I first read The Crow Goddess decades ago, when I was an undergraduate. I must have found it in a second-hand bookshop somewhere – I have no recollection of where – because I’m pretty sure that it was long out of print even then. Still, if you can find a copy, it’s very much worth snapping it up as it’s the best work I’ve read of life in the ancient world of the Celts.
The Crow Goddess is the story of Lugh mac Romain, an Irish bard and harper from Connaught. Most of the story is set in Britain: a Britain at the end of the reign of the Emperor Trajan, and the early years of his successor, Hadrian. The book is the sequel to A Shadow of Gulls (which I haven’t read), in which Lugh was a witness to the Táin Bó Cúailnge, or the Cattle Raid of Cooley, as well as to the burning of the Red Branch and the death of Deirdre of the Sorrows. However, it’s not necessary to have read the first book: The Crow Goddess stands on its own as a story.
We learn that Lugh is the son of a Roman who came to Connaught as a trader, and who became the lover of Queen Medb, as well as fathering Lugh with a woman of the tribe. However, his mother told Lugh nothing about his father, other than his name – and that only as she lay dying. We learn that in his manhood Lugh earned the hatred of the Queen and was forced to flee to Ulster, becoming a friend of the Champion, Cúchulainn. After witnessing the tragedy of Deirdre’s death, Lugh leaves Ireland for fear of the Queen, and in disgust at King Conor’s lack of honour. He plans never to return.
At the beginning of The Crow Goddess, Lugh has been living in Britain for some years. We meet him as he is heading to Londinium, the capital of Roman Britain, in order to stay with Goll, part-owner of a Gallo-Greek trading partnership monopolising trade with Ireland. Lugh’s father used to travel between Britain and Ireland in Goll’s ships, but Goll has not been able to tell Lugh any more about him. On the road, Lugh meets Gaius Julius Karus, the commander of an Asturian auxiliary cavalry unit at a fort on the northern fronter; we learn that he and Lugh are good friends – indeed, they have become sworn blood brothers. Karus is heading to Londinium on leave, so they travel together while Karus wonders aloud why all of the cattle have disappeared from the hills around his fort. In Londinium, they learn that Goll is not there, having been mysteriously summoned to Rome. However, he has left a coded message for Lugh: a message that Lugh receives almost too late, which answers Karus’ question – but Karus has already left Londinium, and is unknowingly heading for great danger.
Lugh is forced to ride north, in an attempt to save his blood brother’s life. In the adventure that ensues he meets the stone-age tribe who live in caves and hollow mounds – in Ireland, the Sidhe – to whom he is regarded as doubly sacred; he meets the Queen of the Brigantes, and the Kings of other tribes; he meets the princess, warrior, and Druidess, Liath the Dark – and encounters a very unexpected old face from Ireland – a visitor who will change the course of events for Rome, for Britain and Ireland, for Karus – and most of all, for Lugh. As events unfold, he meets another most unlikely visitor, this time from Rome, and finds himself torn between his responsibilities to very different friends. He learns his father’s true identity – and the consequences that this will have for himself.
Eventually, with the deepest reluctance, forced to decide which of his friends to betray, Lugh returns to Ireland, compelled by a geas laid upon him by Emer, Cúchulainn’s wife. As tragedy after tragedy unfolds, he joins forces with the Archdruid Cathbad, the Druidess Leabharcham and, once again, Liath the Dark, who has come from Britain, to confound the plans of Queen Medb. In the midst of the growing darkness, he finds the greatest happiness of his life – but it does not last. Captured by the Queen, Lugh is present at the death of Cúchulainn. As the story reaches its climax, we discover why, all along, Lugh has been under the protection of the Crow Goddess – the Morrígan – and of the Old Mother of the Sidhe, and the destiny for which his life has been preserved: a destiny he is not expected to survive.
As you can see, this is a story full of great events, and intense human drama. It isn’t Dostoevksy, but Patricia Finney breathes genuine life into characters from myth and history alike, and shows a great sense of the human experience – which is all the more admirable given that she was only 19 when she wrote this. As Lugh moves between the worlds of the Roman Empire, the conquered and not-so conquered Britons, and and an Ireland reflecting both history and legend, we never feel that anything is contrived. The characters come across as rounded and credible; the strongest and wisest have their vulnerabilities and failings, and their motivations are completely believable. There are no superheroes or ‘men of destiny’ in this book, only people doing their best in the position where life has put them.
For me, Finney’s great accomplishment is one of effortlessly conveying life in a polytheistic, Druidic world. There is no obvious magic, although this is definitely a culture where magic is believed in. Spells are cast; the flight of birds holds messages from the gods; people must be killed for trespassing in sacred groves, and disobeying a properly-worded geas means certain death.
This is not a book in which contemporary values are imposed on characters from the past. The backdrop to the story is a culture where women are sacred to the gods, and have rights and privileges that men do not. The Three Branches – Bards, Ovates, and Druids – are honoured, and are obliged to forestall conflict – an important role in a tribal society with a culture of clan vendettas. We see that the Druids are advisors to kings, and speak with the authority that religious awe lends to them – but they are by no means the rulers. The Kings (and Queens) have their own opinions about how things should be, and there can be a game of wits between King and Druid that neither side can be sure of winning. Add to the story a separate, matriarchal, society of stone-age hunters, plus the armed might of Rome and its civilization, and you have a satisfying mix of values, beliefs, and personalities.
As I said, The Crow Goddess is long out of print, but copies are available through second-hand booksellers online. It’s a gripping, enjoyable, and ultimately life-affirming tale, and I highly recommend it.