August Books 2) The Prize in the Game

2) The Prize in the Game, by Jo Walton

This is the first of ‘s books I have read, and apparently I’m doing it in the wrong order – the received wisdom seems to be to read The King’s Peace and The King’s Name first, in publication order. But I have limited reading time and many books I want to get through, and one of the items on my agenda is to try and find books from my list of sf and fantasy set in Ireland that are actually worth reading.

My first reaction was faint irritation that I had managed to end up with yet another retelling of the Táin Bó Cuailnge with some names changed a lot (eg Cú Chulainn becomes Darag) and others changed only a little. (This was augmented by deep irritation with the writer of the blurb on the dust-jacket who appeared to have read a completely different book.) But of course that basically dispensed with my having to read it for the plot, and instead I was able to sit back and enjoy both the characterisation and the world-building.

And I must say I can’t think of a retelling of the Táin to match this in terms of believable characters. The fact that the story is mainly told from points of view with which we are not familiar from the standard versions made me think almost for the first time about the events of the legend as they might have appeared to the participants. The relatively minor liberties taken with the plot (and the fact that I hadn’t read the other two novels) meant that I was, slightly to my surprise, in some suspense about the fate of Ferdia, who of course in our standard version falls on the third day of single combat.

Once I had worked out why the Welshism (if that’s a word) “ap” had replaced the Irish “mac” and “nic” as a patronymic/matronymic, it all, within certain limits, became clear. The society portrayed is of course a pagan Celtic one where magic flourishes within certain limits. Women can be equal as warriors, lawyers and kings with men, and have full control of their own fertility. It almost becomes possible to read The Prize in the Game as the author’s concept of the “original” or “real” story of the Táin, before it was filtered by mainly male, Christian editors, rather in the same way that Tom Shippey argues Tolkien wrote his mythology to be the “original” version of which the surviving Anglo-Saxon and Norse myths are but a faint distorted echo (or perhaps a closer parallel is Marion Zimmer Bradley’s treatment of the Arthurian mythos in The Mists of Avalon, though I think Jo Walton is more imaginative with her material here). Reading the book on that basis, I really enjoyed it.

I still have a couple of gripes about geography – mainly that either the chariots go pretty damn fast or the island is very small! – typing these words as I do close to the frontiers of the old and now mostly forgotten kingdom of Oriel, in a village whose name is said by some to be derived from Bricriu of the Bitter Tongue. Many scholars say that Bricriu’s Feast took place over in Dundrum on the coast of County Down. We who have climbed up to the Water Hill Fort near Loughbrickland know better (see here but scroll down to “Water Hill Fort”).

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1 Response to August Books 2) The Prize in the Game

  1. anonymous says:

    “Whyte, the Balkan expert”. Like it!

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