Celtic Inspired Fantasy and SF

How and Why did you create this Booklist?

I created this page because I’ve gotten so many questions about whether or not various books were based on specific myths, requests for “books like X,” and inquiries about modern retellings of Celtic myth. This is not a complete list of Celtic-inspired SF and fantasy; it is very far from such a list. These are books that I’ve read and liked, an arbitrary and idiosyncratic selection of books that are either directly inspired by particular bits of Celtic myth and folklore, or that, while original, draw on Celtic traditions, myths, and lore. Many of these books are marketed as juvenile or “young adult” novels, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying them.

Other Bibliographic Sources

sullivan_welsh_celtic_myth_fantasySullivan, William III. Welsh Celtic Myth in Modern Fantasy (Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy, No 35). Greenwood: New York, 1989. ISBN 0313249989. I am by no means the first to notice that Celtic myth and folklore are fertile grounds for inspiring writers of fantasy and science-fiction. William Sullivan III, a member of the English department faculty at East Carolina College, in addition to editing an excellent collection of essays on the mabinogi, has published an interesting study of Welsh myth used in contemporary fantasy (Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy, No 35). You can find his essay in on “The Influence of the Mabinogi on Modern Fantasy Literature” published in Celtic Cultural Studies and available here.

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The Prydain Chronicles

Alexander, Lloyd. The Prydain Chronicles (The Book of Three. Yearling Books, 1978. ISBN 0440407028. The Black Cauldron. Yearling Books, 1980. ISBN 0440406498. The Castle of Llyr. Yearling Books, 1974. ISBN 0440411254.Taran Wanderer. Yearling Books, 1969. ISBN 0440484839.The High King. Yearling Books, 1969. ISBN 0440435749.

The Chronicles of Prydain are at least partially responsible for my interest in Celtic languages and myths. I first read them when I was about nine, and loved them. Alexander draws on the medieval Welsh tales in the Mabinogi and the Welsh triads, but really uses them more for names and inspiration than direct plot. The Chronicles involve an assistant pig keeper who longs to be a hero, a wizard with strikingly druidic tendencies, an enchantress, warriors, a cauldron that brings the dead to mute life, a prophetic talking pig in the best Welsh tradition, a quest, and a struggle between good and evil.

There’s a paperback boxed set of the five books of the series: Amazon

There’s also an omnibus edition of all five books for Kindle.

alexander_book_of_three Amazon
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alexander_black_cauldron Amazon
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alexander_castl_of_llyr Amazon
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alexander_taran_wanderer_ Amazon
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alexander_high_king Amazon
Amazon U. K.

Tunnell, Michael O. The Prydain Companion: A Reference Guide to Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles. New York: Henry Holt & Company, Inc.; April 2003). ISBN: 0805072713. This is an encyclopedic guide to all things Prydain. The Prydain Companion: A Reference Guide.

The Borderlands

Terri Windling was the original architect of this shared universe about a community of elves, humans, and halflings living on the border between the mundane human world, and a portal to the elvish otherworld. One Borderland writer describes it as “where Magic meets Rock & Roll.” Windling’s own introduction to the Borderlands is a good place to start exploring. Although a number of well known and talented writers have played in the Borderlands, I have to admit that I tend to favor Bull’s and Shetterly’s contributions over those of their fellows. I also heartily recommend Shetterly and Bull’s own non-Borderlands books.

Bull, Emma. Finder: A Novel of the Borderlands. Tor: New York, 1997; repr. July, 2003. ISBN 0765347776.

Finder is a Borderlands detective novel. The Finder is a mortal named Orient whose fey ability to find the lost, whether animate or inanimate, involves him in a Borderlands police investigation of a murder and a mysterious drug that mortals believe will render them fey. Finder is just one of the novels and short story collections set in the shared universe of the Borderlands. Here’s an online Emma Bull bio and bibliography.

 

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Shetterly, Will. Elsewhere. New York: Tor, 1991. ISBN 0812520033. Ron, a teenage runaway, comes to Bordertown in search of something, and finds lots of things, including questions, friends, and maybe, a few answers. Just read it, OK? It’s good. Trust me. Shetterly’s one of those writers you can rely on.

Shetterly, Will. Never Never. New York: Tor, 1993. ISBN 0812551516. This is, strictly speaking, the sequel to Elsewhere, but it’s also a stand alone novel. Shetterly has managed to capture the voice, and the feelings, of a seventeen year old without being maudlin or condescending. That’s not an easy task for any writer, and it can’t be any easier when your hero is a werewolf. This is one of those books that publishers half-wittedly target as “young adult” novels, which really means they market them as juveniles. This is a book for intelligent adults, of any age. It’s not kid lit. I think I may like it better than Elsewhere, but to tell the truth, I think of them as a single novel the publisher split, even though I’m pretty sure that’s not the case. I also like Shetterly’s recent fantasy novel Dogland. It’s one of those books that have a lot more going on than one might think at first glance; I’m going to have to read it again. Here’s a Will Shetterly web page, and here’s his blog.

Emma Bull (Non-Borderlands)

bull_war_oaksBull, Emma. War for the Oaks. Ace: New York, 1987. Repr. Tor: New York, 2001. ISBN 0765300346. This independent novel, long out of print, was recently reprinted. It’s about an otherworld intruder, a pooka who shape-shifts into a large black dog, and Eddi McCandry, a mortal musician who becomes an unwilling pawn in a fairy civil war, is extremely well done. Bull draws on fairy folklore throughout her novel, but uses it to create fully realized characters. Bull’s work is often cited as an example of “urban fantasy,” but she makes Minneapolis as full of wonder as Tir nan Og. This is one of the books that you really should read. Don’t pass by Bull’s SF either; Bone Dance and Falcon are both exquisite, and there’s even a tangential connection to things Celtic in Falcon, since much of the nomenclature is Welsh.

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C. J. Cherryh

Cherryh, C. J. The Dreaming Tree. DAW: New York, 1997. ISBN 0886777828. This fantasy novel was originally published as two books, The Dreamstone and The Tree of Swords and Jewels. And earlier still, the book has its roots in a limited edition novella called Ealdwood. Cherryh, one of my very favorite authors, and the winner of numerous awards for her SF and Fantasy novels, uses Celtic folklore to create a universe where human and Sidhe live separate but entangled lives, in a connection that permanently affects both worlds. There’s an appendix in the back with a pronunciation guide for the Scottish Gaelic, Welsh and Anglo-Saxon names Cherryh uses, though she does tend to lump Gaelic under the rubric “Celtic.” There’s a well thought out Pooka here as well. Be sure to check C. J. Cherryh’s personal web page.

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Cherryh, C. J. Faery in Shadow. Del Rey, 1994. ISBN 0345372794. This is often described as “darker” than Cherryh’s other novels. It too revolves around the connections between the mortal and the other world, but involves a blood debt, a selchie, and a pooka, and two fey children in crisis.

Susan Cooper: The Dark is Rising

Cooper, Susan. The Dark is Rising. (Boxed set) Aladdin Paperbacks, 1993. ISBN 0020425651. These books Under Sea, Under Stone, The Rising of the Dark, The Green Witch, The Grey King, and Silver on the Tree are loosely tied to the Arthurian mythos; one book features the return of Arthur’s son, and Merlin is a recurring figure. Cooper, inspired by Celtic settings in Cornwall and Wales, does an excellent job of drawing on local folklore and thoroughly integrating it into the plot.

The Dark is Risking five-book omnibus for Kindle

R. A. MacAvoy

Macavoy, R. A. The Grey Horse. New York: Bantam, 1987. . Reprint E-Reads. ISBN 1585860409. Another novel with a pooka, this time an Irish one in a love story that bridges the gap between the mortal and the fey almost effortlessly. It’s been out of print for years, but it’s been reprinted by a small reprint house, and it’s also available as an E-book.

Amazon | Kindle | Amazon UK

 

Patricia McKillip

McKillip, Patricia. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996. Reprint Magic Carpet Books. ISBN 0152008691. This is a book that was initially marketed as a young adult fantasy, but like many such books, could quite easily be considered an adult novel. The heroine comes from a long line of wizards, with a gift for calling magical animals to her, a magnificent lion, a hawk, a talking prophetic pig, a dragon. In her search for the elusive , she discovers love, and finds herself summoned by another wizard collector. Though Beasts of Eld pre-dates the Riddlemaster of Hed trilogy, this book too refers to wizards and masters of lore in the form of riddles, and though it does not draw on any specific myth or tale, is rich with Celtic motifs that are brought to new life.

Amazon

McKillip, Patricia. The Riddlemaster of Hed Complete Trilogy. New York: Del Rey, 1989. The Riddle Master of Hed. ISBN 0345331044. The Heir of Sea and Fire. ISBN . Harpist in the Wind. ISBN 0345324404. These three books are tightly woven together, so it is best to read them in order, though it isn’t compulsory; each book stands well on its own. Unlike many Celtic inspired authors, McKillip doesn’t use a particular myth which she then fleshes out, nor does she “borrow” names. Incident and character are all her own, but the idea of lore contained in riddles, often voiced in triads, the presence of shape-changers, talking pigs, magical pig keepers, and the frequent references to stories associated with riddles, are all very reminiscent of Celtic mythology. These are some of the finest fantasy novels I have ever read; most people either love them or loathe them. The three books have finally been republished as a single volume, under the title Riddle-Master. New York: Ace Books, March 1999. ISBN: 0441005969.

Amazon | Kindle | Amazon UK

 

Mary Stewart: The Merlin Quartet or  The Arthurian Saga

Stewart, Mary. The Crystal Cave. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992. Reprint Eos, 2003. ISBN 0060548258. The Hollow Hills. New York: Ballantine, 1996. Reprint Eos, 2003. ISBN 0060548266. The Last Enchantment. New York: Ballantine, 1996. Reprint EOs, 2003. ISBN 0060548274. The Wicked Day.New York: Ballantine, 1996. Reprint Eos, 2003. ISBN 0060548282. Stewart’s retelling of the Arthurian mythos, based mostly on Geoffrey of Monmouth, but also strongly influenced by Welsh traditions and historical research, is still by far my favorite. Aside from being well-done versions of the Arthurian myth, told largely from Merlin’s point of view, they are good books on their own. The first three books, written from the point of view of Merlin and (in the third) from that of Niniane, are, I think, more enjoyable than the fourth volume, which attempts to portray Mordred as a more sympathetic character, and the fifth and final volume, which borrows the Arthurian background of the previous four, but isn’t directly connected.

There’s a hardcover omnibus edition of the first three books available from Amazon.

  • The Crystal Cave.
  • The Hollow Hills.
  • The Last Enchantment.
  • The Wicked Day.

These are all out of print individually, though there are ebook versions, linked above, and an omnibus edition for Kindle of the first three books.

Books inspired by Tam Lin

Dean, Pamela. Tam Lin. New York: Tor Books, 1992. ISBN 0812544501 .
Dean is an interesting writer. Don’t let the publisher’s habit of labeling her books as “Young Adult,” convince you that she’s dumbing down. This retelling of the Scots ballad Tam Lin, Child 39, is lovely. It’s a female bildungsroman, a love story, and a fantasy, set in a small liberal arts school where not all the faculty and students are what they seem. I’ve noticed that there’s a tendency for some readers to miss the subtlties of Dean’s artistry, so do read her carefully. You’ll be richly rewarded for your efforts. Don’t miss Pamela Dean’s own web site or The Annotated Dean which offers annotations to accompany Dean’s books, which are rich with allusions.

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Pope, Elizabeth Marie. The Perilous Gard. New York: Puffin Books, 1992. ISBN 0618150730. In this young adult novel, winner of a Newberry Honor award, set at the very end of Mary’s reign and the very beginning of Elizabeth the I’s, Pope uses history, myth, and folklore, to create one of the most believable and well-thought out depictions of fairies, and another retelling of the ballad Tam Lin. Her otherworld, and its residents, is fascinating yet horrifying, both repellent and magnificent.

The Perilous Gard. Amazon

Evangeline Walton: The Four Branches of the Mabinogion

Walton, Evangeline. Prince of Annwn ISBN . The Children of Llyr ISBN . The Song of Rhiannon ISBN . The Island of the Mighty ISBN . These books, now hard to find, are more properly described as novelizations than translations of the four medieval Welsh tales known usually as the Mabinogion. Walton has fleshed out the characters, and added rich detail, clearly demonstrating her deep familiarity with and fondness for Celtic myth and folklore, and even Arthurian literature. The four books have just been republished in a combined hardcover.

The Mabinogian Tetralogy for Kindle

2 Comments

  1. I believe that the Robin MacAvoy you cite above is Roberta Ann MacAvoy more commonly know as R. A. MacAvoy. She also has a novel based around the Book of Kells (and called by that name).

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