Invoke, People of the Sea, invoke the bard, that he may compose a spell for you. I shall go up to the place of the Sidhe to seek a poet, that together we may make the law. For I am a wind of the sea.
From the book jacket
Author: Morgan Llywelyn
Paperback: 480 pages
Publisher: Tor Books
In the 4th century B.C.E., the Irish were not in Ireland. They lived in the land of Spanish Gaul, in Iberia, subject to nearly constant attacks from the outside (including Roman) and from internal strife between clans eager for power. Bard follows the story of Amergin, First Poet of the Celts, and his journey from the homeland to the mythical land of Ierne.
Of course, it is never quite that simple. More than the heart of exploration of new frontiers, the Sons of the Míl (leader of all the Celtic tribes, Milesios), Amergin and his brothers (Éremón, Colptha, Éber Finn, Donn, and Ír), had grand visions, exceptional talents, and, above all else, ambition. When Amergin stares off the coast of his land to the sea, listening to the "green wind," he is struck with inspiration of the true land of his people. He seems the foundation of a new world, and wants to bring his people to it. He sees a whole new beginning for the people he loves, as Phoenician trade slowly wanes on Gaul, and more and more of the neighboring tribes who look to the Míl for guidance and support fall on hard times. His brothers, however, do not have such grandiose ideas for their people, seeing a new land to conquer, a new people to subjugate in a variety of ways.
But for Amerigan, eventually the Head Druid of the Irish from Gaul, armed with his harp, the mystical Clarsah, Ierne presented a return to nature for his people. And the Tuatha Dé Danann were only too happy to help him find it.
Historical Accuracy & Writing Style
Llywelyn does her research, of that you can have no doubts. In other books, including Druids, Finn Mac Cool, and Lion of Ireland, she notably found many historical references, both geographically and socially to paint her pictures. In Bard, she again uses historical fact (or as close to fact as we can get, given the dates surrounding the book) to weave an impressive mixture of fantasy and history. Talking of the Spear of Lugh, for example, or the leaders of the Tuatha dé Danann brings notes of accuracy and immediacy to the story. As the Milesians, never before sea-faring folk, cross great distance from Gaul to Ireland, their new home, the reader is assaulted on all sides by historical generalities that we tend to take for granted in standard fiction: i.e., in a present-day piece of fiction, we expect to see televisions, automobiles, and politicians. In the 4th century, we don't know even half of what we should see--and Llylwelyn takes the opportunity to tell us.
In essence, Llylwelyn took the potentially-boring story of the Celtic move from Gaul to Ireland and wove it into the more important story in Irish mythology. We all know that the Irish are in Ireland (that's why we call them Irish), and many of us know they came from Gaul (see De Bello Gallico), but the story of what might have happened between Gaul and Ireland provoked Llywelyn to create meaningful, three-dimensional characters, on both sides of the ethical dilemma (good vs. evil). In her world, it is more than the journey--it is the experience of it all.
Thankfully, she also does not shy from political dealings in the world of the 4th century. The Míl is expected to take care of all the tribes on Gaul, but as Milesios's strength fades in his great age, it falls to one of his children to take over for him, and this normally tight group of brothers fall apart like children fighting for the last slice of pie--and that, too, drives the movement of the Irish just as much as the urge to discover new lands. With the Great Tribe split, two Míls will be required. Two Head Druids. Two Irish.
In addition to her story-telling prowess, Llywellyn provides an incredibly detailed bibliography at the end of the book, citing sources of Celtic and general Irish lore. So, if nothing else, the reader is challenged to challenge her details. Given that, I must admit that I found it difficult to do. Though some of her facts are no more than extrapolations, they are logical and challenged only by other extrapolations.
Also included in the book are several notes on pronunciation, which I found invaluable in reading the book. The Irish language, she says, "apparently underwent a series of major changes between the fifth and seventh centuries A.D., evolving from an ancient derivative of the continental Celtic mother tongue into the language scholars today call Old Irish." She notes that she used the primitive precursor of the Irish language, with modified phonetic spellings, for the names of the Gaelic characters in the book.
A Commentary on Magic
Among the things Llywellyn does well in this book is not relying at all on magic as we know it today, in the D&D, MMORPG world we live in. Her magic is earth-based, and revolves around what could be perceived as magic (and, indeed, is often cited as the power behind such "magical" figures in mythology, such as Merlin), invoking the spirit of "it's not what you say, it's how you say it." Her Amergin is a sweet-tongued lyricist of unmentionable prowess with the harp. He is a storyteller and the historian for the Celtic people, holding all the most potent battle-songs and love-songs known to his people. He is able to rile up the Irish through evoking cultural histories, and meditative norms. Colptha, the sacrificer, gains his power from reading the bones of slaughtered calves and oxen, a tradition carried through much of Western history. Ír is considered magical only because he is clearly insane, and the insane were often thought of as touched by the gods.
Even the Tuatha Dé Danann's magic was primarily focused on invoking the songs of inspiration, not on summoning actual spirits to fight for them. They ruled Ierne because of their advanced weaponry (iron over the bronze swords used by the Fir Bolg) and not through elementals cast from their fiery fingertips. This has the applaudable property of keeping the story very firmly rooted in reality, and the magic of the book is created by the reader.
For The Bookworm Turns: An Everything Literary Quest.