The Hounds of the Morrigan by Pat OShea

10/10 I'll get you! With my little dogs too!

Like many people, I tend to find I still enjoy the books I enjoyed as a child now. Of course, that's partly because of sweet sweet nostalgia, however, I also often discover aspects of childhood favourites, such as Roald Dahl's word play and warped sense of humour, or Susan Cooper's poetic darkness, which I can still appreciate as an adult with a lifetime of reading experience. This is not the first time I've read Hounds of the Morrigan as an adult; and possibly won't be the last either. It was also wonderful to read through the book with my lady. Being someone with a refined sense of literary appreciation, who had not read Hounds of the Morrigan as a child and so was free of nostalgia related biases, my lady could serve as an excellent guinea pig; something being small and cute also qualifies her for very well. Stepping back into Pat O'Shea's tale of chaotic goddesses, talking animals and living Irish myths, we discovered a truly amazing world, and one I was pleased to find no less wondrous than I did back when I was nine.

When ten year old Pidge; short for Patrick Joseph, finds the collection of ancient writings in the back of a bookshop in Galway, he never imagined that it was the prison of Olc-Glas; an ancient and evil thing in snake form, or that the Dagda, the good god of the old world would need Pidge to find the means to destroy it. Yet, the Morrigan, the three part goddess of battle and slaughter has returned to the world. As her two lesser thirds Macha the Queen of Phantoms and Bodb the scald crow, disconcertingly calling themselves Melody Moonlight and Brida Fairfoul, prepare for the arrival of their counterpart with chaotic entrancements and cruel games, they learn of Pidge's mission and set their hounds on his trail. For not only will the poison of Olc-Glas give the Morrigan and her sisters great power, but the means of its destruction could give them a power more terrible still. Together with his five year old sister, the impetuous and warm hearted Bridget, Pidge finds himself guided into the world of Tir-na-nog. Aided by all good things that serve the Dagda, birds and beasts, gods and heroes of Irish myth, and ordinary people of the Sidhe, Pidge nevertheless finds his journey perilous, for the Morrigan's reach is nearly unlimited, and only bonds laid upon her by the Dagda prevent her hounds hunting the children as pray.

There are some books, like Lord of the Rings or Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, where you can tell at once that the author took a considerable time and many drafts getting everything just right. Hounds of the Morrigan, despite being generally a light and whimsical sort of story, apparently took Pat O'Shea thirteen years to write, each chapter being rewritten eight or nine times over; (without the aid of a word processor), and it really shows! Despite being inspired by such children's fantasies as John Masefield's Box of Delights, Hounds of the Morrigan is far more than just a one note fairy tale or simple coming of age story. There are poetic descriptions of nature, but never so florid as to become impenetrable, there are philosophical musings, but never so abstruse as to lose child readers. There are strangely dark flashes of horror; especially surrounding the hounds and their love of killing, but never so grim as to make the book become dour. This balance comes up in almost all aspects of the book's writing. O'Shea employs a lot of Irish mythological figures, from Queen Maeve and her seven sons to the hero Cú Chulainn; not to mention the Morrigan herself, yet, not only is no previous knowledge of mythology necessary, but O'Shea makes her characters so vivid, so absolutely what they are, that the fact that some are gods and heroes just feels natural. It simply makes perfect sense that a wonderfully batty old lady with a blackbird in her hat, who makes dandelions bloom out of nowhere, speaks in whimsically odd patterns, and can produce unexpected sausages over a campfire turns out to be Brigid, goddess of the hearth.

This particularly goes for the book’s principal villains, the Morrigan and her sisters, who are some of the finest representations of absolute chaos I've seen. Often funny and playful, whether teaching rats poker, boxing with their shadows or playing with their own beauty and ugliness, yet at the same time always having a sense of capricious wildness, which can blossom at any moment into casual cruelty. Add to this the power to literally bend reality at a touch, and you have some of the most entertaining, and profoundly scary villains you could wish for.

One sequence indeed, in which they play with and terrify a dim-witted but good natured frog is in some ways even more disturbing for adults, just because of its sheer callous nastiness.

As well as myths and poetry, O'Shea also achieves what is almost impossible in a children's book, and gets the cuteness factor just right, neither making the talking animals or whimsical figures that help Bridget and Pitch with their journey so blandly nice they become dull, nor pouring on the sugar to the point that cute slips over into twee! This again is done by making her animal characters simply as colourful, quirky and memorable as possible.

After all, there are many writers who have their child characters attend an animal tea party with lovely little animal children, but only O'Shea makes those animals circus performing spiders who can square dance their way through hammocks or play multiple instruments at once! Indeed several of her animal characters, like an earwig with a Napoleon complex, or an incredibly dim frog with a fear of French cooks are definitely more Monty Python than Play School.

Of course, the book's central human characters aren't neglected either. Bridget, although perhaps acting slightly older than most five year olds, is an enchantingly realistic child. Genuinely sweet with an impulse to kindness, yet impetuously curious with a flash of typically Irish temper on occasions. She's the sort of child who manages to still at times feel exasperating enough to be believable, and yet utterly delightful despite, and sometimes because of that,. Pidge is perhaps a little too idealised into the role of the stoic hero, especially considering that (likely due to O'Shea not wanting to dwell on real world matters too much), all we learn about Pidge in reality outside his role in the fantasy quest is that he loves horses (such as those bred on his father's farm), and seemingly has not only a deep love for his sister, but also endless patience in dealing with her as well; and (apparently), no friends his own age outside his family. This isn't to say Pidge is a dull protagonist, but for most of the book he definitely feels more like a protagonist than a character, albeit a protagonist whose side we are definitely on.

Then again, the book's way of life and at least a little of its characterisation felt somewhat old fashioned to me, reading it in the early nineties, let alone now, with all cooking done over open fires, cycle riding policemen and home phones being a rarity, so it's entirely possible that both the more grownup nature of the child characters, and the fact that Pidge spends more time looking after his sister during the school holidays than we'd expect, might just be a part of life in mid twentieth century rural Ireland.

The third major character of the book (beside the three Morrigan goddesses), is Curu, a red fox who helps Pidge and Bridget along their journey, who manages to be both very much a fox, and a loyal friend as well, and one whom any dog, or indeed fox lovers will appreciate; my lady was particularly fond of him, especially because, like pretty much every other character incidental or otherwise, Curu is definitely more than one note.

Pat O'Shea did use a couple of odd conventions for her thoughts and dialogue, which took a little getting used to. Frequently Pidge, and other point of view characters' thoughts would be written as straight dialogue, while occasionally speech (especially among the Morrigan's hounds), became almost a set of scripted statements, with "I fierce say", or "it is find the path who speaks", or similar. Then again, this was more an eccentricity of style than a weakness, and part of what makes the book unique, indeed it gave the hounds a wonderfully alien quality, especially compared to the far more human and friendly Curu.

One major criticism people have of The Hounds of the Morrigan, is the way its plot is constructed. Though Pidge and Bridget are always conscious of the hounds, the fact that they must always walk, but never run from them, means that their journey is essentially walking between a set of encounters, putting the hounds off their trail as they run across different obstacles or allies. Some people felt this lack of direct pursuit meant the book lacked tension. For me though, it was more than enough just to see what Pidge and Bridget would run into next. Then again, I admit I'm always a sucker for a good journey story, especially when there are lots of different encounters along the way, so this never bothered me as much.

In particular, I love the way that O'Shea carefully intersperses one type of encounter with another, always keeping things fresh. Thus, the previously mentioned spider's tea party comes just before a meeting with an ancient and stately being of unknown power, or a crossing of Galway through different type periods precedes a gorgeously described aerial ride.

Another fact which enhances the journey, is that the Morrigan and her cohorts are literally overseeing the whole thing, and, in between terrorising stiff necked policemen or befuddling old farm owners, literally prodding the hounds around like pieces on a board. This not only gives an idea of how insanely powerful the Morrigan is, but also gives her a chance to set a couple of obstacles in the children's way, in the form of little golden charmed objects she pulls from her bracelet. I do wish we'd seen more than two of these, since the suspense of what would be encountered next, and the idea of just how many nasty tricks the Morrigan might have literally up her sleeve is a fascinating one.

People also have criticised the book for feeling a little too safe. It is true, that for the most part there is a stage managed quality to a lot of the journey, the idea that Pidge and Bridget are being led along the path, and often given help very directly; especially in the bag of magic hazelnuts Pidge is given, which can open to magically produce whatever is required for the immediate need.

Certainly, in other authorial hands, this would feel a little too obvious, however it's a question which O'Shea addresses directly, with Pidge asking a particularly wise character for his opinion. This is where the book touches upon ideas of faith, destiny and the divine.

I don't know enough Irish mythology to say how the Dagda relates to other conceptions of God, or even if O'Shea intended the parallel. But there is very clearly the idea that the Dagda, though a distant, and unknowable force is having a subtle influence over events, and even though Pidge and Bridget are free to choose their own path, they will be helped to walk it by other of the Dagda's servants who are waiting to provide that help. Indeed, several unrelated stories which eventually have critical bearing on Pidge and Bridget's quest, events which we are told are naturally a result of the Dagda's influence, definitely suggest that this is a universe where there is more going on behind the scenes, and that the Morrigan; though able to corrupt and destroy and twist things to her will, is still essentially an aberration of evil in an otherwise generally benign world. Combine this with some truly beautiful moments of poetic expression, for example when Pidge and Bridget see two great figures who literally represent the earth itself, which specifically explore spiritual or religious experiences, and, though never preachy or the least bit self-righteous, for those who are inclined to such perspectives, there is definitely more going on here than simply a children's magical quest story.

That being said, for all divine influence playing its part can be a lovely thing, there was one moment, when Pidge and Bridget were trapped in a highly unpleasant castle, when the way out did seem a little too easy, since not only did the children receive timely help, but said timely help also seemed to completely remove the threat as well.

Hounds of the Morrigan is a mostly light book. Except for a few notable moments, such as the tired Bridget's wishing to lie down in cold snow, the hounds lust for killing, or a few horrific manifestations of the Morrigan's true self, the danger is mostly kept subtle. This is until the book’s final two hours, where things get abruptly, and suddenly nasty! Monsters, titanic battles, downright disturbing landscapes, havoc very much cried and the dogs of war running wild! This is partly for me what justifies the previous sense of safety, since with the Morrigan and her sisters creating armies out of nothing, and out fighting the earth itself, it becomes pretty clear that without the Dagda's edict, not only would the hounds be free to hunt and kill the children, but the Morrigan would be a villain so profoundly unstoppable there almost couldn't have been a story at all.

This is also where the humble circumstances, and small coincidences that result in the Morrigan's undoing really show their worth.

I will admit it seems a little odd that though many characters we've come to know get mixed up in the battle, nobody seems to actually get killed, despite the fact O'Shea is talking about a literal slaughter at this stage. Then again, with the book so close to the end, trying to give adequate time for grief, triumph and mourning would have been difficult.

The only really major issue I, and many others have with the book is with its ending, since O'Shea employs one of the single most irritating tropes in all of children's fiction. Apparently, at the time of her death in 2007, O'Shea was working slowly on a sequel to the Hounds of the Morrigan, and I really do wonder, given her employment of this irritating trope, how that sequel would have worked. All that being said, there was still beauty in the ending, especially taking into account the possibly religious, possibly magical significance of some of the book’s events, since there is no question that Pidge and Bridget are (to use my lady's phrase), "blessed", something which rubs off a little on the reader as well.

It's incredibly sad that Pat O'Shea wrote as little as she did, though given how meticulously she worked on Hounds of the Morrigan, not overly surprising. Hounds of the Morrigan is the quintessential hidden treasure. On the face of it, a simple story of two children on a magical journey, and yet everything has just received that bit of extra polish, from its poetry, to its characters, to its dealing with mythology and aspects of the divine. Indeed, even the book's flaws such as it's occasional over reliance on safety, might not be flaws at all when seen in the right light. It's also not surprising just how much my lady enjoyed the book, despite coming to it as an adult.

Whether you have some small humans to introduce to the pleasures of reading, or just want a whimsical, charming tale of the dreams of the Emerald Isle, with a surprising turn into chaos and darkness towards the end, Hounds of the Morrigan is definitely one classic which deserves to be remembered!

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