Flint and Mirror
In Flint and Mirror John Crowley takes readers back to Elizabethan England. More specifically, we are carried across the Irish Sea to ever-restive and unsettled Catholic Ireland which is still straining at the leash of empire and the newly established Church of England.
Hugh O’Neil is 10 when he’s take from Ireland and family to England and made ward of Henry Sidney, Queen Elizabeth’s Lord Deputy of Ireland. Hugh is the scion of one of Ireland’s ruling families and the British crown has plans for him. The English have been playing the families against each other to prevent any sort of unification of forces against them. If they can keep the Irish clans fighting their ancient battles against each other — why, they have one less army to worry about.
Hugh is to be made an ally of Elizabeth — someone she can control. However, before he is whisked away to England, the poet in his uncle’s court takes him out at night to one of the old sacred grounds — a place where the Old Ones can still sometimes be seen and heard gathering. Here, two of them come from the ground and the mist to present the lad with a piece of flint which will keep him connected to his lands his people.
In London Hugh is given both the carrot and the stick of the English throne. He is presented to the Queen, who makes a big deal of him, and is treated well. He is even taken to stay with the Queen’s chief advisor, Dr. John Dee the alchemist. Dee gives the lad a polished piece of obsidian which he has somehow invested with something of the Queen’s likeness — it allows Elizabeth to send her thoughts to Hugh and exert a kind of control over him.
That’s the carrot. The stick shown to Hugh is the sight of the Earl of Desmond, an Irishman who thought to exert his independence and fought with a rival; he was first confined to the Tower of London and then placed in a kind of house arrest. Crippled by a bullet wound he can no longer walk without assistance. At one point the Earl whispers to Hugh, “she sees me always” — she of course being Elizabeth.
While Crowley depicts a very realistic England and Ireland — you can almost smell the peat and feel the dampness creeping into your bones — of the time period, he also brings you into the mists of the worlds that lie just beyond our sight with equal believability. We not only have the examples of the magical piece of flint and the obsidian mirror that symbolize the divide in Hugh’s character for his entire life, but we meet Selkies and other magical beings throughout the story.
Laced through with references to real historical events, like the Spanish Armada and various Irish uprisings, Crowley’s story is fascinating and compelling. Primarily seen through the eyes of Hugh O’Neil, the history is augmented with the accounts of other people from both sides of the Anglo/Irish divide.
Intriguing plot lines converge and split carrying compelling characters in and out of our line of sight as we follow Hugh from childhood in Ireland and England to exile in Rome. While the story of the fight between Ireland and England has been recounted many times over, you’ll never read it told quite like Crowley does in Flint and Mirror.
This is a genuinely interesting and fascinating read which will take you behind the scenes of history and make you revaluate all that you thought you knew about Elizabethan England.