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|Niamh and the Hermit|
by Emily C.A. Snyder
ARX Publishing, 2002
Recommended by: Cheryl Bader
The subtitle for Niamh and the Hermit by Emily C.A. Snyder is "A Fairy Tale", but this is not your typical bedtime story. It's not even a children's story, strictly speaking. This story of courtly romance and a dangerous quest may be best appreciated by ages 12 and up.
In Niamh and the Hermit, the king and queen have an unusual problem. Their only child, the princess Niamh (pronounced Nee-EHV according to the book's end notes) is too beautiful and pure for any suitor to approach her. The only hope for the continuation of the royal line rests with a mysterious Hermit, rumored to have the head of a lion, the wings of an eagle, and the humility of a saint. They correspond before they meet and fall in love.
But a power-hungry Count opposes the match and lures the princess into debasing herself and destroying her beauty. The king fails to recognize his disfigured daughter and unwittingly banishes her. Niamh flees in shame just before the long-awaited arrival of the bridegroom.
Heartbroken, the Hermit embarks on a quest to find Niamh, who has become such a shadow of her true self that others can no longer see her. Meanwhile the Count continues to oppose the Hermit, aided by demonic shadows that few can see. Knights and fairies and a unicorn all have a part to play in the unfolding drama of the Hermit's search. And the princess herself must face many dangers and undergo a long journey of transformation.
Niamh and the Hermit portrays a medieval Christian society. At one point under the queen's questioning we learn that the Hermit in his inner torment has refrained from Holy Communion ("the cup and the host") for twenty years. Themes of sacrificial love recur throughout the story, as well as other themes of the Christian faith such as humility and forgiveness and right uses of power.
Perhaps the most noteworthy feature of Niamh and the Hermit is its use of language. Younger readers may find the "thees" and "thous" a challenge, but help is available in "A Brief Note on Pronouns" at the end. The broad vocabulary used in the book offers many lessons in medieval terms and practices. Though it may not appeal to all tastes, the highly formal style suits the story's dramatic context. Niamh and the Hermit is beautifully written, an elegant and artistic addition to Christian literature.
Beautiful language may be the greatest strength of Niamh and the Hermit, but the attention to style at times comes at the expense of story and characters. It is a small weakness, however, in what is overall a very strong book. The book represents an artistic achievement on another level as well: It includes numerous illustrations by the author of key characters, and sheet music for the melody line of four songs related to the story.
For the literary-minded reader, Niamh and the Hermit offers a delightful tale of heroism and romance, well worth the read. Recommended.
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