Monday, December 5, 2011

Lion of Ireland

I’m still immersed in my research on Vikings, which leads me to another of my favorite Viking-related novels, Lion of Ireland by Morgan Llywelyn.  

Lion of Ireland tells the story of Brian Boru, perhaps the greatest Irish king who ever lived. He ruled at the end of the Tenth Century, during a time when Norse and Danish Vikings controlled large portions of Ireland, including the Viking towns of Limerick and Dublin. Rich with natural resources and monasteries laden with silver, Ireland had lured the Vikings for two centuries, but their reign ended in large part because of Brian Boru.

The story begins when an eight-year-old Brian, the youngest son of the King of Dal Cais, discovers his homestead burning and his mother and two of his brothers slain by Vikings. Here’s a brief passage from the scene leading up to the massacre of Brian’s family: 

The Norse riverboats glided down the breast of the Shannon and nosed toward the grassy verge where the geese had fed. In the lead boat, Eyrik Gunnarsson stood tall in the prow of the River Serpent, beating his hand against his thigh in time to the cadence of the oars. Death rode with him on the night wind, and he felt pride in carrying it.
Brian’s hatred of the Vikings fuels his ambition. As a grown man, he leads skirmishes against the Limerick Vikings, luring many to their death, and in time becomes the King of Munster and ultimately High King (Ard Ri) of all of Ireland.  

Llywelyn’s Boru is a hero much like Braveheart’s William Wallace, faced with as many enemies among the kings of Ireland as he has among the Danes and Norse. The novel is filled with treachery, intrigue, and conflict, perhaps none more interesting than Brian’s volatile relationship with the sensual and cunning Irish queen Gormlaith. Her beauty transfixes Brian, and “looking into her face, he sees Ireland itself.”  

In Gormlaith, however, Brian finds more than he bargained for. By the time they wed, she was already famous, having previously married two of Brian’s rivals: Olaf Cuaran, the Viking King of Dublin who left her a widow, and Malachi Mor, the High King of Ireland before Boru claimed the throne. Gormlaith also was the mother of Sitric Silkbeard, who succeeded Olaf as ruler of Dublin, and her fiery relationship with Brian ends up threatening the kingdom he has fought so hard to unite. For her son wants Brian dead, and to kill him Sitirc gathers a Viking army for a battle that will decide the fate of Ireland.   

If you are interested in one of the most fascinating figures in Irish history, or just want another good book about the Viking Age, I highly recommend Lion of Ireland.

Clontarf, 23 April 1014, the battle that would decide the fate of Ireland.
As an aside, I consider this novel in the historical fiction genre, but in a few places it approaches the fine line between historical fiction and historical fantasy. The novel is riddled with talk of the Tuatha de Danann, Cu Chulainn and Finn mac Cool, as well as tales from Norse myths, characterizing the tension between Christianity and the old pagan ways. But there is one scene where Brian has a passionate and seemingly magical encounter with a woman who may or may not be the goddess of Ireland. The scene is clearly symbolic, but whether it was just Brian’s dream – or something quite real – is left for the reader to decide.

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