Reviewed by David Maclaine
The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill is literature in the guise of history. It was written in the early twelfth century, a hundred years after the events it describes, and is a work of propaganda designed to glorify the High King of Ireland Brian Boru (Brian Bóruma in Old Irish). The tale presents him in the context of a long history of Scandinavian invasions and begins with a dense, name-clogged overview of those invasions, heavily slanted toward the Irish. All this serves as prelude to the story of the hero’s youth, his family, his brother’s murder, his rise to become High King, and the culminating battle of Clontarf which sealed his fame. As the narrative approaches its great climax on the battlefield it offers well-crafted scenes that bring to life the various characters, with an especially lively sequence showing how the Irish regional king Maelmordha was goaded into rebellion. The scenes of battle are intense and enjoyable, with skillful shifts of perspective, from the forefront of the battle where Brian’s son Murchadh mows down his adversaries like a Hong Kong action hero, to the battlements of Dublin where a Norse king and his Irish wife trade barbed remarks about the battle’s ebb and flow.
The nineteenth-century editor and translator of the The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill calls it “inflated and bombastic” and its over-the-top style is silly enough to entertain. The unknown author was way too fond of alliteration - mostly lost in translation - and obsessively spins out strings of synonymous words. But this biased account of the battle between “the bright, fresh, never-weary, terrible, valiant, victorious heroes” and their “untamable, inexorable, unsteady, cruel, barbarous” foes remains one of the most vivid fictional treatments of the great collision between the Norse and Irish worlds. (early 12th century; the Cambridge University Press edition is 586 pages)More about The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill at Powell's Books or Amazon.com