Myths are the tales that existed long before the stories of once-upon-a-time took place. They are the stories that explained the unexplainable and gave us the means to comprehend the world around us in terms that were relevant to our awareness. As Christianity, Islam, Judea, Hinduism, Shinto, and Buddhism all explain the world to us today, Zeus, Odin, Thor, Isis, Ra, The Dagda, Anansi, Sky Woman, Coyote, and Bran explained, and still do for some people, the world in eons gone by.
Now they only exist as pleasant stories, quaint reminders of ancient civilizations and a means of separating our modern monotheistic culture from the primitive times of the past. But there is something about them, their means of explaining things that our religions don't dwell on, or perhaps the essence lies in their magical qualities that can still inspire flights of fancy.
The Myths series of books was created to celebrate that fact with authors from all over the world writing about a mythological being of their choice. The stories created are either tales associated with the god/goddess or the influence of their attributes in contemporary life. In Dream Angus author Alexander McCall Smith has taken the Celtic god of dreams and love and interwoven his story with modern tales of dreams, love, and dreams touched by love.
Dreams are the places where our hidden secrets come to life. They can be dark and fearful experiences that shake up our world, leaving us agitated and afraid. The dreams that Angus leaves us with may not be the most frightening, but dealing with love as they do can make them as unsettling as any nightmare. But instead of turning this into an exercise in the macabre or some sort of psychological study, he creates a tone that carries the same bittersweet wonder and joy of the myth.
Angus is the illegitimate son of the head of the Celtic gods, The Dagda (referred to in this story as just plain Dagda). Like Zeus, Dagda has a wandering eye for women, and the river spirit Boann catches his eye one day and he proceeds to set up a successful seduction. From the moment Angus is born it is obvious that he is a gentle spirit and will be universally loved. Songbirds circle his head to serenade him to sleep as he rocks in his cradle, and the wildest hunting dog calms when in his presence.
Dagda steals Angus away from his mother when he is still an infant. Shortly after Angus comes to live with him he dreams of a day when his son will supplant him on the throne and cast him away. The following day Angus is sent to live with one of his stepbrothers as Dagda hopes that this will prevent his dream from coming to pass. (We all know what happens in those instances don't we, how the thing we do to prevent something actually causes our worst fears to be realized.)
Such is the gentle nature of Angus that all who meet him find they are filled with dreams of love. A good deal of the time they are dreams of love for Angus, but he never returns their affections. But one day when he is older Angus is ensnared by a dream of a beautiful woman. For the longest time he wastes away, uninterested in food or drink for love of this woman.
Finally she is found, but as fate would have it she must spend alternate years as a swan. So strong is Angus' love for Caer that he himself transforms into a swan so that they can be together.
While McCall Smith is telling us these details, he is interspersing them with short stories of humans set in modern times. One of the stories details a boy whose life has a parallel path to Angus'. When he went to live with his stepbrother who had a son a few years older then him, the two boys becoming inseparable and often mistaken as actual brothers. One night Angus dreams that new "brother" wasn't there any more, and it was so real that when he woke up he was inconsolable.
Similarly then, in "My Brother," set in rural Scotland in the Depression of the 1930s, Jamie idealizes his older brother Davie and goes everywhere with him if possible. He believes in all his heart that they will be together for the rest of their lives; he even imagines a time after their parents have died and they would share the house they grew up in.
So he is devastated when his brother receives an invitation to go to Canada to live with a cousin in Nova Scotia. The night after he finds out that his brother will be leaving he tries to convince Davie to let him come too. Instead of agreeing, Davie tells Jamie to ask "Dream Angus" to bring him dreams of him in Canada. That night Jamie dreams of dark trees and white snow and knows it's Canada.
Dream Angus can help Jamie because he knows about the love between brothers and how much it hurts to lose that bond. In that first night he sends him a promise in the shape of a dream that he will keep them connected, even if only through their dreams. In the dream world we can have just as powerful feelings as we have in the waking world and Jamie can love his brother with as much intensity as he wants asleep and never have to worry about losing him.
The stories that run in our world's time have both literal and fantastical connections to the life of Angus. McCall Smith has woven elements of the nature of the god into the stories in a way that they reflect the spirit of gentleness and love that are the embodiment of Angus. When the young lady in "Is There A Place For Pigs There?" dreams about loving the simple young man who tends the pigs in the science lab where she works, she is at first surprised at herself. But she also knows for certain that he is the one for her.
The way in which the scene is depicted is simple enough to be honest and unsentimental, but it's that very simplicity that makes it so magical. She doesn't tear her hair in fits of passion or analyze her dream of love to pieces. It is just a fact, like the colour of her eyes is a fact, making it all the more wondrous.
Each of the stories in this book tells the myth of Angus, whether it's set in ancient Ireland and Scotland or in contemporary times. By imbuing the stories of our time with the gentleness of tone that he uses for the telling of the myth, and by being as factual in the world of the myth as he is in our time, Alexander McCall Smith bridges the two worlds beautifully.
A story like this could have easily crossed the line into sentimentality, but instead Smith has managed to create a world where the bittersweet of dreams is what guides our reality. Dreams of love are both a comfort and a pain, but if they are listened to carefully and believed, the voice of Angus can be heard whispering in our ear.
Alexander McCall Smith's Dream Angus is published by Knoff Canada, a division of Random House Canada and you can pick up a copy at their web site, other online retailers or your local bookstore. It's a lovely way to spend a dreamy evening or afternoon when reality is just a little too much to bear.