Book Review: Only the Stones Survive
by Morgan Llywelyn
Morgan Llywelyn’s long roster of crackerjack historical novels touches down in virtually every period of Irish history and mytho-history, from the legendary exploits of Finn Mac Cool in her 1994 novel of the same name to the era of the 10th-century High King Brian Boru in her bestselling Lion of Ireland to the 20th century’s political upheavals to 2013’s After Rome, set in the wake of Rome’s 5th century evacuation of Britain. She’s a shaper of old-fashioned, four-square melodramas, and it’s enduringly remarkable how little her talents seem strained when they slip from well-documented history to the mists of myths and legends. Her latest novel, for instance, Only the Stones Survive, is every bit as effective as 1998’s 1916: A Novel of the Irish Rebellion, even though the latter is set during the thoroughly-documented 20th century and the former is set in an Ireland – an “Ierne” – before the dawn of archeology, let alone history.
Given its setting, Only the Stones Survive is an inevitably wildwood thing, full of the kinds of poetry and the flights of imagination that tend not to come into play when one is writing about Michael Collins. This is the story of the Tuatha De Danann, the gods and goddesses of ancient Ireland, only in Llywelyn’s fashioning they’re not divine beings, although they’re more than human: they’re very long-lived, they’re in tune with the natural world, and their various bloodlines regularly produce abilities that seem supernatural, although our author is careful to describe them in recognizably genetic terms. Some of these Tuatha De Danann can speak to each other’s minds telepathically; and when they act in concert, they can heal bodily wounds and even move around weather systems.
Into this serene and peaceful people is born a young man named Joss, the son of Leyrs and Mongan, who grows to adulthood under the tutelage of the Dagda, the oldest and wisest of the Tuatha De Danann, who teaches him to open his mind and senses to the natural world around him:
The lake of the sky was fading from bottomless blue to icy rose, the herald of approaching winter. From where I stood, the breast of the hill hid the river from me, but I could hear the song of dark water. I could smell the mud in which the reeds grew. Brittle reeds chattered in a rising wind.
Such an Eden is ripe for a Fall, of course, and it’s brought about by the successive waves of invading outsiders who covet the beauties of Ierne. These invaders, the Milesians, have superior numbers and superior weapons and most of all a hunger for conquest that the Tuatha De Danann don’t share and don’t want to share. Even so, they fight to save themselves – and their harmony with the natural world comes to their aid:
On the battleground, brave badgers and ferocious stoats had emerged from setts and tunnels in the earth to bite the trampling feet of the Milesians. Hares and foxes and even graceful little pine martens, who were among the shyest animals on the island, had scampered across the field long enough to draw the attention of the foreigners, then raced away again with a baying crowd in pursuit.
But it’s a losing fight, and much of the novel follows the wanderings of the Tuatha De Danann from caves to wilderness, slightly dazed, dwindling in numbers. The leadership of this fugitive race falls to Joss, who seems to have only a choice of bad alternatives, and this kind of doomed valor is Llywelyn’s strongest suit. The sect of her fans that prefers her more myth-shaded works will love Only the Stones Survive and want more stories of these Children of the Light.