The lion as metaphor for royalty is a cliche in historical fiction, what with the Lion of Judah, Richard the Ditto-Hearted, and a dozen other lesser leos in your neighborhood library's card file. A certain entailment, however, too often accompanies the title. From Egypt's human-headed Sphinx to the British national symbol, imperial lionhood has seemed to include, almost by necessity, the continual use of brute predatory force, the dark side of power.
Brian Boru, is a lion of another color, a 100-century High King of Ireland who, according to Morgan Llywelyn, exercised his sovereignty without sharing the barbaric bloodthirstiness that marked so many of his colleagues.
Born free. Brian discovered early that the world is not all family warmth and poetry when the Norsemen descended upon his tribal settlement in an orgy of rape and murder that left unscathed only Brian and his adored older brother, Mahon.
From such inauspicious beginnings. Brian Boru grew up to battle the Vikings to a standstill and his own Irish into a unity they resisted all the way. He was luckier than many, for he lived to see the first fruits of his dream, a golden age of Ireland which fostered the peaceful pursuit of human endeavors to a degree possibly never matched before or since in that tormented country.
Growth happens in this book, which cannot always be said of the genre. Mahon, whose dreams are domestic compared with Brian's early heroic ones, occupies essentially the same position, in the implicit debate with Brian, that Brian, himself holds when, long after Mahon's death, he finds himself arguing with his own son, the bellicose Murrough. (Murrough too is glimpsed before his early death in the process of experiencing the same slow maturing.)
Brian does not change his opinions overnight. After his first youthful squeamishness, he finds the spice of warfare to his taste; only after resisting the urge to murder Mahon for the throne does he come to terms with the ideal that blood neither waters the crops nor feeds the spirit. Similarly, Brian develops a concept of Christianity beyond the narrow parochial faith of his time, seeing it no longer as a total negation of all other religious understandings.
While these electicisms are understandable to the modern reader, Brian's own highly conscious ponderings on them occasion a question about this kind of literature in general: In writing about persons of another time and age, should the author err on the side of universal differences or universal likenesses? Were these men and women of 1,000 years ago more like us than unlike us -- or vice versa? In a historical novel, imbalance one way or another seems inevitable, and there is no doubt that Llywelyn opts here for the likenesses.
Her Brian deals with 20th-century concerns. His troubles with women stem primarily from lack of communication. (She "realized that the time had passed forever when she might have told him.") He is exquisitely attuned to modern sensibilities. ("Is the inevitability of suffering too great a price to pay for the glory of a spring day when you are sixteen years old?") His observations turn as analytical as any psychiatrist's ("'if you would have peace, genuine peace, you must accept all the aspects of your personality and learn to be comfortably with them.'") He takes the word right out of our mouths.
Still, this world be a fair weaker book without them, so one can only rejoice that Llywelyn did it her way. This is an authentic tale about a genuine hero of a kind alien to today's rock-hard young and all but forgotten by modern adults. It's made available in a neat and able style that sometimes rises above itself, yet avoids the temptation to fake that archaic syntax so few authors can pull off successfully.
Furthermore, the book is blessedly free of purple prose. Well, a little magenta, perhaps, when Brian's second wife Gormlaith, comes front and center. Six feet tall, with ankle-length red hair, she is described as "totally, Woman" (not to be confused with Total Woman). But the episodes of love do not leer, and no more than the other women in the book is she cut off a single sexual template.
Without a misstep, and occasionally with touching beauty, Llywelyn does right by her hero.
The bottom lion on Brian: a royal read.