Reviews – Norse Mythology

Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman

Bloomsbury, 2017

From the emergence of Ymir, ancestor of the giants, from the first waters of the worlds, to the end of all things at Ragnarok – from the tricks and treachery of Loki to the wisdom and wickedness of Odin, the adventures of Thor and the betrayal of Balder, these are the legends of the Norse gods as you have never known them before.

I have a long-standing love of Norse mythology and while I knew many of these stories, some I didn’t. It was a delight to read Gaiman’s vivid retellings, all infused with his recognisable wry wit. I particularly loved a twist on the story of Balder that gave a more prominent role to – avoiding spoilers! – a shadowy female character I’ve always been fascinated by. Gaiman has a wonderful turn of phrase and by making all references to Ragnarok in future tense, the stories have a fresh shock of immediacy. This is a book I’m certain I’ll re-read.

Ladies of Legend: Queen Medb

References: Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Legends of the Celts (HarperCollins, 1994, originally published 1989) by Frank Delaney, http://www.queenmaeve.org/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medb, http://www.bardsongpress.com/Celtic_Culture/The_Intoxicating_Warrior_Queen.htm, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Medb, Celtic Myth and Legend (Newcastle Publishing Co. Inc., 1975) by Charles Squire

Trigger warning: references to rape

Welcome to May and this month’s Lady of Legend, the Irish warrior queen Medb (also spelled Medhb, Meadhbh, Maebh or Anglicised into Maeve). Translated, her name means ‘drunken woman’ or ‘she who intoxicates’. If you haven’t heard of her yet, you are missing out.

As is the case with many mythological women, she may have originally been a goddess of sovereignty (it being said that the ruler of Connacht had to be ‘married to Medb’, as if married to the land itself) or a goddess of war. Her sacred tree was the bile Medbh and she was often depicted with a squirrel and a bird sitting on her shoulders. In the stories that depict her as a human queen, the squirrel and the bird became her pets.

Her father was Eochaid Feidlech, the High King of Ireland, and her mother was Crochen (or Cruachú) Crobh-Derg, a handmaiden to Etain. It was partially through her mother that Medb claimed a right to rule over Connacht. Eochaid married Medb to Conchobar Mac Ness, the king of Ulster, as a recompense after Eochaid killed Conchobar’s (alleged) father in battle; not the most promising of starts to what would become a hellish marriage. Medb had a child with Conchobar, a son named Glaisne, but took a strong enough dislike to her husband to leave him, political reconciliation be damned.

Nothing daunted, Eochaid gave Conchobar another of his daughters – depending on the version, either Eithne or Clothru – but when the unfortunate second wife fell pregnant, Medb is said to have murdered her. The baby (a son, Furbaide) had to be taken from her dead body. There is, however, another version of events in which Furbaide’s mother drowns in a river and it is Lugaid mac Conor, Furbaide’s brother, who is responsible. It seems probable that Eochaid, at least, did not believe Medb killed her sister, given that he deposed the king of Connacht to put Medb on the throne. The erstwhile monarch, Tinni Mac Conri, made the best of the situation by winning a spot in the new queen’s bed.

Conchobar showed his true colours after an assembly at the High King’s seat of Tara, when he raped Medb. War broke out between the High King and Ulster, and Tinni challenged Conchobar to single combat. He lost. Eochaid Dála, Tinni’s rival for the crown of Connacht, managed to extract Medb’s army from the battle and became her next husband.

Being Medb’s husband came with conditions. Any man she married had to be without fear, meanness or jealousy – basically, she wanted a good-natured big spender for an open relationship and said so upfront. She was a beautiful, powerful woman known for sleeping with her best warriors and Eochaid Dála was fine with that up until he found out she was sleeping with Ailill mac Máta, chief of her bodyguard. He challenged Ailill to single combat, and lost. Ailill became the new king of Connacht.

Together, Medb and Ailill had two daughters, Findabair and Cainer, and seven sons. Upon being told by a druid that one of her sons would kill Conchobar, and that son would be named Maine, Medb renamed all her sons to increase the odds. Therefore Fedlimid became Maine Athramail (“like his father”), Cairbre became Maine Máthramail (“like his mother”), Eochaid became Maine Andoe (“the swift”) and was also known as Cich-Maine Andoe or Cichmuine, Fergus became Maine Taí (“the silent”), Cet became Maine Mórgor (“of great duty”), Sin became Maine Mílscothach (“honey-speech”), Dáire became Maine Móepirt (“beyond description”). And the strategy paid off! Maine Andoe did indeed kill Conchobar…just not the Conchobar Medb was expecting.

I’m disappointed, I can’t imagine how she felt.

And her luck with men continued to prove terrible. Aware he was only king through his marriage to Medb, Ailill had insecurity issues. One night after sex, he wrecked the afterglow by announcing that she’d been terribly lucky to get him what with all the wealth and prestige he’d brought to her. Medb laughed. Her retort was that her wealth far outstripped his and he was her ‘kept man’. This kicked off the sort of marital argument that begins with comparing all of your possessions to find out who really has the financial upper hand and ends (after Medb found out her own prize bull had refused to stick around in her herds, choosing to plough through the fences into Ailill’s fields because he couldn’t bear being owned by a woman, what the actual hell) with a legendary cattle raid and a whole lot of bloodshed.

You see, there was only one bull in Ireland to match Ailill’s. It belonged to Dáire mac Fiachna, a vassal to the unfortunately still surviving Conchobar. To her credit, Medb did try to buy the bull, but her messenger got drunk and told everyone that she’d just take the bull if Dáire wouldn’t sell it to her…so he didn’t sell it to her. And she did come to take it. Look, she had a POINT to prove.

Also, it could not have been a more perfect time to attack. A curse had been laid upon the men of Ulster, leaving them weak and unable to fight (the curse, incidentally, originated from a mistreated pregnant woman and they brought the entire damn thing on themselves). Medb was fast and strong and her very presence on the battlefield made her army feel invincible.

Among Medb’s forces was Fergus mac Róich, the former king of Ulster and one of Medb’s more worthwhile lovers. It was said that it took seven men to satisfy her in bed, or Fergus once. She had two children with him, Ciar and Cormac. He was a reluctant ally, but an ally just the same – and as it turned out, Medb needed him very much, because the one man left standing in Ulster was the unstoppable Cuchulainn, a hero so powerful he could take on an entire army on his own. Even the promise of the very beautiful Findabair’s hand wasn’t enough to attract a champion who could overcome him. He was also an old friend to Fergus. The two of them came to a deal that Cuchulainn would pretend to run away, so that they wouldn’t have to fight, if Fergus would return the favour at a time of Cuchulainn’s choosing.

Medb couldn’t let Cuchulainn go, however, and Cuchulainn himself was not the type to stay away from a battlefield. He slaughtered her armies, her pets, one of her handmaidens and one of her sons before finally dying of his many wounds – but first he gave the word to Fergus to flee, so that Medb’s army would follow and the war would be over.

Nevertheless, Medb got her bull. As soon as it was put in with her husband’s, the two beasts killed each other, so all those people died for no reason whatsoever, but the important thing to take away from it all was that Ailill couldn’t lord it over Medb any more. Out of jealousy, he had Fergus killed. Medb got her own back when Conchobar finally did everyone a favour and died, leaving the Ulster hero Conall Cernach to come spend his retirement in the Connacht court; Medb set the aged hero to watch Ailill, who was sleeping around himself, and with her support, Conall avenged Fergus by killing the king. Aillil lived just long enough to set his own men on Conall.

And Medb lived on. She’s said to have ruled for over sixty years. As an older woman, she made a habit of bathing in a pool on the island of Inchleraun, also known as Inis Cloithreann. Her nephew Furbaide, blaming her for his mother’s death, practiced with the slingshot until he was certain of his skill. The next time she went to bathe, he killed her. With a piece of hard cheese.

Legend has it that Medb was buried in Rathcroghan, under a long slab called ‘Misgaun Medb’. There is, however, a second possible burial site in a stone cairn atop Knocknearea, where her body is supposed to stand upright, still facing her enemies in Ulster. Medb was not the type of woman to let go of a grudge. She was a terrible enemy and not even that great a friend – but she lived loud and fast and fierce, and even her death sounds like a tall tale. Who could ever resist the larger than life warrior queen of Connacht?

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

Review – Every Heart a Doorway

Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children No.1) – Seanan McGuire

Tor, 2016

Everyone knows that sometimes, children get lost. And the ones who come back with strange stories about other lands, where they wore crowns and fought their enemies and fell in love…well, if they’re lucky, they find their way to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, where everyone is re-learning how to live in this world and hoping against hope they’ll find their way out again, back to the worlds that they now call home. Nancy knows that she belongs in the silence and shadows of the Halls of the Dead, not in this quick and waking place. But someone else is even more desperate for escape – and willing to bring death into the school to get it.

If you ever finished Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with an immense sense of frustration, this is the book for you. It takes on the genre of portal fantasy with the simple question: what happens when the children come home? With an asexual protagonist and a cast of diverse, unpredictable characters, Every Heart a Doorway is both a murder mystery and a sharp, intelligent overturning of some very familiar tropes. The next book in the series is Down Among the Sticks and Bones, which is slated for release in June of this year.

Review – Crown Duel

Crown Duel – Sherwood Smith

Firebird, 2002

Originally published as Crown Duel (1997) and Court Duel (1998)

When the nobility of Remalna won’t act against the growing greed and corruption of their king, the penniless young Countess Meliara Astior of Tlanth and her peaceable older brother Branaric decide they must take action themselves – but the king is quick to bring the war to their door. With the mysterious Marquis of Shevraeth leading the royal forces, Meliara’s beloved mountains become a battleground and she is soon embroiled in a perilous game of cat-and-mouse, where the rules are always changing and nothing is as clear-cut as she thought it was.

Though Crown Duel was originally published as two separate novels, it works much better as one divided into two distinct parts. Meliara is an enjoyably spiky, defiant protagonist, but the narrative works against her – she’s sidelined from some of the big events in the story and there’s a constant irritating emphasis on her getting into trouble by misunderstanding situations, even when her reasoning is logical and the fault really lies with others. The world-building is strong, with a distinct sense of a different culture and lovely little references to the history and literature of Remalna. It’s also very refreshing to see a fantasy world where sexism barely exists.

Review – The Rebirth of Rapunzel

The Rebirth of Rapunzel – Kate Forsyth

FableCroft Publishing, 2016

In this mythic biography, Australian author Kate Forsyth traces the famous fairy tale of ‘Rapunzel’ from its earliest recorded origins down through centuries of retellings into the inventive, irreverent and exciting incarnations of the modern day. How well do you really know the maiden in the tower?

I was given a hardback of this book, with its gorgeous cover by Kathleen Jennings, as a Christmas gift from my sister, because she knows me well and  fairy tale biography. It is a brilliant concept that Forsyth has researched meticulously and presented in a way that is immensely readable. Though I disagreed with some of her interpretations, the history and context of this fairy tale’s growth and change is so well presented that it allows the reader to form their own opinions based on those facts. Included in this book are some of Forsyth’s other essays about fantasy, science fiction and writing. There are spoilers for her ‘Rapunzel’ retelling Bitter Greens, so I would advise reading that first. I love fairy tales and have strong feelings about ‘Rapunzel’ in particular because I wrote a retelling of it myself; The Rebirth of Rapunzel is a book I am delighted to have on my shelf, and I would be thrilled to see more ‘mythic biographies’ like it.

Review – Dreams of Distant Shores

Dreams of Distant Shores – Patricia A. McKillip

Tachyon, 2016

What is impossible, really, when stories come floating out of strange magic? A witch misplaces her name and her face, and gives a wooden mermaid an unexpected lease of life. Besieged lovers share a dangerous secret, Medusa reveals her true face, and the sea washes up truths so bitter and beautiful they might wash your heart away.

I am always bewitched by Patricia A. McKillip’s writing. It reads with a glorious poetic elegance, but she has a finely tuned sense of the absurd as well that gives it vibrant life. All except one of the seven stories in this collection were new to me, ranging from the light-hearted Mer and urban fantastical Which Witch to the darkly enigmatic Weird and the eloquently passionate novella Something Rich and Strange. It takes a lot to live up to a title as good as this one, but McKillip does so with style.

Ladies of Legend: Helen and Cassandra

References: The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Eyewitness Companions: Mythology (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.) by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip, A-Z of Mythology (Bison Books Ltd, 1990) by Peter Clayton, Greek Mythology (Michaelis Toubis S.A., 1995) by Sofia Souli, translated by Philip Ramp, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassandrahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_of_Troy

Trigger warning: references to rape and incest

It all began with Eris, the Greek goddess of discord and the original bad fairy at the christening – or in this case, at the wedding, showing up at the nuptials of Thetis and Peleus to make everyone simultaneously regret not inviting her and remember exactly why they didn’t by riling up the three most powerful goddesses in the Pantheon and starting one of the most famous wars in myth and legend. She brought with her a golden apple (never ever trust a golden apple) with an inscription on it reading ‘for the fairest’. Zeus, who might be all kinds of terrible but was smart enough to realise that was a mess he wanted no part of, hastily foisted the role of judge onto Prince Paris of Troy. Thanks to an ominous prophecy made at his birth, Paris was living as an anonymous shepherd at the time, in ignorance of his birthright. All that was about to change.

The three goddesses who felt the strongest right to the apple were Hera, Zeus’s wife and sister and queen of the gods; Athena, goddess of wisdom and war; and Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Each offered Paris an appropriately extravagant bribe depending on her governance. Hera promised power and riches, Athena assured him of good fortune in battle, but Aphrodite swore that he would have the most beautiful woman in the world as his own and Paris awarded her the apple – thereby making himself two implacable enemies, and an ally as fickle as she was powerful.

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