Gaelic Folklore in Fantasy

For the second essay in my Fantasy Inspiration series, I want to talk about the history and use of Gaelic folklore in Fantasy. From my experience the most prominent examples of Gaelic myth and folklore in Fantasy are from Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher series of books, and Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. If you’ve chatted with me about fantasy books, I’ve probably proselytized to you about Wheel of Time. It was finding the close ties Robert Jordan wove into the Wheel of Time that drew me to Gaelic folklore. From there I have loved digging into these myths and legends, and found more parallels as I read and researched for this post. I hope you enjoy.

Brief History of Gaelic Folklore

Gaelic Folklore, like Norse myth, originated in oral tradition. Unlike Norse Myth though, there is is significantly more extant texts of pre-Christian Gaelic Mythology. Though some of the known texts have been lost to time and Viking raids, much more survives to create a rich tapestry of mythology. The documents that survive describe four cycles, each of these cycles are overlapping stories about the Ireland. There are so many great resources online to read about each of these cycles, I will just touch on them briefly.

Mythological Cycle

The Mythological Cycle tells the tale of the Tuatha De Danann. The Tuatha De Danann (translated as Tribe of Danu) are a God or God-like people that were some of the original inhabitants of Ireland. Christian sources are known to have explicitly avoiding referring to other beings as Gods, so it is likely that when these stories were written down, the gods of Ireland were changed to god-like beings. The Mythological Cycle tells the tale of the six invasions of Ireland, starting with the Tuatha De Danann and ending with the Milesians (mortals) driving the Tuatha de Danann into sidhes (fairy mounds). Though not described in the Mythological Cycle, the Tuatha de Danann may have come from the ‘Celtic Otherworld’, known as Tír na nÓg (Land of the Young).

Ulster Cycle

The Ulster Cycle mainly focuses on the reign of King Conchobar mac Nessa. Many of the stories focus on his family. One of the most famous poems included in the Ulster Cycle is “The Cattle Raid of Cooley”, which describes the nephew of King Conchobar, Cu Chulainn defending their lands from Medb (anglicized Maeve). Cu Chulainn acts as a great hero would, defeating all the heroes Medb can throw at him and successfully defends their lands by himself.

Fenian Cycle

The Fenian Cycle, also called the Ossianic Cycle, is narrated by Oisin. Chronologically it is the third of the cycles and focuses on a hero, Fionn mac Cumhaill and his soldiers. Oisin is a poet and the son of Fionn mac Cumhaill. I don’t want to just paraphrase the Wikipedia article so I will link here.

Fionn mac Cumhaill

Cycle of the Kings (Historical Cycle)

The final cycle in the chronology is the aptly named Cycle of the Kings. This takes us through a medieval history of the mythic Kings of Ireland starting as early as the 431 BC.

More Resources: Cycle of Kings

Gaelic Myth in Fantasy

Tuatha Dé Danann (Tribe of Danu)

The Tuatha Dé Danann are a mythical race of supernatural beings that inhabited Ireland. The Tuatha Dé Danann ruled Ireland for a long period of time, fending off many invasions. Readers of Wheel of Time will recognize the word tuatha immediately, as it is used multiple times in the series. Robert Jordan used this word in much the same way as it is used in Celtic tradition. Jordan uses ‘tuatha’ as the Old Tongue for ancient groups of people. Tuatha’an and Atha’an Miere, the Traveling People and the People of the Sea.

Though I have for a long time thought that Tolkien leaned heavily on Celtic folklore, a topic you can find an essay on here, it turns out to not be the case. If you dig into the essay itself, you’ll notice that the author notes that Tolkien has ‘vehemently denied’ any link between the Tuatha Dé Danann and his elves, but they then say it’s ‘irresponsible’ to not draw the parallels. The author then goes on to reject Tolkien’s rejection of Celtic influence, instead arguing that the cultural influences that are present in Tolkien’s works and the similarities between elves and Tuatha Dé Danann are more than coincidental. I would trust his own words over an essay written eighty years later:

“Needless to say they are not Celtic! Neither are the tales. I do know Celtic things (many in their original languages Irish and Welsh), and feel for them a certain distaste: largely for their fundamental unreason. They have bright colour, but are like a broken stained glass window reassembled without design.”

Tolkien, J.R.R.. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (p. 26). HMH Books. Kindle Edition.

After the Tuatha Dé Danann were driven out of Ireland by the Milesians, they started to become refereed to as the aos sí, or the people of the mounds.

Aos Sí

The aos sí are also known as aes sidhe or daoine síth, or the ‘people of the mounds’. They are frequently described as stunningly beautiful. My mind immediately makes the leap to the Aes Sedai of the Wheel of Time universe and the Aen Seidhe of the Witcher universe. Aes Sedai are magic users with the ability to channel the energy of the Wheel of Time. It’s possible to see these magic users as god-like beings because of their ability to control the the power of creation. The aos sí are known to be strikingly beautiful. One of the most prominent characteristics of Aes Sedai is their ageless beauty, a side effect of the use of magic.

Riders of the Sidhe (1911) – John Duncan)

In the world of the Witcher, the Aen Seidhe are an elven race very similar to Tolkien’s elves. They arrived on the Continent, where the tales of the Witcher occur, several thousand years before humans. They are subsequently forced into hiding by the humans, where they wage a guerilla campaign to retain their land.

Both the Tuatha De Danann of Gaelic myth and Aen Seidhe arrived in their lands and inhabited them for a long time, only to be forced out by the arrival of humans. Besides the cultural and situational similarities, many of the names of the Aen Seidhe carry characteristics of Gaelic culture.

The Aen Elle, a separate race of elf-like characters in The Witcher, reside in Tir na Lia. Tir na Lia is a city in separate world from the main story, from which the Aen Elle interact with the primary characters. In Celtic myth, Tír na nÓg is the Otherworld and realm of the Tuatha De Danann. Though the Aen Elle seem to more closely resemble dark elves of Norse Mythology, the naming convention is a clear parallel.

Oisin and Tir na Nog – Pascal Simon Gerard

Originally I intended this post to be longer, but as the needs of parenthood, work and novel writing have stressed my time, I think I will leave my brief analysis here for the time being. That said, there are many many more parallels in literary Fantasy drawn from the Gaelic Myth that I have not delved into here. I will quickly run through some of the one’s I intended to dig further into but did not.

Seanchan – Wheel of Time invaders from across the Aryth Ocean. Seanchai, are traditional Gaelic historians. The derivative word seanchai means ‘bearer of old lore’ in Irish Gaelic. This aligns nicely with the role the Seanchan play in the Wheel of Time story, as they return from across the sea bearing the lore of a thousand years before. Additionally, the writer Senchan Torpeist was Gaelic-Irish poet married to Brigit, a potential reference to Brigitte Silverbow.

Bran the Blessed – A character from the Welsh side of Celtic myth was the King of Britain. You may recognize Bran as a famous name in the Game of Thrones Stark Family. For an on the nose reference, Bran means raven in Welsh.

Star Wars Sith– Whether or not this is an intentional reference, the word síth in ‘daoine síth’ is Scottish Gaelic for the ‘aos sí’. Having dug into this on the internet, I could not find anything indicating the reference is intentional, and the connections seem tenuous enough I would not confidently state that George Lucas drew on Gaelic Mythology.

Thank you for reading. What did I miss? I have barely scratched the surface of Gaelic Mythology and it’s influence on literary fantasy. I’ve found that having returned to work following an extended paternity leave I don’t actually have nearly as much time to work on and research for these posts as I hoped. I would like to continue producing these comparisons as I find them fascinating, but they may come more sporadically in the future.

Disclaimer: After writing this, I realized that I have been using the terms Gaelic and Celtic mythology interchangeable. This is incorrect. While Gaelic Mythology is part of Celtic myth, the opposite is not necessarily true. Celtic culture spanned a wide part of western Europe, including the northern part of the Iberian peninsula as well as Welsh, Cornish, and Breton culture in addition to Scottish and Irish culture. These cultures all produced unique myth which I have not explored in detail. I may return to these other mythology groups another time.

Best,
JL

If you’re enjoying my writing, or find a factual inaccuracy, please let me know! You can find me on Facebook @writerlarkin or on Twitter @larkinwriter. Thanks again for reading.

Published by writerlarkin

Neuroscience and Research Project Manager background; deep passion for all things fantasy and writing and mythology!

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