Lion of Ireland - The Legend of Brian Boru (1979)
Spine Front Cover Book Details
Morgan Llywelyn
Publication Date 1996
Format Leather-bound (235 x 130 mm)
Publisher The Easton Press
Genre Fantasy
Product Details
Series Masterpieces of Fantasy
No. of Pages 522
Paper Type Acid-neutral paper
First Edition No
Personal Details
URL This book on
Rating 10
No. of Reviews 64
Frontispiece/Illustrator Ron Miller
Original Details
Original Publisher Houghton Mifflin Co
Original Publication Year 1979
King, warrior, and lover Brian Boru was stronger, braver, and wiser than all other men-the greatest king Ireland has ever known. Out of the mists of the country's most violent age, he merged to lead his people to the peak of their golden era.
His women were as remarkable as his adventures: Fiona, the druidess with mystical powers; Deirdre, beautiful victim of a Norse invader's brutal lust; Gormlaith, six-foot, read-haired goddess of sensuality.

Set against the barbaric splendors of the tenth century, this is a story rich in truth and legend-in which friends become deadly enemies, bedrooms turn into battlefields, and dreams of glory are finally fulfilled. Morgan Llywelyn has written one of the greatest novels of Irish history.

All literature begins with fantasy. Lurking behind humanity's first attempts to tell meaningful stories about its experience of the world and its relationship to the universe was the shadow of the supernatural. The stories that were worth the great effort to carve into stone or incise into clay were about great men and women, and their rise to power or their fall from positions of eminence, and the triumphs and wealth, or disasters, they brought to their people. Efforts to explain the apparently arbitrary aspects of good and ill fortune led to the gods or to demons or to the spirits animating trees and water and sunshine and wind. Even the soil itself was suspected of harboring some kind of life; how else could one explain why the earth sometimes produced bountiful harvests and sometimes produced nothing. Mix in a concern for birth, life, and death and a reason for existence, and the result was myth, the origin of all fiction.

"Gilgamesh" is the earliest story discovered; it dates to 2000 B.C., although its oral origins may be much older. It seems to have been a poem of about 3,000 lines, incised in cuneiform on twelve clay tablets, which tells an epic story of a culture hero of the Babylonians who was part god (how else to explain his great strength and power) and part human (how else to explain his mortality). His efforts to build the walled city of Uruk brought glory to his people and also great burdens, and the intervention of the gods. Then, in grief over the death of his friend Enkidu, Gilgamesh goes in search of immortality and learns from the Babylonian Noah about the rejuvenating power of a sea plant, but as he is returning home with it, the plant is eaten by a snake, and Gilgamesh learns to accept the human condition.

The earliest Greek stories also are filled with intervention in the affairs of humans by the gods and actions by humans that elicit such intervention, by sacrifice or prayer, either to promote good fortune or to thank the gods for their favor. Sometimes, of course, people incur the wrath of the gods by their hubris, the overweening pride that takes credit for one's own success. To say that these stories are fantasies, of course, is to suggest that they involved the unreal, but that is only true for today's readers. For the ancients, the supernatural was part of every day experience: for them The Iliad and The Odyssey, and the gods involved in them, were authentic history, and Odysseus's journey home from Troy, with its encounters with the Cyclops, Aeolus, Circe, Teiresias, the Sirens, and Scylla and Charybis, was a voyage around the limits of the known world, with consequent encounters with the magical.

Today we make sharp distinctions between the real and the unreal. Science and its measuring devices encourage us in the belief that we can distinguish between what is real and what is not. Natural ism and realism in fiction have led us to believe, similarly, that we can detect an author's intention to deal with things as they are, to speculate about what might be, or to describe worlds that could not be. The Babylonians and the Greeks did not have that problem. The real and the unreal flowed together imperceptibly. When one believes that the stars or the gods control human affairs, that storm and drought and good weather are the work of spirits or deities who can be placated by ceremony or sacrifice, that living things can rise spontaneously out of inanimate matter, that even those things people use every day are merely poor imitations of some ideal objects existing elsewhere, then the difference between the real and the unreal may be, in every sense of the word, immaterial.

In this sense, then, all historical fiction placed before the Renaissance tends to read like fantasy because it includes an awareness of the supernatural, and even, in some cases, a reliance on the super natural to explain why events came out as they did. After the beginning of the Renaissance, a historical novel that included references to the supernatural generally did so in order to show the difficulties faced by the new science in winning acceptance, or to confront the new rationalism with traditional faith. The beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and its emphasis on the material world, people's welfare, and the possibility of ameliorating the human condition, created a separate genre for fantasy in which the unreal was introduced as a contrast to the everyday world.

Morgan Llywelyn's Lion of Ireland: The Legend of Brian Boru is the attempt by a contemporary author to bring to life the Ireland that existed at the turn of the first millennium. Inevitably, as a historical novel placed in the Middle Ages, it contains supernatural events and references to supernatural beliefs, not only the beliefs of the staunch Irish Catholics but those of the Old Religion of the Druids, that still lingered in Erin, and of the Norse gods of the invading Scandinavians. Brian Boruma is watched over by Fiona, who wields the strange arts of the Druids, and at the climactic fight for Dublin, Brian plays upon the superstitions of Leinstermen and the invading Northmen to help swing the tide of battle.

Even the historical facts about Ireland seem to blend into fantasy. By the middle of the tenth century when Brian was born, Ire land had already experienced several invasions. Of the original Stone Age inhabitants of Ireland, little evidence remains, but the island was apparently taken over by immigrants from the Spanish peninsula who formed the basis for the Pict civilization that also inhabited northern and central Scotland. By the 4th century B.C., Celts had begun to colonize Ireland from France and central Europe. They were a tall, fair-haired people who contrasted with the shorter, darker Picts and enslaved many of them until 432 A.D., when Patrick was named bishop to Ireland and reformed Irish law. Ireland became devoutly Christian and supported numerous monasteries, whose monks labored harder than any others to preserve classical manuscripts.

As Roman power diminished in Britain, the Irish began to raid and then settle along the western British coast, even founding Irish dynasties in Wales. So, when the Norsemen (Northmen in Lion of Ireland) began raiding the Irish coast in 795 and made their first inroads in 807, it may have been cosmic justice. By the time Brian unified Ireland against the Northmen, their presence, and even dominance in many areas, had become well established. The events of those times are all recorded history enhanced by legend and myth; the challenge accepted by Morgan Llywelyn was to take the historical account and the legends and turn them into a novel dramatizing the human aspects of recorded events, to explain to modern readers how great, ancient conflicts occurred. We know what happened; the author must lead us to those ends by ways that make the inevitable seem humanly possible and reasonable.

The author of this celebrated novel was born in 1937 in New York City. She attended high school in Dallas and took up a variety of careers, including fashion model, dance instructor, secretary, riding instructor, and amateur equestrian who spent a year trying but failing to make the Olympic equestrian team. She turned to writing in 1974 and in 1978 published The Wind from Hastings, about an ancestor, Edyth Llywelyn, wife of Harold, the last Saxon king of England. Her father gave her a copy of Seumas MacManus's Story of the Irish Race so that she might learn about her Irish heritage. The first page was about Brian Boru. Out of her fascination with his story emerged Lion of Ireland, published in 1979.

Since then her study of Irish history and legend has grown, and she has learned to read Gaelic "and a little Welsh." Irish readers, wherever they live, find her in tune with their feelings about the Irish past, and the turmoil the Irish people have experienced. "Early European history," Llywelyn has written, "is nothing but warfare, struggle, the desperate need for survival and to get hold of grazing land and trade routes. . . . These tended to create, at least in the case of the Celts, a race of very stubborn survivors."

The Horse Goddess, which won the best-novel award of the National League of American Penwomen, was published in 1982. Bard, which she wrote "in Celtic triads," was published in 1984, and Llywelyn's career has gone on from there. More recently she published Pride of Lions, which tells the story of the son of Born, Donough, who presented his father's ring and sword to the Pope. Ironically, it was a later pope, Adrian IV, who granted Ireland to Henry II, and Brian's great struggles to create an unified Ireland preceded by only a century and a half the conquest of Ireland by a British king.

Lion of Ireland, like the epics of any nation, is about heroes but not just any heroes: it is about the leaders who embody the characteristics most admired by the people who developed out of his efforts, those heroes who helped create the kingdom or the nation. Brian Boruma not only unified Ireland, he helped the Irish to think about themselves as one nation, not an island of competing kingdoms and petty kingdoms perennially at war with one another over land or honor or insult. At one point Brian tells his second wife, the fiery Gormlaith and mother of Brian's son Donough, "I have to choose between you and what's best for Ireland, and that is no contest at all."

It seems to be no contest at all for Llywelyn. She married Charles Winter but they changed their last name to Llywelyn in 1982.

James Gunn
Lawrence, Kansas