Sun Circle

I supposed it had to happen - a disappointing Neil Gunn novel! Not sufficiently so to surrender it, unfinished, but it is slow going.

It is set in an historical moment - Scotland during the Viking incursions - and tries to capture a world between - old traditions subsuming under new, as Christianity makes its way against a pagan past, old securities, known friends and enemies, give way to the new terror of an efficient, relentless marauding culture: the Vikings are coming.

The first difficulty is that Gunn's sense of balance deserts him in the face of the Vikings - they are the stereotypes of traditional historical understanding. They move about as ciphers of destruction. This would be admirable if it was a haunting technique to capture the Raven folk's perceptions of this new menace. However, everyone is seen from outside looking in - the neutral narrator - so you are left merely with an imbalance of seeing.

The second difficulty that is near fatal is the improbability of the Raven folks' emotions. They are to put it colloquially, all over the place, changing with a rapidity that is startling as it is jumbled. I think this is meant to convey their uncertainty in face of the new terror before them: the complexity with which we meet such uncertainty. Sadly, I think it fails - it makes people jarringly improbable at critical moments.

Nonetheless this is Neil Gunn so there is much there - though stuck in rather than as usual woven into a coherent narrative.

He is beautiful on the temptations to power in both religions - and how that temptation might arise in both personal and social context. The explorations after art of Aneil, the Druid's disciple, are wonderfully drawn (pun intended) and you get a real sense of new boundaries of creativity and its display showing, glimmering forth; and, you get that historical sense of Scotland's failure rooted in its inability to be fully united.

Another Scottish clan run off the Raven's livestock just as the Northmen are attacking, leaving the Raven's fatally weakened. You sense this as a deeply symbolic motif!

I will see it through to the end! There is undoubtedly variance in quality (as well as the guiding of favouritism) in any one's oeuvre but it is always disappointing to find it in those loved. The first signs of a maturing love!


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