Today I’m recommending a novella in Canongate’s `The Myths’ series. This small Scottish publishing firm had the big idea of commissioning famous authors from all over the world to write modern interpretations of ancient myths.¬† Nineteen volumes, of variable quality, have appeared so far. I’ve already recommended one of them – Natsuo Kirino’s haunting `The Goddess Chronicle’, based on a Japanese myth (see my post of September 2013). Now I’m picking Alexander McCall Smith’s `Dream Angus’, which has the subtitle `The Celtic God of Dreams’. This volume was first published in 2006 and is available in paperback and as an ebook.

There are two strands to this book. The first, as the author puts it, `is a retelling of the myth of Angus, a popular and attractive figure of the Celtic mythology of Ireland and Scotland.’ Deep in the mythical past, the mighty god Dagda seduced a water spirit called Boann and she bore him a son called Angus. The floating cradle of this baby god was always surrounded by singing birds. Dagda kidnapped his son but discovered that Angus already had the power to send sleepers prophetic dreams. Fearing this power, Dagda sent Angus away to the house of his older son, Midir. Angus grows up thinking that he is Midir’s son until spiteful words reveal the truth. Then Angus sets out to confront his real father and win his inheritance. Angus becomes a kindly ruler who protects animals and grants people dreams identifying `the man or woman who would be their lover’. What will happen when this god of love falls desperately in love with an unattainable princess?

Interwoven with the ancient myth of Angus are five interconnected modern stories set in Scotland and Canada. McCall Smith explains in his introduction that there is an `Angus figure’ present in each of these stories but the identity of this figure isn’t always immediately obvious. In Chapter 3 a couple are on their honeymoon in the Hebrides but the wife starts to wonder about what kind of secrets they might keep from each other. Chapter 5 introduces two brothers living in poverty in a Scottish village during the 1930s. Young Jamie adores his elder brother but a letter from Canada is about to change their lives. In Chapter 7 a 15 year old boy finds out a family secret and threatens to ruin his parents’ marriage. Chapter 9 centres on a compassionate animal-keeper who works in a research laboratory near Glasgow and one of his charges – Pig Twenty. In the final chapter a therapist who works with dreams tries to help a Canadian woman whose marriage has broken up.

Being part Celt, I have a general liking for Celtic mythology but I was also attracted to this book for two specific reasons. Firstly, it reminded me of one of my favourite poems -`The Song of Wandering Aengus’ by the great Irish poet W.B.Yeats. Right from the opening lines, `I went out to the hazel wood, Because a fire was in my head,’ this is one of the most magical and romantic poems ever written. If you’ve never read `The Song of Wandering Aengus’ (an alternate spelling for Angus) you can find it in seconds on the internet. The second reason was that `Dream Angus’ is by an author whose work I generally enjoy. The prolific Alexander McCall Smith is chiefly famous for his `No. 1 Ladies’s Detective Agency’ Series set in Botswana, though I am most fond of his Edinburgh-based `Scotland Street’ stories. Some people dismiss his books as trivial or sentimental but McCall Smith is passionately interested in the ethics of everyday living and he has a rare talent for writing about goodness. Lots of authors can win sympathy for bad characters; making good people interesting is much harder.

Though he has reworked some African fables, McCall Smith isn’t known for writing Fantasy so I was curious to see how he handled a Celtic myth. Ancient Irish stories tend to mingle beauty with brutality and tragedy with broad humour. McCall Smith captures most of this in his version of Angus’ story. There are plenty of humorous touches and the narrative is charmingly matter of fact about marvels such as a holy man who can sleep underwater and people transformed into pigs. The traditional characters are given plausible inner lives and the callous behaviour of the King of the Gods is unsparingly portrayed. When Dagda takes baby Angus from his watery mother `her pleading was no more than the sound that a river makes when it crankles between stones’.

McCall Smith has chosen to write about one of the gentlest of Celtic deities but Angus isn’t boringly perfect. He tricks his father out of power, reducing Dagda to a broken old man. Angus is unable to save all of his subjects (if you are fond of pigs, prepare to shed some tears) and he takes to his bed when he can’t find the girl he’s seen in a vision. Like Yeats’ wandering Aengus, this Angus is prepared to spend his whole life on `the search for beauty’ because once a man `feels that there is something missing in his world …he will never be complete until he has found that missing thing,’ McCall Smith does justice to the romance of this idea while allowing one of his other characters to mock the notion that `beauty and goodness go together’. The god Bodb points out that `Beauty can exist alongside the most appalling character defects.’ Sharp observations like this ensure that the mythical narrative in `Dream Angus’ is never too bland.

There is even more sharpness in the modern sections. If you think of McCall Smith’s books as being all sweetness and light, you may be surprised by the darkness and sadness which infuse these inset stories. They are about people who struggle with the disappointments and compromises of life. In Chapter 7 it is the erring mother rather than her self-righteous son who seems to have the author’s sympathy and the Angus-figure is unexpectedly sinister. McCall Smith leaves it up to the reader to tease out the elusive connections between the stories and their inner meanings. Like myths and dreams they are open to more than one interpretation. `Dream Angus’¬† is full of Celtic melancholy but it ends on an upswing of forgiveness¬† and reconciliation. If you want to believe in the transformative power of dreams, try this novella. Until next time…