Complex and detailed. Hag of the Hills is a hero’s journey with a difference. In the second century BCE, Brennus of Skye is a warrior’s son who isn’t allowed to be a warrior, until invasion changes that fate. But his journey to heroic status spirals around the geology and mythology of his island. His forward momentum is inexorable, driven by the words of a local deity and his own conviction that he must honour both his oaths and the visions granted to him – but with many mistakes, fears, denials and reversals.
Hag of the Hills is not a conventional Celtic-based fantasy book. I’d hesitate to call it fantasy, rather than a form of magic realism. The Sidhe are a real part of Brennus’s world, whether is it is the Cailleach or giants or the shape-shifter who speaks in words later attributed to the bard Taliesin. But they are not earthly beings, as often in fantasy, but remain other-worldly, real but inhabiting a different realm to which Brennus is given occasional access.
Ethnobotanist Wade Davis has written:
“The world can only appear monochromatic to those who persist in interpreting what they experience through the lens of a single cultural paradigm, their own. For those with the eyes to see and the heart to feel, it remains a rich and complex topography of the spirit.”The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in The Modern World
And this is what J.T.T. Ryder, an archaeologist specializing in Iron Age northern European cultures, has attempted to show us: that rich and complex topography experienced through a different cultural paradigm. Is it successful? In my opinion, yes, for the most part.
Brennus’s world is one in which Cuchulainn walks in memory and stories are told of war-elephants crossing the Alps; where men leave Skye to fight in Thrace, where the stone tools found in caves are left by the Sidhe and the bronze sword in a barrow belongs to an ancestor: a world both intensely rooted in its geography and conscious of a wider world beyond, known through trade and commerce in soldiers and slaves. This duality is echoed in others: as well as the Sidhe and the everyday world, there are few shades of grey in Brennus’s world: he is either an oath-keeper or an oath-breaker, a free man or a slave, a warrior or a coward.
Whether purposely or not, this sense of duality is echoed in Ryder’s prose, which frequently changes tenses within a paragraph, creating for this reader a feeling of dislocation. Jarring at first, as the novel progressed I found it added to the veracity of Brennus’s experiences. Unconventional to 21st century prose, perhaps, but echoing the blending of past and present that Brennus’s cultural paradigms encompass. Time is a construct not experienced by all cultures in the same way.
(What was less effective for me was the use of modern words and terms, which took me out of the immersive and different world I was experiencing and returned me to ours. ‘Fetal position’ is one example.)
We are used to epic hero’s journeys, from Odysseus onward. Brennus’s is not epic; it is extremely local, both in geography and psychologically. Much of what he works towards may make readers uncomfortable: honour, revenge, a glorious death – and while there is near-constant action, the real journey is in Brennus’s mind – not a comfortable or familiar place to be, but one I found worth experiencing.