Reviews 2017

Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy: Idealization, Identity, Ideology

Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy: Idealization, Identity, Ideology. Dimitra Fimi. London: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2017. xiii + 305 pages. £66.93 (hardback).

Dimitra Fimi’s Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy, part of Palgrave/MacMillan’s series of Critical Approach to Children’s Literature, is a clear, substantial, and original contribution to fantasy studies. Building on and extending previous work by Donna R. White, C. W. Sullivan, and others, Fimi traces the mythic and literary sources of children’s fantasies set in variously distanced versions of Wales and Ireland (other Celtic lands such as Cornwall, the highlands of Scotland, the Isle of Man, and Brittany are mentioned but not explored in the same depth). Fimi goes beyond mere source study, however, in two important ways. First, she draws on contemporary adaptation theory to look at the end product, and not just the appearance of this or that mytheme or folk motif. Second, invoking the critical perspective associated with Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition, she seeks to disentangle the various strands of folklore, history, medieval literature, and archaeology that are commonly woven together to make up the Romanticized, syncretizing, and backdated version of the Celtic past that, following Patrick Sims-Williams, she calls "Celticity." Celticity is represented in the efforts of Yeats and Lady Gregory to (re)construct an Irish mythology and in the White Goddess theories of Robert Graves. Celticity sometimes results in untestable but intriguing hypotheses about continuities between Bronze Age Britain and Medieval texts such as the Mabinogion—and sometimes in outright fabrications, such as the third series of Welsh "triads," much of which was simply made up by Iolo Morganwg early in the nineteenth century.

What do we gain by applying this skeptical lens to stories that are framed as fantastic inventions? In the hands of a subtle and sensitive reader like Fimi, we gain a great deal. I will take a small example from a work I know well: Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. Amid many other observations about Garner’s use of Welsh settings, conflicts, and legendary materials, Fimi offers a fascinating genealogy for a line chanted by Huw, the half-mad, dispossessed hereditary lord of the valley: "Come, apple-sweet murmurer; come, harp of my gladness; come, summer, come" (32). Like many of the details in Garner’s novel, the line is musical, mysterious, and magical. It sets the scene for the advent of Blodeuwedd, who, in the Mabinogion, was made of flowers to be the bride of Llew Llaw Gyffes but betrayed him and was turned into an owl by his wizard guardian Gwydion. The immediate source of the line, Fimi tells us, is the 1911 Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race, by T. W. Rolleston, in which the Irish deity the Dagda calls for his harp using the "murmurer" and "summer" phrases though not the metaphoric "harp of my gladness" (Fimi 168). Rolleston’s source, in turn, is an 1873 mistranslation by Eugene O’Curry of a Medieval Irish saga, the Cath Maige Tuired. The result, says Fimi, is that "Huw’s chant makes him a parallel to one of the most powerful supernatural characters of medieval Irish literature, implying an organic connection between Irish and Welsh medieval cultures as a part of 'Celtic' heritage and identity" (169). When The Owl Service was turned into a BBC series with Garner as screenwriter, he gave the same lines to the modern-day character Alison as she is becoming possessed by Blodeuwedd, but added further lines taken from a poem by Robert Graves. Thus Garner not only follows the Victorian scholar in connecting Welsh folklore and Irish mythic literature but also draws on Graves’s spurious but highly poetic theory of the Celtic White Goddess, with Alison/Blodeuwedd as one of Her incarnations.

My one reservation about Fimi’s study is that she sometimes seems to disapprove of the whole myth-making enterprise because of its weak philological and historical origins. Her chapter on Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, for instance, is subtitled "Building Fantasy on Forgery." While this turns out to be literally the case (the forgery being Morganwg’s Triads), it seems to imply that the shaky foundation somehow invalidates Alexander’s achievement. I do not think Fimi means this, and her concluding chapter goes beyond tracing and critiquing sources to identifying "the new political and ideological meanings this process has generated for a child or teenage readership" (266). If the Victorians and their successors constructed a mythic past that never existed, the imaginative use of that past by writers such as Garner, Alexander, Kate Thompson, Jenny Nimmo, and many others goes a long way toward justifying their dubious scholarship. My recommendation is to read the chain of transmission as continuous: the O’Currys and Rollestons were indeed inventing a tradition, but then so were the writers of medieval manuscripts and the Roman recorders of savage Northern traditions, and so are the modern fantasists. Myths are always being reinvented and always disguising their own recent advent with a cloak of antiquity. In this case (as with Ovid or for Elias Lönnrot, compiler of the Kalavala), the end result is a body of fascinating, sometimes powerful modern storytelling on mythic themes.

The best results come when Fimi reads these chains of invention and tradition as responses to, rather than flawed recordings of, Welsh and Irish tradition. She does a fine job of tracing the various relationships between authors and the materials they use: writers who left Ireland (like Pat O’Shea) or who arrived there as adults (like Thompson); writers who drew on Welsh ancestry (like Susan Cooper) or a single visit to Wales (like Alexander); and writers who wrote about the Celtic lands from the vantage point of the Irish diaspora (like American Mary Tannen). In each of these cases, the idea of the place and its mythic heritage seems to be all the stronger for being variously interrupted and recreated. Readers interested in these stories and their often-shared taproot texts (to use John Clute’s term for the source materials behind modern fantasy) will want to read not only Fimi’s thoughtful analyses but also her extensive notes and bibliography.

Brian Attebery
Idaho State University, USA

Works Cited

Garner, Alan. The Owl Service. London: Collins, 1967.