Friday, October 02, 2009

Celtic Fantasy

Hounds bay in the night, getting closer. Horns answer the calls of the hounds. You splash through a mud puddle and scramble up a bank of thorny brush. When you reach the top, you collapse from fatigue. Pain flashes throughout your body. Your lungs burn from lack of enough air. You cannot run no more. Soon you feel the vibrations of pounding hooves approaching. The Wild Hunt is closing in for the kill.

The ancient Celts hold a fascination for us. Very little is known about their true culture and history. We are left with fragments of their mythology and stories, but what is available tantalizes and inspires new ideas. Many Fantasy novels and stories possess elements of Celtic mythology. Writers mine the scant material to create new books or stories of stunning, gritty beauty, powerful themes, mystery and magic. Some of the elements of Celtic Fantasy are pagan religions, the Sidhe, matriarchal societies, druids, tragic endings, the Wild Hunt and many others. Several authors have contributed works to the Fantasy subgenre of Celtic Fantasy.

The Welsh Mabinogion is used by many writers for ideas. It consists of four main stories and several other tales linked to it. In 1970, Evangaline Walton wrote The Isle of the Mighty, a vivid retelling of the fourth branch of the Mabinogion. She followed the success of this book with retellings of the other three branches in The Song of Rhiannon, The Children of Llyr and Prince of Annwn. Other authors used it too. The success of these books encouraged other writers to use Celtic materials.

Lloyd Alexander took elements from the Mabinogion to create his world of Prydain for his young adult series of books. The series tells the coming of age stories of the characters Taran and Eilonwy as they fight against the Horned King to save Prydain. These books can be enjoyed by adults as well as children. They are: The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer and The High King.

Parts of the Mabinogion appear in the some of the works of Alan Garner mixing with some Arthurian elements too. The Owl Service retells the story of Llew Law Gyffes and Bloedudd in a modern day Wales. A version of the Wild Hunt appears in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath.

Guy Gavriel Kay used elements of Celtic myth in his trilogy The Fionavar Tapestry. The three books (The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road) weave Welsh myth and Arthurian characters into an Epic Fantasy of memorable proportions. Even the Wild Hunt appears as a force of chaos. (For more information on this author see my previous article.)

Some writers take Celtic elements and create their own Fantasy worlds. Katherine Kerr does this with her Deverry books. Her characters go through several reincarnations to resolve their burdens. She includes elves, dwarves and dragons in her complex world of magic and honor. The first novels in the series are Daggerspell, Darkspell, The Bristling Wood and The Dragon Revenant.

Patricia Kennealy-Morrison moved her Celts into space for her Science Fantasies of the “Keltiad”. In her series, the Celts fled Earth to found a new empire in space. They encounter humans again and begin a new alliance. Her books are full of Celtic and Arthurian elements. The first book in the series is called The Copper Crown.

Other sources for writers have been Scottish and Irish myths and folklore. Deborah Turner Harris wrote a trilogy of a fantasy Scotland that never existed. In Caledon of the Mists, The Queen of Ashes and The City of Exile she weaves the dark tale of a Scotland trying to free itself from an oppressive England. Ireland is the home of a race of elven beings from another world.

Morgan Llywelyn uses Irish myths to tell some of her tales of Celtic Fantasy. Her books have a strong overlay of the supernatural in ancient Ireland. The Elementals is a collection of four stories of the founding of Ireland after the Flood. In The Horse Goddess, she takes readers to the beginning of Celtic history with its strong heroes and heroines. Later books tell of the mythic Irish heroes Finn MacCool and Cuchulain.

Have writers exhuasted the depths of available Celtic material for ideas? Certainly not. New writers like Kate Forsyth and Sarah Isidore are bringing us new books with Celtic elements. As William Butler Yeats said, "none can measure of how great importance it may be to coming times, for every new fountain of legends is a new intoxication for the imagination of the world. It comes at a time when the imagination of the world is as ready, as it was at the coming of the tales of Arthur and the Grail, for a new intoxication." (from "Celtic Myth and English-Language Fantasy Literature: Possible New Directions" by C.W. Sullivan III, Journal of the Fantastic, Winter 1998) As long as there are new visions coming from writers, there will be Celtic Fantasy.

Other Celtic Fantasy Books:

The Witches of Eilannen by Kate Forsyth

The Pool of Two Moons "

The Daughters of Bast by Sarah Isidore

A Time of Omens by Katherine Kerr

A Time of War by "

“The Age of Misrule” trilogy by Mark Chadbourn (see next article in two weeks)

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