Myths and misses

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
The Bull Raid

By Carlo Gebler

Egmont pound;12.99

Corydon and the Island of Monsters

By Tobias Druitt

Simon Schuster pound;12.99


By Ad le Geras

David Fickling Books pound;12.99

Spirit Walker

By Michelle Paver

Orion Children's Books pound;8.99

Gaye Hicyilmaz reads some works that evoke ancient worlds

The Bull Raid is Carlo Gebler's striking re-telling of the Irish prose epic, the "Cattle Raid of Cooley". I came to this new version with no prior knowledge, which is probably the position of most young readers.

Years ago, though, I encountered the unbeatable hero, Cuchulainn, in a child's edition of the legends about him in which the ancient stories were mediated through humour. When we meet Cuchulainn here, there is no humour: just undiluted testosterone, centre stage. Not aggression; not anger; not revenge and not courage. They are bit players, certainly, in the unending battles, but this book's heart is elsewhere.

It is a book about testosterone-driven rage. The sort of rage that homophobics mean when they use the gay rage defence in court: "I couldn't help it. Honestly. A red mist descended" or when people who murder their partners talk about their crime of passion. We use the phrase "temporary insanity" and we describe folk as "losing it". Carlo Gebler delineates Cuchulainn's rage as "distortion". His lips distort, his two small eyes become one, his temperature soars. Unsurprisingly, women are expected to cool the hero down.

This is how Cuchulainn kills his little son, Connla: "the rage flooded through him and he began to distort... This process, once it started, could not be stopped at will and continued until the hero-light sprung up from his crown and rose high into the air above. In this state he could fight without remorse."

The hero then hurls the fatally pronged javelin into the child's belly.

Cuchulainn shows affection not to the dying boy but to the corpse.

"Connla's tubes tumbled out and spilled across the sandy ground. Cuchulainn scooped them up tenderly, felt they were still warm, dusted off as much sand as he was able, and packed them back into the body." It is all very graphic and rigidly intense.

I was reading this when the bombs exploded on July 7. Later that hot week, people were picking guts from the tunnel walls deep underground. What price the hero and hero worship now? This disturbing, striking book for the 12-plus age range should be in school and public libraries for readers brave enough to think about such things.

Corydon and the Island of Monsters is for the more timid. It's legend-lite and unsatisfying. But why? Part of the answer is trivial: I kept misreading the hero's name as Croydon. Where were you, editorial team? I was ashamed, initially, but it was symptomatic of the book's ordinariness. But how can I be so mean? The dust jacket explains that Tobias Druitt is a pseudonym. The novel is joint enterprise between a 10-year-old boy and his mother. This is exciting, and my expectations were raised, but disappointed.

It's a classic and enjoyable plot: a small band of misfits eventually triumph over an army of heroes. Corydon is the little scapegoat, driven from his village because one of his legs is a goat's leg. Pirates capture him and put him in their freak show. Corydon and a magic staff lead the friendly freaks, including a pregnant Medusa and the Minotaur, to freedom.

Perseus, desperate to impress absent dad Zeus, launches an expedition to recapture them. Other flawed heroes are lured by promises of riches and fame. The outcasts win because they are honourable. The regular heroes lose because they are base. Fine, but formulaic. I yearned to hear an original 10-year-old voice and I didn't. I hope there will be a next time for this young writer and that the result will be less contrived and more authentic.

Ad le Geras's Ithaka is authentic. It's as worked and reworked as Penelope's weaving as she waits for Odysseus post Troy, but it's seamless. We don't see the author's struggle. We just enjoy the wonderful result. It's an endorsement life and love and bodily experience, that is rare, nowadays.

Love and sex are not fatal for these girls and women, as they are in Bull Raid, and that's good news. The landscape of Ancient Greece sings. It's original, inventive and positive: a perfect, lasting gift for a 12-year-old.

Spirit Walker, Michelle Paver's second novel about Torak and Wolf, is equally superb. It's my first Michelle Paver and I was enchanted. It's made me rethink long-held opinions about the natural world. It is Ray Mears in literature form, and utterly gripping. Again, it's a classic plus - boy journeys and struggles towards truth with faithful animal friend - but so well done, so fully visualised in so few brush strokes and cliche-free.

Testosterone is not the only player on this block. Thank goodness.

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