In John Crowley’s 1981 masterpiece Little, Big, young Auberon Drinkwater daydreams of writing about Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. His work would feature “Saracens and papal armies, Sicilian guerrillas and potent palaces and princesses too,” but its secret purpose was to contemplate the emperor before his final battle. To Auberon, this “figure seen in a moment of repose snatched between two desperate actions, exhausted after victory or defeat, hard clothes stained with war and wear,” is an object of fascination. Neither Auberon Drinkwater nor his creator John Crowley ever wrote a Barbarossa play, but Crowley’s new novel, Flint and Mirror, evokes the feelings that Auberon dreamt about.
Flint and Mirror recounts the life of Hugh O’Neill, a sixteenth-century Irish earl forever torn between his native land and the English colonizers. Like almost all characters in this novel, he is drawn from history. Like almost all characters in this novel, he is obscure to contemporary Americans. In Ireland, paintings and statues commemorate him; in the United States, his name adorns a few pubs. To summarize: Hugh O’Neill was an Irish lord who, by dint of ambition, family name, political maneuvering, and statecraft, had a chance of uniting Ireland against its English administrators. Though he spent much of his youth in the English court, O’Neill eventually led a rebellion against Queen Elizabeth’s colonial forces; he won some battles, lost others, and eventually surrendered to the English. He was pardoned, but in 1607, he fled Ireland for Rome.