Mar 9, 2008

The King of Ireland's Son by Padraic Colum

After losing a wager with the Enchanter of the Black Back-Lands, the son of the King of Ireland is given a year and a day to find the Enchanter’s dwelling place and pluck three hairs from his beard, or else he’ll lose his life. This he succeeds in doing, and in the process he gains the hand of Fedelma, the Enchanter’s youngest daughter, in marriage. But on his way back to his father’s house, he falls asleep with his head on his bride’s lap, and when he wakes up he finds her gone. The King of the Land of Mist has taken her, and to save her he must find where he dwells, and also find the only weapon that can kill him, the Sword of Light.

And so the many adventures of the King of Ireland’s Son begin. I realize that this plot summary makes this story sound like a typical prince-saves-damsel-in-distress tale. While in some ways it is one, in other ways it is rather more.

The King of Ireland’s Son’s quest is a quest for stories. First of all, if you look this book up you will probably be, like I was, confused that it is referred to as both a novel and a collection of folktales. This is because it is both. "The King of Ireland’s Son" is itself a folktale, and, when adapting it into a novel, Padraic Colum used elements from many other Irish folktales to form a kaleidoscope of stories. For example, to rescue Fedelma, our hero has to find the beginning and the ending of the Unique Tale (which is a variation of the Six Swans fairy tale), and he meets many characters who tell him their background stories. Little by little, they all realize that their stories are part of one another, the solution to one of them being a fundamental step to the development of another.

But this probably makes the plot sound more complicated than it actually is. The story flows with ease, and the several familiar fairy tale elements used only make it even more charming. This is something that never ceases to amaze me – how little differences in detail can make the same basic plot elements always remain fresh and unique, rather than predictable and dull. Even when they are predictable, there is a certain satisfaction in it, and I find myself thinking, “A-ha! I know how this story works!” Of course that in a mystery, for example, this would be rather disappointing and frustrating. But in fairy tales and fairy tale-ish stories it never fails to delight me.

Also, I am a big fan of Padraic Colum’s use of language. His writing has the kind of rhythm that makes it perfect for reading aloud. Telling this story to a child must be quite an experience. His writing actually reminds me a little of Lloyd Alexander’s – it sounds archaic (no, grandfatherly is the word) in some ways, while at the same time remaining very readable.

This book was my selection for Read an E-Book Week. I read it at Project Baldwin. Be it as an e-book or as a physical book, I do recommend that lovers of fantasy, folklore and fairy tales give it a try. It would be a perfect choice for the upcoming Once Upon a Time II!


  1. OK this is definitely going on my list. I love stories within stories, especially when they are fairy tales and folk tales. The cover artwork is very cool too.

  2. This sounds really cool! It reminds me of The Book of Lost Things but not really :p Just in the sense that there are tales within a tale and I love a story like that! And I agree with Rhinoa...I love the cover!

  3. This sounds interesting, Nymeth. I'll have to look out for this one. Thanks for the review. :)

  4. I don't think I can read books on computer but I'll definitely order it in in paper!I've checked and it's still in print:-)
    I like the sound of it!

  5. Oooh...this one does sound quite fun!

  6. Rhinoa: I love stories within stories too. Isn't the cover great? When I get an actual physical edition of it I want the one with that cover.

    Chris: I can see how it reminded you of The Book of Lost Things. This one's more traditional, though - the tales are not as "twisted", so to speak. I found that cover on so it should be the cover of the American edition!

    Melody: You're welcome :) I hope you enjoy it if you find it!

    Valentina: Yup, it's still in print! I think you'd enjoy it.

    Debi: It is!

  7. This sounds great!! And yes, maybe I can use it for the Once Upon a Time II Challenge. It's definitely going on my list of books to read!!

  8. ooh! you should post some bits of his language! :)

    there are many of these adaptations and novelisations but what makes them stand apart is if the writer has a real command of language - otherwise anyone could retell these stories really.

  9. I really enjoy Irish lore as well as the rhythm of Irish writers. Is there a Once Upon a Time challenge coming up? If so, I'd be interested since I missed it last year.

  10. Stephanie: I hope you enjoy it when you get to it :)

    JP: Just click the link to the e-book :P But yeah, that really makes a difference to me, especially when it comes to old stories. I like it when they are accessible but still retain that "once upon a time" feel.

    Trish: Carl said that it will start on the the first day of spring and go on until Midsummer's like last year. I hope you do join! It'll be lots of fun for sure.


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