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Even after reading this book, I am somewhat surprised to find it packaged as a reader for small children. Slender, richly illustrated (by Stephen Lavis, in the edition I have), and laid out in big, square pages, it looks like a bedtime story, or a book for Read-Aloud Time in a first-grade classroom. In a lot of ways, this makes perfect sense, since it is a light-spirited fairy tale. What’s surprising is the level of sophistication the author trusts children to have, even at that age level. For this is a book that trusts children to appreciate wit and irony, and that throws vocabulary-building terms at them as carelessly as its hero throws himself into this adventure.
Finn MacCool is a hero out of Irish folklore. The Irish spelling of his name, according to the author’s note, is Fionn MacCumaill, which serves to make the non-Irish-speaking reader (like me) feel humble, if not downright helpless, when it comes to pronouncing Irish names like “Fianna, Oisín, Caelte,” and so on. Fortunately, there aren’t many of these in the book. And the sheer delight of the story and its telling are such that you soon forget to worry about them.
Here is the tale of a warrior chieftain who dismisses his troop one day while lying down with a headache. Nevertheless, he accepts a giant’s plea to help a giant King and Queen prevent their third child from being stolen on his birth night, like the first two. Accompanied only by eight strange dwarves who offer their services to him along the way, Finn MacCool travels to an island where everything is bigger than life. Aided by the small men’s various powers, he outwits a terrible witch and reunites a royal family. And back in our world, little eyes – Irish and otherwise – are dancing with pleasure at the magic, the humor, and the warmth of the tale. This could, in fact, be a favorite book for many children, if they but heard it while sitting cross-legged on a classroom floor, or nestling in Grandma’s warm lap, or leaning against a sunlit window and listening to their own voice read aloud.