Awhile back, Dave Ritzlin here at the DMR blog asked me to recommend some good Celtic fantasy fiction. Today being Celtic New Year's Day, it seemed appropriate to start off the New Year with a list of quality Celtic fiction.
To be honest, I can't say that I like the vast majority of the fantasy which has been marketed or labeled as "Celtic." As the late, great Steve Tompkins noted long, long ago, "cheapjack Celticism" has reigned o'er the land of Celtic fantasy since at least the 1980s. Languid, matriarchal tree-huggery tends to be the order of the day in most "Celtic" fiction, with the authors in question either being pig-ignorant of Celtic history and culture or cherry-picking to suit their (boring) take on the subject.
Which is a shame, since the various Celtic peoples were bloody and dynamic, contentious and dramatic. The Celtic imagination ranks second to none in world literature, yet, often as not, the average "Celtic" novel is concerned with whom the winsome--but strong!--heroine will finally choose as a mate or the shambolic efforts of some tribe to save their sacred grove. There is no reason why Celtic novels can't have the same amount of blood n' thunder as their Viking/Germanic counterparts, along with the greater supernatural firepower available in Celtic folklore. All that said, not every work of fiction listed below is a breakneck, bloody feasting of swords. In some, the pace is slower, but the quality is there and the Celticness--as undefinable as that is--is there.
For those wanting to cleanse some of the tainted, cheapjack Celticism from their literary palates, perhaps it's best to start over and go back to the wellsprings of Celtic fantasy fiction. Retellings of various Celtic legends and myths tend to be among the best exemplars of Celtic fantasy.
The Ossianic Tales: I know some of you may take a step back seeing me list the works of James Macpherson. Calm down. In my opinion, Macpherson--while not blameless--has gotten a bad rap in regard to the charges of forgery. Guilty or not, Macpherson is the foundational figure in the history of Celtic fantasy. His works enjoyed huge popularity. Goethe and Robert E. Howard were both fans of his. You can find all the Ossianic tales here.
Tain and Remscela: I've read at least five retellings of the Tain Bo Cuailnge/Cuchullain's saga. This is the best. Bawdy and bloody--like the original--and it nails the Irishness of the protagonists. Frost spent months bicycling around Ireland researching the story and just getting to know the Irish. I highly recommend these.
Mabinogion Tetralogy: Evangeline Walton's classic, lyrical novelization of the Welsh national epic. Her writing style strikes me as somewhere between Rosemary Sutcliff and Tanith Lee. If that makes sense.
The Isles of the Blest: Morgan Llewelyn recounts the Irish tale of Connla, who followed a Sidhe-woman to Tir-nan-Og. Some mayhem and sex, but the highlights are the glimpses into the land of Tir-nan-Og itself, as well as ponderings on a monotonous immortality versus a short life lived to the full.
The White Raven: The legend of Tristan and Iseult presented by an author with solid knowledge of the archaeology of the period. A fair amount of bloody mayhem and hot sex. Plausible, low-level magic. Set during the post-Arthur heroic era of Brittany and Cornwall.
Chronicles of Fionn mac Cumhal: Diana L. Paxson retells the saga of the preeminent Irish folk-hero. While I felt that it dragged at times, this is still the best rendition so far. As with The White Raven, there is blood, sex and magic.
The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun: Tolkien's translation of this ancient Breton tale is accurate and well-wrought. A classic story dealing with the common Celtic theme of an Otherworld woman attempting to steal the love of a mortal man. As Douglas A. Anderson notes, JRRT's rendering even scans well with the ballad music traditionally associated with the tale.
Legends and Romances of Brittany: Who was an influence on Robert E. Howard, Sean Connery and Robert Plant? The Scottish politician and scholar, Lewis Spence. Besides being an activist and savant, Spence was also a gifted poet and prose stylist. His vocabulary and use of language in Legends and Romances of Brittany reminds me somewhat of REH. An excellent primer on the Breton legends.
The Chronicles of the Celts: This volume by Peter Berresford Ellis is probably the best one-stop shopping option out there. He hits 'em all, with sections devoted even to the Manx and the Cornish. An excellent primer.
The Book of Conquests and The Silver Arm: Artist Jim Fitzpatrick grew up in the west of Ireland listening to tales of the Tuatha de Danaan. The Book of Conquests and The Silver Arm are his love letters to Irish myth, recounting the wars with the Fomorians and the rise of Lugh. The art is magnificent and the prose isn't half bad. Any decent novel of Celtic fiction should have a Fitzpatrick cover, in my opinion.
Well, time waits for no man and I'm fresh out of it. Guess I'll have to list my faves in the categories of Celtic Historical Fantasy and "Celtic" Fantasy in Part Two. Besides, I didn't want any of the Gentle Readers here at the DMR blog to post a comment saying only "TL;DR."