Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Celtic Fantasy

The Celtic Matters of Ireland, Scotland and Wales – and indeed of Brittany, Cornwall and the Isle of Man – have all boiled together in the Cauldron of Story. From this, many authors distil a Fantasyland region peopled with what Diana Wynne Jones's «The Tough Guide to Fantasyland» (1996) calls "Pancelts". The coinage is flippantly intended; but a generalized Celticism can indeed drive powerful fantasies like Paul Hazel's Finnbranch cycle. Katharine Kerr's Kingdom of Deverry series is likewise Panceltic, to the extent of including an invented "Celtic" language; the term can be applied also to the Celtic echoes of Charles de Lint and others.

The Welsh strain of CF has been particularly influential, owing to its links with Arthur and its single, accessible and temptingly unpolished Taproot Text, the Mabinogion. This was first successfully mined by Kenneth Morris for his fine Pwyll diptych (1914, 1930). Evangeline Walton efficiently novelized the Mabinogion's Fourth Branch as The Virgin and the Swine (1936; vt The Island of the Mighty 1970); her versions of the remaining Branches followed in the 1970s. Meanwhile, Lloyd Alexander had freely rearranged Mabinogion elements and Welsh geography for younger readers in his successful Prydain quintet (1964-1968), while Alan Garner's The Owl Service (1967) imagined the mythic glare of Llew's and Blodeuwedd's (Fourth Branch) tragedy refracted through modern adolescent relationships. Katherine Kurtz's popular Deryni CF series is set in a remapped Alternate-World Wales incorporating traces of Ireland. Susan Cooper drew on CF in her The Dark is Rising series, especially The Grey King (1975), with its Welsh mountain setting and glimpse of Arthur beneath; the Mari Llwyd, a skeleton horse (and literal nightmare) is effectively menacing in Silver on the Tree (1977). Deep echoes from Welsh/Arthurian CF resound in Robert P Holdstock's Mythago books; but Arthur's presence tends to absorb CF into the broader Matter of Britain, as also happens with the Cornish segments of Fay Sampson's fine Revisionist Fantasy Daughter of Tintagel.

Irish CF has roots which include the initially exuberant and later darkening Myths of the warrior hero Cuchulain, and tales of Finn Mac Cool the legendary Giant. But it is also cursed with leprechauns, frequently encountered in Humour and Slick Fantasy. James Stephens's The Crock of Gold (1912) is a classic seriocomic treatment of the Little Folk and other figures of Irish myth interacting with a modern world of philosophers and policemen. Lord Dunsany's The Curse of the Wise Woman (1933) powerfully evokes the Irish bog country, with a final element of ambiguous fantasy: for a whole stormy night the eponymous Witch conjures the bog which, as she dies, engulfs the machinery of its exploiters. Flann O'Brien wove further Irish myths into his joyously experimental At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), including Finn Mac Cool and a pooka. L Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt sent their Incomplete Enchanter Harold Shea to the Land-of-Fable Ireland in "The Green Magician" (1954), which features Druids, geases (> Curses) and a manic-depressive Cuchulain. Mildred Downey Broxon's Too Long a Sacrifice (1981) interestingly thrusts Irish mythic archetypes into the contemporary Troubles. Peter Tremayne's Raven of Destiny (1984) unusually involves its Irish hero in the Celtic invasion of Greece in 279BC; Pat O'Shea's The Hounds of the Mórrigan (1985) pleasingly Crosshatches modern and legendary Ireland in a fast-moving Children's Fantasy (>>> Mórrígan). The Cuchulain stories are effectively retold in Gregory Frost's Tain series.

Scots CF examples seem less numerous, perhaps owing to the spuriousness of the Ossian poems which James Macpherson (1736-1796) claimed to have translated rather than fabricated; these annexed Irish figures for a Scots pseudo-mythos, with Finn Mac Cool becoming Fingal, etc. C J Cherryh's Faery in Shadow (1993 UK) mourns Thinning in a land-of-fable Scotland. The Lord of Middle Air (1994) by Michael Scott Rohan builds on 13th-century legends surrounding the scholar Michael Scot, the "Border Wizard", here a real Wizard who can open Portals to Faerie; he had already been mythologized in The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805) by Sir Walter Scott. [DRL]

see also: Kenneth C Flint; Paul Hazel; Morgan Llywelyn.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.