Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Book review: The Waves of Manannán

It's taken two months of lunchtime reading, but I've finally finished MacQuarrie's Waves of Manannán. Given the time, effort, and several failed attempts previously to get stuck into it, I think I can safely say...This was my Everest.

But I'm very glad indeed to have conquered it. And now, may the gushing commence...

The Waves of Manannán
Charles MacQuarrie

This was a mammoth effort for me to get through, and not in a bad way, I'm glad to say. It's a book to take time over, to read in small doses and absorb, think about and let the flavours mature. The resulting stew is very tasty.

I can't say this is everything you'll ever want to know about Manannán, if you're interested in that sort of thing, but it's a damn good place to start. The primary focus of the book is on Manannán's portrayals in Irish myth and literature, and in this respect it tries to be as comprehensive as possible, given the constraints of a PhD dissertation.

MacQuarrie splits the material up into four 'waves', with the first wave detailing Manannán's earliest portrayals in myths (starting with Immram Brain, 'The Voyage of Bran'); the second wave dealing with his appearances in pseudo-history (including Lebor Gabála Érenn, 'The Book of Invasions', and the Dindshenchas, or 'Placename Folklore'); the third wave looking at his appearances in the Finn tales and folktales (including those from the Isle of Man); and the final wave, the 'new wave' focusing on modern Anglo-Irish literature, such as Lady Gregory, WB Yeats, and James Joyce. Because of this, there's not so much on anything Scottish - or as much as I would have liked (analysis of Manannán's possible links with Shony would've been nice...MacQuarrie mentions the possible connection between the ritual to Shony on Lewis, and Manannán, citing Hutton, but doesn't go into any depth), but this may be due to the time in which it was written.

Yes, it's academic - it's a PhD dissertation, so maybe that goes without saying, really (but I will anyway) - so you may find it dry in places. Or if not dry, then dense and a little on the heavy side if you're not used to this sort of thing. Where MacQuarrie does get into detailed academic analysis, he does a good job of explaining things and doesn't rely on Teh Big Wurdz and confuse the reader with jargon, but still, it's not the sort of book I'd recommend for a beginner.

Because it's primarily a literary view, the emphasis is on how Manannán is portrayed in the tales and literature, and how this changes over time, so if you're looking for a manual as far as how to relate to Manannán as a god then you'll be disappointed. The final section, after the 'waves', is titled Beginnings and Endings, and this was the most interesting part for me, looking at Manannán's origins in particular. MacQuarrie suggests that Manannán takes his name from the Isle of Man (rather than lending his name to it), and was probably so named, or 'invented' as MacQuarrie puts it, in around the fifth century A.D. with the role of being a divine father for the Dalriadan king Mongán mac Fiachna. It's certainly food for thought, even if I'm not entirely convinced of all of MacQuarrie's conclusions, here.

MacQuarrie deals with a lot of myths that most people won't be familiar with, but does a good job of giving the general gist of the plot so you can keep up with the points he wants to make. He writes well and is engaging, but shortens the names of the tales to just their initials for brevity's sake - this is understandable, but it can be a little confusing at times when you're not familiar with the name of the tales in the first place, so I found that a bit distracting in places. Handy hint: there's a list of tales at the back of the book...

The biggest downside to this book - aside from the complete lack of any indexing (boo!) - is the price and its availability; I can't really justify the expense of buying a copy myself (much as I'd like to) and it's not necessarily widely available in academic libraries. However, if you do get your hands on a copy, then do give it a go, and give it a go from cover to cover. You'll miss out on an awful lot otherwise.