John Crowley opens doors for readers to walk through into worlds that rest on the faint border between the Real and the Perceived. In his most famous novel, Little, Big, doors are explicitly present, and going through them defines the universe. The act of stepping through makes present what is otherwise only felt.
Doors—entrances—are offered as opportunities, both for the reader and for the characters.
Often they are narrow and only shadows can be glimpsed through them. To know, one must step through.
Stepping into a Crowley novel…one finds a complete world, unexpected and fascinating.
While his reputation is as a fantasy writer, he has produced equally immersive literary mainstream novels, albeit with historical settings—The Translator, Four Freedoms, Lord Byron’s Novel—and there is ample historical connection in his best fantasies. His facility for blending history and fantasy is impressive.
His newest does this magnificently. Flint and Mirror takes on the subject of Ireland and England.
Hugh O’Neill, ostensible heir to the throne of High King of Eire, is gotten out of Ireland as a boy to spare him from the purges of his uncle, who has claimed the title The O’Neill and is murdering competitors. Young Hugh finds himself in the Court of Queen Elizabeth I, ward of an English lord, companion to his son. Advisor to the queen Dr. John Dee sees an opportunity to bind the boy to Elizabeth by way of an onyx mirror. Dee makes of it a kind of communicator through which the Queen may influence the boy.
Dr. Dee is a pivotal figure for Crowley. Dee (1527 to 1609?) was a mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, and occultist and an advisor to Elizabeth I. He advocated colonizing the New World and he encouraged the idea of Empire. At one time he possessed the largest library in England. Dee is a fulcrum in Crowley’s sweeping Aegypt Cycle (The Solitudes, Love & Sleep, Daemonomania, and Endless Things) which represents his examination of the End Of Magic. Dee fills a similar role here, representing the last practitioner of an ancient art that bridges the worlds of humans, angels, and myth.
Hugh has another advisor, though, an Irish poet, Mahon, who shows him the buried heritage of the Irish past and opens the door for him to glimpse the ancient spirits of old kings. Hugh acquires a shard of flint, which serves a similar purpose for him as Elizabeth’s mirror, and with these two objects he embarks on a quest of bridge the two kingdoms and secure Irish liberty.
Eventually, Hugh rises to the position of The O’Neill and even wields the authority (if not the title) of the High King. His wars with the English represent one of the points in that fraught history where Ireland might have thrown off the English yoke.
Crowley’s history is impeccable. He tracks events as close as may be to what happened, adding the layer of competing magics to illuminate questions of belief and destiny and show how the old yields to the new. Hugh creates a disciplined army that, for a time, was a match for the English forces. Ultimately, though, Ireland depended too much on Spanish intervention, and when that proved insufficient and eventually impossible, the effort collapsed.
What part did magic play? Inspirational, certainly. Materially? What comes through with almost tragic clarity is the consequence of its failure, and in this Flint and Mirror is a study in transitional systems. Belief systems, mostly, but the question lands heavily on history as a resource in the present.
Resource, organization, calculation. These things always seem to overwhelm dependence on tradition, destiny, reliance on belief at the expense of pragmatic assessment, and here it is no different. But the additional matter of an overturned investment in folklore and the efficacy of occult resurgence is most poignant. The fact that Hugh and his contemporaries were also in a struggle to retain their Catholicism in the face of English Protestantism complicates Hugh’s attempt to rely on a mythic tradition predating Christianity.
The questions of transition and tradition are spread throughout the novel, deftly serving the narrative without becoming pedantic. This period of Irish history mirrors the unfortunate life of Dr. Dee, who, after leaving England to find a better position in Poland, returned to a country that no longer had much use for him. His house plundered, his sinecure rescinded, and a new king who was afraid of the occult left him in his final years much reduced, cared for by a daughter, and nearly forgotten. We cannot even be certain of the year he died as the records were occluded and even his gravestone stolen.
In the end, though, nothing remains as it began, and the empire Dr. Dee urged his Queen and his country to pursue no longer exists anymore than does the Eire of Hugh O’Neill.