Celtic Myth in Children’s Fantasy

Celtic Myth in Children's Fantasy

Original illustration by Breana Melvin, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

Taught by Visiting Professor Dimitra Fimi

The medieval literature of Ireland and Wales is thought to have saved for posterity the vestiges of what would have been ancient ‘Celtic’ mythology. Tales of heroes, otherworld voyages, transformation and magic have fascinated folklorists and antiquarians since the rediscovery of Celtic texts in the 19th century, and have inspired writers of fantasy literature from Victorian times to today.

This course will examine contemporary (post-World-War-II) fantasy works whose authors have adapted, revised and re-imagined the medieval mythological texts of Ireland and Wales. The course material is divided into two parts:

  1. we will first read and discuss selections from the original sources (Táin Bó Cúailnge, Mabinogion, etc.)
  2. we will then go on to explore the way modern fantasy authors have rewritten this material to address a child or young adult readership.

The course, therefore, serves as a mini-introduction to Celtic mythology, while the focus on children’s and young adult fantasy will allow us to discuss matters of power and ideology, as well as perceptions of Celtic identity in contemporary fiction. The fantasy works we will explore include some of the best, award-winning fantasy of the later 20th century, such as Alan Garner’s The Owl Service (1967, Carnegie Medal), Susan Cooper’s The Grey King (1976, Newbery Medal); and Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider (1986, Tir na n-Og Award).


Course Schedule

Celtic Myth in Children’s Fantasy will meet Monday and Thursday (primary lecture and closing session) from 4:00 pm – 5:30 pm (UTC-5)

Week 1 (January 13 – 17):
Introduction to terms and theoretical debates (including, what does ‘Celtic’ mean anyway?)

Week 2 (January 20 – 24):
An overview of Celtic Mythology and the fantasy literature it has inspired

Week 3 (January 27 – 31):
The Irish sources (1): the Mythological cycle and the Ulster Cycle

Week 4 (February 3 – 7):
The Irish sources (2): the Fenian Cycle

Week 5 (February 10 – 14):
The Welsh sources (1): The Four Branches of the Mabinogi

Week 6 (February 17 – 21):
The Welsh sources (2): Arthurian Welsh sources, Taliesin and Myrddin

Week 7 (February 24 – 28):
Revisiting the ancient Irish deities
Pat O’Shea, The Hounds of the Morrigan (1985)
Kate Thompson, The New Policeman (2005)

Week 8 (March 3 – 7):
Rewriting the legends of Fionn mac Cumhaill
Mary Tannen, The Wizard Children of Finn (1981) and The Lost Legend of Finn (1982)

Week 9 (March 10 – 14):
Adapting the four branches of the Mabinogi (1)
Alan Garner, The Owl Service (1967)
Jenny Nimmo, The Snow Spider (1986), Emlyn’s Moon (1987) and The Chestnut Soldier (1989)

Week 10 (March 17 – 21):
Adapting the four branches of the Mabinogi (2)
Lloyd Alexander, The Book of Three (1964), The Black Cauldron (1965), The Castle of Llyr (1966), Taran Wanderer (1967) and The High King (1968)

Week 11 (March 24 – 28):
Re-imagining the (Welsh) Arthurian legend
Susan Cooper, Over Sea, Under Stone (1965), The Dark is Rising (1973), Greenwitch (1974), The Grey King (1975) and Silver on the Tree (1977)

Week 12 (March 31 – April 4):
Conclusions: Myth, ideology and ‘Celticity’


Required Texts

Students who want to use hard copies of the Celtic texts (Irish and Welsh) can look for the first three translations listed here, but all Celtic texts needed for this class are also available online free of charge (in the public domain) via the links marked with the asterisk. Other translations are also acceptable (e.g. the Jones and Jones Mabinogion).

— Dr. Fimi