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Books with any relation to Ulster or Northern Ireland for children are few and far between, and of the few books available, most are written by Americans, ( No offense but you can't get a real feel for a country on a quick visit or just by reading books), full of inaccuracies and very Troubles based. My sons are being taught both British and Irish history, but I do especially want them to learn Northern Ireland culture and heritage as well. I have a special interest in shared history - those aspects of history and culture common to both sides of the conflict, and the story of Cu Chullain, or Cuchulain is not only a part of Northern Ireland folklore common to the entire community - it as also part of the Irish equivalent of the Iliad - the epic Ulster Cycle, which is widely regarded as the oldest piece of literature in Northern Europe.
I've always enjoyed mythology of any kind, especially the Greek, Norse, and Germanic mythology, and of course the Arthurian legends, but The Ulster Cycle has always been my very favourite of piece of ancient literature. If you have never read it - you simply must - it is timeless and the collection includes many of the best stories ever created. The best known is that of Cuchulainn, named the Hound of Ulster. The entire tale is told in the Tain Bo Cualnge or The Cattle Raid of Cooley. I won't go so far as to claim this is the greatest story ever told, because another book which I feel holds the key to human salvation already holds that title, but if you want the greatest adventure, the greatest romance, and the greatest saga of epic battles ever told - this is it.
This story is only a tiny part of the Cattle Raid of Cooley, and it really isn't the best part, but it is the beginning. This tells how young Setanta earned the name of Cuhulainn, which literally translates as the Hound of Culann. This story begins with Setanta as a simple shepherd's son ( completely contrary to the original tale in which he is the child of the King's sister by Lugh of the Long Arm - a Celtic Deity). He's also a cocky ill mannered little b******, with the cheek to mouth off at the king, but in this story the king likes rude little boys. In the original stories the King didn't take to well to insults and one would hardly imagine him taking abuse from a shepherd's child.
But - in keeping with the original story, Setanta emerges on the Hurley field ( a sport that once one of the leading causes of death for Irish nobility) and quite literally runs circles around the other boys. The other boys resent this and it becomes a bit more violent but the King steps in when weapons are drawn. The king then goes to feast at the home of the local Smith Culann. After a bit of drink and feasting he forgets that he has invited Setanta to join them and tells the Smith to go ahead and lock the gates and loose the Hound - a ferocious beast of epic strength. On the off chance you do not know the rest of the story I will leave it there.
On one hand, I was happy to find anything at all for children with even a part of this epic story. I also like the fact that this book has an interesting enough story to suit an older child, even up to ages 10 -11, and yet is written at a fairly low reading level. I have seen one site placing this as suitable for ages 11 -13, but apart from the name Cuchulainn ( which even I struggle to pronounce), most of this is quite easy to read - and I would place this on the same reading difficulty with Horrid Henry. My son is age 7 and it took us less than 10 minutes to read this, reading in turns. Of course this means it isn't suitable for someone looking for a more lengthy read, and it is hard to condense an epic story into a few lines. I was also well pleased to see that this story has illustration, even if they are very simple line drawings. My son does still enjoy illustrated books, but feels he is too old for picture books. Good illustrated paperbacks are hard to find. Finally, on the plus side of this review, I like that the text is large clear black print on a slightly off white non reflective paper, with a full line of blank space in between each line of print. This format is meant to be ideal for struggling readers.
What I really don't like is the fact that key elements of the story have been changed, and I feel these changes do take from the overall quality of the tale. I dislike that the author chopped Lugh of the Long arm out of the tale, as I felt that Cuchulains heritage as a demigod closely matched that of similar epic tales from Greece, such as Achilles and Perseus. I believe making him into a shepherd made the tale less believable. This is an epic tale which I feel is perfect in the original form, and there is really no reason to alter this segment for a younger audience. Now had he be writing about the Rape of Deidre - I'd have been quite happy for an author to make a few cuts for children's literature - but there is no reason for the alteration here.
But the part that I disliked the most was that they turned Cuchulain from a very serious, noble boy into an ill mannered little git. He mouths off to the king - demanding to join the Red Branch while making it clear he will not obey orders from the king or anyone else. This certainly is not in keeping with previous tales of King Conor and this is well before the time of child protection laws. The idea of a shepherd's son being so disrespectful to a king is not very believable at all.
My son's opinion:
My son is 7 years old and was required to write a brief paragraph on this book as part of his school work. As this is a child's book - I do feel his opinion is more important than mine. This is what he wrote- edited only to remove one spoiler:
I liked this story, especially when Setanta beat the bigger boys and made them mad. I liked the fighting part too. I think the real story was better because his father was a warrior, not a shepherd. I also do not think he would have been rude to the king. I give this book 3 stars.
My son also commented that he liked the fact that this was very easy to read ( so he could finish his school work faster) and he liked the pictures.
Conclusion: While I disliked changes to the original, I do like the overall format of this book and I have already bought another book from the White wolves fiction series. I feel this is an ideal series for reading development, and the idea of stories from other cultures ( although in this case it is our own) is also very beneficial for young readers. This is a book that I feel qualifies as a high - lo book ( high interest level low reading age), making it very suitable for children learning to read at a later age, as well as younger children who prefer books for older children like my son.While I will buy other books from the same series - I do not think I will buy other books from the same author, despite the fact that he does have other Irish stories. I prefer these stories closer to the originals.However, if I were not familiar with the original story - I would have given this 5 stars, I wavered between 2 -3 stars for this, but as I do feel the good aspects of this book go a long way towards making up for the bad, and I do feel that my sons rating of 3 stars should take precedence as he is the better judge of what a child will like.
*Please note I am aware that my spellings are not quite accurate. There should be accent marks called fadas over some of the letters, but I do not know how to get them on a keyboard, and it isn't something I would use on a regular basis. I find Gaelic completely incomprehensible.( Although my son and I had good fun looking up Welsh place names and guessing and pronunciation which would certainly be wrong after he complained about some English words being too long). I am also aware that there are many alternative spellings for these names, but I feel listing them all would simply bog the review down so while I may mention the odd Gaelic counterpart, I will primarily use the Anglicised versions as these are the versions I am most familiar with. This is not intended in anyway as a slight to the Gaelic version which I am well is the most correct, just a simplification on my part. If any offense is caused - I apologize in advance as this is not my intent.