Wild Thing | Blarney for bairns

Forget the leprechauns -- it's irreverence, mythologies, and assistant pig-keepers that make Irish stories spellbinding for kids.


Polly Shulman
March 18, 1999 1:41AM (UTC)

Kilts, bagpipes, freckles, leprechauns, beans on toast, Neolithic monuments, whiskey, second sight, endless unpronounceable names full ofl's and gh's: Kick your way through the stereotypes of Celtic culture,and you'll find a rich mythological heritage. Few cultures have made a greater contribution to children's literature in the English language than those of Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Their traditions put a premium on storytelling, offering a warm welcome to the irreverent and uncanny. No wonder children's book authors can't get enough of their stories.

"In Celtic societies, women were given fairly equal status with their men. Some became rulers of tribes and even fought in battle," writes Robert Byrd in the afterword to "Finn MacCoul and his Fearless Wife: A Giant of a Tale from Ireland,"one of a pair of newly published picture books that celebrates Ireland's
mythological heroines. Byrd draws on several
sources, including Yeats, for his story of Oonagh, the
wife of the timorous, goofy giant Finn, who
outsmarts Cucullin, a big -- and I mean BIG -- bully
from Scotland. Finn attracts Cucullin's attention by
building the Giant's Causeway, a stone bridge
between Ireland and Scotland. (Geologists call it a
basalt formation, but storytellers know better.) When
Cucullin comes looking for him, Finn runs home to
Oonagh. Thinking fast, she hides him in a cradle,
then passes him off to Cucullin as Finn's own infant.
Finn and Oonagh pull the cheese trick, a folktale
staple: She challenges the great Scot to crusha stone
in his hand; when he can't, she gives Finn a
look-alike cheese,which he shatters easily. If Finn's
baby son is capable of such feats, thinks Cucullin,
what must the father be like? He doesn't stick
around to find out.

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Byrd's detailed pen-and-wash drawings -- with
plenty of plaid and Kellygreen -- bring out the humor
of his story. As Oonagh so usefully observes, Finn
really is a big baby; his sheepish, frightened and
triumphant expressions will be abundantly familiar to
anyone who's spent time around a toddler. Tiny
cows, pigs and chickens -- and tinier fairies -- scurry
around underfoot, rewarding the observant reader.

Robert D. San Souci's "Brave Margaret: An Irish
Adventure" handles a similarly feminist theme in a
more heroic style. It's a
classic prince-rescues-the-maiden fairy tale in reverse:
here, the maiden rescues the prince. When the son of
the King of the East shows up at the heroine's farm
in County Donegal and wants to buy provisions for
his ship, Margaret talks him into taking her on his
voyage of discovery. Along the way, she overcomes
a sea serpent, matches wits with an enchantress and
rides off to slay a giant who's gotten her beau into his
clutches. Sally Wern Comport's bold pastel drawings
emphasize the lurching angles of wind, wave and
flame. It's a perfect book for making little girls feel
like courageous adventurers.

Across the Giant's Causeway in Scotland, they've
long known how to turn history into a brave
romance. Think of Sir Walter Scott or Robert
Louis Stevenson. Mollie Hunter continues the
tradition in "The King's Swift Rider," the most recent
of her 20-some novels for children. As the story
opens, 16-year-old Martin Crawford is watching
English soldiers hunting a man across the moor with
horns and hounds. On an impulse, he lays a false trail
for the dogs, dragging the hares he's caught for his
family dinner across the man's track. The rescued
man turns out to be Robert the Bruce, 14th century
King of Scots, fighting for his country's
independence. Martin joins him as a
courier. Eventually his courage and cunning win
Martin the job of chief of espionage. It's an
old-fashioned adventure story, full of
dangerous escapes, battles won at great odds and
unshadowed heroes.

Another Scottish tale, Berlie Doherty's "Daughter of
the Sea," shows Celtic storytelling at its most
mournfully supernatural. Munroe, a fisherman, finds
a baby in the ocean and brings her home to
his childless wife, Jannet. Unfortunately, as readers
slowly realize, little Gioga is a selkie -- one of a race
of seals who can take human form by stepping out of
their skins. When a tall stranger clad in a long
gray cloak comes to claim Gioga, Jannet tries
everything she can think of to keep her beloved
daughter. She arouses the fury of the ocean and
almost destroys her community in the process. Like
Hans Christian Anderson's "Little Mermaid," this
beautifully written story of love and loss is almost too
heartbreaking for its intended audience of middle readers.

Scotland may be the spot for historical adventure, Ireland for tall tales -- but for sustained fantasies, there's nothing like Welsh mythology. It won Lloyd Alexander two Newbery honors in the '60s for his "Prydain Chronicles"; a decade later, it won Susan Cooper a Newbery as well for her "Dark is Rising" sequence. Although they share roots, the two series have very different atmospheres. Alexander draws on the comic yet heroic folktale tradition, setting his books in an imaginary country somewhere between generic fairy-tale territory and pre-Christian Wales. His hero, Taran, holds the lofty title of assistant pig-keeper; his charge is a magical sow. Princess Eilonwy, Taran's talkative, red-headed beloved, has a dayjob as kitchen maid. Along with assorted bards, dwarfs, warriors, horses and Fair Folk, they do battle with Arawn, the Horned Hunter of darkness, as well as other, lesser evils. In "The Black Cauldron," the middle volume (and my favorite), Taran, Eilonwy and friends must find and destroy Arawn's most horrible tool: a cauldron from which dead bodies emerge alive, enslaved, unbeatable. A battle of wits with a trio of ogresses and a satisfying climax in which a traitor finds redemption add interest to what is essentially a light questing series for 10-year-olds.

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Cooper's books, on the other hand, are masterful, tightly paced supernatural thrillers. She understands the secret of good fantasy: In her hands, characters and objects borrowed from myth take on real symbolic significance. The books have a contemporary setting, 1970s Britain. In each of the four volumes, ordinary children arrive in a Welsh town for holidays, only to find themselves slowly caught up in a grand battle against the forces of evil. Each book turns on a lost object -- a grail, a harp -- that must be recovered and put to use. Cryptic rhymes guide the children in their quests. In "The Grey King," the hero must waken six sleeping warriors with the help of a white dog with silver eyes. In "Greenwitch," local women toss a figure made of branches into the sea for luck in an annual ceremony; this year, they awaken forces beyond their power to control. In "Silver on the Tree," a cozy Christmas celebration complete with holly and mistletoe retreats deeper and deeper into its dark, druidical origins. These gripping novels will make readers forget their surroundings and read for dear life; they'll emerge trembling and renewed.

One of my favorite children's books of all time, Diana Wynne Jones's "Dogsbody," is of the same vintage as Cooper's "The Dark is Rising" sequence. Jones draws on some of the same Celtic mythology as Cooper and Alexander -- the Horned Hunter and his wild-eyed hounds lope through the story. She also draws on current Irish history, like many other writers for young adults, who find compelling lessons in tragic bombings.

"Dogsbody" begins when Sirius, the dog star, is thrown out of the heavenly council for losing his temper and hurling a Zoi (whatever thatis) at another star. He's given a mortal sentence -- he must go to the planet where the Zoi landed, take on the body of one of its ordinary inhabitants and search for the Zoi. If he finds it before he dies, he gets a second chance as a star; otherwise, he'll die with his body.

The planet, of course, is Earth. And naturally, being the dog star, heenters not a boy's body, but a puppy's. Kathleen, the young heroine, rescues him from drowning. She knows what it feels like to be helpless and lonely -- her father, an Irish rebel, is in jail, and she's gone to live with her singularly unloving cousins. A deep, romantic love grows between dog and mistress, and they need all the help the Master of the Hunt can give them to rescue each other. It's a long way from leprechauns. But any lover of dogs, magic and stories should be happy to find this book next to the St. Patrick's Day breakfast plate, along with (or instead of) the bowl of Irish oats and the green carnation.

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B O O K_ I N F O R M A T I O N:

FINN MCCOUL AND HIS FEARLESS WIFE: A GIANT OF A TALE FROM IRELAND | BY ROBERT BYRD | DUTTON, 34 PAGES

BRAVE MARGARET: AN IRISH ADVENTURE | BY ROBERT D. SAN SOUCI | ILLUSTRATED BY SALLY WERN COMPORT | SIMON & SCHUSTER, 36 PAGES

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THE KING'S SWIFT RIDER: A NOVEL ON ROBERT THE BRUCE | BY MOLLIE HUNTER | HARPERCOLLINS, 241 PAGES

DAUGHTER OF THE SEA | BY BERLIE DOHERTY | ILLUSTRATED BY SIAN BAILEY | DKINK, 115 PAGES

THE PRYDAIN CHRONICLES: THE BLACK CAULDRON | BY LLOYD ALEXANDER | ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN 1965, 229 PAGES | A REPRINT EDITION OF ALL FIVE BOOKS IN THE SERIES, INCLUDING THE BOOK OF THREE, THE CASTLE OF LLYR, TARAN WANDERER, AN THE HIGH KING, IS FORTHCOMING FROM HENRY HOLT & COMPANY IN MAY

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THE DARK IS RISING SEQUENCE BY SUSAN COOPER: | THE DARK IS RISING, 1973; GREENWITCH, 1974, 131 PAGES | THE GREY KING, 1975, 165 PAGES | OVER SEA, UNDER STONE, 1977, 256 PAGES | SILVER ON THE TREE, 1977, 274 PAGES | ALL FIVE BOOKS INTHE SERIES WERE LAST REPRINTED AS A BOXED SET BY ALADDIN PAPERBACKS, 1993

DOGSBODY | BY DIANA WYNNE JONES | GREENWILLOW, 1975, REPRINTED 1990, 242 PAGES


Polly Shulman

Polly Shulman edits news articles for the journal Science.

MORE FROM Polly Shulman

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