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Celtic Mythology

in Modern Fiction

More and more often, beautiful fairies, fearsome dragons and loathsome trolls are found in modern bestselling fiction. From Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia to more recent works such as Eragorn and Harry Potter, modern-fantasy bestsellers have one thing in common: they give full play to our imagination. But where do all of these wonderful imaginary creatures originate from?

One source of these legendary creatures can be found in British and Irish Celtic myth and folklore. One purpose of incorporating Celtic legend, e.g. Celtic fairy stories, in modern-fantasy fiction is to present fantasy to adult readers, as according to David Philips “Mothers and nannies read fairytales in nurseries, children enjoyed stories by Lewis Carroll [...] and students read mythology, but few works of fantasy other than Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Jules Verne’s science fiction novels were widely read by adults.’’ Similar to Gulliver’s Travels, Celtic legend and folklore is full of mythical creatures and unknown territories. The reason why Celtic mythology is therefore so easy to incorporate in modern fantasy, is its appeal to imagination.

The Celts themselves, who preferred the fantastical and mythical, had no problem with seeing their mythical and legendary creatures as real. Their faith in their folklore was almost like a religion, where it is entirely reasonable to believe and irrational not to believe. For instance, in Yeats’s Celtic Twilight, Yeats tells us that “One woman told me last Christmas that she did not believe either in hell or in ghosts. Hell she thought was merely an invention got up by the priest to keep people good; and ghosts would not be permitted, she held, to go “trapsin about the earth” at their own free will; “but there are faeries,” she added, “and little leprechauns, and water-horses, and fallen angels.” It appears that the Celtic people have no doubts whether these mythical creatures are real. Despite the connotation of the word ‘myth’ which implies something that is not real, the Celts truly believe in their myth and legend. As it seems mere logic to the Celts that these creatures are real, readers of Celtic mythology in modern fiction likewise see these Celtic creatures as real; while we read the stories of old myth and legend, we accept that there is something other than this earthly life. The deep connection with nature and the supernatural, which the Celts greatly valued, has been transferred through text to the reader’s imaginative powers.

Supposedly, in order to make fiction and imagination coincide, it is not required to create a new imaginary world radically different from our own earthly world. Instead, the notion of the Celtic Otherworld is often portrayed: A world between our earthly world and the afterlife, a world were fairies live, a world where spirits dwell, a world where magic exists (for instance Lorien in The Lord of the Rings, or the Aslan’s country in The Chronicles of Narnia). Instead of portraying the fantastical as something ascribed to a different life in a different world, it is, rather, ascribed to a world which we may enter as well. The mystical creatures which we love in modern fiction, are closer to home than you might expect. Our attraction to a world where humans live alongside mythical creatures is a clear example of the charm of Celtic mythology in modern fiction. We remain fascinated by both the human-like aspects of these creatures and the Other World which relate to the reader, and the inconceivableness of the mythical creatures which allows us to conjure up our own supernatural images. Perhaps seeing isn’t believing, but reading is believing.

by Jolijn Bronneberg

Works Cited

Phillips, David Calvin. Uses of Celtic Legend and Arthurian Romance in J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” Diss. East Texas State U, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1993. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2015.

Yeats, W. B. The Celtic Twilight: Faerie and Folklore. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2004. Print.