Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Review - The Ruin of Beltany Ring by C.S. MacCath

Stories included:
Ink for the Dead
Ammonite Baby
From Our Minds to Yours
The Ruin of Beltany Ring

Poems included:
When I Arrived, This Is What She Said
The Interstitial Fairy Demolition Crew Casts a Circle
A Path Without Bones
Two Servants of the Morrighan
Mine Is the Night Ocean
Bringing Woden to the Little Green Men

Full review: The Ruin of Beltany Ring is an all too short collection of stories and poems, all with a Pagan theme. With only five short stories and twice that number of poems, the volume is quite slim, but is still packed with an intriguing collection of fiction. One should be aware that this is not really a collection of fantasy or science fiction works, but is rather filled with stories that highlight Pagan life. There are fantasy elements in some of the stories, and many of the poems are mythic and epic in nature, but the emphasis is upon people living their lives with a Pagan (often Celtic-influenced) sensibility. In some ways, the stories contained in this volume could be seen as religious parables, showing ordinary people going about living in the modern (or near future) world according to Pagan principles.

The first story in the volume is Ink for the Dead, a tale of the redemptive power of a tattoo, with just a little bit of Celtic mysticism thrown in. The action in the story is relatively mundane: A former drug addicted woman named Diane afflicted with HIV gets a tattoo of a phoenix. But the true depth of the story is in what this relatively ordinary act means, and MacCath delves straight to the inner power of this simple declaration of rebirth and independence, mixing in a small amount of fantasy to reveal what drove Diane's inner demons, and highlight her battling them to a standstill. There is sorrow in the story, and a recognition that this isn't a final victory, but there is also triumph contained in its pages in simply living for another day.

Uncertainty reigns supreme in Ammonite Baby, told from the perspective of a novelist in a comfortable and yet passionless relationship. He keeps having dreams of a child, first a boy, then a girl, even later a grandchild, but he cannot clearly see the child's mother, getting only hints here and there of who she might be. In a fairly predictable plot twist, his casual lover tells him that she is pregnant, and in an unexpected plot twist, they are unable to decide what to do. Looking for spiritual guidance, all of their rituals return ambiguous signs and give no solace. A decision is made, although neither seems particularly pleased about it, and while they are waiting to be able to carry it out, they begin to find the real magic by spending time together. Ultimately, the story is about how a relationship works, and how we can only rely upon one another to build one.

From a promising beginning, From Our Minds to Yours kind of peters out in the smoke of a spiritual circle. The story is set in a future in which society has fragmented into haves and have-nots, with the haves secluding themselves inside corporately controlled communities, and those on the outside scrambling for whatever they can get. Adande lives with her love Maya and Maya's two daughters as one of the have-nots making their home in the shadow of one of the corporately controlled villages. When Maya's daughters begin to have cravings for a particular brand of toys - Peridyne -  they think it is merely a childish yearning. But when the son of one of their neighbors is caught trying to steal a Peridyne blender, they begin to suspect that something is not quite right. When several people begin to have Peridyne-related nightmares, their fears mount. Eventually they discover that the blood of those who come into contact with Peridyne products is filled with nanoparticles that they assume are the source of the cravings and nightmares. With the stage set, the story more or less goes nowhere. Everyone assumes that the corporation is too politically powerful for their complaints to have any meaningful impact, and so most of the characters decide to move away to escape the influence of the village, but not before having an affirmation ceremony where they verbally reclaim power over their own desires. This is in line with the other stories in the volume, but with such a strong set-up, it seems natural to desire a more concrete ending to the story than "everyone says they will resist the nanobots in their bloodstream before moving away".

Yundah is a sad and almost tragic tale, but has a solid core of "place" that gives the work purpose and ultimately meaning. Megan and Kat are a Pagan couple who move to live on the Nova Scotia farm of Megan's late grandmother. But the pair aren't merely moving to somewhere, they are also moving away from something, namely the upheaval that is barreling down upon them in the form of climate change. The two settle in to their new home, working to make it capable of supporting them, and then later, working to make it capable of supporting the polyamorous family that moves in with them as well. The story could best be described as "the long defeat", as the world slowly gets worse over the years. There are joyful moments, such as the birth of children, but these are tempered with sadness as well. As the climate changes, the established balance of nature changes, and the little community battles with various threats to their crops and livestock. The critical element of the story is time, and how it simply slips away from Megan. More than forty years passes from the first page to the last, and the reader only gets the handful of snippets related within them. With time comes change, and rather than railing against that change, the characters in the story bend to it and accept it as inevitable. As with most of the stories in this volume, this one is about "small" and mundane lives, but in its telling, it is revealed that these are the most important stories of all.

Told from the perspective of the titular inanimate object, The Ruin of Beltany Ring breathes life into the ancient stone circle that is at the heart of the story, transforming it from a place into an entity. With its actual purpose forgotten (but heavily implied in the text), the Ring has become little more than a curiosity to modern tourists, and a repository for the trash that comes as a byproduct of the modern world. A visitor's tears give the circle new purpose, and results in the most overtly magical event in any of the stories in the book. The power of the Ring was always there, it just needed someone who believed in it enough to remind the Ring itself what it was for, and to show it the way to its new home. The only real weakness of this story is that it isn't longer - this pattern could have been drawn upon more, yielding a kaleidoscope of cultures that find the Ring, benefit from its power, and then forget, only to have another take its place. On the other hand, wishing for a story one didn't get instead of the story one did might be considered a bit presumptuous. In any event, this is a beautiful story, simply told, that highlights the power of place and the power of history.

While the short stories all seem to be focused on ordinary life as a Pagan, the poems in this volume are often epic in scale, addressing tales surrounding gods and heroes of mythology. In a sense, the poetry in this volume provides a counterpoint to the ordinary nature of the short stories, illuminating the folklore that underpins the beliefs explored in the stories. Fetters is a bittersweet set of verses, imagining that the modern world serves as chains that hold us apart from the love of the Earth. The sweetness comes from the yearning to break free and answer the call of a life more attuned to nature, while the bitterness comes from the realization that this is probably not possible. MacCath returns to this these in The Interstitial Fairy Demolition Crew Casts a Circle, although in this poem, the powers of nature rally to wreak havoc upon the pollution produced by the industrialized world. The stanzas flow from one cardinal direction and classical element to another, each one using the very power that is destroying the natural world against the creeping corruption of modern living.

When I Arrived, This Is What She Said takes the form of an almost ritualized greeting, as one might imagine an pre-Roman Celt might welcome someone to their home. Someone could imagine that the narrator of A Path Without Bones could use such a greeting, as the poem speaks to the isolation of those alienated from their own heritage who must construct a new tradition on their new land. Mine Is the Night Ocean is almost a prayer or a love-song, giving the sense of the salt and brine with a sense of affection and exhilaration wrapped in just a hint of dangerous darkness.

Two of the poems in the volume have Greek titles, and draw upon Greek mythology for inspiration. The first, Ηψαιστξ, recounts the mistreatment of the misshapen smith god, who is abused, ignored, and taken advantage of, but still produces works of beauty for others, glorying in the euphoria of creation. The other, Στεψαυοξ, features Prometheus, or at least features Prometheus' love of his own agony, and a criticism that it is no longer necessary. The poem is a call for action and initiative rather than passive acceptance of one's lot in life. Another poem dealing with divine powers, Two Servants of the Morrighan draws upon the Irish tradition, delving into Celtic folklore about the war goddess, and offering a slight twist that combines the story of the curse of Macha with the blood Badb wrings from the clothes of those in battle. One interesting choice MacCath makes here is to focus on a duo rather than a triad, as would be more common in Celtic (and especially Irish) myth.

The longest poem in the volume, Bringing Woden to the Little Green Men is also the most science-fictional piece, imagining a missionary intent upon spreading the faith of Woden to a race of plant people upon a distant planet. The missionary is unable to bridge the gap between himself and his audience until he engages in an act of sacrifice that allows them to understand one another. In the end, this ambitious poem coalesces into a very satisfying blend of science fiction and mythology that joins the two into a harmonious mixture. The final poem in the volume, God-touched, seems to wrap up all of the thematic elements that appeared in the prior portions of the book. Taking the form of a plea, or a yearning, the handful of verses sum up the hope that Pagans (or in a way, all theists) have: That there is a divine presence out there that they can commune with and if they are lucky enough, on some days they can feel that presence.

At a mere eighty-two pages, this collection ends much too soon. C.S. MacCath's short stories have a raw and almost visceral feel that hones directly into the travails and triumphs of everyday life, casting light onto the ways in which those living such lives might turn to Pagan spirituality to help guide them through their days. The poems, on the other hand, display a strange mixture of the seriousness of epic myth combined with a joyful willingness to play with those myths, and an angry undercurrent beneath it all, that sometimes rises to the fore in a bitter rage. As I noted before, this isn't really a collection of fantasy stories: The subtitle for the book is A Collection of Pagan Poems and Tales, and that is an entirely accurate description. One could almost think of this book as a Pagan prayer manual, offering a brief and engaging glimpse into the thinking of a member of the modern Pagan movement, and as that it is definitely a collection worth reading.

C.S. MacCath     Book Reviews A-Z     Home


  1. Poems are different for everyone, as they are all how you interpret them. I do love poetry though. :-)

    1. @fredamans: The poetry in this volume is beautiful. I had read one of MacCath's short stories before I got this volume, but reading this has inspired me to seek out more of her work.