Regular readers will remember that I have been reviewing each new book in the Cannongate Myth series as I have had a chance to read them (see here for an example). It is an interesting series that asks well known writers, with their unique style and talents, to bring a fresh perspective to a myth of their own choosing. No two books are quite the same and yet they all attempt to re-imagine and re-tell established stories.
I recently finished another book in the series, Alexander McCall Smith’s Dream Angus: The Celtic God of Dreams. Like so many of these authors, I hadn’t read any of McCall Smith’s previous works (It would be interesting to have a stronger background in the author’s work before reading their contribution to this series, but alas there is only so much time in a day), but if Dream Angus is any indication Smith is a deft writer with a light and witty touch.
In Celtic myth Angus (or Aengus or Angus Mac Og) is a cupid like god of youth, love and romance but instead of arrows he uses dreams. Smith’s reworking of this myth weaves together the most common stories surrounding Angus: his conception and birth, his relationship with his foster father, tricking his real father out of his house and land, and his enchantment and elopement with the the women who haunted his dreams. This part of the book is really just a straightforward narrative. That is not to say that it isn’t skillful and well done, because it is both of those things and thus enjoyable and interesting on its own.
But as the series is set up to do, Smith also weaves in a modern day element to the myth. He does this with alternating chapters whose stories hint at the work of Angus rather than explicitly tell his story. The key word is hint. These little vignettes on the surface don’t seem connected to Angus at all. But they are suggestive of the role dreams and desires play in our lives.
John Burnside, in a review for the Guardian, notes the style that links the myth and the modern stories:
These modern stories are told in the same direct manner and language used to relate the old myth, so much so, in fact, that they become just as magical, cruel and erotically charged as their Celtic model.
Burnside also notes what he calls Smith’s “sly and deceptive simplicity.” And I think this is what makes Dream Angus an enjoyable read. Smith doesn’t knock you over the head with symbolism nor does he insert himself into the narrative. Instead, he offers stories that subtly evoke feelings and hint at deeper issues by illustrating the underlying mystery of so much of human existence. Some would explain these actions and thoughts by pointing to psychology or biology – to Freud or Darwin or both – but by connecting these stories with the ancient Celtic myth Smith seems to be saying: how do we know Angus isn’t still whispering in our ear and influencing our dreams? After all, isn’t a myth a story that helps explain how the world works?
Dream Angus is another example of the value of the myth series. Anyone who enjoys the art of storytelling would enjoy this volume. I think it would be particularly appealing to those who enjoy the short story form, as book’s modern stories are deft examples of that art. In the age of heavy tomes and wordy fiction, McCall Smith’s brevity and simplicity is a breath of fresh air.