Exploring the New World of Celtic Fantasy
I have been noticing lately a wealth of new Celtic fantasy stories and series, and really welcoming them. You may be wondering just what is Celtic fantasy; for years I thought anything that had the hint of an Irish or Welsh background was good enough. But then I started noticing three pretty different takes on the concept of taking a Celtic element and using it as the center for a fantasy world. There are different ways to take the idea and run with it, and some authors have done a remarkable job with it. Here are three scenarios I think illustrate this really well.
The Celtic Myth Retold
For those of us who love our old myths and fairy tales, taking some of the folk tales or myths from Celtic lore and retelling them is a great way to get introduced to some stories we may not be familiar with. A great example of this is The Sevenwaters Trilogy by Juliet Marillier, which starts with the book Daughter of the Forest. This is a beautifully done retelling of the ancient Celtic legend of The Seven Swans. Here we have Sorcha, the only daughter and seventh child of an Irish Nobleman – Lord Column of Sevenwaters.
The story takes place during the endless battles between the Saxons and the Britons to create what was to become Great Britain. But at this time it was still a land ruled by individual Lords. You may remember the legend of the seven brothers turned to swans by an evil step-mother who is a witch. She has Sorcha’s father bewitched and her brothers under an evil spell. The only way for Sorcha to break the spell is to be silent and weave nettle shirts for her brothers. When completed she can toss them over the brothers to break the spell.
In this retelling she is captured by Britons and must find a way to continue her weaving while never talking when she is a captive. There is romance, adventure and plenty of magic in the telling. It’s a great three part series to introduce anyone who is unfamiliar with the old Celtic legends and in one of the great storytelling traditions Marillier does a great job with this mini-series.
Fantasy Invades Ancient Celtic History
Another approach to Celtic Fantasy is taking actual events from Celtic history and retelling them with fantasy elements introduced. A great example of this is Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Last Light of the Sun. I recently reread this older classic Celtic Fantasy tale and it reminded me how amazing Kay is at capturing the time period of the early Celtic tribes.
This book is set during the ninth century when the Vikings were in all their glory and Britain’s first king, Alfred the Great was just establishing his kingdom. The three dominant tribes in the story, the Erlings(Vikings) the Anglcyn (English) and the Cyngael (Welsh) are all represented in this retelling of many old stories. Here we have fairies in the forest coming to the aid of young princes, the Queen of the Fairies from old legends and the tales of Alfred’s survival in the marshes to become the one who could unite the tribes, all told from the viewpoint of young men and women of the time.
Although the characters and relationships of the kingdoms are central to the story, the fantasy elements are strong. This is particularly so when it comes to the wilds of the forests. This was a time when the dark forest was feared for it was full of unknown danger, the assumption being that the Fae Folk ruled it. If you ever wanted to get into the head of a Viking raider or Celtic prince, this is the book to put you there.
Modern Celtic Heroes
Then there is the modern reinterpretation of Celtic magic. I think the best example of this is The Iron Druid Series by Kevin Hearne. Its first book in the series, Hounded, introduces us to Atticus O’Sullivan, a 2000 year old druid and the last of his kind. Living in today’s modern world, he also deals with the world of magic that we don’t see.
This is no ancient wizard; he is a smart-mouthed and highly tattooed young man with more than a little cocky attitude. He just happens to have enough of his wits about him to have survived the destruction of his kind a thousand years ago. He is living a quiet life in Arizona with his Irish wolfhound Oberon for companionship and running a simple little occult shop when things get a bit testy. Seems he borrowed a very beautiful and important magical sword from an ancient Celtic god, and he wants it back. It also seems like Atticus forgot to ask if he could borrow it.
The series goes on to show our feisty hero to be somewhat of a rogue as he seduces a goddess to get what he needs, belittles a roman god of war and soon finds himself battling the greatest of all battles, love. For as he begins what will prove to be a 15-year apprenticeship with a promising young woman, he finds over time he cannot keep his heart out of the equation. But I am telling you, if you like your Celtic mythology to have a bit of the old fashion sword-buckling swagger to it, this is a fun series for that kind of hero.
A Wealth of Celtic Fantasy Worlds
There are plenty of other great Celtic fantasy stories to explore if you are interested. The Song of Albion Trilogy by Stephen R. Lawhead is a classic series. In the first book Paradise War, we meet a modern American college student who stumbles into a gateway to a land between times, as the Celts would have called it. He is there thrust into the middle of a battle between old foes and soon finds himself fighting alongside Kings and the Fae as he falls into a role amongst the ancient Celtic myths and legends. The series has become a classic in the genre and is well worth checking out.
And for a very well done story inspired by the role of the Druids in trying to save the ancient Celtic people from being over-run by the Romans (which unfortunately they were unable to do) you might want to check out Druids by Morgan Llywelyn. Told from the viewpoint of a young orphan Celt who is adopted by the chief Druid at a time when the Romans first come to England, it is a wonderfully detailed look at the way of life of the Celtic people, and in particular of the importance of the Druids and their elemental magic to their people. It is beautifully written with real heart.
There are dozens more you can find, all with their own unique take on a very interesting time in early European history. I think we will always remain fascinated by the Celts, that early tribe of earth-bound magic-spinners who held out against what was then the arrival of technology in the form of the Romans. Much like North America’s own on-going romance with the Native American culture, the Celts are a legendary force, that continue to fit so well with tales of magic and dark forces at work.