WHY PICTURE BOOKS MATTER (part 3): An Féileacán Agus An Rí, Bringing Home Legends
Picture books have a special magic when it comes to bringing back the old stories; the myths and legends that tell us who we are and encourage us to be who we want to be. Once again, we are told time-honoured tales, but through a new lens that allows us access to understanding that which has been around for a very long time.
Today, 1st February is honoured as St Brigids' Day or Imbolg; the first day of spring when we look ahead to the renewal of light, of the cycle of the seasons and of all things filled with love and life; a day of hope and determination. It seems very apt to welcome a new retelling back into our hearts and minds; and that it should be the ancient Irish legend of the butterfly and the king; An Féileacán agus an Rí; for it encapsulates all those things.
author: Máire Zepf
illustrator: Shona Shirley Macdonald
Futa Fata (1 February 2020)
Éadaoin was always a beautiful and clever girl, filled with brightness. And she could always beat Mír, prince of the land, at chess...every time. Mír was deeply in love with her and knew that, when he was king, they would marry and she would rule by his side. But Fuamnach had a burning jealousy in her heart. She wanted Mír for her own. Fuamnach was determined to get rid of Éadaoin and visited the Druid, who cast a powerful spell on Éadaoin, turning her into a butterfly. Cursed to be tossed upon the winds for 7 long years, Éadaoin finally lands in a goblet of wine at a banquet in the court of the King of Leinster. The Queen unknowingly swallows her and soon finds she is to have a child. A beautiful baby girl is born and they call her Éadaion...she has emerged again. After she has grown, she is betrothed to Eochaidh, High-King of Ireland. But Mír suddenly reappears and Éadaion remembers her old life. A betrothal is not so easily broken, so clever Éadaion challenges the High-King to a game of chess....
Rich in symbolism and history, this is a stunning retelling. The beauty and lyricism of the Irish language sings it into being, capturing all the mysticism and magic of the legend.* While holding fast to the old story, it refreshes the tale, allowing the reader to bring a contemporary sensibility to it and see it through a clean set of eyes. And isn't this what revisiting myths, legends and fairy/folk tales is supposed to do...open the story again so that we, the readers can absorb them back into ourselves and receive a fresh vantage point; a new understanding. An Féileacán agus an Rí is at once ancient and new, arriving again to mesmerise us and give us a marvelous, insightful story to make our own.
But, it is the illustrations that 'made' this book for me. I have read (and heard) a number of versions of this legend...but never like this. Evocative and atmospheric, it is exquisite. With a rich, jewel-like colour palette and dynamic movement, the reader finds themselves immersed completely in the journey. You become swept away on the swirling winds, emerge into Éadaions' dreams, sense the solidity and the texture of the land and receive full impact of the jealousy, determination, exhaustion, relief and joy of the characters when you look, really look at the illustrations. Through the illustrations themselves, you can 'read' the book and understand it fully. The impact to the senses cannot be underestimated here.
As a complete package, language and illustrations taken hand-in-hand, An Féileacán agus an Rí is a remarkable picture book, demonstrating the very best of what it means to bring legends home.
(An Féileacán agus an Rí by Máire Zepf and Shona Shirley Macdonald, published by Futa Fata, is being launched today at dlr Lexicon Library in Dun Laoghaire. Welcome to the world, beautiful book!)
*Please note, while my own command of the Irish language is very poor, I had it read to me so I could hear it as it was intended. I must, however, express my deepest thanks to Futa Fata for providing me with an English translation. You guys are such stars!