Robin Williamson: Four Gruagach Tales

Tim Hoke wrote this review.

Various Internet sources define a gruagach as a creature similar to brownie. In these tales, however — and Robin Williamson claims to draw from traditional Irish and Highland Scottish sources — a gruagach is a wizard, long of hair and beard, often red-haired, and usually malevolent. Williamson shows of his storytelling and story-composing talents on this double CD set, telling of these wizards and those who dare to go up against them.

There may be some spoilers ahead. While you likely haven’t heard these stories before, they do draw heavily from traditional tales, and therefore will seem familiar. The heroes of such tales always win the day and usually marry the daughter of a king, many times with the aid of supernatural creatures or friends. Sure, we know what’s going to happen; that doesn’t kill the magic in the least.

“The Fisherman’s Son And The Gruagach Of Tricks” tells of a young man who is apprenticed to a gruagach. Completing his apprenticeship, he is captured by his former master, and must escape. Based on a traditional Irish story collected by Curtin, this tale abounds in duels of wits and magic, and ends with a wedding to a king’s daughter.”Prince Dougie And The Swan Maiden” pits a king’s son, searching for the perfect bride, against not one, but two evil wizards. “Rory Mor And The Gruagach Gaire” is interesting in how it deviates from the established pattern. The gruagach in this story is not evil, but rather a good guy who needs help from a hero (who is in turn assisted by a flatulent talking dog). The last story, “Blind Raftery And The Jealous Hero,” adds a real historic person to the mix of traditional elements. Raftery was an Irish poet of the early 19th century. This story tells how he got his talent for poetry, after which he is called upon to assist The Jealous Hero, the son-in-law of a gruagach, rescue the Hero’s wife from an enemy. No happy ending here; it ends with a poem by Raftery, bitterly lamenting his poverty.

The stories are captivating, and made the more so by Williamson’s skill as a storyteller. In this world he presents, women talk in falsetto, coarse types speak in a brash manner, and the gruagachs, well, their speech borders on the impenetrable (“Cease this bewailing forthwith, and instanter, or I shall transmogrify your physiognomy. . . .”). These are long stories, and Williamson uses various devices to hold the audience’s attention, from his vocal characterizations, to asides (“Then he climbed up the side of the castle, just like he learned in Hero School!”), to the occasional fart joke.

Four highly entertaining stories are here, and, to steal a line from their teller: “If the last is not as good as the first, then the soles of my shoes are made of buttermilk, and I have walked from here to the moon, and back on them.”

(GottDiscs, 2006)

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