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“Do not speak so harshly of poor King Pluto,” said Proserpina, kissing her mother. “He has some very good qualities; and I really think I can bear to spend six months in his palace, if he will only let me spend the other six with you. He certainly did very wrong to carry me off; but then, as he says, it was but a dismal sort of life for him, to live in that great gloomy place, all alone; and it has made a wonderful change in his spirits to have a little girl to run up stairs and down. There is some comfort in making him so happy; and so, upon the whole, dearest mother, let us be thankful that he is not to keep me the whole year round.”
I grew up fascinated with ancient mythology. The Nordic cycle, the Greco-Roman legends, but most especially Celtic myths, I devoured the lot. Robert Graves was a great help in supplying my addiction, his translations of Greek mythology in particular managing to present the adventures of various demi-gods, heroes and tricksters in an easily digestible form.
Of course, I read Graves’s translations as the literal truth of these myths. I did not realize they were reinterpretations of the original stories, or that the written versions of these tales represented dozens of differing accounts transcribed from ancient oral histories of same. Then we come to the Irish myths. I started to notice that the Christian religion was routinely inserted into stories featuring pagan heroes. This struck me as profoundly wrong. To reinterpret the story spoiled the original meaning. Mythology itself is the kind of subject you need to go to college to get access to the ‘real’ stuff, or perhaps more accurately a frank discussion.
Nathaniel Hawthorne had previously written a book titled A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys wherein the bawdy adventures of heroes was rewritten to become more suitable fare for children. Tanglewood Tales is a sequel of sorts to that book, with the narrator meeting up again with his young friend Eustace Bright, after having enjoyed a measure of commercial success thanks to the publication of the previous title. Hawthorne revisits another selection of Greco-Roman adventures, including the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur, Hercules’ battle with Antaeus, the kidnapping of Europa and the visit of Ulysses to Circe.
Each of the tales is retold in a more folksy, humourous manner. Hawthorne, as part of the framing device, sees fit to correct the consensus view of certain mythological accounts. So for example Ariadne is not abandoned by Theseus, but stays on Crete to care for her aging father. The Minotaur itself, though monstrousness, is shown to be a figure deserving of pity. The encounter of Hercules with the Pygmies has the great hero be shamed into retreating from their passionate defence of their land, instead of turning the humble creatures into playthings for a child.
The book also contains a number of illustrations, depicting pivotal moments from these stories. Overall this is a sweet and entertaining revisiting of the Greek myths. I cannot take issue with the tone, or differing interpretations of the original stories, as they are, after all, simply one more among a multitude.
Sweet, witty and perfect introduction for children.
“There were great writers, Joyce among them, who dealt at length with the seedy as an aspect, an inescapable aspect of human affairs, but this was to throw something else into perspective. They did not rejoice in it for its own sake. And they were men with wide experience of life. They did not have this weak fascination with the sordid. Most of those who dealt in it now though, he thought, were actually sheltered middle-class males and females, playing a game, trying to be toughies, to show their laddishness. And they really knew very little about it, very little about the criminal and his mind, or the mind of his symbiotic twin, the policeman.”
Anthony Cronin, Roddy Doyle, Hugo Hamilton, Marian Keyes, Frank McCourt, Pauline McLynn, Conor McPherson, Joseph O’Connor, Gerard Stembridge, Donal O’Kelly, Owen O’Neill, Tom Humphries, Charlie O’Neill, Gina Moxley and Gene Kerrigan. Fifteen writers, one narrative, shared between them. The Irish have a love/hate relationship with their culture, this insistence on the soggy island being the home of ‘saints and scholars’. There was a great little show last year called The Savage Eye that dedicated an episode to lancing the pomposity of Irish writers and artists. Yeats Is Dead is title notwithstanding, a broad parody of James Joyce’s fiction that mixes crime and satire into the proceedings.
With each chapter a different writer takes control of the story, setting off a dizzying chain of one-upmanship. Roddy Doyle is the first up to bat, commencing the proceedings with an accidental murder. Two crooked cops have been working for Mrs Bloom (ho ho!) as hired thugs. Ordered to intimidate an elderly hermit named Tommy ‘Stanislaus’ Reynolds into returning a stolen item, they inadvertently cause the man to have a heart attack. Then he is shot. The chapter closes with the two Gardaí reporting their misadventure to their employer. Mrs Bloom is a formidable woman, who has made a living from theft from an early age. Doyle even includes a stolen ‘papal throne’, from Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland in 1979 in her home. The scene is set, with an intimidation racket gone wrong, a crime dame with a controlling interest in many areas of Celtic Tiger Ireland and two bent coppers fearing for their lives.
As each chapter follows, however, things quickly escalate beyond this humble beginning. Soon corpses are pilling up; more characters are introduced; there are adulterous affairs; wild swerves in plot; book forgery scams; chaotic trials and political corruption. The McGuffin is revealed to be a lost work of James Joyce’s, an unfinished novel, or possibly a chemical formula, known as ‘Yeats Is Dead’. The story rambles on in a shambolic manner, with each of the characters unknowingly being controlled from behind the scenes by the canny criminal mastermind Mrs Bloom.
I laughed twice during the fifteen chapters of this book. The first time courtesy of Roddy Doyle having a bent copper’s mistress reply to a request to talk dirty by simply saying ‘The Flood Tribunal’. Owen O’Neill, spotting an opportunity to poke fun at all the Joycean namedropping throughout the book, names a character after the famous Irish broadcaster Eamon Dunphy, which also raised a chuckle. The remainder of this book is a train wreck, especially the chapter written by Marian Keyes. Here we have an author trading in lazy stereotypes and dated references, who is over-indulged by the Irish reading public. She introduces into the plot a Dublin Southside rap music fan named Micky McManus, who secretly wants to be Black. It is an insulting and ridiculous character portrayal, which is quickly mocked by some of the later contributors by transforming Micky into a blackface sporting, would-be Rastafarian homosexual.
I chose the above quote from Anthony Cronin’s chapter as it summed up the weaknesses of this book perfectly. At times some of the writers attempt to introduce some social realism into the proceedings, but for the most part Yeats Is Dead trades in Irish stereotypes and clichés. Frank McCourt wraps up proceedings with a smutty parody of James Stephens that owes more to the Carry On series.
Vulgar and farcical like the Celtic Tiger era that inspired it, this is an absolutely toxic waste of time. ‘Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone…’ and spinning in its grave.