Canongate Book 5 – Dream a little dream of me…

After some delay; the next book in the LeedsBookClub Canongate Challenge was Dream Angus by Alexander McCall Smith.

A huge fan of Alexander McCall Smith (Please read his wikipedia page – he is fascinating); I discovered the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency a few years ago and read about six books in the series over one weekend, so enchanted by the world and characters described. I deliberately left this book until I had written a less than glowing review as I knew that this would be just fantastic and accessible.

Additionally, Aengus is one of *ours* – an Irish myth – and one of the most beautiful, magical and transformative of them all. As frivalous cruel and thoughtless gods go; Aengus is a cuddily cuddily teddy bear.

Background to the Myth –  Wandering Aengus
Usually in this section; I clarify the myth, so that the modern telling has a comparative base. I’m half tempted not to do so in this case.
True McCall Smith mixes the modern with the mythical – wandering in directions not consistent with the original story. However the broad strokes he makes are very in tune with the stories I grew up hearing and reading.
It’s a dilemma!
Aengus is the child of the Dagda (I shall keep the definitive article thank you!). The Dagda deceived the water spirit Boann, tricking her to take advantage of her. Both were part of the ancient race known as the Tuatha de Danann – the magical children of the goddess Danu. However; the Dagda couldn’t quite conceive and run. Boann’s husband Nechtan would have been furious and kicked up all sorts of fuss – so the Dagda froze time; leaving the sun still in the sky for nine months. Aengus was therefore conceived and born in a single day. Granted, a long day; but still just the one.

Upon his birth; the Dagda tore the baby from his mothers arms and dumped him on one of his other sons, Midir. Boann was heartbroken but unable to act without raising the suspicions of her husband. Midir – thankfully – was a decent and honourable god who raised the boy in a warm and loving home. He was honest with him about his parentage though Aengus never had any reason not to love his step father.

Aengus was a happy child, smart and resourceful. As he grew; he was handsome and brave. Though deeply loyal to Midir – he was also pretty disgusted at the behaviour of his real father. Upon reaching his maturity; he conned the Dagda – pretty much as described in the book; so I won’t ruin it for you – and took over his domain.

However; the reason that he is the god of dreams relates to his own love life. Aengus was a bit of a looker; friendly and open with more than his fair share of charm. Women flocked to him – knowing that although he would never commit to them – he would bring good fortune and love their way.

One night however, Aengus had a dream more vivid than any he had ever experienced. He was visited by a woman so beautiful that she took his breath away. After many months of interacting with her only in his sleep; Aengus became morose and introverted. His mother and father both searched Ireland for a year before they tracked this elusive maiden down. Even then Aengus had to identify her out of 150 other women, and defeat a curse, and transform himself into a ….

See; protecting you from spoilers again. 

Long story short; Aengus was one of those gods with a fingers in a lot of different mythical pies. His influence and his magic can be seen throughout Irish lore; interacting with (or related to!) most of the Tuatha de Danann. 

The Review 
The book can be broken into two. On the one hand; there is the life story of Angus – from conception to marriage. On the other; his influence in more contemporary life stories.
I can’t fault the story of Angus at all. It’s all here – and McCall Smith breathes life and humour into his characters – from father Dagda to duped mother Boann with a light and simple touch that feels utterly in line with the oral tradition from which the story emerged. I  occasionally found the dialogue to be a little stilted; but ultimately I very much enjoyed his take on this old story.

Between the recitation of Angus’ life are snippets in time – this time the timeline is our everyday world. Angus walks amongst us, unrecognised but still performing his ageless tasks.

He gives sweet dreams for sweet resolutions; promotes true love; highlights that decency towards any living being (PIGS!) demonstrates an inherent good will and proving that for the right reasons; people will cross any line to protect the one they love – be that love sexual, romantic or fraternal.

It’s funny. I’ve always loved Aengus/Angus. He is one of my favourite mythical characters. I loved his sly way of looking at the world; his odd solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems. I still do.
But… But…
McCall Smith manages to capture the essence of the original tales and transpose these into an up to date setting. However; the amortily of the gods; their callous and cold thought processes are jarring in the contemporary.
Whlie the style of the writing is breezy and the stories are – on the surface of it – light and fluffy; there is a bite in the tale. Just like in the best fairytales there is a sinister edge that creeps over your subconscious. I wasn’t even aware of it unil I put the book down. Then little flashes of creepy would make me shiver.

What’s that line from the musical? ‘Dreams come true, not free’…

A fantastic read.





Perhaps the best known version of Aengus was written by W.B. Yates – see poem here

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