REVIEW by Linda Rhinehart

NWR Issue r17

Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children's Fantasy: Idealization, Identity, Ideology (Dimitra Fimi, 2017)

by Dimitri Fimi

In her investigation of the use of Irish and Welsh mythology in literature for children in recent years, Dimitra Fimi discusses Pat O'Shea's The Hounds of the Morrigan (1985) Kate Thompson's The New Policeman (2005), Mary Tannen's The Wizard Children of Finn (1981) and The Lost Legend of Finn (1982), Henry Neff's The Tapestry series (2007-2014), Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain series (1964-1968), Alan Garner's The Owl Service (1967), Jenny Nimmo's The Magician Trilogy (1986-1989), Catherine Fisher's Darkhenge (2005) and Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising Sequence (1965-1977). Although the title of the book refers to 'children's' literature, many of the books Fimi analyses could more accurately be labelled as 'young adult' due to the inclusion of teenagers as protagonists.

Fimi notes the preoccupation with certain mythical figures, such as the Daghdha and the Morrigan in the Irish tradition, and Taliesin and Gwydion from the Mabinogion as well as King Arthur and others related to his legend in the Welsh tradition. Very often these figures are linked to modern-day protagonists in some way (either through direct parentage, or through some kind of spiritual 'possession') as a way of connecting the past to the present, emphasising the importance of shared 'bloodlines' and landscapes and suggesting a promise of renewal.

She states that ‘issues of power and ideology…are central to the critical tradition of children’s literature’ (p. 15), and she demonstrates this assertion in detail in the chapters that follow, showing that children’s book authors insert their own ideas about history, morality and politics into their works, intending to instruct their young readers how to properly grasp mythology. She likewise shows that most writers have preconceptions of these myths from other sources, with a particular emphasis on Robert Graves' The White Goddess (1948). Often these preconceptions are based on romanticised versions of much-earlier myths and stories instead of on the myths themselves, meaning that contemporary writers are often using Victorian or 19th century sources instead of more ‘authentic’ Celtic ones. It is also inevitable that authors will have their works shaped by more ‘modern’ morals, as Fimi describes in the case of Neff’s Tapestry series, where the hero, who is intended to be a modern version of the mythological Irish hero Cú Chulainn, hesitates to kill his opponents, unlike his ancient counterpart.

Fimi succeeds in examining more deeply the source material behind some recent children’s literature, demonstrating once again that material intended for younger people is worthy of serious scholarly consideration. Her investigation further shows that the boundaries between children’s and adult fiction, ‘serious’ and ‘entertaining’ fiction, and ‘historically accurate’ and ‘fantasy’ fiction can easily become blurred, and that these categories are often problematic. She also succeeds in establishing a continuous link between the ancient myths of Ireland and Wales and more recent reinterpretations, all the way up to modern times, and argues that the notion of identity, and in particular national identity, is intimately connected to these myths. Often ideas of resistance against a larger, hegemonic cultural forces have been formulated through the use of Celtic myth, as is the case with King Arthur or Cú Chulainn. One aspect which could have merited further discussion is why ‘Celtic’ stories are so popular in the first place, and why they are so often used as a backdrop or an influence in contemporary tales for young people. The time period which Fimi has chosen as ‘contemporary’, ranging from the 1960s to the early 21st century, makes chronological and ideological sense, however one wonders if the differences between very recent Celtic-inspired children’s fiction and earlier books could be discussed more, as scholarship in the field of Celtic studies has advanced a great deal in the last 50 years. She begins her volume with a short discussion and analysis of common fantasy tropes and types of fantasy worlds. However, here the notion of ‘fantasy’ itself could be further deconstructed, especially since, as she herself admits, many books do not fit into the neat categories she outlines (‘high fantasy’ vs. ‘low fantasy’, for example), and many Celtic myths were originally presented as being ‘historical’ or religious in nature rather than mere stories.

The chapter on Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence is of particular interest, as Cooper presents a different version of the Arthurian legend than is commonly made use of in children’s (and other) fiction. I found the constant use of quotation marks around the word 'Celtic' to be somewhat distracting, and some books, such as Garner's and Nimmo's, seemed in need of more analysis. Yet generally, the conclusions that Fimi comes to are easy to follow, and she manages to shine new light on already well-read children’s classics. Her explanations of why she chose the works that she did is satisfactory, and overall the book


previous review: No Man's Land
next review: Diary of the Last Man


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