Author: Morgan Llywelyn
Paperback, 480 pages
Publication date: 1998
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In Morgan Llywelyn's The Horse Goddess we follow the life of a daughter of a Keltoi Chieftan. Epona loves her home in the Blue Mountains. She has spent many long hours daydreaming that handsome Govnu, the most skilled and revered smith in all the clans, will break tradition by taking her as his wife. She wants nothing more than to stay in the Blue Mountains and be a good wife.
This story begins on the night of her womanhood ceremony. Amidst swirling smoke and the mysterious Druii (magical and spiritual leaders of the clan) Epona searches for the path to maturity. She fearlessly snarls back into the face of Cernunnos, the shape-shifting Head Druii, during the ceremony, although neither of them has ever understood the blind animosity and compelling forces rife between them.
With the warmer weather, traders will soon be coming to the Blue Mountain, for only they have control of the mountains salt mine and only Govnu can work the starmetal (iron) with such skill. Rigatona, Epona's grasping and self-absorbed mother, is eager to trade her off for a good brideprice. She does not understand Epona's reluctance, but is even more thrilled once she is approached by the powerful and repellant Head Druii. Cernunnos begins to suspect that Epona may be one of those rare individuals born with the powers of the Druii, and the power-hungry Shapeshifter would be well pleased to see her join their lodge and swell their powers even more.
Family tensions tighten when Taranus, her aging father, and Rigatona do not agree upon the direction Epona's life should take. Repelled by Cernunnos and disturbed by his attentions, Epona does not listen to the voice of wisdom within her and tries to hide in the dangerous salt mines.
Through the magic of Cernunnos, she is rescued but not before gruesomely breaking her arm. Rigatona is only upset that the brideprice will be less if Epona is disfigured. The Druii assure them all that her injuries are well within their ability to heal, and Epona is at least relieved that she will not be married off to this first batch of traders or thrust into the Druii lodge.
Unfortunately, the anger eventually roused in Taranus by Rigatona's attitude brings about the death of Blue Mountain Clan's leader, and Epona is left with no one to champion her cause. She has only until the moon is full to either become a fully free adult by marrying, or come to the houses of the Druii willingly. There she will spin out her life without freedom, love, family, husband, or children... chanting endless magic invocations under the yellow eyes of the Shapeshifter.
It is while this delicate balance is teetering under the direction of a new Clan leader, that strangers arrive. Wild horsemen from the distant planes, the Scythians have come to trade for the famed weapons of the Keltoi's greatest smith. Kazhak, a prince amongst his nomadic people, does not understand these strange Keltoi and feels lost in this strange land that hides the sky from him. He is even more unnerved by the instant attraction between himself and this talkative Keltoi girl with a cast on her arm.
His people are fierce warriors who live a harsh life, the People of the Horse do not have much regard for anyone who is not a Scyth. Even Kazhak does not understand why merely meeting Epona's gaze has the power to soften his very soul. In desperation, Epona eventually throws her lot in with the Scythians and offers herself to Kazhak in exchange for escape. Neither could have guessed where their choices would lead them all. This is the legend of a love that changed both their people, and their worlds beyond all recognition. Will their tempestuous love destroy them in the end?
I have studied fairy tales, mythology around the world, and Celtic history in general purely out of love for the subjects, and Llywelyn is a master at historical fiction. With Bardic ease, she takes the Gods and Heros from Irish lore and breathes life into them. They become human without every really loosing their otherwordly potential. The Horse Goddess is the first book I read by this wonderful author, although I've collected a few more since then. In comparison with the others I have read, this is certainly the least tragic. For those who have never read Irish tales, don't be surprised at the tragedies that seem to shadow so many of these stories and heros. I think James Joyce said it best.... "The Irish are a race born mad! For all their wars are merry and all their songs are sad!"
However, I find it astonishing how this author manages to consistantly pull together such coherent and entertaining stories out of the shreds of Ireland's past. Having been a culture that originally passed on all of its traditions orally, there are few surviving records left. Oral tradition also promotes effect over facts.
In other words, the stories grew like pearls around grains of truth. This is exactly where Llywelyn's genius shines! She makes human beings out of unearthly heroes, and yet they loose none of the magic which shimmers around these great names. They live and breathe between the pages of Llywelyn's stories, as if they only slumber beneath some fairy mound just waiting for some mortal to call them back to Earth for a time.
The Horse Goddess particularly intrigues me for a number of reasons. Cernunnos is now remembered as The Master of The Wild Hunt, or the Horned god, and Epona is so ancient that the reverence of horses in Celtic tales and symbology is remembered more than Epona herself. So, to someone interested in such lore, it becomes instantly fascinating to see their re-creation blossom before you as you clutch your book during that jarring bus ride to work. Also, it is set in the long ago years before the Celts journeyed to the misty shores of Ireland. The spirit world is given a much closer connection to everyday life, as if being closer to the dawn of time made these people more sensitive to such things. This too can be a very appealing aspect. Lastly, the changes brought to Epona's culture both by the introduction of the horse, and the possible influence of the Scythians is a notion to ponder upon for endless hours. The only real drawbacks I could possibly point out are that this is a bit of a hefty read and you sometimes wonder if they will ever get down off of those poor horses!
Llywelyn continues to delight me with her retellings of these ancient tales. I have re-read The Horse Goddess many times, and am still surprised when Epona makes me look at something in a different light. Touching, thought provoking, exciting and entertaining, Llywelyn weaves her legends with spellbinding force and a loving hand. Every story given to us thus far by Morgan Llywelyn is like another pearl to add to the strand.
Reviewed by Entwife