Peadar O’Guilin’s brutal novel ‘The Call’ is set in an apocalyptic version of Ireland, where the country has been closed off from the world by supernatural means, with no one able to enter, or leave. The unfortunate number who remain are slowly being whittled down, stolen away by the chilling Daoine Sídhe – the fairies of Irish legend.
At fourteen, protagonist Nessa has a one is ten chance of making it to adulthood – most assume her odds will be even lower after an unfortunate resurgence of Polio in her childhood left her legs damaged. But Nessa is determined to survive the Call, which snatches adolescents away to the realm of the fairies, where most will find themselves dead at the hands of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
According to Irish legend, The Tuatha Dé Danann – the children of the goddess Danu – are said to be the early inhabitants of Ireland, and the ancestors to the Irish Sídhe. They are often described as ethereally beautiful, tall, and often bear red or blonde hair and green eyes. Though their descendants are categorised as fairies – their number including leprechauns and banshee – the Tuatha Dé Danann have a more ambiguous origin. Some believe them to be akin to elves, while other schools of thought place them as gods and goddesses. Christian interpretations of the Tuatha Dé Danann imagine them as fallen angels, flawed enough to be barred from heaven, but not immoral enough to be consigned to hell.
The Tuatha Dé Danann are said to have been overthrown by the ancestors of the Irish, the Milesians. This was no mean feat, given that the Tuatha Dé Danann are said to have had great magical powers to aid them. When the Milesians first set out for Ireland, they were unable to find the place, seeing the island in the distance only for it to have vanished when they got close. Eventually they managed to set foot on land and claimed the place for their own – something that the Tuatha Dé Danann strongly objected to. The Tuatha Dé Danann suggested that the Milesians return to their boats and attempt to find the island again, if they managed to do so, the island would be theirs. Though reluctant, the Milesians eventually agreed. Once their ships had retreated, the Tuatha Dé Danann conjured a mighty hurricane. Though they were scattered, and many died in the attempt, the Milesians eventually managed to make it to shore again.
It is said that the Milesian poet Amergin was able to calm the storm with his verse, allowing them to land. He plays a large role in the ensuing conflict, not as a warrior but as a judge to the fighting in which the three leaders of the Milesians and the three kings of the Tuatha Dé Danann fought, with the kings of Tuatha Dé Danann being defeated. Eventually a treaty was drawn up stating that each side would claim one half of Ireland. The clever Amergin immediately claimed the half above the ground. Defeated and outwitted, the Tuatha Dé Danann were led underground, to the fairy hills and mounds that are said to be their home.
It is said that after many years of living below ground they diminished, becoming the small folk, or fairies seen in folklore today. The term Sídhe actually refers to the home of the Fair Folk, meaning mound. The original term for the Fair Folk was Áes Sídhe meaning ‘people of the mounds.’ Over time, this was shortened to Sídhe.
Though ‘The Call’ does not explore this history, the world that Nessa grows up in is a direct consequence of it. Though banished from Ireland’s shores, the Sídhe have found a way to get their revenge for the treacherous treaty, instead summoning humans to their own realm. This, as with many things involving the fair folk, comes with its own set of stringent rules. They are able to take children in the transitional period of adolescence, infants that are less than a day old, and the elderly who are close to death (though the primary focus of the novel is on the first category). The individual is only able to be taken once, so if they survive, they are free, and the individual is taken for three minutes of human time – a full day in the realm of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
This time difference may seem cruel for the child desperately trying to survive in an alien world, but it does tie into long established rules of fairy kingdom mythology. According to many accounts of people who stumble into the fairy realm, time frequently passes differently there than in the mortal world. Though there are accounts of people spending years in the world of fairy, only to return to the exact moment they left – similar to ‘The Call’ – more frequently it is the other way round. The unfortunate traveller spends what they think to be days in the fairy realm only to return weeks, months or even years after they left. One of the most famous examples of this is the story of Oisín, love of a fairy queen, who returned home only to find that centuries had passed. When he fell from his horse these missing years returned to him and he withered away.
The fairyland that Oisín and others encounter is far different that the horror described in ‘The Call.’ Most accounts of the realm of the Sídhe describe an enchanting and magical place of gold and silver, jewels and fountains. It is said to be eternally summer, a land of plenty without disease or death. This is the stark opposite of the world the children of ‘The Call’ are brought to. The world is cast in a perpetual twilight, monochrome silvers, greys, and blacks, the only colour said to come from lakes of red fire. The grass is razor sharp, the plants hungry and most the creatures created from a horrific mutilation of what was once human. Everything in the world seems designed to bring the children’s death, especially the Sídhe.
During their time in this realm the children find themselves mercilessly hunted by the Sídhe who live there. Strong, enchanting, and deadly, the Sídhe’s only goal is to wipe the descendants of the Milesians out, leaving them free to reclaim Ireland as their home once more. They have every advantage in the fight – while the Irish population rapidly declines, the numbers of Sídhe do not. Immortal – or at least very long-lived – the Sídhe have yet another advantage over the humans – the cauldron of Dagda, which is capable of returning dead Sídhe to life.
Also known as the Cauldron of Plenty, Dagda’s cauldron is one of the four great treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann. The cauldron, in addition to being able to raise the dead, is said to be inexhaustible, capable of providing infinite food. Other treasures include the spear of Lugh and the sword of Núada, though these do not appear in the novel.
Still, despite their clear disadvantage, the people of Ireland are unwilling to give up without a fight. With each child taken they gain more knowledge of the Sídhe’s methods and land. Though one in ten odds of survival are far from ideal, it is vast improvement on the initial one in a hundred.
‘The Call’ offers a far more brutal depiction of the Sídhe – even among stories in which the fair folk act as antagonists – depicting a world of agony, torture and bodily mutilation which rarely features in the fairies’ glittering halls. Though the history of the people of Ireland’s legendary interactions with the Sídhe is intrinsically linked with the narrative, the novel focuses far more on the human character’s fight for survival, and the horrific nature of O’Guilin’s fairy world, rather than the history of the Sídhe themselves.
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