends got it?