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The Druid's Son Paperback – October 19, 2012
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At its heart, The Druid's Son is the coming of age story of a young man during the turbulent early years of Roman occupation. Togi, the protagonist of this story, is a member of the proud Ordovices a not yet totally defeated tribe of the Anglesey (Wales). Togi unlike most boys his age is not only taught the ways of warfare and sheep herding, but he is also taught the rituals and the spirituality of the Druids by his stepfather one of the last remaining Druid priest of the Anglesey. The result is that Togi is a well balanced character with all the necessary skills to transition from a skirmish with a Roman Legion to the politics of the King's court, making his story all that more compelling. Togi's ability to go from warrior to priest, combined with a natural intelligence/intuition, gives him a serious edge in the ever exalting battle to save his people and religion from destruction. For Rome the Ordovices are pain that must be dealt with swiftly so they can get back to expanding the empire. But for the Ordovices it's a matter of survival and the preservation of a way of life not accepted by their new rulers. Togi's destiny is closely aligned with fate of his people and slow building tension culminates in a final showdown with the Romans that test Togi to his limits.
What makes The Druid's Son special is Grove's sense of history. She manages to fill in the gaps of our knowledge with the something that not only seems plausible, but with something that rings true with the time and place. Another great aspect of her writing style is that the reader is able to decide if the Druidic magic is tangibly real or just a matter of perception. At no point is the reader asked to take the stories religious and magical aspects to be literally true, instead, we are left just enough space to draw our own conclusions. Another real treat is that Grove has a real eye for geography, and her descriptions of the lush landscape and topography make the scenes in the novel feel like real places and are a physical part of Wales and Ireland. A really terrific historical novel for a time period we know so little about.
This is a beautiful biography of a boy who would be a Druid despite all odds.
The ring he wears (secretly) belonged to the father he never knew. The stepfather who raised him taught and inspired him. But Togi, whose life Grove relates, learned much from nature, observation, and experience.
We see him first when he's seven years old, already adept at morning prayers. Throughout his young life he stays close to Cingetos, a bard, and learns a way of life that includes what we now call anger management: Just Anger moves a brave man to avenge injustice; Vain Anger flares up at a trifle, and causes needless quarrel; Coward's Anger simply cloaks fear, gaining nothing.
In twenty chapters Grove gives her readers a panoramic picture of medieval Welsh life. Peasants who work the land are at the mercy not only of the weather, but of the Red Crests, the military force that collects designated shares of their crops. Togi is nine years old when he learns how "tribute" is taken from villagers with no regard for their need. As he matures and leaves his home we learn, with him, how complicated it is to even try to establish a balance of power.
One lesson he learned as a youngster is to stand him in good stead much later in life. "Bats move quickly, and never in a straight line. That is their protection; no one knows where they will be next. Remember that, if you are ever pursued, and do the thing unexpected," he was told.
Unexpected things do happen and it is a splendid adventure for readers to watch Togi survive.
Here is Tacitus.
"On the coastline, a line of warriors of the opposition was stationed, mainly made up of armed men, amongst them women, with their hair blowing in the wind, while they were carrying torches. Druids were amongst them, shouting terrifying spells, their hands raised towards the heavens, which scared our soldiers so much that their limbs became paralyzed. As a result, they remained stationary and were injured. At the end of the battle, the Romans were victorious, and the holy oaks of the druids were destroyed."
The Celts in future Wales are silent in history, leaving only foreigners descriptions like this, and a curious archeology to document them.
Grove creates her version of this Celtic world though the story of the son of last Archdruid on Anglesey, conceived shortly after these holy oaks were destroyed and shortly before this last Druid in Wales has himself ritually sacrificed. This story works quietly, keeping close the annual cycles, the Celtic festivals and the everyday focus on agriculture that just barely sustains the tribes. Year by year the druid's son grows and learns and the book accumulates through dialogue and relationships, the interweaving of the even more ancient history, the mysterious megalithic ruins, and through the magic and religion he is able to find and fully wrap himself within. She reconstructs her own version of a druidic and bardic context of thought and learning and philosophy.
This is fourth book I've read by Grove. In each book she works between or even after some dramatic events, crafting quiet tensions based often on everyday concerns about survival. Her version of druidic religion and magic are worked strongly into the stories, but these things can be taken two ways. The reader is left to decide how much should be taken as real and how much as artifact of the characters perceptions; and then to wonder about what this may tell about the psychological make of these characters. Thorough research that goes into these, and is part of what makes these stories special. Historically darker eras, Grove excels in using her knowledge of the landscape and the known practices and then reconstructing her versions of these worlds to build her stories.