Famously described as 'soft, sad freaks on an unprofitable website', Tumblr users are highly resistant to being advertised to. But as someone who has been on Tumblr since 2012, met some of their best friends there, and feels less alienated by it than by every other social media platform, I wanted to know if I could use Tumblr Blaze to effectively advertise my book.
Being the kind of person who is both somewhat underemployed and also not a big watcher of TV (mostly due to my eyeballs being temperamental and full of demons), I read quite a lot. I try to talk about some of the books I’m reading on Instagram, particularly the ones I really like, or where I had an ARC, but since I stopped using Goodreads as a reader, I’ve pulled back from reviewing more broadly. I’m happy with that decision — there’s a weird power balance when you’re also an author which means your opinion is never just another reader’s opinion — but I do think it’s a shame that I’ve read seventy books already this year and not really talked about them that much, so here’s a roundup of some of those I’ve been reading recently. (I’ll probably make this a semi-regular type of post.)
All links in this post are Bookshop.org (UK) affiliate links, so if any of these books take your fancy, ordering from there will support both me and independent bookshops, which feels like a win-win situation. If a book isn’t available from Bookshop, I’ve linked Amazon — again, an affiliate link — for want of a better option.
I won’t be discussing / linking any books I actively disliked, because I’m not about that negativity — if I describe a book here as ‘horrible’, it’s meant as a compliment, because in those cases, I’m fairly sure that’s what the author was aiming for. But there were a few recurring themes this month that characterised all the books that won’t be discussed in this post…
This month, one of my goals was to read more thrillers. My debut is a YA thriller, so I figured I should better acquaint myself with the genre, having largely avoided it during the editing process in order to (a) give my brain a break and (b) avoid comparison. So far, this has been… honestly kind of a mixed bag. I’ve read some brilliant books, but I’ve also been struck by how many thrillers use sexual relationships as a major source of conflict. At best, these are toxic, unhealthy relationships between consenting adults, which can be interesting to read about, even if unpleasant. At worst, though, I’ve read two thrillers featuring sexual abuse of a minor, which was really not what I signed up for. Being a genre that prides itself on dark content, none of the books I’ve picked up in the past month have had any kind of content warnings, and I would probably have preferred if they did — at least I would know in advance what I was getting into, and whether I was in the right headspace for it.
Having said that, I did enjoy being utterly bamboozled by a few books where I could never quite figure out where it was taking me next. Mandy Byatt’s Just Another Liar really caught me out — initially, I’d been thinking maybe I was too young for the book in the sense of the “relatable” problems the characters faced not actually being relatable to me (because I’m young, queer, and single), but then it twisted on me and I lay awake that night thinking about it, putting all the pieces back together, because I realised I’d had them the wrong way around the whole time.
Sarah Bonner’s Her Perfect Twin also left me thinking about it after I’d finished — the way it switches narrator periodically to misdirect the reader and lead you to draw all sorts of conclusions about what, exactly, is going on is very clever, and means every time you think you’ve got to grips with where it’s going, it swerves and goes somewhere else.
I didn’t read any YA thrillers this month that I really loved, but in February I read Tess Sharpe’s The Girls I’ve Been, and really enjoyed that. It’s very twisty and clever, but it never sacrifices character and emotion, which I valued — I was able to get invested, and stay invested, in the characters. There’s some overlap with The Butterfly Assassin, which makes sense (my editor was the UK acquiring editor for this one, which is why I put off reading it so long, because I knew I’d end up comparing them), but the overall vibe is pretty different. Actually, it kind of reminded me of a real-world/contemporary White Cat by Holly Black, although maybe that’s a sign that I haven’t read many books about characters with con artist parents.
One thing I rediscovered while on my Read More Thrillers quest was that there is a difference between books that are good and books that I’ll enjoy reading at that particular moment. Girl A by Abigail Dean is brilliantly well-written — it’s compelling throughout. But it’s also bleak, and dark, and had me crying in a horrified (rather than cathartic) kind of way at one particular revelation. There was a time in my life when I loved that in a book, and anything that managed to emotionally gut me rocketed up my list of favourites. But I’ve mellowed in my old age, and these days I look more for comfort from books, so this one proved a little more than I could handle at this point in time.
If you want a horrible book about horrible people, I also found The Girls Are All So Nice Here by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn was one of those: compelling, but in an unpleasant kind of way. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s very good, but… again, it had some graphic content that I could have used a warning for (suicide/self harm imagery described at length), and left me rather unsettled.
So what have I been reading for comfort? Well, after I read Girl A I decided I needed a couple of days of reassuring books to help settle my brain, so I turned to KJ Charles, who is ever reliable in that regard, and I reread the Will Darling Adventures. It feels reductive to describe this trilogy as Romance, because while it absolutely is that, it’s also a pulp adventure story with spies, communists, secret societies, and all manner of other shenanigans, set in the 1920s. I love the way KJ Charles has these dual-genres going on. Some of her books will be romance novels… but also a fantasy book, or a murder mystery, or, in this case, an adventure story. I still mark them all in my spreadsheet as Romance, because I only have one genre box, but the vibe can vary considerably.
Anyway, I had a good time rereading the Will Darling books (beginning with Slippery Creatures), and I also reread another KJ Charles book, Spectred Isle. This one’s fantasy, as well as romance, with an archaeologist protagonist reluctantly going along with his employer’s superstitious interest in certain locations… only to find they are, actually significant, and that he’s getting all tangled up in a supernatural world he knew nothing about. It’s delightful. It has some dark moments and some tension, but the reassuring thing about a fantasy novel that’s actually a romance novel is that you know it’ll end up okay, because that’s what the genre requires. Perfect comfort-reading.
Speaking of fantasy, I was lucky enough to get an ARC of Rory Power’s adult fantasy novel, In A Garden Burning Gold, which comes out next week. Rory was my mentor during Author Mentor Match, and helped me turn The Butterfly Assassin from a mess into something that would actually be potentially publishable, so I am obviously biased towards her as an author. But Garden is genuinely great. I particularly loved the worldbuilding, and the magic system. It features peculiar, time-consuming, impractical magic — sewing the constellations each and every night, painting the shadows throughout the day — which is both bizarre and firmly integrated into the world it’s creating. I love that. I think more magic should be odd. The ending left me with some unanswered questions, but there’s to be a sequel, so that’s all right. The trouble with an ARC, though, is that it means waiting even longer for the next book…
On the romance front, I also enjoyed The Start of Something by Miranda Dickinson. One character is struggling with chronic pain and limited mobility following an injury, while the other is a Welsh single mum trying to keep her head above water after her ex-husband left her with a pile of debt. Although I don’t love misunderstandings/miscommunication as a main point of conflict, they made sense in this one, where both characters were extremely focused on how they would be perceived by the other, and wont to leap to the wrong conclusions. I also found the chronic pain narrative extremely relatable: what if this doesn’t get better? what if this is just how it is now? are questions I’ve asked myself repeatedly over the last few years, and I really felt that.
I took a detour into sci-fi via a Kindle deal and read A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, which I really enjoyed. I wasn’t expecting to, because I don’t often have the brainpower to manage lots of worldbuilding, but it was great. It reminded me a little of The Goblin Emperor: an outsider with a partial but incomplete understanding of cultural/social norms adapts to a complex political situation quickly and unexpectedly while dealing with their predecessor’s murder, and also there’s interesting linguistic worldbuilding. (In this case, the use of poetry as an essential part of a society’s transmission of information.)
Finally, a few YA reads, hopping back to February. I read Morgan Owen’s The Girl With No Soul, which came out this month, and fortunately, enjoyed it a lot. I say fortunately, because Morgan was incredibly nice about The Butterfly Assassin and I was terrified I wouldn’t like hers in return 😅 But I did, so we’re safe. It contains a great many things that fascinate me, and which I’ve written about or am writing about: souls, beasties made of shadows, guys with a white streak in their hair… (There were a few details where I had to message Morgan a passage from something I’d written and go, “Do we have the same brain?!”) If you want interesting worldbuilding in a YA fantasy that feels both classic and original, this is one for you.
I also read Hell Followed With Us by Andrew Joseph White, which comes out in a few months. This one is… a lot, in the best possible way. It’s a trans post-apocalyptic horror novel where religious extremists have wiped out most of the population. The protagonist is an escapee from the religious community; he’s also undergoing a horrific transformation and turning into a monster. It’s all about bodies, and power over yourself and your identity, and finding strength in community. It’s also, in places, extremely gross, and I had to take a break from reading for a few days because body horror and post-surgical nausea turned out to be a terrible combination. But if you’re not squeamish like me, you’ll probably find the body horror quite fun, and the rest of the book is full of feelings and it’s just… yeah, it’s a lot.
Then, this month, I reread Matt Killeen’s Orphan, Monster, Spy, because a while back I bought the sequel but didn’t remember enough of book one to read it. I’d forgotten how dark it is. It’s about a Jewish girl going undercover to spy on the Nazis, so it was never going to be a walk in the park, but it really doesn’t flinch from the horrors she witnesses. The violence is never gratuitous, I thought, but nor is it sanitised at all. Book two, Devil, Darling, Spy, is similar in that regard, grappling with the evils of colonialism and medical experimentation, among other topics. Both are powerful, dark, and concerned with the issue of whose stories gets told and who gets protected in times of warfare.
I had a couple of lighter reads in February, too. Rachael Lippincott’s She Gets The Girl is a college-set YA with your classic “I’ll help you win her over! Oh, crap, but now I’ve fallen for you” kind of plotline (I say classic not because it’s been overdone, because it hasn’t, but because it’s a solid and delightful trope). The emotional beats of the romance felt earned in a way that a lot of books don’t quite manage, and I believed in the emotions of it. Sophie Gonzales’ Perfect on Paper has a Sex Education vibe, and grapples with the question of whether it’s ethical for a teenager to be giving paid relationship advice; it has an important narrative about grappling with internalised biphobia, and I liked that the character’s sister is casually trans, too.
Finally, this month I reread CG Drews’ The Boy Who Steals Houses, in order to dive into her serialised-on-Patreon sequel, The Kings of Nowhere. I am loving the sequel so far, and having a great many feelings about it; I’m looking forward to the final chapters being posted tomorrow. While I’m late to the serialisation party, I’m glad I waited, because I’m far too impatient to read only a couple of chapters per week! So if you want stories about codependent brothers, found family, autism, and healing after trauma, I recommend checking those out.
Not a lot of nonfiction in this post, mostly because I’ve been cheating on the two nonfiction books I’m currently reading with all of this fiction. I’m hoping to talk more about Fierce Appetites by Elizabeth Boyle (my current read) once I’ve finished it — it might even get its own post, but we’ll have to wait and see.
Anyway, that’s what I’ve been reading lately. How about you? Any recommendations for me?
With less than two months to go until The Butterfly Assassin comes out, now is a great time to preorder!
I’ve been thinking a lot about genre recently.
One of my aims this year is to read a more varied mix of genres and categories than last year. In particularly, I’m aiming to read more nonfiction, although I keep screwing myself over on that front by choosing Extremely Large History Books as my nonfiction choices, which then take me months to get through and require a great deal of concentration. Devil-Land looks like a fascinating take on 17th century England, for example, a period I’ve been hoping to learn more about… but it’s also more than 700 pages of tiny print, and, well, I’m very tired, all the time. I can see it taking me a while.
(By comparison: I raced through Did Ye Hear Mammy Died by Séamas O’Reilly in an evening, and had a great time. It’s a memoir that, as the marketing info says, is a lot funnier than the title makes it sounded. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some pretty poignant observations about grief — but it also made me cackle aloud repeatedly. I need more nonfiction like that in my life.)
Even on the fiction front, which is always going to dominate for me, I wanted to aim for more variety. Last year was very dominated by fantasy and romance, and I was hoping I could shake things up a bit. I’m aiming to read more thrillers now that I’m not so deeply mired in edits for The Butterfly Assassin, and I’ve got a few on my Kindle waiting for me, including a couple by my fellow 2022 debuts. I already read a lot of SFF, and I know from past experience that I don’t do well with creepy books, which largely rules out Horror, so I’m not sure how much I can branch out there. But as I read for comfort rather than heart-pumping excitement most of the time, I’m wondering if I should try and get into cozy mysteries or something. (Recs and genre suggestions welcome!)
Anyway, January was a strong month for reading, mainly because I’m under-employed and still recovering from the absolute wall of fatigue that hit me in December after finishing my MA, moving back to the UK, adjusting to no longer living alone, and dealing with Christmas etc. One of the things about spending large portions of every day in bed and being the kind of person who finds TV gives them photosensitive migraines is that you end up reading a lot.
On the face of it, though, the twenty-eight books I read in January look like they’re not too far off conforming to last year’s pattern. I did reread the entire Alex Rider series for various reasons, and since those are classified as “Action/Adventure”, that threw the genre balance off somewhat, but the rest were predominantly Adult Romance, YA SFF, and one or two Contemporary YAs thrown in for good luck.
But the thing about my reading statistics is that they’re based solely on how I input a book into my spreadsheet. If I’m not sure how it’s classified, I’ll google it to double check, but if it gives me a range of genres, I have to pick one, and I’ll go for whichever seems like a better catch-all term. I decided early on I wasn’t going to go for giving things mixed genres because it would make things too confusing, nor was I going to get into the nitty-gritty of subgenres (not even easy things like distinguishing between “historical” romance and “contemporary” romance), because it would complicate the process of collecting stats.
And that means that the simple one-genre answers can conceal a lot about what a book is actually like. I know that sounds obvious: “not all books within a genre are the same or even similar”. Well, duh. But I read a bunch of KJ Charles books this month, as I often do when I need comfort reading, and I was really struck by how, although they’re primarily historical romance novels and they’re listed in my spreadsheet as Romance, they have other, completely different genres going on in the background.
For example, Think of England and Proper English exist in the same universe, and have overlapping characters. But Proper English is partially a murder mystery novel, with all the tropes that entails: an isolated country house, a body, a houseful of suspects who can’t be allowed to leave, and a heroine intent on solving the murder before the police arrive (in part, to conceal the non-murdery secrets of those in the house). Think of England, on the other hand, isn’t a murder mystery, but it does have espionage and blackmail, giving it a tinge of a thriller’s tension alongside the romance.
And then I read A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske, which is listed in my spreadsheet as Fantasy. I had a great time with it — but what it reminded me most strongly of was KJ Charles’ Charm of Magpies series, which would show up in my spreadsheet as Romance. Both contain magic, gay romance, curses, and perhaps most noticeably, a magical bureaucrat dealing with a nonmagical aristocrat who is nevertheless unwillingly connected to the world of magic, set against a backdrop of historical England. So what’s the difference between them? Why is one listed as Romance and one as Fantasy?
Romance is a particular genre with its own conventions, a fact a lot of people seem to overlook when they’re classifying anything and everything with a love story as Romance. (For the last time, The Song of Achilles is not a romance novel, it’s a novel with romance.) I read another fantasy novel this month with a queer romance in it, and despite its happy ending, I wouldn’t have said that one felt like a romance novel. It didn’t have the same rhythm; I didn’t find myself anticipating the beats in the same way that I do when I’ve been reading a lot of historical romances in close succession.
When I say I anticipate the beats, I don’t mean that the books become predictable or that I know what’s going to happen, but there are certain emotional rises and falls that you begin to get used to, and if a book misses one of them — as can be done effectively when the author is deliberately trying to subvert your expectations — it can feel like you’ve missed a step going up the stairs. There are patterns, and there are tropes they have in common. (Queer historical romance novels, for example, will very often have a scene early on where one character recognises that the other one is also interested in their gender, something that has to be ascertained subtly in most time periods if nobody’s going to end up arrested. Later, there’s often a misunderstanding or mistake that leads to a temporary rupture in the relationship which feels irreparable (but won’t be). I could go on, but you get the idea: there’s a particular vibe that you start to recognise over time, if you read a lot of books in the genre in close succession.)
And those tropes and story beats, those narrative rhythms… A Marvellous Light has them, including the happy ending. Maybe they’re not foregrounded in the story the way they would be in one of KJ Charles’ fantasy romance novels, but A Charm of Magpies is still the closest comp I’ve got for it, and it’s what I’d recommend to someone who told me they’d read A Marvellous Light and wanted something else with a similar dynamic. Honestly, I think insofar as there’s a difference of genre at all, it’s simply a matter of marketing.
Again, I know, I’m coming up with all sorts of profound observations here: “genre/category is a marketing tactic, not an intrinsic fact of storytelling”. Wow, Finn, can you bottle this stuff and sell it? It’s not like everybody’s known that since, I don’t know, forever. But there are times when it’s a lot more noticeable than others — such as when you read two books back-to-back in the same genre and realise they have an entirely different vibe, or read two that are supposedly a different genre, and find they’re not so different after all.
Another thing that got me thinking about genre was that I participated in a panel discussion about YA thrillers over on the UK YA Instagram. I’m lucky that there seems to be a big appetite for thrillers and the like in YA at the moment — probably much more than there was in 2014 when I wrote The Butterfly Assassin, since we were still in more of a fantasy boom at that point. But I’m also profoundly ignorant of the genre, not least because there was a lot less of it around when I was a teen (my teenage years were dominated in publishing by post-Twilight paranormal romance, then post-Hunger Games dystopia, then edging into Big Fantasy again towards the end). Add to that the fact that I read almost no thrillers last year because I didn’t feel I could read them while working on The Butterfly Assassin without finding it either distracting or dispiriting — as I said, I hope to change that this year — and I find that currently, when asked for recommendations in my own genre, I have no idea what to suggest.
If I’m honest, I feel guilty about that ignorance! How dare I write a genre I rarely read? I’ll be honest with you: I didn’t know I was writing a thriller when I started. If anything, I thought it was going to be a dystopian novel, and I guess there’s some overlap with that genre when it comes to the worldbuilding, but it wasn’t until I was trying to query and so on that I really had to figure out exactly how to classify it. I found myself particularly looking at people who said they were interested in genre-bending stories, because I wasn’t convinced I was doing a good job of sticking within the bounds of any specific category. It’s far from the only book where I’ve had that problem: I’m a “story first, genre later” kind of writer, and I think that’s probably the way it has to be, unless you’re the very commercially-focused type who can think in terms of marketing from day one. Because that’s what genre is. Marketing.
That marketing shapes titles, cover designs, graphics, advertisements, so to some extent, it must impact on a reader’s perspective of a book. But my book’s being pretty firmly marketed as a thriller, with that dystopian angle coming in from the visual similarities to some of the covers for The Hunger Games, and there are still people shelving it as “fantasy” on Goodreads. At this point, I don’t know what I can say to convince them otherwise. It has the word “assassin” in the title and it’s slightly speculative, and that seems to be enough. They’re going to be disappointed, though, if they’re expecting magic.
(No, I have not yet learned to stay off Goodreads. Yes, I have been haunting the page that tells me what shelves people have added the book to, because it’s currently more or less the only metric by which I can measure how people are responding to the book. I’m also concerned that those adding it to shelves labelled “sapphic” and “wlw” are going to be profoundly disappointed by the total lack of romance — while the central relationship is two girls, it’s definitely presented as a platonic one. But I’ve made no secret of the lack of romance, either, so what else can I do? Absolutely nothing.)
I think the majority of readers think a lot less about genre than writers do. They know the kinds of books they like to read, but they wouldn’t necessarily slot them into a specific box. They’d recognise them unconsciously by those very same marketing decisions — the cover design, the title, the way the blurb is worded. Which works great, until you get a book where genre-dissonant cover choices were made, and suddenly all the reviews are people saying, “This wasn’t what I was expecting…”
I see that happening a lot too: readers judging a book on how closely it matches what they expected of it, rather than by how well it succeeded at doing whatever it was actually doing. I’ve done it myself, I’m sure. If I wanted a comforting low-stress romance novel, I won’t be thrilled if what I get is a dark, gritty story where I have to wade through a character grappling with transphobia and bigotry. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad book, or that I wouldn’t enjoy it at another time, if that’s what I was looking for — but when I pick something up expecting it to feel like a hug, it can be jarring when instead I get punched in the face.
And those darker themes don’t mean the book stops being a romance novel, which is an important point to note. A book can be the genre it’s marketed as, and still not be in the least bit what you’re expecting when you pick it up. Genre only goes so far to telling you what you’re holding in your hands, because as I oh-so-profoundly observed above, it’s almost like not every book in the same genre is the same and a book can fulfil the conventions without following the same template. Radical.
All of this to say: my spreadsheet tells me I read a bunch of romance novels last month, both historical and contemporary. I did. But one of them was also a murder mystery novel. One of them was about grappling with anxiety and depression. And one of them was marketed and classified as fantasy. Because genre’s… well, I was about to say it’s only half the story, but it’s a lot less than that. It’s only a fragment. Only the door we walk through to get to the book inside. And sometimes there’s more than one door leading to the same story, and sometimes we get lost on the way because we were actually looking for a totally different door, or they’ve re-labelled the floor plan without telling us.
Still. I hope this year my spreadsheet will have a wider variety of doors. But I’m not going to let myself be embarrassed about any of the ones that are already on there, because for the most part, they led me to places I very much wanted to go.
A few months ago, I wrote about my discomfort with the impulse to gamify everything in life, making hobbies like reading into a competitive sport that had to be done every day or risk losing a “reading streak”. This remains: I still mislike how much information my Kindle collects about my reading habits, and I’m trying to curb the impulse to make number-based goals and lists of what to read in 2022.
I did, however, take the time to transfer my typed list of what I’d read this year into Excel and fiddle around making graphs. Not to find out what the longest book I’d read was, or the most popular, nor to compete with anybody about the total number at the end, but to get a sense of the breakdown of age categories and genres, so that I’d have a better understanding of what I’ve been reading.
This proved to be a useful tool. Although I had some vague ideas about what the results would be, it wasn’t until I actually saw the percentages laid out in pie charts that I was able to judge whether or not I was right. Some of them, my impressions were accurate; others, not so much. Seeing what had changed over the past year compared to the years that went before it was particularly interesting: living abroad, the pandemic, the need for comfort in a stressful world, the general process of growing up, and spending a lot of time editing my debut novel were all factors in my reading choices.
So I figured I’d share a few of those trends and changes with you. I’m interested to know if others have seen similar shifts in their reading, or if your year was completely different. I’m not going to be sharing specific numbers, just percentages; this is partly because once you start making it about how many books you’ve read, competitiveness can easily seep in, but also because I think they’re more useful for identifying those broader patterns.
I’ll start with a guess that was completely wrong: I thought that I’d been rereading a lot this year — there were a couple of books I reread even within the year, and counted twice. But I’d failed to take into account that being separated from the majority of my physical book collection until late November seriously curtailed my rereading, and that for most of the year I’d instead been reading anything I could get cheaply as an ebook, so that the end result was that only 22% of my reads this year were rereads.
This is probably still more than most people, but I’ve always loved rereading, and my poor memory means I can get a lot out of it: having read a book doesn’t mean I’ll remember any of the plot, and even if I do, there are always details to notice. I’m very much a character-motivated reader (and writer), so coming back to a familiar book is like meeting up with old friends — the point is the people I’m with, not where we’re going. Sure, I’ll have more fun if we’re going somewhere I like, but it’s not the destination that makes the outing.
I’d suspected that I was reading more Adult than YA fiction, and that was true: my fiction reads were 56% Adult, 36% YA, 7% Children’s and 1% NA. That last 1% is another result of the dominance of ebooks, since NA is a rare category to find in trad publishing, and although I’m not sure, I’d suspect both of those books were self-published or by small presses. If NA were a properly established category, I think that YA percentage would be smaller: many of these were upper YA books, with 18-year-old protagonists, and there were a fair few that I felt belonged as much in Adult, their inclusion in YA solely a matter of marketing. It was also noticeable that a lot of my YA reads were rereads, though my Excel know-how is not sufficient to enable me to break down the charts by more than one category, so I can’t be exactly sure of how that compared.
There are a few reasons why my reading has skewed older this year. Partly, it’s that I’m fast approaching 26: I’m aware that YA is not written for me, and with every year that goes by, I find it harder to relate to. It’s a natural part of growing older, and while I can still enjoy great YA books and will continue to read them (I write them, after all), they’re not going to be as dominant anymore. It’s also a matter of practicalities — as I mentioned, I read a lot of ebooks, and many of my choices were the result of browsing sales and deals for discounts, because I wouldn’t be able to afford to keep up with my reading speed otherwise. I’ve noticed that YA books are often weirdly expensive on Kindle (the ebook market isn’t as strong for kidlit, so maybe that’s why?) and have fewer deals, which is partly why I’ve always been a library reader for YA. Pandemic restrictions have made that challenging, and that’s influenced my choices.
Finally, it’s a matter of genre. This is an area where the percentages really surprised me. Admittedly, these numbers are super approximate, because they’re based solely on what I inputted as the genre of a book when I put it into a spreadsheet, and for each book I only gave it one genre, and some of them were slightly nebulous. There were a fair few adult books that I would call “contemporary” if they were YA, but I’m not sure that’s a term that’s really used in Adult books; they’re not quite “literary”, but possibly they’re “uplit”, which is one of these terms I don’t really understand and am not convinced means anything concrete. Usually they get shelved simply in “Fiction”, which is fundamentally unhelpful.
Approximate or not, I was pretty sure I was reading less fantasy these days, but my pie charts inform me that 46% of this year’s fiction was fantasy, vastly outweighing any other genre. True, that includes everything from urban fantasy and paranormal to epic fantasy — and I read way more of the former than the latter — and true, a few years ago that percentage would have been way higher, but it still surprised me. I’ve been particularly struggling to vibe with YA fantasies recently, and I had begun to wonder if the category was no longer for me, but when I look at the stats, the proportion of YA fantasies is so skewed compared to other genres that I can’t help but feel I’ve probably just read more mediocre ones because I’ve read more overall.
The surprise runner-up is romance, at 25%. Okay, so this isn’t a surprise to me — I knew full well that I read or reread most of KJ Charles and Cat Sebastian’s entire backlist this year — but it’s a surprise to anyone who has seen my previous years’ reading habits. I’d dabbled in queer romance in the past, particularly when I used to review a lot of small press books, but it was during last year’s lockdowns that I really discovered the comforting nature of queer historical romance novels, and this year I reached for that comfort repeatedly. No wonder, then, that it makes up almost a quarter of my total reading. There were a few contemporary romances in there too, and even one or two books that weren’t queer (though I found that Relentlessly Heterosexual Romance Novels were not to my taste) but for the most part, queer historical romance stole the show.
(At one point, I even considered writing my own, but it quickly became apparent that the amount of research required to write any historical period other than “dubiously historical mythological Ireland” with any accuracy would be too much for me, since that is the only era I know anything much about. And while I think a tropey queer romance novel set in the Ireland of the Ulster Cycle would be a delight, I suspect the audience for that is about three people. Maybe one day…)
I won’t bore you with the full breakdown of genres — it’s the broader trends that I find interesting. I will note that I read very few thrillers (1%), which is possibly surprising considering I have one coming out in May. Partly, though, it’s because I have one coming out in May. I spent most of the year editing The Butterfly Assassin, and so I avoided anything too similar to it. I figured if a YA thriller was too good, it would put me off and make me paranoid about my own work; plus, after reading my own book at least once a month all year, the last thing I wanted was something that felt too similar. I gravitated instead towards books that were nothing like any of my current projects, as a way of giving my brain a break.
I’d like to change that in 2022: I have a few YA thrillers on my Kindle that I’ve been waiting for the right moment to read. But I still think I’ll be reading for comfort more than for excitement (the pandemic is not over, it’s my debut year, and I have a bunch of other life uncertainty and big decisions going on: I don’t need any more stress), so high-tension books probably aren’t going to be my first choice. There’s a reason I got so into romance novels, and it’s because there’s something immensely comforting about knowing that no matter what else happens, the characters will wind up together and safe and okay.
I’m imagining teen me reading that sentence. I think they’d be disgusted by how much I’ve mellowed. I’m not, though: I’m proud of it, because it means I’m actually trying to seek out things that make me happy instead of wallowing.
Probably, if I had more time and Excel skills, I could see how many different authors I’d read, and figure out how many of them were new to me. I suspect that’s an area where this year would be different, because of my ebook browsing and willingness to try new things so long as they don’t cost me more than 1.99. (My book budget was still my third-highest cost this year, after rent and food, which is exactly why those sales were so important, but hey, it’s not like I was going out or spending any money on anything else.)
But with the info I’ve got, I think I have a pretty good picture of my reading year, and as 2021 provided very few opportunities to enjoy my other hobbies, like dance (thanks, pandemic + injuries), that represents a fairly large chunk of how I spent my time this year when I wasn’t studying or editing. Granted, these stats don’t reflect how many times I read The Butterfly Assassin (probably at least 15, if I’m honest) or any of my other books. Nor do they say anything about my fanfic consumption, which still remains strongly skewed in favour of very long fics about Bucky Barnes slowly learning how to be a person again, sometimes with a detour to have feelings about Natasha Romanoff.
(My type is traumatised ex-assassins trying to learn how to be a normal person in a world that seems determined to make a monster of them, and I will not apologise for this. If this is also your type, may I humbly suggest adding The Butterfly Assassin to your TBR?)
I’ve enjoyed keeping the exact details of my reading to myself. I’ve enjoyed the freedom to read and reread whatever I like. I’ve enjoyed not needing to rate books on an arbitrary star scale that always had me overthinking the difference between “quality” and “enjoyment” (sometimes a book is good but I didn’t like it; how do I rate that?). No, I probably couldn’t tell you what my “favourite” book was, nor can I tell you what the “best” book was (not necessarily the same thing), but I’m okay with that. Life without Goodreads? Honestly, pretty chill. Yes, so I had to compile all my stats manually, but that meant I could focus it on information that was useful to me, not what Amazon decided I needed to know and compare with others.
2022 will be quite a different reading year in general. It’s my debut year, and I’ll be making an effort to read books by my fellow debuts. I can’t possibly read all of them, and some are in genres I don’t vibe with or about topics that stress me out: no matter how much I want to support somebody, it’s not worth making myself miserable. (I’ll focus on recommending them to others who might like them more, instead.) But that’ll mean buying more new books, rather than waiting for a convenient sale, and probably branching out in directions I might not have tried otherwise. Perhaps next year, my genre breakdown will be a lot more varied.
I also want to read more books by other marginalised authors, especially those whose experiences are similar to my own. Ocean @ Beyond The Binary compiled this great list of 2022 releases by trans and nonbinary authors: there are so many of us that it had to be split into two, one for each half of the year. Some of these are already on my radar, but I look forward to discovering more of them. It’s fantastic to see how many of us there are, especially in a very trans-hostile world… strength in numbers, right? And while not all of the books on the list have trans characters (The Butterfly Assassin is there, and doesn’t have canon trans rep in book 1), lots do.
Likewise, I want to read more books by disabled authors, though I haven’t yet identified a handy list (I’m sure there are many out there, I just haven’t gone looking). In both of these cases, there are probably any number of books that I won’t know about because those authors aren’t comfortable sharing these marginalised facets of their identities. And that’s fine, and I don’t think they should have to. By seeking out those experiences, I’m simply trying to find others who face some of the same systemic hurdles as me, to offer what little support I can as a reader. I can never find all of us, but I’m glad there are enough of us to make that true.
Another thing I’d like to do differently in 2022 is the fiction vs nonfiction balance. My reading this year was 91% fiction, despite the fact that I was doing an MA and a number of academic books made it onto the list. That’s partly because I was spending a lot of time reading academic articles, which don’t feature on my list, and I didn’t have the brainpower left for degree-irrelevant nonfiction. I don’t have that excuse anymore, and I want to read more “fun” nonfiction (I feel I’ve been saying this for years), and to learn things that aren’t only about medieval Irish literature.
Mostly, though, I want to read books that I enjoy and that make me happy. I want to read for fun. I want to share the books I love, and keep quiet about the ones I don’t, because the world has enough negative energy in it without adding more. I want to read the kind of books that inspire me to be a better writer, and reread the ones that set me on this path in the first place. And maybe when I come to compile some stats for myself at the end of next year, they’ll look completely different from this year’s, or maybe they’ll look almost the same, but that’s something that only time will tell.
My parents gave me a jumper for Christmas that says READ MORE BOOKS. I don’t think I need the instruction, but I’m sure I’ll be following it anyway.
So, now it’s your turn. Any surprises in your reading this year, any dramatic shifts in genre preference or age category, or have you found what you liked and stuck to it? Where do you hope 2022 will take you, in terms of books? Let me know in the comments — I’m always down to hear about other people’s reading.
(And if you’ve found you’ve read very little: that’s totally fine too. I read for comfort and distraction, but not everyone does, and the ongoing state of the world has made it very hard for some people to focus on that kind of thing. No judgment here! This is a judgment-free reading zone.)
It’s still Ace Week, until Sunday, so following on from my last post about asexual representation in The Butterfly Assassin, I figured I would talk some more about sex and YA. More specifically, the clear and important difference between “upper YA” and “sexy YA”: terms with considerable overlap that are nevertheless not synonyms, and shouldn’t be considered as such.
There’s an uncomfortable habit that some people have of referring to books without sex as “clean”. This is particularly common in YA and romance — romance, because it’s a genre where distinguishing which books contain explicit sex is particularly relevant, and YA, because it’s a category where gatekeepers worry about what exactly they’re giving young people to read.
Of course, by categorising some books as “clean”, one automatically categorises others as “dirty”, whether or not that’s the intention, and implying that all explicit sex in books is somehow dangerous or inappropriate is a Whole Thing. It’s also something that’s disproportionately weaponised against marginalised creators. For decades, explicit queer content in books was considered illegally pornographic, and even now, LGBTQ+ books on Amazon get classified as “erotica” and hidden from lists and adverts when they don’t even vaguely fall into that category.
My experiences as a queer YA reader will be forever shaped by the fact that the first book with queer characters that I ever encountered — when I was twelve — had a label on the back saying “Advisory: Adult Content”. A label that wasn’t applied to the sequel, which contained substantial amounts of drug use. Only to the book with the gay characters. And I’ll always be shaped by the fact that when I was eighteen, I owned a grand total of three books containing queer characters. I can only recall two of the books, but in both of those they’re cis male secondary characters.
In other words, I never saw myself in books growing up. If I stumbled on queer characters in library books it felt like a strange kind of secret I was sharing with the author. Section 28 was repealed while I was still in primary school, but my county kept a version of it until I was halfway through secondary school, and in 2014, when I finished school, 29% of teachers still didn’t know whether or not they were allowed to teach about LGBT issues in schools.
This was a world of silence. Of not talking about it. Of “think of the children”. Of being treated like someone who was only allowed to exist after the watershed.
As an adult, it’s strange to think how recent this was, though sometimes, being trans, it can feel like little progress has been made. I remember when I first started getting queer books to review, I felt like I had to give all of them extra stars just because they bothered to include queer characters, which I’d seen so rarely. Now, there are enough of them that I don’t have to read any books featuring only straight people, if I choose not to. Now, there are enough that I’m allowed to dislike some of them.
I try not to take that for granted. I try to keep things in perspective. I remind myself that twenty years ago, most of the YA books I read now would have been illegal to display in school libraries.
It isn’t a world we should go back to.
There are constant conversations these days about sex in YA books, and the nature of upper YA, and where the line is between YA and Adult and whether it’s become too blurred, and whether YA is really written for teenagers anymore. Discourse is cyclical; the same discussions happen every few months, nothing changes, and everybody sinks into an ever-deepening pit of despair.
My take? The vast majority of YA books are written for teens. A few aren’t, but end up marketed that way because of the author’s prior readership or because publishers think they’ll do better there. Some of those that fall into this latter category happen to be really popular with older/adult YA readers, who have the purchasing power that makes publishers care about them, and therefore those books dominate the conversation because that’s what happens when money gets involved. Sometimes, I think both readers and authors would be happier if they made the jump to certain adult genres instead of squashing their books into the YA category by default. Other times, I think people are patronising teenagers and thinking them incapable of making up their own minds about anything. A lot of the time I’m feeling both of these things simultaneously.
One thing I find reductive about the conversation is how it always comes down to sex.
I think I have strong feelings about this for two reasons. One, I’m somebody who writes upper YA and adult fiction and often struggles to determine on which side of the line a book should fall. Two, I was a kid who read ‘above’ my age category from a fairly young age but who hated romance in books.
I was a teenager during the paranormal romance boom. Shaped by the Twilight era so much that I wrote one of my GCSE coursework essays about the impact Twilight had had on teen fiction as a whole. You know what I complained about in that essay? That it flooded the market with copycats and love triangles so that those of who didn’t like them had to go hang out in the adult section to find literally anything else.
I was probably being hyperbolic. I’m sure there were plenty of other YA books in the late 00s and early 10s that weren’t fixated on heterosexual white girls and their awkward supernatural love triangles. I probably read a lot of them, and loved a lot of them. But it felt, at times, like every book I read was trying to give me the same story, and it was a story that had romance at the centre, where kissing was a huge, life-changing big deal that everybody was desperate to experience.
And I… wasn’t interested.
Not only was I not interested, but throughout most of my teens I found sex not only uninteresting but actively horrifying and repellent to think about. I looked away during sex scenes in films. I skimmed them in books. I’d retreated to the adult SFF section to get away from ubiquitous YA love triangles, but I’d found the sexual violence of A Song of Ice and Fire (also gaining popularity at the time) to be a pretty poor alternative.
I wanted difficult books. Angsty books. Books with tough choices and sad endings where not everything turned out all right. I didn’t want the kind of kidlit where everybody’s safely home for tea at the end; I wanted books that would make me cry. But the older I got and the further along the YA category I got, the more the world only seemed to want to give me books about sex.
My debut, The Butterfly Assassin, is an upper YA book. It’s a book where I find myself mentally justifying its classification as YA because I don’t feel secure in it. It’s a book where my editor has periodically said, “I’m not sure if we should put that in a YA book,” or, “Should we maybe avoid this detail?” (And most of the time I’ve justified keeping whatever the detail was on the basis that I have 100% seen worse in popular MG and YA books.) It is a book I will not be letting my mum read.
It is also a sexless book. A book with no romance. A book where romance doesn’t even enter into the protagonist’s mind, and she shows absolutely no interest in sex.
It is not a ‘clean’ book.
It’s not a clean book because the protagonist kills somebody in the first chapter. (This isn’t a spoiler. It’s in the blurb.) It’s not a clean book because there’s more than enough swearing to ensure my parents will be vaguely disappointed in me no matter how well it sells. (Sorry.) It’s not a clean book because there’s violence and trauma and the messiness of trying to take control of your life when literally everybody around you thinks they know better than you how you should be living it.
But hey, there’s no sex.
That was a conscious choice, for the record. When I planned this book, way back in 2014, that was one of the first things I knew about it: that it was going to be all murder, no sex. I was eighteen and sick of sexy assassins, sick of ’emotionless’ characters being humanised by their libido, sick of romantic or sexual attraction being positioned as a redeeming feature.
I was sick of being told, implicitly, with every book that I read, that my lack of interest either made me a sociopath or a child.
It was a pattern I saw again and again. A remorseless, dark character is portrayed as emotionless and their capacity for redemption is in doubt, right up until the moment they fall in love and suddenly reveal themselves to have a heart. It didn’t seem like these protagonists were allowed to be softened by friendship. Nor did it seem that dystopian protagonists were ever allowed to motivated to save the world by platonic bonds of affection.
Because if they were, that wouldn’t be YA. That would be MG.
I wanted upper YA. I wanted books that were dark and morally complicated and that asked hard questions and that my parents would probably disapprove of. I wanted books that didn’t pull their punches (but authors seemed intent on not letting their characters actually die, which infuriated me). But it felt like I was only allowed those books with a solid helping of romance. And the ‘older’ the books got, the sexier they got.
It’s not that sex doesn’t belong in books. During the course of the pandemic, I’ve developed a taste for queer historical romance novels and I’ve read some of them three times or more. Some of them have explicit sex, and if it’s well-written, that can be a plus. Have I read a few that squicked me out? Yeah, because bad sex scenes are The Worst. But it’s not the sex that’s the problem. It’s an important reminder that I want from books as a 25-year-old is very different from what I wanted from books as a 16-year-old — something I try to bear in mind when I write YA. Some people’s tastes don’t change so dramatically, going from being utterly repulsed by sex to having a collection of favourite romance novels, but it’s still important to remember that teens and adults often want pretty different things from books.
But that doesn’t mean that sex doesn’t belong in YA, either. Even if it wasn’t to my taste, a lot of teenagers are interested in sex. A lot of teenagers are having it, too, though possibly not as many as the media would have you believe. (Most of my friendship group wasn’t. Side effect of being late-blooming queers: nobody was getting laid.) If they don’t find it in the books aimed at their age group, they’ll look for it elsewhere. In fanfic. In romance novels. In whatever they take off their parents’ shelves.
(I have friends who read wildly inappropriate books from a very young age by virtue of raiding their parents’ bookshelves. The fact that I wasn’t one of them was probably less to do with my lack of interest and more to do with the fact that my parents’ shelves contained things like Kafka in the original German, and three copies of CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity. The “Advisory: Adult Content” YA novel I read at twelve was sneaked from my sister’s shelf instead.)
Sex has been in YA books for as long as YA has existed as a category. It’s not a new trend, nor is it at odds with themes and ideas that many teenagers are looking for. And it’s not responsible for the ways that the category is pushing older and older and marketing more to adults than to teenagers. That, as far as I can tell, is about money. It’s about who buys hardbacks and subscription boxes and collects special editions versus who is waiting six months for the library to get a copy of the book. Which one do the publishers care more about? And which one of those is the teen?
But listening to the conversations about upper YA, you’d think that sex was the only thing that defined that category, just like manufactured love triangles and creepy, controlling love interests seemed to define the bestsellers in the genre when I was a teenager. And it’s not. There are — and should be — other factors at work. There are ‘sexless’ books that skew older than any of the contemporaries exploring a character’s first time; books that centre friendship aren’t automatically closer to MG than to adult.
I realise that for a lot of people, romantic and sexual firsts are a major part of the process of growing up. But often — and maybe I’d even say increasingly — that doesn’t necessarily happen in one’s teens. A lot of my friends didn’t have their first kiss until their 20s. The YA books we grew up with taught us that that was weird and unusual. It’s not. Especially not for queer people of our generation, who didn’t necessarily have the freedom to explore our sexualities as teenagers.
By reducing the YA category to the types of relationships depicted, we do it a disservice, and we do teenagers a disservice. By making conversations about appropriate age ranges focus on how much sex there is or isn’t in a book, we exclude people from the discussion. There are teens who are interested in sex, yes. And I recognise that “teens want this” is an important weapon against gatekeepers who would treat seventeen-year-olds like seven-year-olds if not for the constant pushback of authors and creators.
But. But. Conversations about sex in YA and conversations about there not being enough books for fourteen-year-olds are not the same conversation. There are fourteen-year-olds who want romance-focused books with a certain amount of steaminess. And there are eighteen-year-olds who want dark, messed-up books with no sex whatsoever.
And these books exist. There’s upper YA that pushes the boundaries of what it means for a book to be YA and they don’t do it by including graphic sex scenes. But when we make the conversation “who is YA really for” to be about how much sex is in a book, we miss the point, because those are two separate things.
I know that people say that authors need to be writing for real teens, who are reading now. Not for their own past self, who lived in a different world.
But they also say you should write the books you want to read, if you can’t find them on the shelf.
When I was seventeen, I wanted a book that was all murder, no sex. I wanted a book that was aimed at my age group, that didn’t pull punches or patronise me, and I didn’t want the cost of maturity to be romance. Because even then I was sick of an amatonormative world that treated friendship as something childish and romance as the gateway to adulthood.
And I’m willing to bet there are still some teens out there who want that too.
The Butterfly Assassin is upper YA. It contains no sex. That doesn’t make it any less upper YA and it certainly doesn’t make it any less likely to get complaints from parents and school librarians — though I’m convinced it’ll be the swearing that bothers them more than the corpses.
I started out by talking about the silence of the world I grew up in, one that only gave me heterosexual options and where anything else was shocking and rare and transgressive, because it’s been 13 years and I’m still angry that a book with a gay character got stamped with ADVISORY: ADULT CONTENT but a book with repeated drug use didn’t. Because being queer was considered more mature, more ‘inappropriate’. Because simply by virtue of containing a character who was explicitly gay, the book’s target audience was considered older.
This is why I’m wary of conversations that position sex as the defining feature of upper YA. This is why I’m wary when conversations about YA not being written for teens start and end with the amount of sex that’s in a book. It is always weaponised against marginalised groups first.
But it’s also why it bothers me that books without sex are automatically considered suitable for younger readers than those that contain it. For years, graphic violence was considered more suitable for kids that consensual queerness. Why are we more okay with letting a thirteen-year-old read about murder than letting them read about sex?
There are so many levels to this problem, and it helps nobody if we treat sex as the definitive factor in a book’s target audience. It is only one factor, one that’s tied up in cultural ideas about maturity and what it means to grow up, and one that’s dominated the conversation for way too long.
YA is about so much more than romantic and sexual relationships. But it’s easy to forget that, when that seems to be all anyone ever talks about. Maybe it’s time we moved on.
When I first saw the title of Mark Williams’ new book, The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think, I have to admit, I was… concerned. If it weren’t for the fact that I know and trust Mark when it comes to medieval literature (he was my second year Old Irish teacher and dissertation supervisor), I might have thought it was a pop psychology book about the inherent mythic structures in our brains, or something similar.
However, I do trust Mark, and I also know first hand that authors don’t always choose their titles, so I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. And the blurb makes it pretty clear that we’re not talking about any mythic brainwaves: if these stories have shaped the way we think, it’s in the sense of shaping how we think about Irish and Welsh myth/culture, not in the sense of defining our daily approach to interpersonal relationships.
(Which is… good. Because I seriously worry about anyone who bases their approach to interpersonal relationships on the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, since, uh, yikes.)
Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed Ireland’s Immortals and still find it a super useful reference book, so I figured I would get my hands on Celtic Myths and see what Mark had to offer on this occasion, hoping for a new go-to recommendation for people who come to me looking for guidance on what to read to learn more about medieval lit. I finished the book this afternoon, sitting on my landlords’ roof (… don’t tell them), and I thought I’d give you my thoughts.
The tl;dr is that this is a great introductory read, but if you’re expecting short blog posts, you’re definitely in the wrong place, so you’re getting way more detail than that. No, I was not paid to write this review; yes, I bought this book with my own money, etc. Though if anyone wants to give me a sponsorship deal for yelling about medieval literature on the internet, my DMs are open…
First of all, Mark makes it very clear from the beginning that this is a book aimed at the general reader. Unlike Ireland’s Immortals, which sought to hit that sweet spot between being an academic/scholarly book and also an accessible work that the general public might enjoy, that means Celtic Myths doesn’t contain footnotes (though there is some ‘further reading’ listed at the back). Quotes are given only in English translation, and technical terms are kept to a minimum; generic “Celtic scholars” are referenced rather than bogging the text down with names. This may be frustrating to those who want to follow up on specific points, but probably makes for a much easier and less daunting read for the newcomer.
Each chapter explores a different story, giving a rundown of the original material and then discussing its afterlife over time, and some of the ways the story has been reworked and developed. Throughout the book, there are pictures (including a number of full-colour plates), showing how characters and stories have been conceptualised over time, from fourteenth-century manuscript illustrations to Hellboy II.
Since I’m not a ‘general’ reader, I found that I was already familiar with almost all of the book’s content; though I’m not an expert on the Welsh side of things, I’ve done enough Welsh lit to be passingly familiar with the stories and poems in question, and there was nothing in the book that I’d say was brand new information. Of course, some of that is because Mark himself was my lecturer for a while: in chapter 3 (“Merlin: From Wildman to Wizard”) there were a number of details I was pleased to find I already knew, only to realise a few minutes later that that was because I got them from Mark, in a lecture he gave about medieval ‘wildman’ stories, Merlin, and Suibhne.
This is great, though, because now it means I finally have an alternative to trying to cobble together explanations for people based on my own undergraduate lecture notes, which are frequently chaotic if they exist at all — I can instead pass them this book, knowing that it covers the same material in a far more coherent way. I get a lot of people asking me questions about medieval literature (mainly Irish, but occasionally Welsh) or looking for reading recommendations, and I’m always looking for books that I trust to be both accurate and accessible.
(Obviously, having been taught by Mark means I’m also inclined to agree with a lot of his interpretations, since he played a significant part in shaping my own approach to Celtic literature. I wouldn’t say we agree 100% of the time, and there are a couple of details in the Cú Chulainn chapter where I’m inclined to quibble with the simplified explanations given, even though I know you can’t go into all the complexities in a general-purpose book like this. But it does mean I’m predisposed to find his conclusions believable: we belong to similar schools of thought.)
I had hoped that I’d be able to make use of the book myself as a sort of general-purpose reference book — sometimes I find it useful to have more ‘introductory’ material around when I can’t remember where I found something, because it can save me time hunting. Unfortunately, since this book has no footnotes and few direct quotes or citations, I don’t think I’ll be adding it to that particular shelf in my library, because unless it’s something where I can cite this book directly, I’d have to go off and do my own detective work to get a more detailed reference. However, as a scholarly reader, I am well aware that I am not the target audience, and this isn’t meant as a criticism — just a note for anyone thinking of picking it up who is wondering whether it’ll suit their purposes.
So who is the target audience? Well, I admit I have no sense of how easy it would be to follow if you came to the book with absolutely zero familiarity with any of the content, because it’s now too many years since I can remember what it was like not to know who Cú Chulainn is. But I’d say this is a really great book if your primary exposure to this material is via T.W. Rolleston or Peter Berresford Ellis or anyone else who offers “Celtic Myths & Legends” in one convenient volume, and you’re looking to understand why actually, it’s all a little more complicated than that. It’ll probably also suit people whose exposure to Celtic myth has been through retellings or reworkings in popular culture, and who want to know whether Neil Gaiman’s Mad Sweeney or Guillermo del Toro’s Nuada really bear any resemblance to their medieval namesakes — people who are trying to figure out what the “real myth” is behind the retellings.
Spoiler alert: “real myth” is both an oxymoron and a complicated metric to apply to anything Celtic, as Mark demonstrates. He uses the word “myth” critically throughout the book, explaining some of the difficulties with using this term for Celtic material. Some scholars use it pretty freely, even for late material, while others try not to use it at all, and still more are somewhere in the middle — Mark generally falls into the third category, acknowledging the mythic content in texts while also foregrounding their medieval or early modern literary context and origin. He discusses the dates and contexts of different texts, looking at how some of the most famous “mythological” material is actually the product of named authors centuries after when most people would have imagined it to be composed, and examines the tension between “pagan” ideas and the Christian context in which our medieval literature was produced, and how contemporary events shaped the literature as we have it.
He does this in a non-judgmental way, acknowledging that many people feel a personal and/or spiritual connection to material, even if it isn’t ancient, and exploring the ways that “late” material may still be an authentic part of a country’s literary and cultural heritage. But he’s also frank about aspects of popular “Celtic” culture that are modern inventions, and how they came to be, looking at the lasting impact of Iolo Morgannwg (Edward Williams), James Macpherson (inventor of the poems of Ossian), and others who shaped our modern conception of Celtic literatures.
I think the Introduction of the book in particular is vital reading for those new to dealing with Celtic material on anything other than a surface level. Mark points out how many popular treatments are second- or third-hand information, often a long way distanced from their source material, regurgitated uncritically (particularly online). I see a lot of misinformation online, where people misinterpret what the Irish texts say or even just make stuff up from nowhere, and it spreads powerfully quickly, including ending up in published books and guides. Mark doesn’t dismiss the value of these stories as creative works and folk traditions, but warns readers to be aware of what is and is not a genuine part of the historical tradition.
“The upshot is that the afterlife of a given story tends to dominate, to the extent that it completely obscures the medieval original behind a heavy veil of romantic nationalism and, in a few cases, outright fraud. As a result, popular handbooks often depend on retellings of retellings, in which dubious ‘truths’ about Celtic myth are endlessly recycled: these retellings can lie a long way from the primary sources and take on a facticity of their own. People may want to include elements of such retellings in their own creative endeavours or spiritual life — which is of course absolutely legitimate — but some of these ‘well-known facts’ rest on fragile evidence.”Mark Williams, The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think, p. 12.
In each chapter, Mark considers some of the uses to which the medieval stories have been put. If I’m honest, I would have liked more detailed analysis of some of these — particularly in the Cú Chulainn chapter (how predictable of me), where he touches on the use of images of Cú Chulainn for political purposes. The image of the dying Cú Chulainn has been utilised for both republican and unionist causes, with the same image being used for the statue in the GPO as in loyalist murals in Belfast. I’ve read a couple of really interesting articles on the topic, but it’s something I’d love to know more about, and Mark only gives it a glancing treatment. But, that’s my background speaking — the very fact that I’ve read some academic articles on the subject is a sign that I’m not the “general reader” here.
Still, I’d have liked to hear more of Mark’s thoughts on some of the pop culture he discusses (The Owl Service as a reworking of the Fourth Branch, The Call as an interpretation of the Túatha Dé, etc). I suppose that would be a different book, one focused on textual reception for those already familiar with the stories, rather than one aimed at introducing newcomers to the tales behind the pop culture they’re familiar with. I do think that’s a book the field needs (though I know there has been some work on this already) and when I initially read the blurb of this one, I hoped maybe this might be it, but on most levels, it’s not.
There is slightly more Welsh material than Irish material in the book: five chapters about specifically Welsh material, four about specifically Irish material, and one about Brutus and origin legends which explores both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Lebor Gabala. Where there are parallels or relevant examples from the literature of the “other” country, Mark draws them in, but he’s keen to stress that Irish and Welsh material are not interchangeable, nor as similar as they’re often painted to be in popular thinking. And for those wondering why a book about “Celtic” myth seems to make little mention of Scottish, Cornish, Manx or Breton material, Mark addresses this in the introduction: the bulk of the early literature that we have is from Wales and Ireland, making them his primary focus, though other Celtic-speaking areas are referenced where relevant.
So that’s the content, but what about the style? Well, while this one doesn’t include either the word “sexcapades” or the word “glitterati”, both of which showed up in Ireland’s Immortals and helped secure it a place on my “favourite academic books list”, it’s still plenty entertaining. The humour is often understated, but undeniable, and it definitely doesn’t feel like slogging through dense academic prose. The pictures also help, as does the fairly large print…
(Listen. I’m in the middle of Thesis Hell. I need all the help I can get when it comes to actually absorbing any information.)
So while as a scholarly reader I found myself wanting more — more detail, more discussion of textual reception, more direct quotes — I would have no reservations about recommending this to any general reader looking for a solid introduction to some of the most famous figures in Irish and Welsh literature: Taliesin, Merlin, Finn, Deirdre, and so on. If you want a way in to Celtic mythology that’s grounded in actual sources and up-to-date on recent scholarship and academic interpretations, this is it, and a much better starting place than most of the “Celtic Myths” books on the market.
If, however, you’re looking for a more detailed scholarly investigation into the mythological side of the Irish tradition, go for Ireland’s Immortals. Almost five years after its publication, it’s still one of my go-to recs — but this one is a great addition to the list, particularly for those who are brand new to the material.
You can buy The Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think on Amazon UK (affiliate link; if you buy via this link I earn a small commission) or at your local bookshop or wherever you normally buy books, and likewise with Ireland’s Immortals.
If you enjoyed this post and want to enable me to continue buying books like this so I can tell you about them, please consider dropping a couple of quid in my tip jar!
These days, I primarily read on my Kindle, a trusty Paperwhite that I bought in 2015 when my old Kindle Keyboard shuffled off this mortal coil. The case is cracked and falling apart, but I’m wary of replacing it, in case the Kindle itself follows suit shortly afterwards; the device itself is hanging in there at the moment, but occasionally has its glitches.
Since I first got a Kindle in 2011, I’ve continued to read a mixture of paper books and ebooks. In recent years, I’ve shifted towards the ebooks for fiction. When I was struggling with my visual stress, before I got my tinted glasses, it was easier to tape an orange plastic overlay to my Kindle screen than continually move one from page to page of a paper book. Now, although I can read paper books more easily again, I’m separated by a few hundred miles from the majority of my collection, with only ten fiction books here with me in my flat.
So it’s practical, it’s convenient, and the number of books I’m able to pick up at discounted prices mean that I can feed my reading habit without having to sacrifice the ability to feed myself — all good reasons to rely on ebooks.
Part of me, however, resents that my naive 2011 self locked myself into an Amazon-dependent Kindle, my extensive library of ebooks difficult to transfer to another system if I decided to steer away from Amazon when this device eventually breaks. I don’t like giving money to Amazon, if I can help it: I disapprove of their treatment of workers, their failure to pay taxes, and the impact they’ve had on independent bookshops. But when it comes to ebooks, it feels like a necessary evil, and if that’s a rather more significant portion of my monthly budget than it should be, at least I try not to buy from Amazon in other areas of my life.
(I recognise that obviously, buying from Amazon is crucial for some people in terms of accessibility. This isn’t intended to pass judgement on those people, just to remark on my own choices as a consumer.)
Because I have an actual Kindle, and I prefer reading on the “e-ink” screen rather than on my phone or another backlit device, I rarely use the Kindle app, but I have it on my phone in case I need to quickly reference a book while I’m out and about. The other day, however, I went into the app to check something for a friend, and discovered a whole new function I’d never seen before: “Reading Insights”.
In these Reading Insights, my Kindle told me how many books I’d read this year, my “reading streak” (22 weeks, but only 6 days in a row at present), how many days per month I was reading (23 in September, down from 26 in August but significantly up from 14 in May) and my “records” — “wins and bests from your reading activity”. Reading, like Duolingo, was something to be done and recorded every day, to maintain a “streak”.
Obviously, my Kindle only knows about the books I’ve read as purchased ebooks — not paper books, library ebooks, fanfic, or anything else that I don’t read through its app or devices. However, since this year, 128 of my ~170 reads so far have been Kindle books, this still represents a pretty large proportion of my reading.
I knew, of course, that it tracked me. That’s how it’s able to recommend me books similar to my recent reads; that’s why I occasionally get Amazon recommendations that are made entirely of KJ Charles novels; that’s inevitable when the purchase and the mechanism for interacting with that purchase are so closely integrated. But I still found it somewhat unsettling to see a calendar of my reading activity, to see days marked in blue where I read something. For a moment, I imagined someone looking at that data and thinking, “Wow, this person has seriously messed up sleep patterns. Look how often they stayed up until 2am.” For a moment, I wondered what other uses it could be put to.
It used to be that I’d track this stuff myself, on Goodreads (also owned by Amazon, whose fingers are in nearly every bookish pie these days). My reasons for quitting Goodreads were many, and few of them were to do with data privacy, although there’s been a level of relief about not having to share my opinions all the time. I track my reading in a text file and leave myself a short note about my feelings on a book, to let me know whether it’s worth rereading in future; I can be as caustic or bubbly as I like, and nobody can judge me on it. But I had thought that a pleasant side-effect of leaving was that the internet wouldn’t be quite so aware of everything I’d read, in order to use it to advertise at me.
Except that Amazon knows. And Amazon is in the internet. And Amazon not only knows what I’ve bought, but whether I’ve read it, and on what day I read it, and maybe how long it took me or how long I paused on certain passages or whether I reread a section. What else do they know?
But, I’ll be honest, I’m part of the internet generation, and while I make a few attempts at maintaining some privacy online — using Firefox and Facebook Container and uBlock and so on — I know that in the end, I’m fighting a losing battle. I can avoid Google Chrome all I like, but my phone is Android, so Google knows too much about me already. I can stop Facebook tracking me on other sites, but that doesn’t change the fact that they get enough info from Facebook itself, and Instagram, and WhatsApp…
My data is out there, whether I like it or not, and I’m not committed enough to burn it all down to eradicate those pieces of my online self, so I just have to live in this constantly-surveilled world. I’ve made an uneasy peace with that. Accepted that in our imperfect reality, that’s the price of convenience. I should probably be angrier about it, but I’ll be honest, it feels like we have bigger problems, and I have a finite amount of energy. I’m still unlikely to ever have Alexa or whatever in my home; I don’t want something listening to me on purpose. But I’m not putting on a tinfoil hat just yet.
No, the thing that really bothered me about these Reading Insights was the fact that reading, like everything else, had become something … almost competitive. “Bests and wins”? Really? Is maintaining a daily streak of reading a “win”? For me it usually means I’m fatigued and spending a lot of time in bed: the less energy I have for other things, the more time I spend reading. Do we need to measure these things?
Part of the reason I left Goodreads, and stopped doing bookstagram, and generally took my reading offline, was because I felt like after a while it became about the numbers and statistics. It was a race: how many books could I read? How many likes on that photo? Could I complete this challenge, that readathon, this bingo card? Did I have a TBR? Was my TBR out of control? Would I like it to be? Did I have a list for this month, next month, next year?
It wasn’t me. I wanted to read what I wanted to read, when I wanted to read it. I’ve never struggled to motivate myself to read, partly because it’s sometimes the only thing I have energy for, so a yearly reading “challenge” seemed superfluous. Plus, I’m what the bookstagram types call a “mood reader” — I read things when I feel like reading them. I actually don’t have a TBR (to-be-read list), except in the vaguest sense of “oh, I’d like to read that sometime”, or my wishlist of books I want but can’t afford.
That’s without getting into all the ways I couldn’t handle consumerist book culture, or the books-as-sacred-object mindset that I encounter so often online. I eventually came to the conclusion that while I was a booknerd and a very voracious reader, I was simply not a Book Person in the internet sense of being a Book Person. I had no interest in collecting six versions of the same book, I didn’t want character-themed scented candles, I think a lot of books actually smell pretty bad, and I really don’t care if people break the spines of their own books, or dog-ear the pages, or write in them, because they’re just books.
(If you do this to my books when I lend them to you, I’ll end you. But that’s a completely different thing.)
So, I thought, I’ll opt out. Go offline. Forget the streaks and challenges. I’ll track my reading in a text file because I have a terrible memory and I need a record of what I’ve read; I didn’t track it at all last autumn after leaving Goodreads in August, and now I have no idea what I read then. But I’m not going to bother about statistics or numbers or challenges.
And all the while my Kindle is sitting there going, “You have a 22-week reading streak!”
I’ve discovered that I can opt out of these insights. I probably will. Because even in the few days since I discovered them, that competitive instinct has ignited in my brain. “I have to read today, to continue my streak,” I find myself thinking. I probably would have read anyway, but not in such a self-conscious way. Not in order to fulfil some meaningless obligation to a chart I didn’t ask to have created. Not to give a corporation more information about me and my habits.
I have a 1000-day Duolingo streak and a 4-year+ Timehop streak. The former is a helpful pressure to keep me hacking away at the mountain of language-learning, even when it seems insurmountable; it tells me that a little every day is better than 3 hours and then a month of inactivity. The latter is honestly a coincidence, the result of my fun mixture of nostalgia and memory loss, that keeps me looking back at old social media posts every day to recall parts of my life I’ve lost. Timehop is forgiving of missed days, I suspect; I know I’ve missed some in the past four years, but it keeps my streak nonetheless.
But reading? Do I need a streak for that? Do I need to be pressured into doing something that for years has been my most consistent and least demanding hobby? Do I need to make that a numbers game too?
Last weekend I was reflecting on the fact that writing, which has always been my emotional outlet, is transitioning from being my hobby to being my career. I can no longer abandon a project to write something else that better reflects my current mood, not if I’m under contract for it, nor can I stop writing for weeks because I’m depressed (unless I’m willing to explain that to my editor). In the light of this, I figured I would probably need a new emotional outlet, a new hobby, ideally one that I couldn’t possibly monetise or make into a career.
These days, it feels like we’re discouraged from having “unproductive” hobbies. We’re told to have a side-hustle, encouraged to sell the things we make. If you’re good at something, there’s an increasing expectation that you’ll find a way to monetise it. Personally, as a perfectionist who has always dreamed big, I’ve always struggled to have hobbies I wasn’t way too serious about. Within weeks of taking up Irish dance as a teenager, I was imagining going to the World Championships; I imagined going to vocational ballet school before I’d even resumed taking classes. These were impossible, implausible dreams, but symptomatic of my inability to do things casually, a mindset that society these days only encourages.
I asked on Twitter and Instagram what people did just for fun, and received more answers than I’d expected. A lot of people found video games helpful — lots of small achievements to keep the brain ticking over and happy. Some watched a lot of TV and films. There were lots of crafty types: knitting and crochet were popular, but also art. Some people played music, or baked, or went for long walks in the countryside.
And then there was reading.
Reading’s a weird one as a writer. Not only do you end up reading books by friends and colleagues and acquaintances, it can also be hard to turn off the analytical part of your brain that reads as a writer reads. I find this is particularly hard when I’m in the middle of edits — copyedits, in particular, made me judge everybody’s punctuation choices, and made it a lot harder to get immersed in anything because I was primed to nitpick. But still, when my pain levels are flaring or my fatigue is bad, it’s always the hobby I come back to. When my hands don’t work well enough to knit and my eyes can’t take the flashing lights of TV and my body won’t let me go for walks, it’s always, in the end, reading.
Not for the numbers. Not to maintain a streak. Not to reach a new personal best of number of books read in a year.
But because books give my brain a break from the world for a couple of hours, and sometimes, that’s all I want from a hobby. A chance to stop being inside my own head for a little while. A comfort when I don’t have anyone to spend time with, or the energy to spend time with them.
As a writer, I don’t always read casually. I often read critically, and analytically, and with an eye to improving my own professional skills. But that doesn’t mean I have to read competitively, as though my reading streak might be marked up on a leaderboard to see where I rank among similarly bookish friends. That doesn’t mean I have to give in to the internet’s desire to categorise and track everything with streaks and trends and statistics, to make me a more ‘productive’ reader.
I probably can’t stop my Kindle collecting that information. But I can ask it not to tell me, and I will. Because sometimes, I want to read because I’m sad or tired or lonely or bored and I want the comfort, distraction, and joy of disappearing into somebody else’s head and somebody else’s world. And that isn’t a numbers game, and never will be.
All right, here it is — the last post in my Standish O’Grady series. I’ve learned a lot from writing these posts, and having a theme to follow has been great in terms of encouraging me to blog more consistently than I have done in years, but I think next time I do a blog series, I’ll pick something that can be wrapped up in 2-3 posts. I didn’t really anticipate that it would take me a full month to get through this, and I have to admit, my attention span isn’t great and I struggle to keep focused for that long. Hence this final post has taken me a while longer to write than I intended it to. (It’s also longer than I’d planned, because I really didn’t want to split it into two, but there was a lot to say.)
In any case, we’re nearly done, and I’m excited to wrap up our discussion of The Coming of Cuculain. For those who somehow missed the earlier posts in the series, they’re all designed to be read without having encountered Standish O’Grady’s work yourself, but a passing familiarity with Cú Chulainn and the Ulster Cycle in general will probably make things easier to follow.
Previous posts in this series:
- Understanding Standish (an introduction to the project and an examination of Standish O’Grady’s earlier work on the same subject)
- Conquest, Classicism and Characterisation (a discussion of the first part of The Coming of Cuculain, up to Cú Chulainn’s arrival at Emain Macha)
- The Boy-Troop at Boarding School (a discussion of the second part of The Coming of Cuculain, the portrayal of the boy-troop, and Láeg’s first appearance in the book)
- Sacred Steeds and Tangled Timings (a discussion of the third part of The Coming of Cuculain, looking at how Cú Chulainn acquired his supernatural horses, and Láeg threatened to beat him up for not listening to him because that’s friendship, baby)
You can find The Coming of Cuculain at Project Gutenberg.
We left off just before Cú Chulainn’s “knighting”, an event shrouded in ominous prophecies of future sadness and a short life. The word “knighting” has always struck me as a peculiar one to use in this context, as has the description of the Ulaid as the “Red Branch Knights” — a phrase you see often in Victorian translations and retellings. It’s a very… Continental word, and not one you find in a medieval Irish context, although it starts creeping into the language from about the seventeenth century onwards.
But this led me on an interesting etymological rabbithole. Knight when we see it in, say, Arthurian contexts is often a translation of chevalier. The crucial element there being cheval: horse. Owning and riding a horse is an essential element of chivalry, and it’s one of the reasons the word has never struck me as particularly appropriate for Irish characters, who are notably disinclined to ride horses.
In fact, riding horses rather than travelling in chariots is so unusual for upper-class warrior figures in medieval Irish texts that the early modern Oidheadh Con Culainn makes a point of emphasising its rarity:
the three men who first rode a horse of a single rein in Ireland: Lug at the battle of Mag Tuired, Súaltaim on the Líath Macha at the hosting of the Táin, and Conall on the Dergruathar [in this text, riding to find Cú Chulainn].
This passage is a little puzzling as we do have other riders (including one in this very text, approximately five pages earlier). Also, no surviving version of Cath Maige Tuired depicts Lug riding a horse in this way, so either the author of this triad had access to a version we don’t have, or he’s making it up because of Lug’s connection to Cú Chulainn, who is the focus here. However, the fact of the matter is that a character (Conall) turning up on horseback instead of in a chariot is considered a sign that Something Is Unusual And Probably Bad about the situation — notably, the other occurrences are in times of crisis.
So, medieval Irish warriors are definitely not chevaliers. But when I went looking into the English word, ‘knight’ (from Old English cniht), Wiktionary gave me the meaning, “A young servant or follower; a trained military attendant in service of a lord.” What’s more, this was the first in the list, with the meaning “armed and mounted warrior” coming in at third. In other words, ‘knight’ has got more linguistic flexibility than I realised, and the French chevalier meaning isn’t the only one at work.
“A trained military attendant in service of a lord” certainly seems to describe the situation that Cú Chulainn seems to be entering here, becoming one of Conchobar’s fully-fledged fighters (and therefore graduating from boarding school/the boy-troop). I still think that O’Grady is substantially projecting upon his image of ancient Ireland a world that belongs far more to Continental romance than it does to any Old Irish tale, but I’m prepared to grant that my objection to specific words is not as justified as I thought.
Where O’Grady’s image feels un-Irish to me is the level of ritual and formality involved in this knighthood process. Not that the medieval Irish world didn’t contain rituals or formality, some of them incomprehensible to us when we read, but he gives us a process that seems more… Classical than anything else:
When the other rites had been performed and the due sacrifices and libations made, and after Cuculain had put his right hand into the right hand of the King and become his man…
I mentioned last week that Cú Chulainn’s actual taking of arms in the Boyhood Deeds is somewhat shrouded in subterfuge, so there’s definitely no big ritual happening in front of everybody, but I don’t think we ever really get rites being performed and sacrifices and libations being made in Irish texts like this. Of course, they’re all written by monks, who would probably have hesitated to include anything so obviously pagan, but since we know virtually nothing about pre-Christian Irish religion, we really can’t assume it bore any resemblance to, say, Classical practices.
I do enjoy, however, the use of the phrase “become his man”, because where have we seen that before? Láeg, the first time he met Cú Chulainn. These layers of hierarchy are very medieval, each bound to the next one up in the chain, and there’s a scene in Táin Bó Cúailnge that really evokes this. A messenger is sent to Cú Chulainn to try and negotiate. He encounters Láeg first, and asks him whom he serves. Láeg points to Cú Chulainn, sitting a little way off, and says, “That man.” The messenger goes to Cú Chulainn and asks him who he serves. Cú Chulainn says, “Conchobar.”
He’s doing it to rile the messenger up by refusing to confirm his name, and he continues the mischief throughout the conversation, but it also gives us the sense that Láeg’s obligation to Cú Chulainn isn’t dissimilar to Cú Chulainn’s obligation to Conchobar, and O’Grady’s use of a similar phrase to describe both relationships seems particularly apt.
It’s also interesting because Láeg essentially made a formal declaration long before he actually became Cú Chulainn’s charioteer — which hasn’t happened yet. After Cú Chulainn has been given weapons (and declared them inadequate, and been given Conchobar’s own, as in the Boyhood Deeds) the time comes for him to choose his charioteer, and it’s treated as though this weren’t a foregone conclusion. Conchobar “caused to pass before Cuculain all the boys who in many and severe tests had proved their proficiency in charioteering” (followed by a quick description of what that entails), so that he might choose.
Amongst them was Laeg, with a pale face and dejected, his eyes red and his cheeks stained from much weeping. Cuculain laughed when he saw him, and called him forth from the rest, naming him by his name with a loud, clear voice, heard to the utmost limit of the great host.
“There was fear upon thee,” said Cuculain.
“There is fear upon thyself,” answered Laeg. “It was in thy mind that I would refuse.”
“Nay, there is no such fear upon me,” said Cuculain.
I love this scene. I love it because we rarely get a glimpse of how or why Láeg became Cú Chulainn’s charioteer, although the version of Compert Con Culainn in RIA MS D.iv.2 tells us it was because of a “special love of fighting”. I also love it because of Láeg’s moment of insecurity here. We’ve seen in the last two posts how clear Cú Chulainn’s affection is for him, and how close the pair of them are, yet still, in this moment, he thinks perhaps Cú Chulainn might choose somebody else.
And for Cú Chulainn, the idea that he might ever have picked anybody other than Láeg is so absurd that he can only laugh at Láeg’s anxiety, because of course he wouldn’t! Why would he ever choose anybody else? Nor does it seem to cross his mind for a moment that Láeg might refuse — after all, he’s already promised himself to Cú Chulainn. Láeg’s self-effacing fear that perhaps he might be overlooked is completely unfounded, but that doesn’t make it less poignant. Perhaps it’s the very fact of his closeness with Cú Chulainn that makes him afraid — if he does lose his ‘life-friend’, what then?
But Cú Chulainn declares his choice in front of the entire host, with no room for misinterpretation, and he also makes a prophecy:
“Verily, dear comrade and bed-fellow,” answered Cuculain, “it is through me that thou shalt get thy death-wound, and I say not this as a vaunt, but as a prophecy.”
And that prophecy was fulfilled, for the spear that slew Laeg went through his master.
Leaving aside the fact that I’ll cry about “dear comrade and bed-fellow” forever, this is an interesting merging of the medieval and early modern versions of the Death of Cú Chulainn, something we saw in our first post too. In the medieval story, Láeg dies; in the early modern one, he survives, but is injured by a spear that goes first through Cú Chulainn, into Láeg, in a kebab-style double impalement (Cúbab…). By taking the latter injury and making it Láeg’s death-blow, O’Grady merges the two versions of the story neatly, and also confirms that he doesn’t envisage Láeg surviving the story. He’s gone the medieval route in that regard.
Prophecy made and choice declared, Láeg becomes Cú Chulainn’s charioteer officially: “After that Laeg stood by Cuculain’s side and held his peace, but his face shone with excess of joy and pride.” Delightful.
O’Grady also gives us here a glimpse of the rest of Láeg’s family:
Laeg was one of three brothers, all famous charioteers. Id and Sheeling were the others. They were all three sons of the King of Gabra, whose bright dun arose upon a green and sloping hill over against Tara towards the rising of the sun. Thence sprang the beautiful stream of the Nemnich, rich in lilies and reeds and bulrushes, which to-day men call the Nanny Water.
These brothers show in a couple of places, including in Fled Bricrenn, as well as another text entitled Fled Bricrenn ocus Loinges mac nDuíl Dermait which is nothing to do with the more famous Fled Bricrenn despite sharing part of its title with it. In that text, there are actually 9 Riangabra siblings, six boys and three girls, although the three “canonical” brothers are listed separately, suggesting the author hasn’t been entirely successful at integrating his OCs.
This text also provides some solid support for Famously Bisexual Cú Chulainn, but that’s slightly beside the point.
Anyway, Idh mac Riangabra is Conall Cernach’s charioteer in Fled Bricrenn and Fer Diad’s charioteer in the Stowe version of the Táin, and Sedlang, or Sheeling as O’Grady’s calling him, is Loegaire’s Buadach’s charioteer in Fled Bricrenn; I’m not sure if he shows up anywhere else.
I mentioned in my Motherfoclóir episode that “Riangabra” probably means “bridle-of-a-horse”, or maybe (less likely) “path-of-a-horse” — essentially, the name means “charioteer”. With this in mind, it’s plausible it was originally just an epithet given to charioteers that was later interpreted as a patronymic. Hence originally, Láeg, Idh and Sedlang may not have been understood as brothers, just men with the same profession, but later, they get given parents and a couple of possible backstories and are explicitly referred to as brothers.
O’Grady definitely leans heavily into the “sibling” reading, and I suspect he might be using the Stowe version of the Táin, or something that draws on it, because that text shows Idh and Láeg forced into fighting each other to protect their masters and there’s considerable animosity between the pair of them. O’Grady frames this as a kind of brotherly rivalry or animosity between the pair — more on that in a second.
In the Boyhood Deeds, Cú Chulainn goes haring off in Conchobar’s chariot, driven by Conchobar’s own charioteer, Ibar. After they’ve tricked Conall Cernach into turning back so that he can’t stop them, Ibar fulfils the typical charioteer function of interpreting the landscape they’re passing for Cú Chulainn’s benefit, explaining where they are, who lives there, what the significance of certain animals is, etc. In the process, Cú Chulainn displays his prowess at hunting and fighting, before returning to Emain Macha laden with animals he’s caught and other spoils.
O’Grady follows this more or less beat-for-beat, with one major difference: Láeg is the charioteer in question, and the chariot is not Conchobar’s, but the “sacred chariot of Macha” that we discussed last week — as far as I can tell, O’Grady’s own invention. Obviously, it would have to be Láeg after all this build-up, and the chariot is also already firmly established. Láeg’s usual absence from the Boyhood Deeds contributes to one of the small mysteries about him (when, exactly, did he and Cú Chulainn meet?), but O’Grady has firmly answered that question, so he’s present.
While Cú Chulainn commands Ibar to do as he wishes, in O’Grady’s narrative, both Láeg and Cú Chulainn seem to be game for adventure, although Láeg is periodically portrayed as timid to big up Cú Chulainn’s own heroic fervour. We have to remember that these are two teenage boys out for a drive with no adult supervision for the first time in their lives. Plus, they’ve essentially been at boarding school for years. Of course they’re excited.
It’s when they encounter Conall that we get a glimpse of Idh mac Riangabra. A watchman describes the chariot, identifying Láeg by “his manner of driving”, and that’s when Idh speaks up:
“If it be my brother that charioteers sure am I that it is Cuculain who is in the fighter’s seat, for many a time have I heard Laeg utter foul scorn of the Red Branch, none excepted, when compared with Sualtam’s son. For no other than him would he deign to charioteer. Truly though he is my own brother there is not such a boaster in the North.”
This is striking, because we honestly haven’t seen Láeg expressing this kind of scorn. He has friends among the boy-troop before Cú Chulainn himself arrives, and seems to have appointed himself the rescuer of some of them. I wonder if O’Grady is here drawing on a line in Oidheadh Con Culainn, where after Cú Chulainn’s death, Láeg states that he will never be the charioteer of any other man. Perhaps, rather than grief, O’Grady reads this as distaste for the rest of the Ulaid.
But maybe the two brothers just don’t know each other that well. Láeg identifies Idh from a distance: “My haughty brother Ide, who hath ever borne himself to me as though I were a wayward child”. Idh’s probably the elder, in that case, and can’t reconcile himself with the idea that his little brother has grown up.
Anyway, they damage Conall’s chariot sufficiently that he has to turn back, which he’s furious about, threatening Cú Chulainn “that if a step would save thy head from the hands of the men of Meath, I would not take it”. Yeah, yeah, Conall. We know full well you’re going to end up being the one he choose to avenge his death, nobody believes you. Ah, cousins.
The close of this chapter’s interesting, though, because it gives us a glimpse of Conall backstory that, as far as I can tell, O’Grady has made up out of nowhere. When Fingin sees Conall returning to the Ulaid, he says:
His father Amargin was well known to me. He was a warrior grim and dour exceedingly, and he ever said concerning the boy, ‘This hound’s whelp that I have gotten is too fine and sleek to hold bloody gaps or hunt down a noble prey. He will be a women’s playmate and not a peer amongst Heroes.’ And that fear was ever upon him till the day when Conall came red out of the Valley of the Thrush, and his track thence to Rath-Amargin was one straight path of blood, and he with his shield-arm hacked to the bone, his sword-arm swollen and bursting, and the flame of his valour burning bright in his splendid eyes. Then, for the first time, the old man smiled upon him, and he said, ‘That arm, my son, has done a man’s work to-day.’”
I’m pretty sure we call that toxic masculinity…
The idea that Conall was ever considered less-than-manly is not a tradition I’m familiar with in the slightest; this is, after all, the guy who rides a horse known as “Dripping Red” which in some stories has a dog’s head and is 100% down to eat people. (Link there to more info about Conall’s monster horse, courtesy of my friend Emmet, the Conall expert.) Nor am I particularly aware that there’s notable tension between him and his dad. So, odd detail. Maybe just O’Grady’s attempt to ensure we know exactly what it is he considers manly: Doing Big Murder.
Well, the guy thought imperialism was a neat idea that Ireland should join in with, so I guess that shouldn’t really come as a surprise.
In any case, Láeg and Cú Chulainn continue their journey — they are “at large in Erin” — with Láeg interpreting the landscape for Cú Chulainn and explaining to him how things work. This made more sense when it was Ibar, a grown man who’d been driving Conchobar around for any number of years; Láeg has been in the same place as Cú Chulainn this whole time, and it’s hard to say how he would have obtained this information.
Cú Chulainn decides that he needs to fight somebody to prove himself, though Láeg is very much not thrilled about the idea of fighting the Sons of Nechtan, who are by all accounts very good fighters. Cú Chulainn won’t be dissuaded, but he does insist on taking a nap beforehand.
“Witless and devoid of sense art thou,” answered Láeg, “for who but an idiot would think of sweet sleep and agreeable repose in a hostile territory, much more in full view of those who look out from a foeman’s dun, and that dun, Dun-Mic-Nectan?”
“Do as I bid thee,” said Cuculain. “For one day, if for no other, thou shalt obey my commands.”
I enjoy this glimpse of Insulting Láeg, who comes up so frequently in medieval texts, as well as the idea that this is probably not going to be a simple hierarchical relationship in which Láeg unquestioningly does as he’s told. The “sleeping on the way to a fight” is something I associate more with Fer Diad than with Cú Chulainn, though; in Comrac Fir Diad, he does something very similar, and his charioteer berates him for it.
Láeg keeps watch while Cú Chulainn sleeps, and when their enemies come, he draws Cú Chulainn’s sword, though it’s almost too heavy for him. “His aspect, too, was high and warlike, and his eyes shone menacingly the while his heart trembled, for he knew too well that he was no match for the man.”
There are a few early modern texts where we get this kind of motif — Láeg fighting while Cú Chulainn sleeps. One of them is Toruigheacht Gruaidhe Griansholus, where I think he defeats about 100 warriors by himself, and is very much portrayed as a champion in his own right. O’Grady seems to split the difference between medieval Láeg (not a warrior himself though occasionally does a murder) and early modern Láeg (will readily do murders while Cú Chulainn naps). Like, he’ll try, but he’s “no match”, unlike early modern Láeg, who is more than once described as “a match for a hundred”.
Fortunately for Láeg, Cú Chulainn eventually wakes up and takes over the fight, defeats them all roundly, and they return home — but all is not well.
Cuculain was a pale red all over, for ere the last combat was at an end that pool of the Boyne was like one bath of blood. His eyes blazed terribly in his head, and his face was fearful to look upon. Like a reed in a river so he quaked and trembled, and there went out from him a moaning like the moaning of winds through deep woods or desolate glens, or over the waste places of the earth when darkness is abroad. For the war-fury which the Northmen named after the Barserkers enwrapped and inflamed him, body and spirit, owing to those strenuous combats, and owing to the venom and the poison which exhaled from those children of sorcery, that spawn of Death and Hell, so that his gentle mind became as it were the meeting-place of storms and the confluence of shouting seas.
It’s the ríastrad again — here explicitly compared to going beserk — although O’Grady also throws in a bunch of Otherworldly beings around them making everything even stranger, and their attempts to go hunting deer become shrouded in danger: “Alive or dead thou shalt come with me on this adventure, though it lead us into the mighty realms of the dead.” There’s less emphasis on the obscene body horror of the transformation in the medieval texts, because O’Grady, like other Victorian writers, is a coward, but Cú Chulainn’s “gentle mind” (lol) has been lost to it.
Those waiting for them at Emain Macha are afraid that he’s going to kill everyone, unable to recognise friend from foe, and they send the women of the Ulaid to bare their breasts to him and shame him into chilling tf out. This, again, comes straight from the Boyhood Deeds, and a few interpretations have been offered for it. Is Cú Chulainn just really freaked out by boobs? Is this a sexual thing — he’s too young to handle adult sexuality? Or is it that they’re reminding him that these are the women who nursed and raised him, and he’s about to kill his own kin?
O’Grady evidently goes for the second explanation… sort of. His weird focus on the sexual purity of the great Ulaid warriors shows itself again, and he’s convinced Cú Chulainn drinks his Respect Women juice every morning:
“His virginity is with him, and his beautiful shamefastness, and his humility and reverence for women, whether they be old or young, and whether they be comely or not comely. And this was his way always, and now more than formerly since young love hath descended upon him in the form of Emer, daughter of Fargal Manach, King of Lusk in the south.”
This is, for the record, the first time that Emer has been mentioned in this text, and will also be the last. Maybe it’s just because I know how wildly misogynistic a lot of the medieval texts are, but I find this characterisation patently unconvincing. When it comes to interpreting the medieval scene, I’m honestly inclined to lean towards Doris Edel’s explanation for why Cú Chulainn’s affected by the Ulaid Boob Party (she’s the one who proposes it’s the “don’t kill the people who suckled you” explanation), although a transmasc reading might suggest there’s a kind of dysphoric shame involved, so that’s another possibility.
In any case, this calms Cú Chulainn down, and he’s able to go and have a bath (much more civilised than the medieval tradition where they dunk him repeatedly in vats of cold water to calm his fury), and “Laeg ministered to him […] Laeg put upon him his beautiful banqueting attire, and he came into the great hall lowly and blushing.”
I do think this is a very cute image, of Láeg dressing him and him being hugely embarrassed by the whole situation and by everybody praising the great deeds he achieved. Plus, you know, it once again emphasises the intimacy of the charioteer/warrior pairing — Láeg isn’t a taxi driver, he’s the best friend Cú Chulainn is ever going to have.
Which is what I was looking for out of The Coming of Cuculain, and O’Grady more than delivered. Cute Láeg/Cú Chulainn content? Absolutely. In bucketloads. We have been spoiled.
O’Grady closes with Cú Chulainn once again falling into a deep sleep to recover from his deeds, with many thinking that he’s never going to wake up. Finally, he tells us: “Cuculain was seventeen years of age when he did these feats.” And that’s the end of it.
In the Boyhood Deeds, he’s not seventeen, he’s about six; Fergus remarks, “If he could do so much then, imagine what he’s capable of now that he’s seventeen.” O’Grady’s decision to extend the whole training montage over the course of a decade does a lot for the realism of it, although it means we never see Cú Chulainn training with Scáthach — one wonders then how he might bring Fer Diad into the story. For that, we’d need a sequel… but as far as I’m aware, there isn’t one.
And even if there was, over the past month I’ve written practically a whole thesis’ worth of blog posts about Standish O’Grady (around 17k in total, I think; my thesis is supposed to be 20k), so I think — and perhaps you agree — that it’s very much time to move on. Also, frankly, I’m struggling to come up with new alliterative titles.
So, next week I’ll be back with something completely different, which I’m very excited to share with you. In the meantime, I hope you’ve enjoyed this deep dive into obscure 19th century retellings. If you have, you can show your appreciation by leaving a comment, buying me a coffee, and telling your friends.
Before I resume my reading of The Coming of Cuculain, I have a brief bit of news to share, which is that I was a guest on the Motherfoclóir podcast this week, talking about Táin Bó Cúailnge. We discussed why it’s weird that Cú Chulainn is so often portrayed as super-muscular, considered whether Fer Diad’s death is really a good starting point for queer readings, and pondered the etymology of Láeg’s name. It’s a pretty good intro to my research interests! You can listen to the episode here.
All right, so, back to Standish O’Grady. For those unfamiliar with this series of posts, I’m currently reading through Standish O’Grady’s 1894 novel, The Coming of Cuculain, and discussing his takes on medieval Irish literature — particularly when they’re weird. You don’t need to have read O’Grady’s work to follow along, although a basic knowledge of who Cú Chulainn is will help and I’d recommend reading the posts in order. (But, hey, you do you, I’m not going to make you.)
Previous posts in this series:
- Understanding Standish (an introduction to the project and an examination of Standish O’Grady’s earlier work on the same subject)
- Conquest, Classicism and Characterisation (a discussion of the first part of The Coming of Cuculain, up to Cú Chulainn’s arrival at Emain Macha)
- The Boy-Troop at Boarding School (a discussion of the second part of The Coming of Cuculain, the portrayal of the boy-troop, and Láeg’s first appearance in the book)
You can find The Coming of Cuculain at Project Gutenberg.
I’d planned for this to be my final post in this series, but, well, it hit 3k and I figured that was long enough, so we’re going to finish it off next time. My apologies to anyone who is waiting for me to blog about literally anything else. I promise those days are coming.
I said all along that I wasn’t going to discuss every aspect of The Coming of Cuculain that I found interesting, because this series would last until Christmas if I did. That means I’m going to skim fairly rapidly over O’Grady’s account of the Deirdre story (Longes mac nUislenn) which has been slightly clumsily inserted into the middle of this book. O’Grady himself seems perplexed by the story, and by Cú Chulainn’s absence from it, which is understandable; it’s hard to make its timeline match up with the Táin. He might have been better served by omitting it entirely, being as how it isn’t part of Cú Chulainn’s story, but he’s obviously trying to build up towards the Táin and felt the need to explain Fergus’s exile somehow.
His take on Deirdre is wild on several levels. In the medieval account, a prophecy is made shortly before Deirdre’s birth that she’s going to bring doom to the Ulaid, and it’s counselled that she should be killed. Conchobar, however, stopped listening after the part of the prophecy that said she was also going to be super hot, and decides to have her reared to be his wife. O’Grady absolves Conchobar of all responsibility by having Deirdre be born during his father’s reign, and generally ommitting the whole sketchy child bride situation that we’ve got going there. He also has Conchobar lecture Fergus at length about how sexually pure the Ulaid are and how this is a source of their strength, which would be great comedy if O’Grady didn’t seem to actually mean it.
There’s a great deal more that could be said about how that whole story is handled, but I said all along that my main interest was how O’Grady portrays Láeg, so I’m going to move fairly rapidly on from that.
Last week, we saw that O’Grady’s Láeg swears his loyalty to Cú Chulainn approximately five minutes after meeting him, and that the two immediately become intimate friends, sharing a bed and generally expressing their deep affection. But Láeg isn’t yet a charioteer, so how does that come about?
Well, before we can look at Cú Chulainn’s “knighting” — sidenote, it’s weird how retellings keep referring to the Ulaid as “knights”; it’s such an incongruous term for the setting — and therefore his acquisition of arms, a chariot, and a charioteer to drive it, we need to take a look at what’s going on with the horses.
O’Grady has a fondness for the supernatural, as we’ve already seen, but he really takes it to new heights when it comes to Cú Chulainn’s horses, the Líath Macha and the Dub Sainglend. He introduces us to the idea of the “sacred chariot” of Macha — an ancient, prophecy-laden chariot that the Ulaid keep and venerate as a sacred relic, which can only be drawn by two equally prophecy-laden horses, who haven’t been seen in three hundred years — “since Macha dwelt visibly in Emain”.
I’ll be honest with you: I don’t know where O’Grady is getting this from. I have never come across the idea of a “sacred chariot” in any of the medieval texts, nor the fact that the Líath Macha and the Dub Sainglend are immortal horses who’ve been roaming free for centuries waiting for a prophesied warrior to come and harness them again. And I’m pretty sure the texts don’t suggest it’s been three hundred years since Macha lived, although O’Grady’s use the word “visibly” suggests he conceptualises her as a figure who lived a mortal life and then became Otherworldly in some way.
On which note: Noínden Ulad tells the story of how the heavily pregnant Macha is forced to race the king’s chariot; she wins, but gives birth as she crosses the finishing line and curses the Ulaid to be afflicted with labour pains in times of great need. We’re told that the curse afflicts all who hear it, and their descendants for nine generations. O’Grady, however, presents Macha’s curse as a looming threat rather than a known reoccurrence. It has yet to fall, but they know it’s coming, and when it does, only their prophesied hero will be able to stand against it…
Now, I’m not ruling out the possibility that elements of this whole sacred chariot malarkey come from texts I’m not familiar with — I will never claim to know everything about medieval Irish literature — but I also think there’s a strong chance here, based on the changes he’s made to recognisable material, that O’Grady is simply… making things up.
Anyway, we have a sacred chariot, we have empty stalls awaiting the return of these ancient horses, and Conchobar has put the young Cú Chulainn in charge of looking after it all. A sacred duty. He wonders, vaguely, whether his nephew is the prophesied warrior, but while Cú Chulainn does excel at games of fighting, we’re told that he’s still… just a boy. Surely, the Ulaid think, the prophesied figure who will come will be like a reincarnation of Lug!
But our promised one is gentle exceedingly. He will not know his own greatness, and his nearest comrades will not know it, and there will be more of love in his heart than war.
I’ll be honest, that doesn’t sound much like Cú Chulainn to me, but it fits well enough with O’Grady’s characterisation — his Cú Chulainn isn’t particularly proud and a lot of his violence has been softened and smoothed away.
Shortly after Cú Chulainn has been given these duties, he receives a visitation from Lug, who tells him that tonight he’ll capture the Líath Macha and the Dub Sainglend. He’s excited about this — enough that Láeg notices something’s up when they’re eating dinner together, and asks him what’s got into him.
“Thy eyes are very bright,” said Laeg.
“They will be brighter ere the day,” he replied.
“That is an expert juggler,” said Laeg. “How he tosseth the bright balls!”
“Can he toss the stars so?” said Setanta.
“Thou art strange and wild to-night,” said Laeg.
“I will be stranger and wilder ere the morrow,” cried Setanta.
Sensing that his friend is in a weird mood, Láeg tries to stop him leaving, but Cú Chulainn manages to get away, and goes off on a wild chase in search of his magic horses.
Here, the details are faintly recognisable: Cú Chulainn encounters the Líath Macha at a lake, and they make a circuit of Ireland until the horse is broken. He then goes in search of the Dub Sainglend, and subdues her by showing that the Líath Macha (“thy better”) has already been tamed. While I’m not aware of any such extended description of how Cú Chulainn obtained his horses in the medieval sources, the broad outline conforms to a reference in Fled Bricrenn:
“Not at all,” said Cú Chulaind, “for I am tired and broken to pieces. Today, I will eat and sleep, but I will not undertake combat.” All this was in fact true, by reason of Cú Chulaind’s encounter that day with the Líath Machae by the shore of Lind Léith near Slíab Fúait. The horse had come towards him from the lake, Cú Chulaind had put his arms round its neck, and the two of them had circled all Ériu until at last night fell and the horse was broken. (Cú Chulaind found the Dub Sainglend in the same way, at Loch Duib Sainglend.)‘Bricriu’s Feast’ in Jeffrey Gantz (trans), Early Irish Myths and Sagas, p. 231
Fled Bricrenn doesn’t, however, tell us that the horses are three hundred years old, or that they have to be yoked to a specific sacred chariot; one feels, if it were going to come up anywhere, that it would probably be there, since it’s the only account I know of that describes their origins. I suspect, then, that this is like O’Grady’s extrapolation of Cú Chulainn’s brief displays of elemental control into a youthful training to control water, or the invention of the otter incident in his childhood — a passing reference turned into a whole story.
There are also a number of other details in The Coming of Cuculain that suggests familiarity with a version of Fled Bricrenn — more on those in my next post.
[Edit: I was reminded shortly after posting this that an alternative tradition has the horses being born at the same time as Cú Chulainn. If I remember correctly, this comes from Feis Tige Becfholtaig, “version B” of the story of Cú Chulainn’s conception and birth. It’s weirdly hard to find a translation of this version, but I’m pretty sure Lady Gregory uses it, which explains how it ends up in so many retellings and popular accounts. O’Grady doesn’t seem to be using this one, however; his source for the horses’ origins looks to be Fled Bricrenn.]
Cú Chulainn brings these horses triumphantly home and they go to their stalls in the stable that has been waiting for them for centuries, and then he returns to his dormitory. His return doesn’t go unremarked:
Laeg was asleep with the starlight shining on his white forehead; his red hair was shed over the pillow. Cuculain kissed him, and sitting on the bed’s edge wept. Laeg awoke.
“Thou wert not well at supper,” said Laeg, “and now thou hast been wandering in the damp of the night, and thou with a fever upon thee, for I hear thy teeth clattering. I sought to hinder thee, and thou wouldst not be persuaded. Verily, if thou wilt not again obey me, being thy senior, thou shalt have sore bones at my hands. Undress thyself now and come to bed without delay.”
Cuculain did so.
“Thou art as cold as ice,” said Laeg.
“Nay, I am hotter than fire,” said Cuculain.
“Thou art ice, I say,” said Laeg, “and thy teeth are clattering like hailstones on a brazen shield. Ay, and thine eyes shine terribly.”
It seems that running around Ireland in the middle of the night isn’t without its consequences — Cú Chulainn has fallen ill, and after berating him for it, Láeg goes to fetch a doctor to look after him. But let’s pause here a moment, and think about Láeg.
We already saw last week that Cú Chulainn and Láeg are sharing a bed. This is presented as unremarkable, although we’re not told whether it’s typical for the boys to pair up like this — remember that this is before Láeg has been chosen as Cú Chulainn’s charioteer, so they aren’t yet a formal warrior pairing. It’s clearly not a one-time thing, as even when he might have been better served by sneaking in and not waking Láeg up, Cú Chulainn still goes to where Láeg is sleeping, and wakes him up.
I don’t know why Cú Chulainn is crying right now. He cries a lot in this book, and while I have no objection to that, that doesn’t mean I can always tell what emotion is supposed to be expressed by it. In this instance, his tears are met not with sympathy from Láeg, but exasperation — I told you you’d get sick, but would you listen?
I also enjoy that Láeg flexes his authority here — I’m older than you, you have to do what I tell you — and even threatens to beat Cú Chulainn up if he doesn’t get into bed right this instant. Unfortunately, Cú Chulainn is chilled to the bone, so sharing a bed with him doesn’t sound like much fun, and out of concern for his health, Láeg has to go and call for a doctor and explain that his friend is ill.
Exasperated mumfriend Láeg is my favourite Láeg. I enjoy the instances of the two of them being chaotic together, but there’s something about the way Láeg is the one who grabs Cú Chulainn by the scruff of the neck and tells him to Stop that’s special. It’s a relationship that Cú Chulainn doesn’t really have with anyone else — usually, when somebody tries to tell him what to do, he does the precise opposite. Sure, he doesn’t always listen to Láeg, but that just gives Láeg more opportunities to roast him for being a fool.
Now, obviously, being who I am and being interested in queer readings, I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight the obvious potential for reading O’Grady’s Cú Chulainn and Láeg in that light. It hardly needs to be pointed out — the bed-sharing and the kissing is obvious enough. Of course, within the ancient/medieval setting of the story, bed-sharing doesn’t have the connotations it has for us now in the modern era, but I do think the kissing is unusual. We get a lot of that in later medieval French texts (it’s the feudalism), but I’ve found comparatively few instances of kissing in medieval Irish texts, especially “casual” kissing. Perhaps it’s O’Grady using ideas imported from continental romance literature (there are a few of those in the novel), but for us, it still provides a foundation on which we might build a queer reading.
I mean, last week we saw Cú Chulainn was prophesied to be Láeg’s “life-friend”, so they’re basically already married, but you know. I try and at least pretend I’m acknowledging a heteronormative reading too (though the utter absence of Emer save for a brief and unconvincing reference later in the text means it really doesn’t lend itself to that).
In any case, a doctor is fetched and we have a healing scene that seems to be lifted straight from the Táin — three days of sleep, after which he wakes recovered. It’s not long before he goes to Conchobar and asks if he could be “knighted”.
This is an instance where O’Grady’s Cú Chulainn considerably diverges from the hero we see in the Boyhood Deeds. In the Boyhood Deeds, Cú Chulainn essentially obtains weapons and a chariot through trickery. He overhears the druid Cathbad saying that whoever takes arms upon a certain day will achieve great fame (in one recension he leaves then and doesn’t wait to hear the “but have a short life” part of the prophecy; in another he hears it and simply doesn’t care) and tricks Conchobar into arming him by saying it was Cathbad’s decree that he should be given weapons that day.
O’Grady’s Cú Chulainn, on the other hand, goes to Conchobar very politely and says, “If it be pleasing to thee, my Uncle Conchobar, I would be knighted on the morrow, for I am now of due age, and […] I am thought to be sufficiently versed in martial exercises”. We’re also told that he’s “now a man’s full height”, which is very much not the case in the Boyhood Deeds, where he’s still only about six years old. O’Grady has extended the Boyhood Deeds to cover Cú Chulainn’s entire adolescence, cutting out his training with Scáthach and any intevening pre-Táin deeds to finish up with a seventeen-year-old Cú Chulainn newly invested in arms.
Is this more realistic? Probably. Does it nevertheless complicate things? A little. It’s why O’Grady has to shove the Deirdre story in where he does. Yes, it’s always a chronologically problematic story; even the early modern authors noticed that, and tried to include an explanation for Cú Chulainn’s absence by having him appear briefly and say, “You don’t want me involved, everybody will die.” (Probably true.) But if we had a gap between these childhood adventures and the Táin itself, there’d be more space for Fergus’s exile to take place off-screen, without having to worry about how to fit it in.
This older Cú Chulainn doesn’t have to resort to tricks and misdirection to get Conchobar’s consent, although the king is still hesitant. He asks him to think carefully, pointing that there’s a prophecy that whoever is knighted on that day “will be famous and short-lived and unhappy”. But Cú Chulainn won’t be dissuaded, so Conchobar agrees. That doesn’t mean he’s happy about it:
They went to the boys’ dormitory and to the couch of Cuculain. Cuculain and Laeg were asleep together there. Their faces towards each other and their hair mingled together. Cuculain’s face was very tranquil, and his breathing inaudible, like an infant’s.
“O sweet and serene face,” murmured the King, “I see great clouds of sorrow coming upon you.”
Brief digression here: last year, Tumblr user riseupriseupandcomealong illustrated this scene, and it makes me emotional every time it crosses my path (click for original):
This isn’t the first time Conchobar’s seen sadness for Cú Chulainn: after giving him responsibility for the chariot, there’s this curious exchange…
“Why art thou sad, dear Setanta?”
“I am not sad,” answered the boy.
“Truly there is no sadness in thy face, or thy lips, in thy voice or thy behaviour, but it is deep down in thine eyes,” said the King. “I see it there always.”
Setanta laughed lightly. “I know it not,” he said.
It’s true that Cú Chulainn is repeatedly described as “sad” in medieval texts. In Fled Bricrenn, he is a “sad, melancholy man”; in Tochmarc Emire he’s a “dark, sad man”. It’s probably these descriptions that O’Grady’s drawing on when he repeatedly paints his Cú Chulainn in these clouds of sorrow. They’ve always struck me as interesting — never is Cú Chulainn’s sadness explained, and it’s not the emotion one would immediately associate with him. (Something like “rage” would be more typical, probably — but then, Anne Carson would say that rage and grief go together, at least in the creation of tragedy.)
From this earlier reference to a sadness of which Cú Chulainn himself is unaware, we’ve progressed to a more immediate sense of threat. Cú Chulainn has won these sacred horses, as the prophecies said that he would, but at the cost of falling ill; is this a sign of things to come? Even as he prepares to take arms, the climax to which his training has been building, sorrow is descending on him. We get the impression that his glory won’t come without a cost, and O’Grady repeatedly implies that it’s going to be high one.
It’s on this ominous note that we’ll be leaving our discussion for today. The next post will be the last, and we’ll look at Cú Chulainn’s “knighting” and subsequent escapades with Láeg, and then we’ll be done with O’Grady. See you then!
If you enjoyed this post, please consider buying me a coffee.
Today I’m going to be continuing my discussion of Standish O’Grady’s 1894 novel, The Coming of Cuculain. If you missed my explanation of what this project is about, you may want to check out my first post, ‘Understanding Standish’; if you didn’t see my discussion of the first part of the book, you can find that over at ‘Conquest, Classicism and Characterisation’.
You don’t need to have read The Coming of Cuculain to follow along with these posts — they’re designed to be comprehensible to anyone with the vaguest idea of who Cú Chulainn is — but if you want to, you can find it for free at Project Gutenberg. Since I’m reading this on my Kindle, quotes won’t have page numbers, for which I apologise. And as before, in my discussion I’m using the form of names that’s most familiar to me, even if it differs from O’Grady’s spelling. If this seems likely to cause any confusion, I’ll try and clarify the first time the name comes up. If anything’s confusing, please do drop a question in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer!
And now onto the book…
From the first time the boy-troop of Ulster is mentioned in The Coming of Cuculain, we have clues as to how O’Grady conceptualised the warrior training undertaken by young boys in mythological Ireland.
… then there arose somewhere upon the night a clear chorus of treble voices, singing, too, the war-chant of the Ultonians, as when rising out of the clangour of brazen instruments of music there shrills forth the clear sound of fifes. For the immature scions of the Red Branch, boys and tender youths, awakened out of slumber, head them, and from remote dormitories responded to their sires …
The image of the young warriors with their “treble voices”, relegated to “remote dormitories” rather than participating in the great feast that the adults are enjoying, positions the boy-troop as a sort of proto-boarding school. This impression only intensifies the more he discusses the young warriors, and it’s this, I think, which fundamentally shapes his portrayal of youth and adolescent masculinity.
I noted in my last post that I’m more interested in exploring O’Grady’s take on medieval material than examining how his experiences and background shaped his work, which still stands, for two reasons — the first being that his political ideas were complex and that’s really not my area of expertise, and the second being that his opinions were frequently Very Bad and I’m pretty sure I couldn’t continue to offer light-hearted discussions of his work if I looked too closely at them. However, some nonpolitical aspects of O’Grady’s life are worth mentioning, because it’s clear that they shaped his interpretations (in interesting rather than Massively Racist ways). This “boy-troop as boarding school” motif is one such element. In ‘Standish O’Grady: Between Imperial Romance and Irish Revival‘, Patrick Maume notes that,
In 1856 O’Grady became a boarder at Tipperary Grammar School. He distinguished himself as both a scholar and an athlete but found separation from home traumatic. Like many other boarding-school survivors, he idealizes boyhood as a lost paradise.
The Coming of Cuculain is fundamentally about this “lost paradise” of boyhood, but it’s also about the rites of passage through which youths become warriors and boys become men, and this ‘warrior training’ is conceptualised as boarding school. We saw last week that Cú Chulainn has to leave his mother behind before he can gain access to these rites of passage and his heroic identity, although he seemed perfectly happy to do so at the time; unlike O’Grady, this separation could hardly be called ‘traumatic’, but there’s still a tension between the natural but lonely childhood described in the first part of the book, and the more formal training he undergoes, now with friends and peers.
And Dechtire’s hesitance to send her son away is positioned as problematic, because this boarding school for warriors isn’t merely a privilege, it’s an obligation:
So, impelled by the unseen, Setanta came to Emain Macha without the knowledge of his parents, but in fulfilment of the law, for at a certain age all the boys of the Ultonians should come thither to associate there with their equals and superiors, and be instructed by appointed tutors in the heroic arts of war and the beautiful arts of peace.
It’s not that Dechtire doesn’t want him to be a warrior. But “she loved him dearly, and feared for him the rude companionship and the stern discipline, the early rising and the strong labours of the great school”. Boarding school, she thinks, will be too much for her little boy. He’s too young to be sent away. She’d rather keep him at home another year. The 19th century boarding school vibes are strong.
Those of us for whom school was the local state school, a short bus ride from home, might not be able to identify with this specific kind of school, where young men from good families beat each other up as a way of instilling masculinity and identity. Yet it’s strange how natural it feels to us, as modern readers, that a school should be the way for children to undergo formal training. Within a medieval Irish context it feels faintly bizarre. Even though we do have the boy-troop, and we do have groups of students training together — such as those who train with Scáthach, Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad among them — we don’t see a centralised system in the same way. Instead the medieval texts show the youths learning through a system of fosterage. And O’Grady’s not unaware of fosterage as an institution — after all, he’s decided that Fergus is Conchobar’s foster-father, though this seems a strange choice — but he still leans towards this boarding school setup for his warriors.But in his descriptions of the school, we see dissatisfaction with his own time and the education he himself might have undergone:
In this school the boys did not injure their eyesight and impair their health by poring over books; nor were compelled to learn what they could not understand; nor were instructed by persons whom they did not wish to resemble…
The following list of skills (martial and strategic skills, mostly) aren’t too dissimilar from what we see in the medieval texts with regard to warrior training — though a couple of details stood out to me. The first was the idea that they were “to drink and be merry in hall, but always without intoxication”, since there is a text literally called The Intoxication of the Ulaid. (O’Grady later suggests that drunkenness didn’t exist in this era, which is… very funny to me.) The second is that they are taught “to reverence women, remembering always those who bore them and suckled them”.
Listen. I would love to rehabilitate these Irish heroes and ignore their rampant misogyny. But in most cases I would say it’s safe to say they’ve never respected a woman in their lives. The possible exception is how Cú Chulainn behaves towards Emer, and he still slips up on that front a number of times. O’Grady’s projecting a very specific idea of courtliness here, one that feels like it’s been imported from later romances, and I don’t find it entirely convincing.
But sobriety and proto-feminism aside, the boy-troop’s transformation into boarding school isn’t wholly absurd, and it certainly provides ample opportunity for Cú Chulainn to meet his peers and thrash them in a hurling match. (Knowing that O’Grady played hurling at school, and based on the descriptions here, I have an incongruous image of them all in PE kit, chasing each other around a school field…)
Nor is it unique to O’Grady, as an image. In 1900, Alfred Nutt discussed the fight of Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad: “Ferdia asks how his old fag (‘his attendant to tie up his spears and prepare his bed’) dare stand up against him”. The use of the word ‘fag’ here — in the boarding school sense, not the homophobic slur sense! — shows that Nutt, too, was conceptualising of warrior training as similar to a Victorian boarding school. In this instance, of course, both boys are far away from their homeland, having travelled to Alba in search of training; perhaps the boarding school analogy fits better in this instance, especially as Scáthach is a renowned tutor rather than a direct relative of any of the characters.
The boy-troop, on the other hand, is closer to home — but Cú Chulainn still comes to them as an outsider. And it doesn’t go entirely as planned. He joins in their hurling match and excells himself, but matters come to a head when they ask him to accept their protection, as though he were their subject. Cú Chulainn’s pride won’t let him accept the lower status implied by this, but when he asserts his identity as the king’s nephew, the “boy who was captain of the whole school, and the biggest and strongest” assumes he’s lying, and the boys proceed to beat him up.
In the Boyhood Deeds, it seems to take Cú Chulainn very little effort to fight his peers — he’s preeminent even at a very young age. Here, though, O’Grady focuses on his persistence rather than his power:
… for the slumbering war-spirit now, for the first time, had awaked in his gentle heart. Many times he was overborne and flung to the ground, but again he arose overthrowing others, never quitting hold of his hurle, and, whenever he got a free space, grasping that weapon like a war-mace in both hands, he struck down his foes. The skirts of his mantle were torn, only a rag remained round his shoulders, fastened by the brooch; he was covered with blood, his own and his enemies’, and his eyes were like burning fire.
This is not the only time O’Grady asserts that when he’s not trying to kill people, Cú Chulainn is “gentle” — and he’s not using the term to mean noble. We’ve already been told that “there were within him such fountains of affection and loving kindness”, which, honestly, doesn’t sound much like the Cú Chulainn I know. It’s clear O’Grady’s going for more… nuance and less violence. Which is fine. Cowardly (let the tiny child do murder!), but fine.
Young Cú Chulainn, gentle though he might be, persistent though he might be, is not having a great time of it in this fight. He’s not losing, per se — in fact, his “battle-fury” (a thoroughly de-weirded version of the ríastrad that does not seem to involve his body turning inside out, more’s the pity) has descended and he’s giving those other boys a thumping they won’t forget. But he’s still backed up in a corner, up against the goal. And… is telling them to fight him. Now that’s more like the Hound I know.
And this — this is the moment I’ve been waiting to talk about. Because this is where we get our first appearance of Láeg.
Then a boy stood out from the rest. He was freckled, and with red hair, and his voice was loud and fierce.
“Thou shalt have a comrade in thy battle henceforward,” he said, “O brave stranger. On the banks of the Nemnich, [Footnote: Now the Nanny-Water, a beautiful stream running from Tara to the sea.] where it springs beneath my father’s dun on the Hill of Gabra, nigh Tara, I met a prophetess; Acaill is her name, the wisest of all women; and I asked her who would be my life-friend. And she answered, ‘I see him standing against a green wall at Emain Macha, at bay, with the blood and soil of battle upon him, and alone he gives challenge to a multitude. He is thy life-friend, O Laeg,’ she said, ‘and no man ever had a friend like him or will till the end of time.’”
So saying he ran to Setanta, and kneeling down he took him by his right hand, and said, “I am thy man from this day forward.”
Iconic. Perfect. Absolutely beautiful.
But let’s break it down a little more. It’s clear at a glance that this is very different from the version of Láeg we encountered in The History of Ireland, discussed in my first post. There, he’s the son of a hostage, “given” to Cú Chulainn. One again we have Gabra interpreted as a place, although here we’re given more details: Gabra, near Tara. I know of no such place, although I did manage to find the River Nanny on a map, but that doesn’t mean it never existed (I’m not a placename expert). I still think the bridle-of-a-horse etymology is more likely for “Riangabra”, but by telling us that Láeg’s father has a dun near Tara, we’re being implicitly told that he’s of fairly high status — a fitting companion for Cú Chulainn, even if O’Grady holds back from saying outright that he’s the son of a king, on this occasion.
In the History of Ireland, Láeg has little autonomy. Here, he has a lot more. He sees a small boy, bloodied and injured, squaring up to a crowd of other kids and saying, “Fight me, then!” and he goes, ah yes, I want this one. And decides to stand beside him.
But not just because he loves an underdog. No, in keeping with the generally supernatural vibes of the book — Cú Chulainn is “impelled by the unseen”, gods lining his path — Láeg has been given a prophecy. He has been told that he will meet this boy who will be his life-friend, “and no man ever had a friend like him or will till the end of time”.
Sorry, I need to take a moment. This is… a lot. This is a lot.
In this introduction, O’Grady presents Láeg as an equal — a comrade, a friend. Not a hostage, given away without being consulted, nor a servant, plucked from obscurity. He’s a boy of the Ulaid, enough of an insider to belong to Conchobar’s “school”, and he’s the one to initiate their relationship.
I have… a lot of feelings about this. I think I mentioned before that the question of how Láeg came to be Cú Chulainn’s charioteer is rarely addressed in the medieval texts — there is one passage that offers a version where they grew up together from infancy, but other than that, his background is never really remarked upon. He’s simply there. O’Grady, however, seems to have seen this as a failing, and he’s incorporated Láeg into Cú Chulainn’s childhood in order to provide this explanation.
It means that before we ever see Láeg as a charioteer, subservient and of lower status, we see him as Cú Chulainn’s prophesied “life-friend”, setting him up as a crucial character in the story to come, and signalling his importance in Cú Chulainn’s life from this point forwards.
Láeg then calls on his own friends to support Cú Chulainn in this fight, recalling times when he was “a shield to thee against thy mockers” to one of them. This Láeg, it seems, has a history of standing up against bullies and befriending the picked-upon. Ah, my bold, bright Láeg. I love this image, this tiny hint of a personality trait that comes from O’Grady, not from the stories. He has a good heart, this tells us, in the space of a few words; he’s brave, not led by the spirit of the crowd, with no tolerance for mockery. (Also vaguely hilarious since Láeg’s main job seems to be insulting Cú Chulainn, but I suppose he only tolerates consensual insults.)
The passage proceeds apace, and is relatively familiar to those who’ve read the Boyhood Deeds — Conchobar demands to know who Cú Chulainn is and why he’s attacking the other boys, and after stating his name, he’s recognised for who he is and brought into the fold:
… the reward of this his first battle was that the boys at his uncle’s school elected him to be for their captain, and one and all they put themselves under his protection. And a gentle captain made he when the war-spirit went out of him, and a good play-fellow and comrade was Setanta among his new friends.
The lonely boy growing up in Dun Dealgan has got what he wanted: companionship, recognition, the opportunity to prove himself a warrior. So far, so good: it’s what we would have expected.
But what O’Grady gives us that the Boyhood Deeds doesn’t is this:
That night Setanta and Laeg slept in the same bed of healing after the physicians had dressed their wounds; and they related many things to each other, and oft times they kissed one another with great affection, till sweet sleep made heavy their eyelids.
O’Grady’s signalling to us, from this first meeting between the two, that this friendship is going to be pivotal. This is the first character who has been presented as Cú Chulainn’s equal; their first meeting, and already we see “great affection”. It is the most meaningful and long-lasting of all of Cú Chulainn’s friendships — even in the original texts, where Láeg’s loyalty and omnipresence is frequently overlooked by commentators — and we’re given no room to mistake Láeg declaration of loyalty for a fleeting schoolboy alliance on the sports field.
This is why I wanted to read this book and discuss it here. There are a dozen choices O’Grady makes that are worth talking about, but considering how little attention has been paid to Láeg in scholarship, his decision to give the charioteer such a central role from an early stage is what caught my eye. Especially since he’s changed his story since the first time he wrote about Cú Chulainn and Láeg, and now seems determined to bring him more centrally into the story.
Maybe it’s because Láeg symbolises the boarding school camaraderie: the character who takes the “new boy” under his wing. (It’s worth noting that this chapter is in fact titled The New Boy.) Maybe it’s because giving Cú Chulainn a close friend enables O’Grady to emphasise Cú Chulainn’s “fountains of affection” and present a more nuanced picture than the usual tiny violent child with murder in his heart. Or maybe, just maybe, O’Grady — like me — simply looked at Láeg and thought, I want to know more about this guy.
“I am thy man from this day forth.”
And he was.
And we’ll see what that looks like to O’Grady next time.
If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting me and this blog on Ko-Fi.