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Reimagining The Celtic Past In Modern Fantasy coverReading an anthology of academic essays that explores a topic of interest—in this case fantasy authors’ abiding interest in “Celticism”—is rather like attending a really good conference, but without either the anxiety of presenting a paper yourself or having to make agonizing decisions about which panels to attend. A published collection of essays ought to serve both as an overview of the issues and questions surrounding the topic under discussion and as a repository of individual essays that may examine a familiar work or body of work by an author through a new critical lens. Like the best conferences, such a volume should also leave the audience, or readers, asking more questions, and eager to apply what they have learned to their own work. This volume fulfils all these mandates admirably, and I learned a lot from it.

In her introduction to this useful and insightful collection, co-editor Dimitra Fimi writes: “This edited volume aims to open a conversation about fantasy's multifaceted and enduring fascination with the Celtic past, and its various perceptions” (p. 4). Fimi notes that, while previous scholarship (including her own 2017 monograph) has focused on work written for children, the essays in this volume examine texts aimed at adult readers. The collection is divided into four sections: the first deals with what is loosely defined as “intrusion fantasy,” in which a Celtic “otherworld” overlaps with our own; section two looks at “worldbuilding” and the way authors use Celtic elements to create a fantasy world; section three has discussion of works in languages other than English; and the fourth and final section looks at how “the fantastic is situated within cultural practices perceived as Celtic” (p. 5).

I am almost the perfect audience for this volume: a long-time reader of fantasy with a strong interest in intertextuality, myth, and mythopoeic fantasy. Despite my scholarly background, however, I realized very quickly that I needed to re-examine my own pre- (and mis-) conceptions about the topic. Not only is there a proliferation of “Celtic” material in fantasy, but I shared with the authors of many of the works discussed here a tendency to regard the “Celtic” as a much more unified phenomenon than it really is, and to think of its history as linear—creating, as Fimi points out, “a pan-Celticism that erases geographical and regional differences, and collapses or disregards very real gaps in chronology” (p. 6). Similarly, Fimi notes, “‘Celtic mythology’ is fraught with problems, conflating figures across cultures and historic periods” (p. 6).

Several of the chapters in this volume make it clear how many of the most popular ideas about “Celtic mythology” or “Celtic traditions” actually arose from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Robert Graves and Jessie Weston (among others) have a lot to answer for. For example, I was quite shocked to learn from Gwendolen Grant’s chapter on Alan Garner that the “triple goddess figure” he weaves through his Weirdstone trilogy owes more to The White Goddess (1948) than to any Irish or Welsh source material (p. 44). Juliette Wood’s chapter on “The Celtic Tarot” describes an “imaginative, though unhistorical link between current ideas about Celtic myth and a divination device that dated back only to the eighteenth century” (p. 175).

I am obviously not alone in my misconceptions—and the final essay in this collection—for me, one of the most eye-opening—demonstrates this very clearly. Angela Cox uses Critical discourse analysis to examine the record of a year’s worth of internet discussion by fantasy fans, both readers and writers, in order to get a sense of the way in which fans perceive the role of “Celtic” material in fantasy texts. Her overwhelming finding is that the threads of Celtic material in fantasy are “so strong, consistent and so enmeshed into the very definition of what the fantasy genre is that they become indistinguishable from fantasy genre tropes, and thus functionally invisible to many fantasy readers and even fantasy writers or critics” (p. 196). She also notes that such ubiquitous use of Celticity in fantasy tropes “perpetuates certain colonialist attitudes against Irish and Welsh culture” (p. 196). Further, individual and authentic (for example Irish or Welsh) Celtic elements become invisible because they are associated with fantasy tropes rather than any particular source culture.

Many of these tropes are highlighted in the essays in the collection. Perhaps one of the most obvious and most widely disseminated is the notion of elves, or fairies (not as fairies-at-the-bottom-of-the-garden little people, but as fair, dangerous human-like beings), who are very often identified as the Sidhe. What fantasy reader has not read a novel—urban fantasy or otherwise—for children, young adults, or adults, that features such beings, often involving twin courts duelling for power? Think of Emma Bull’s classic urban fantasy, War for the Oaks (1987), or the recent The Absolute Book (2019) by Elizabeth Knox. K. A. Laity’s chapter discussing the novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2005) identifies “fairy magic” as an example of Celticity and the “romantic association of the Celtic-speaking peoples with ‘fairy’ myth and lore” (p. 18), highlighting the way in which the mythic and the Celtic are a dangerous “other” to the English. Similarly, Viviane Bergue demonstrates the way in which such figures are portrayed in Léa Silhol’s French-language fantasies. Once again, fairies are Celtic, once again strongly influenced by the romantic, Victorian view of them. Fantasy fiction for Silhol, Bergue argues, is “the heir of myth and fairy tale”; “Celtic” folklore is “something ancient, mysterious and deeply concerned with nature” (p. 143).

Indeed, magic generally is something that can be associated with “Celticity,” according to many of the contributors here. Dimitra Fimi suggests in her introduction that one of the questions addressed throughout the collection is what “engagement with things ‘Celtic’” (p. 4) allows authors to do in their creative practice. One answer is that it allows them to present a notion of porousness between our mundane world and a magical one. K. A. Laity identifies the anxiety that arises in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell from such porousness, and much of the central conflict between the English magicians and the Man with the Thistledown Hair is the former’s attempt to keep at bay what they perceive as dangerous, irrational, emotional magic, coded as Celtic because its language is Irish (although Ireland itself is not much featured in the novel). Gwendolen Grant highlights a similar seamlessness between worlds in Alan Garner’s novel Boneland (2012), which she ascribes to Garner’s interest in Celtic mythology and medieval sources. The series title of novels by the Canadian novelist Jodi McIsaac, The Thin Veil, is again suggestive of this notion, as Kris Swank points out in her chapter.

What could be identified as another fantasy trope that arises out of an interest in “Celtic” mythology is the portrayal of strong, beautiful, and dangerous female figures. I have already touched on Gwendolen Grant’s discussion of Alan Garner’s use of the “triple goddess” figure, derived from Robert Graves’s The White Goddess. Grant also ably demonstrates that Garner’s portrayal of a character from Irish mythology, the Morrigan, changes over the course of his Weirdstone trilogy from a rather one-dimensionally wicked character in the first novel to a much more nuanced figure, the psychologist Meg, in Boneland, which Grant notes is closer to the way that the Morrigan appears in Irish sources. Cheryl Morgan comments on a rather idealized portrayal of women in Patricia Kennealy-Morrison’s Keltiad books, which she ascribes at least in part to a popular contemporary history of the Celts that may have influenced the author. Not only is there total gender equality in Keltic society, but the lead character, Ard-Rian Aeron Aoibhell, “is impossibly beautiful, charming, skilled in all sorts of different areas, and beloved by her people.” Morgan continues: “As any popularly perceived Celtic queen should, she has a mass of flaming red hair” (p. 123). Kris Swank’s chapter on the novels of Jodi McIsaac argues persuasively that while the main (female) characters have supernatural gifts that connect them to Irish supernatural figures, their ability to overcome adversity stems as much, or even more, from human and humane qualities that are “necessary accompaniments to ‘goddess-powers’” (p. 67).

Angela Cox comments on the way that “the fantasy genre has become increasingly marked by the practice known as ‘worldbuilding’ and notes dryly that although the members of the fan community placed value in something grounded in historical or literary material, “what qualifies as ‘research’ has a fairly low bar of admission” (p. 200). As reported by Cheryl Morgan, Patricia Kennealy-Morrison’s worldbuilding was effectively pure self-indulgence. In an interview, she declared, “I like spaceships and I like Druids. I wanted to write a book in which I could deal with them both together” (p. 131). Alan Garner has been criticized for adding a mishmash of figures from diverse mythologies in his earlier novels, and Gwendolen Grant’s chapter demonstrates that even in his more mature works, the source material he uses is merged with Jungian philosophy and his own personal mythology.

It was in this context very interesting to read two back-to-back chapters on David Gemmell’s Rigante series. Alistair Sims shows how Gemmell adapts popular mythological or legendary figures to suit his own world; Anthony Smart reveals the way that Gemmell’s worldbuilding has been influenced by Greek and Roman perspectives of the ancient Celts. As Angela Cox notes, the “Celticity” of fantasy is almost taken for granted, resulting in an erasure of authentic cultures, especially Irishness or Welshness (p. 195). Only one scholar in the collection discusses a work that is a specifically Gaelic fantasy, rather than a more generalized “Celtic” one: Duncan Sneddon demonstrates how Iain F. MacLeòid’s novel An Sgoil Dhubh (2014) follows fantasy tropes but uses folktales, Old Irish sagas and Norse tradition to create an “unmistakably Gaelic setting” (p. 156).

Although Fimi declares in her introduction that it would be impossible to cover the great many authors and works that fall within the rubric of this volume, this is nevertheless, it seems to me, a representative selection. The authors discussed range from the very well known (Alan Garner, Susanna Clarke, and David Gemmell) to much less so, from English to Scots and French and North American. Equally refreshing for this reader was the fact that half of the chapters are by independent scholars, thus allowing a voice for those outside of mainstream academia. I wouldn’t dream of suggesting cause and effect, but overall this was a remarkably jargon-free collection. Sometimes reading academic works can be a slog; there was no such problem here (indeed, Cheryl Morgan’s chapter was actually in places laugh-out-loud funny). And I think it’s an important lesson that it is possible to publish thoroughly researched, academically rigorous essays that are also enjoyable to read.

I have one very minor quibble, which is that, to enhance the structure of the book as a whole, the volume could have done with an overall conclusion and perhaps brief introductions to each sub-topic. It might have been helpful to have as a conclusion some kind of brief overview of further reading, covering the large number of works that were perforce omitted here, and perhaps also some thoughts on other areas where some of the very thought-provoking issues raised here might be discussed. For example, I was reminded of a tendency in some fantasy to make use of elements of American Indigenous tradition and mythology that reflects the kind of romanticism, colonialism, and ultimately erasure that is referenced here in regards to “pan-Celticism.” That is a very minor criticism, however, far outweighed by the important issues raised in this collection and its overall value for the study of fantasy as a genre.

Now happily retired, Debbie Gascoyne taught English literature, composition, and creative writing at Camosun College in Victoria for many years. Her PhD thesis was on intertextuality in Diana Wynne Jones, and she continues to read and write about children’s and young adult fantasy. Follow her on Twitter @debbieg.
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