Celtic Europe–East of the Sun

Our reading adventures this week take us to very familiar territory–or does it? The Western world has long been credited with producing the best literature, beginning in ancient Greece and Rome, then migrating to England where it has pretty much remained ever since. But before England was invaded six times, producing a race of invaders that proceeded to carry the tradition to all the surrounding nations and beyond, the island and its neighbours were inhabited by many different people. Most notably today we are going to talk about the Celts–early settlers of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

BlackCauldron7Each of these countries, despite their similar cultural roots, has their own mythological epic. Ireland’s greatest saga is the Tain. Queen Mab of Ireland gets into an argument with her husbadn one night over who posesses the most wealth. To settle it they start counting everything they own the next day, and it eventually comes out that the king owns a prized bull without equal, and in that respect only is he richer than his queen. To settle the score, Mab summons her best warriors and makes war with the Welsh over a bull they have that is the equal of her husband’s.

The Welsh, apparently, remember that battle differently, for they make no mention of it in their saga– the Mabigonion. The Mabigonion is a patch-work collection of legends and sagas that may contain the original sources of some of the great King Arthur legends that would later come into being, but at its heart it’s a story of how the people of Wales go to war with the Irish after they mistreat one of their princesses. There are giants in the Mabigonion. There are talking heads. Not metaphorical talkings heads–actual heads, severed from bodies, that continue to talk. The Mabigonion is also remarkable for introducing the world to its cauldron–a magical pot that reanimates dead soldiers, and may be an early archetype for the Holy Grail.

Of course, the earliest known saga of England is Beowulf, and it is seen as much more Viking in nature than properly English. By the time the English language got around to being invented, nobody believed in fairies or dragons any more. What English is really good for is writing down all the stories of the people who came before, and preserving the memory of cultures long-since vanished. The entire kingdom of Lyonesse, for example, no longer exists, because it literally sank into the ocean.

changelingToday’s list includes both retellings of ancient stories and modern speculative fiction that incorporates Celtic elements. Don’t forget to come back on Wednesday to see our interview with Simon Morden–a British author who’s styles are almost as diverse as his characters. And if you haven’t registered for prizes yet, be sure to do so!

Suggested Reading

The Mabigonion–Evangeline Walton (Welsh)
Deirdre–Madeline A. Polland (Irish)
The Prydain Chronicles–Lloyd Alexander (Welsh)
Perilous Garde–Elizabeth Marie Pope (Old Celtic)
Heart–Simon Morden (King Arthur)
The Raven Cycle–Maggie Stievater (Welsh)
The Changeling Sea–Patricia A. McKillip (Irish)

If you have a favorite Celtic inspired book, let us know and we’ll add it to the list!


Katie Lynn Daniels is the author of Supervillain of the Day, and the mastermind behind Vaguely Circular. She blogs about science and things that are peripherally related to science. You can read all her posts here.


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