Friday, March 18, 2016

The High Deeds of Finn MacCool, by Rosemary Sutcliff (Reprise)

It comes to me rather shockingly that I haven't read a lot of literature by Irish authors. This must be remedied, it simply isn't proper. However, I did put on hold at the library one of my favorite Irish books I've read so far: The High Deeds of Finn MacCool, by Rosemary Sutcliff. Finn is the epitome of Irish spirit: reckless, romantic, kingly, savage. His legends are thought-provoking, and coupled with Sutcliff's beautiful writing, it makes for an enjoyable read. In celebration of St. Patrick's Day yesterday, I thought I would re-post a review I wrote in 2014, about The High Deeds of Finn MacCool. If you've never read this book, or are uncomfortable with the idea of mythology, this post will give you some food for thought. 

“I saw a house by a river’s shore,
famed through Erin in days of yore,
I saw to the south a bright-faced queen,
With couch of crystal and robe of green.”


I have some writing friends who are very nice to keep me supplied with stories. They've introduced me to Sutcliff, and very recently, lover of all things Irish that I am, one of them introduced me to Finn MacCool. He's the Robin Hood of Ireland, the King Arthur of Eire, and his Fianna can equal the Knights of the Round Table--or perhaps edge them out. Because as fine and grand as English legend is, the Irish fuse legend with soul-glory in a way that the British simply can't touch. Finn MacCool and his Fianna (the band of warriors) star in a collection mighty exploits, none of which are real, but which have been handed down through Ireland's generations and re-written time and time again. 

What better way to meet this epic hero than through Rosemary Sutcliff's beautiful retellings? 

I'm new to the whole realm of legends and myths. I didn't read a lot of them growing up, and I'm still rather wary of them. So when I review this book today, I'm actually still thinking about it, and I haven't reached a conclusion one way or another. But I think it's sometimes fruitful to review books and clarify my thoughts by explaining them to others, and that's what I hope to do today. If you love Ireland and old legends, you'll probably love Sutcliff's Legends of Finn MacCool. If you don't love legends in the first place--well, this book probably won't be the one to make you fall in love with them.  

The Book

It was told of [Finn] that his sense of justice was so sure and so unbreakable that if he had to give judgment in a quarrel between a stranger and his own son, he would be as fair to the stranger as to his son--and as fair to his son as to the stranger. It was told of him that he was so generous that if the leaves falling from the trees in autumn were gold and the foam on the salt sea waves was silver, Finn would give it all away to any who asked him. It was told of him also that he had another side, a dark-of-the-moon side, and could forgive an injury, laughing, but knew also how to nurse an old hate through the years, to the death of the man he hated. 
~The Legends of Finn MacCool, Sutcliff

 When the great Irish warrior Cumhaill, captain of the Irish Fianna warriors, was killed in battle, his enemies took over the leadership of his men, and his wife fled to raise his baby son in the safety of the wilderness. The baby's name was Finn, and in our English way of writing Irish names, he is now called Finn Mac Cool instead of Finn Mac Cumhaill.

Finn grew up in the wilderness learning the art of war and leadership; and when he had grown and was ready to win back the position that rightfully belonged to him, he journeyed to the High King at Tara and demanded his birthright of Captain of the Fianna. Goll mac Morna, his father's killer, endeavored to laugh him off, but the king heard his plea and gave him a test.

For twenty-three years, an evil enemy of Tara, Aillen, had lulled the assembled guests to sleep and then burned the castle to the ground once a year. The Fianna could not stand against his music, and the High King set the price that if Finn could keep the thatch on Tara on the night of her impending destruction, then he could have back the leadership of the men his father led so many years ago. 

Eager for his heritage, vowing to conquer, Finn took up his father's shield and spear to stand watch, and killed Aillen, so that Tara stood unscathed throughout the night. Goll mac Morna, his father's slayer, was forced to make way and join the ranks of the men under Finn. 

It was thus that Finn Mac Cool won back his heritage. But that was only the beginning, for then he had to make good on his word to keep his beloved Ireland free from invaders without and treachery within.

And it would truly cost this Captain of the Fianna everything he held dear to remain faithful to his trust. 

My Thoughts 

via Pinterest

"I have kept the thatch on Tara," Finn said.


There are many stories of Finn's exploits, just like there are many stories of the Knights of the Round Table. My favorite excerpts from Sutcliff's retellings were the tale of Diarmid and Grania, (about Finn's feud with his most loyal warrior over a beautiful princess) the Tale of Finn's Boyhood (how he kept the thatch on Tara all night. Glorious stuff.)  and the Hostel of the Quicken Trees. I loved the Hostel of the Quicken Trees most of all. When Finn and several of his warriors were imprisoned, about to be surrounded by a horde of men, and unable to call for help, his two sons held the ford against the enemy and laid down their lives for their father most valiantly.

But by far, the most glorious, epic story of them all was the Battle of Gavra, the last stand of Finn and his Fianna. Don't read that one until you've read a few others. You want to be fully acquainted with Finn first. And most of all, don't read ahead. The story is deeply moving when read in its proper sequence

Diarmid O'Dyna was my favorite man of the Fianna. Brave, strong, principled, the essence of sacrificial love and loyalty, he's definitely a warrior you want on your side. Oisin, Finn's son, was another favorite, along with warm-hearted Osca, his grandson. 
Now for legends in general.

If you're comfortable with King Arthur, you'll love Finn. If you're a little leery of King Arthur, you'll find the exact same things to be leery about here. 

Finn's stories have pathos and love, sacrifice and friendship, fostering and family and hearth fires. They have battle and glory and dedication, hard work, brotherhood, undying loyalty, and affection. These are themes that any Christian can take delight in and see as good things from God. All good stories, or all good elements in stories, come from God himself, for He is the source of all good. 

But Sutcliff's retellings also include other things that aren't so glorious. Some things are just plain odd. This is one of those books where selective reading is probably the best way to handle it--pick out the good, read it, rejoice in it, and let your soul glow with the last stand of the men of the Fianna. And then when you come to the pages about fairies dancing spells around pools of water--it's up to your personal convictions whether you'd prefer to skim or whether you'd like to read those parts too. There is no explicit magic detail; Sutcliff tells it gently and thoughtfully. But you can't get away from the fairy detail altogether. 

If anything, the legends of Finn are like any other author--Tolkien, Lewis, Spenser--they have elements that make you laugh and cry with sheer wonder, and others that leave you with a raised eyebrow wondering "Why did they put that in?" 

I chose to read Sutcliff's stories of Finn for several reasons. First of all, her version does not contain gods and goddesses; that would have been farther than I was comfortable taking it at present. It had some fantasy elements, definitely, but they were within my boundary line. Actually, part of the thing to realize about Finn is that he lives with his men in pre-Christian Ireland, and therefore, lives in a culture of bondage. They believe in superstition because the gospel has not yet reached their land, and they have darkness, yet time and again you see God's law of right and wrong written on their hearts, and the Fianna are blessed or destroyed as they keep or break that law. 

Second, I wanted to get a basic introduction to Irish culture. It seemed appropriate, as part of their history, just like it's appropriate to be familiar with Arthur and Robin Hood, who have so fundamentally shaped British culture. These stories wouldn't endure for so long if there wasn't a reason to make them last, and it is through the legends or stories of a people that you learn what they love and value most. In the legends of Finn MacCool, I see a culture longing desperately for a mighty king and savior. Oftentimes authors create in their stories what they are missing in real life, and these unevangelized Irish people were writing stories about a Captain who could lead them to peace and happiness. Jesus Christ is the Captain of our salvation and the King of Kings, but they didn't know that, and so they created a misty shadow of what they needed until Patrick came with the real Gospel and the real King to set them free. 

And thirdly, I wanted to use it as a springboard to start the conversation with friends of how Christians should view legends. For the purposes of today's post, I'm defining legends and myth as ancient stories of mighty deeds, that may contain some fantasy elements.  The discussions have been fruitful, and I'm glad for them. Not everyone may get the same benefit out of Finn MacCool; some may get much more than I did. That's for you to wrestle out for yourself, looking to Scripture for guidance.

Legends still exist because we long to be creators. Many people write stories about the world that already exists, but legends allow humans to make something new. Taking the material that God places in our minds and hearts that is fresh and awe-inspiring and goes straight to the heart and soul. We want to imitate our Father--and even those who don't know their Heavenly Father still are created in his Image with some of the same characteristics. Creation is something imprinted on everyone's heart, an inescapable part of humanity. Granted, those who don't know God can only create flawed legends at best, and even those who do know the Lord still are subject to error. And that is why we must sift and sort and evaluate that which is good and that which is not according to our foundation, the Word of God.

I could go to greater length into the nitty-gritty of reading legends. But there are others who can cover legends much better than I can, and I hope to be revisiting the knotty whys and wherefores of this subject in future. For now, this was my second introduction to Sutcliff and my first introduction to some ancient Irish culture. Both were beautiful; and someday I want to read them again. 

And Finn turned about and saw them all round him, closing in with spears raised to strike; and he knew that the end was come. He let his shield that could not face five ways at once drop to his feet, and stood straight and unmoving as a pillar-stone....~The Legends of Finn MacCool, Sutcliff

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