Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Archive: The Great Queens - Rosalind Clark

The Great Queens
Rosalind Clark

It took me at least four attempts to get hold of this book, and while it was slightly more than I usually fork out to fund my book obsession, I'm particularly pleased I made the effort with this one. It wasn't available at Glasgow uni library so buying it was pretty much my only option, without jumping through inter-library loan hoops.

First and foremost, I didn't find it to be too much of a dry read. The book focuses on the use of what Clark argues are essentially sovereignty goddesses in various differing forms in Irish literature, from early medieval evidence to relatively modern examples like Yeats. Seeing as my area of interest is early medieval I was surprised to find that it wasn't too much of a chore to plough on through the final chapters that dealt with the more modern material, because ultimately I was interested in what Clark had to say even if I've never been interested in the modern stuff before now. I would even go so far as to say it piqued my interest in modern Irish history, which is something I've avoided (or at least not actively pursued, at any rate) until now.

Granted it's not light reading, and it's not the sort of book you'd want to take on holiday with you unless you're really interested in the Morrigan or the concept of divine sovereignty in Ireland, say, but still. If you are interested in these sorts of things, it's a worthwhile read. Unlike most of the discussion on this subject that I'm familiar with, Clark looks at the material from a literary perspective, rather than a historical or social perspective that I'm used to, so I found that refreshing. At the same time she came across as being very knowledgeable in the more historical areas too, so in that respect it gave a good balance.

Aside from the fact that I found her arguments about the Morrigan as being (ultimately) a sovereignty goddess persuasive, along with Medb and the Caillech, I found her analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the various different versions/translations by people like Lady Gregory and Yeats particularly useful for future reference. That said, I'm not all that keen on pigeon-holing deities into one role like 'sky god', 'sun god' and so forth, because it has a tendency to reduce gods or goddesses to one particular function or motive, and they aren't that simple. The label of 'sovereignty goddess' is the same sort of pigeon-holing that I dislike, and yet it's a label that I find useful, myself, so I guess the book's helped me take a look at my own unconscious hypocrisy, I guess.

On the minus side, her references to a triple goddess/Great Mother in a Jungian sense, amongst other sorts of scholars that hold a similar view, was quite jarring, especially seeing as she only went into any great detail in the conclusion to the book. While it's easily read around, and not fundamental to the book itself, it's distracting and I found it slightly confusing at times because she didn't elaborate until you're fairly committed. Has Robert Graves struck again? No, it turns out, but it's one point I especially didn't find any agreement with.

The book also tended to be quite repetitive in places, and while that can make it good for dipping into as a reference (if you wanted to look something up in particular, the general gist of the previous paragraphs wouldn't be lost on you), it didn't make for a very smooth read from start to finish at times.

Ultimately, I liked the book. There aren't many non-fiction, scholarly, books that I can read from cover to cover, but with this one I didn't have a problem. I would go so far as to say that I could probably read it again, which is also fairly unheard of.

This is the sort of book that I think anyone interested in CR should read, but I certainly wouldn't say it's one of those books that anyone should read first, as a beginner or perhaps even intermediate. This is a book for someone who wants to narrow their reading into a particular area. For those who want something a little more focused and in depth, especially if you're interested in the Morrigan (in her various related guises/titles) or the fairly fundamental concept of sovereignty in Irish society, this is a book you should read at some point.

Ultimately, this is the sort of book that I'm happy to hoard, as is my wont, and I don't feel like it's taking up space on my bookshelf unnecessarily.