Northwords Now Issue 39

The FREE literary magazine of the North

The Lyre Dancers (Vol 3 of The Stone Stories trilogy)

Mandy Haggith

A Review by Margaret Elphinstone

On the Ocean by Pytheas the Greek must be one of the most enigmatic texts we don’t have. In c. 325 BC he explored the west coast of Britain from Cornwall to Orkney and maybe Shetland, then north to Thule, and east to the amber coasts of the Baltic. Pytheas’ book has been lost for over 2000 years; all we have are tantalising quotations from hostile critics. Haggith’s trilogy is a convincing, provocative attempt to fill the gap. But she doesn’t start with the Greek explorer, she begins and ends with the Celtic Iron Age people whose lives were changed by Pytheas’ intrusion. In her account, the people who never had a voice and never wrote anything down: the remote, the non-literate, the enslaved, and even the women, get their chance to write back. In The Lyre Dancers, the last word is with those who dwell in the liminal spaces on the margins of Europe, where written history has no authority. Pytheas and his Greek world have vanished south over the horizon, and such resolution as there is, is all Celtic. The sea has the final word.

The Lyre Dancers, like its predecessors, is an alternative On the Ocean. A sailor herself, Haggith knows the sea as her characters would have known it. When Rian returns to Assynt (Haggith’s home territory, evoked with lyrical detail), the ever-changing connections between land and sea make the place alive; this is the true awakening of coming home. But the sea calls: nothing is forever, and it isn’t possible to stay.

The Walrus Mutterer (2018) told how Rian grows up in Assynt until she is forced to travel with Pytheas and the terrifying, powerful woman trader, Ussa. Rian is intrigued by Pytheas’ scientific measurements and the unknown culture he represents, but her involvement in his explorations comes at a desperate price. The potential for widening mutual horizons cannot be fulfilled: Rian is a woman and a slave, and for her the encounter with the Greek is all but lethal. And yet, in the second book, The Amber Seeker (2019), the reader is drawn to Pytheas. His enthusiasm about his calculations and his instinct to discover cannot but appeal to readers attuned to the trope of the archetypal adventurer into the unknown. Pytheas endures his own rite of passage during his sojourn on the amber coasts of the Baltic, and this reader found herself willing him to survive. But this same man has wronged Rian brutally, betraying her over and over again, and consistently abusing his power over her as girl, woman and mother. He has no moral sense of any rights but his own. I want to hate him but I can’t, which is a tribute to Haggith’s nuanced portrayal.

Third volumes of trilogies can sometimes disappoint, but The Lyre Dancers (2020) triumphantly draws together all the threads followed so far, while successfully eluding any simplistic resolution.  Having shown how individuals are caught up and wounded, sometimes fatally, in the clash of cultures, Haggith offers no simple answer, and certainly no unambiguous ending. The encounter with Pytheas the Greek has changed everyone, but in The Lyre Dancers he himself is now, as the sagas say, ‘out of this story’ - perhaps it never did belong to him. Haggith also negotiates the transition between generations so that the emphasis passes to Rian’s children without leaving Rian marooned on the boring shores of middle-aged motherhood. Rian remains true to what the Walrus Mutterer originally saw in her. She survives a third volume undiminished, even though the plot sometimes leaves her behind in order to follow the lives of others.

This bringing together of the Greek and Celtic worlds happened through an act of violence, and The Lyre Dancers shows that the offspring of this dubious alliance cannot resolve their inheritance easily. The Amber Seekers was Pytheas’ apologia to his daughter Soyea, but we never see her read it. Instead, The Lyre Dancers shows how Soyea finds her own way in her own world. In contrast to her half-sister, she looks different, which is a handicap, and she seems to think a little differently too. At the heart of her experience is a scarcely-remembered, unbearable loss which has shaped who she has become. But in The Lyre Dancers, self-awareness for all characters comes through irreparable loss. Even the impossible Ussa becomes more herself than ever. If the world were less inimical, it appears, there would be no fulfilment for anyone. What would any of us become, if history, like Haggith, did not unfailingly provide us with a testing plot?