Review: Flint and Mirror, by John Crowley
by Rich Horton
It is, outwardly, an historical novel about the life of Hugh O'Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, who lived from 1550 to 1616, and who was the ruler of Ulster, the northern part of Ireland; at first an ally of Queen Elizabeth in her attempts to consolidate English rule over the island, and later the leader of a war of resistance, the Nine Years War, the last true chance for Ireland to be independent of England for 300 years.
It is also, outwardly, a fantasy about the magic of Ireland, represented by the Sidhe, and by such creatures as selkies; and the magic of England, represented by Dr. John Dee and alchemy and far-seeing and communication with angels. At the same time it's about the contention of the True Church -- Catholicism -- with the new religion (Protestantism) -- and with the older, pagan, religions having a say as well.
It is a story of character -- of two-souled Hugh O'Neill, of John Dee, of Hugh's confessor Peter Lombard, of Queen Elizabeth, of Ineen Fitzgerald and her selkie lover and her hopeless human husband Cormac Burke, of the pirate queen Gráinne O'Malley, of Red Hugh O'Donnell, of Englishmen like the Earl of Essex, and Sir Henry Sidney and his son, Hugh's friend, the poet Philip Sidney. Most of these are historical characters, they come through believably, and wholly people of their time.
And it's beautifully written. Crowley is an utter master of prose -- graceful, flavorful, surprising at times, luminous. For me, it is the magical passages that truly sing. The historical narrative is well-told, but the magical intrusions are ... magical.
The story? The main thread is simply Hugh O'Neill's life: fostered with the O'Hagans when young, partly to avoid the threat of his murderous Uncle Shane, who has killed enough relatives to make himself The O'Neill. Then taken to England as an adolescent, fostered by the Sidney family, with the objective of teaching him English ways and making him an ally of Elizabeth, who wishes to cement her control of Ireland. As he leaves England he meets with creatures of the Sidhe, and they gift him a piece of flint. And in England he meets John Dee, and is given an obsidian mirror -- in which he sees Queen Elizabeth, and she him. When he returns to Ireland he plots to replace Shane as The O'Neill, all the while also doing Elizabeth's bidding, particularly when the Earl of Desmond, in the South of Ireland, revolts. But the time comes when his loyalties to Ireland come to the forefront, and he rebels himself, mostly uniting the fractious clans of Ireland, and though he has some great victories, ultimately he fails, and is forced to flee to Rome. The final chapter, the last moments of his life, in Rome, is remarkably moving.
There are side plots, most notably the story of Ineen Fitzgerald, who, as ships of the Spanish Armada are wrecked ashore in Ireland, meets a mysterious man, a selkie, and sleeps with him, and bears his child. This act dogs her life, and also that of Cormac Burke, who has escaped his violent and abusive father, after failing to kill him, and who loves Ineen though she cares nothing for him. Cormac ends up leaving and fetching up with Gráinne O'Malley -- coming to no good end. There is another interlude concerning Hugh O'Neill's courtship of Mabel Bagenal, daughter of Sir Nicholas Bagenal, the marshal of the English army in Ireland. And there are scenes with John Dee using magic to manipulate -- as well as he can -- events in Europe to the advantage of his Queen.
It's a powerful and beautiful novel, a worthy capstone, if it ends up being a capstone, to John Crowley's writing career. I don't rank it with my favorites among Crowley's work (the novels Engine Summer and The Translator, and short stories like "The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines" and "Great Work of Time") but that is no shame. Highly recommended.