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, 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 might also want to read 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 Prydain Chronicles are 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 of Prydain 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, all of which are in the best Welsh tradition, a quest, and a struggle between good and evil.

In 2015, Henry Holt published a special 50th anniversary edition of all the books; they have extra materials (including things like additional short stories, pronunciation guides, etc.) so I’m linking to them, though I am nostalgically fond of the previous editions covers.

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.

Lloyd Alexander. The Book of Three.
This anniversary edition includes bonus materials; an interview with Lloyd Alexander, a Prydain short story, the first chapter of the next Prydain book (The Black Cauldron, a Newbery Honor book), an author’s note, and a pronunciation guide.

Since The Book of Three was first published in 1964, young readers have been enthralled by the adventures of Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper and his quest to become a hero. Taran is joined by an engaging cast of characters that includes Eilonwy, the strong-willed and sharp-tongued princess; Fflewddur Fflam, the hyperbole-prone bard; the ever-faithful Gurgi; and the curmudgeonly Doli — all of whom have become involved in an epic struggle between good and evil that shapes the fate of the legendary land of Prydain.

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Lloyd Alexander. The Black Cauldron.

In the land of Prydain, evil is never far away. Arawn, Lord of the Land of Death, has been building an army of dark warriors to take over Prydain, and the only way to stop him is to destroy the Black Cauldron he uses to create his dreaded soldiers. Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper and his loyal companions must journey deep into Arawn’s domain to destroy the Black Cauldron. For each of them, the quest has a special meaning. For Taran, it is the glorious opportunity to use his first sword in battle. But war requires a sacrifice greater than he’d ever imagined. . . .

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Lloyd Alexander. The Castle of Llyr.

Princess Eilonwy hates to leave her friend Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper, and her beloved home, Caer Dallben. Why does she have to go to the Isle of Mona to train as a proper lady when she’s already a princess? But Eilonwy soon faces much more than the ordeal of becoming a dignified young maiden, for she possesses magical powers sought by the evil enchantress Queen Achren.

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Lloyd Alexander. Taran Wanderer.

Taran is an Assistant Pig-Keeper no longer–he has become a hero. Now he dreams of winning the hand of Princess Eilonwy, but how can someone who has spent his whole life caring for a pig hope to marry royalty? Taran must find out who he really is. Eager to learn his origins and hoping to discover noble roots, Taran sets off with the faithful Gurgi.

The journey takes the companions to the three witches in the Marshes of Morva and through the many realms of Prydain. At last they reach the mystical Mirror of Llunet, which reveals a person’s true identity. Yet Taran may not be ready to face the truth. . . .

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Lloyd Alexander. The High King.

When the most powerful weapon in the land of Prydain falls into the hands of Arawn, Lord of the Land of Death, Taran and Prince Gwydion rally an army to stand up to the dark forces.

The companions’ last and greatest quest is also their most perilous. The biting cold of winter is upon them, adding to the danger they already face. Their journey, fraught with battle and bloodshed, ends at the very portal of Arawn’s stronghold. There, Taran is faced with the most crucial decision of his life.

In this breathtaking Newbery Medal-winning conclusion to The Chronicles of Prydain, the faithful friends face the ultimate war between good and evil.

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Lloyd Alexander. The Foundling: And Other Tales of Prydain (The Chronicles of Prydain)

A companion book to The Chronicles of Prydain, this collection of short stories revisits beloved characters and reveals more about the history of the magical land of Prydain.

Here, readers will find Dallben, destined to be an enchanter; Angharad, a princess of the House of Llyr; Kadwyr, the rascal crow; and Medwyn, the mystical protector of all animals. They’ll learn the grim history of the sword of Dyrnwyn and even find out how Fflewddur Fflam came by his enchanted harp. How did Coll rescue Hen Wen when she disappeared at the hand of Arawn, Lord of the Land of Death? Find the answer to this question and many more, in The Foundling: And Other Tales of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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