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The Witchwood Crown by Tad Williams
 

The Witchwood Crown

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Wading in the Cultural Shallows: How Irish Mythology Became A Commodity for Fantasy

One night at a party I was introduced to a woman who proudly informed told me she’d named her baby daughter ‘Banshee’ in celebration of her Irish heritage. Even at the time I was pretty stunned by the announcement. For an Irish person (and I would have thought most people would have known this), this was the equivalent to naming her daughter – Death.

About two weeks later, at another party (I had a life back then!), I was cornered by a different woman demanding a translation for the chorus from Clannad’s haunting Theme Song from Harry’s Game. The Irish lyrics for the chorus had been written on her CD sleeve as ‘Fol dol de doh fol-de de day’!) which she thought was absolutely beautiful and must mean something mythically profound.’ Needless to say, she wasn’t particularly impressed when I translated it as ‘La, la la la, la la laaah!’

The Last Leprechaun (Surreal Irish Fantasy that has nothing to do with Ireland)

These are just two examples of the cultural disconnect between Irish people and those who dabble in Irish mythology. They are however only two of the hundreds I’ve personally experienced over the last twenty years or so and I know many other Irish people who’ve had similar experiences. It’s actually a source of continual bemusement to to see how bizarrely and inaccurately our culture’s been represented over that time.

In some respect, Clannad actually bear some responsibility for the situation given that their moody ‘Robin of Sherwood’ and other music (aided in equal amounts by ‘Celtic’ films such as Excalibur etc.) helped to create this situation. During the 1970s and 1980s, with the explosion of fantasy entertainment through books, comics and movies, stories based on Celtic mythology suddenly became extremely hip. Atmospheric visuals and music from musicians such as Clannad and others helped to fan the flames to the point where ‘Celtic Mythology Fantasy’ (what some call ‘Celtic Fantasy’) based entertainment is now a minor industry.

Celtic Mythology = ???

Unfortunately, the term ‘Celtic Mythology’ is a bit of a misnomer. The main problem is that the terms ‘Celtic’ or ‘Celt’ don’t actually mean anything (and therefore can mean whatever you want it to mean). Certainly back in early Europe, there were populations with similar cultural characteristics that the Romans generically referred to as Celts but even amongst those peoples there were substantial cultural differences. In a sense, using the word ‘Celt’ is a bit like using the word ‘European’. Modern-day Europe covers a defined geographical area with populations that have many similar characteristics but, again, the truth is that it’s the differences that define them. A German, for example, wouldn’t primarily identify himself/herself as a European. Neither would a French person. A Welshman wouldn’t identify himself as Irish or vice versa.

Another problem with ‘Celts’ is that the ancient culture referred to as ‘Celts’ (by other people) are pretty much gone (eradicated by the Romans or subsequently colonized out of existence) and the records of them are extremely sparse. Hence, most of the time, the closest thing (Gaelic records or Welsh records) are used instead. Because of their age, the cultural context in these records is very broadly interpreted and their modern-day expression tends to reflect the particular bias of the people interpreting them.

THE SALMON OF KNOWLEDGE

Several years ago, my family attended a friend’s ‘Celtic’ wedding which turned out to be some strange mix of Revisionist Celt, New Age, Wicca and other influences. It was a great celebration and we were having a lot of fun until the marriage ceremony proper began and the celebrants started praying to the Salmon of Knowledge. At that point, my two kids started cracking up and I was struggling to keep a straight face myself because it was immediately obvious what had happened. In their attempts to ‘Celticise’ the ritual, the celebrants had clearly gone through various ‘Celtic’ books (Gaelic books) and selectively pulled out elements that they could incorporate. Unfortunately, because they were missing the cultural context, what they eventually ended up with made absolutely no sense and the poor old salmon was elevated to some kind of symbolic messenger of the Gods. As my daughter said to me a few years later, it was like going to a church as a kid and discovering that everyone was praying to Kermit the Frog.

This is, unfortunately, a common pattern you’ll find in modern fantasy that incorporates Irish mythology. A non-Irish author/film-maker or other creative type will browse through some ‘Celtic’ source book, pluck out a few cultural elements and then rearrange them with other elements to create a narrative that’s subsequently used for commercial entertainment.

Should have been put down at birth of concept.

APPROPRIATION AND EXPLOITATION

The problem, however, is that mythology is CULTURALLY based. Mythology contains elements of fantasy but at its most fundamental it’s an intellectual framework used by our ancestors to make sense of the world around them. Because it’s culturally based, many of the mythological elements and associated context have been passed down through generations and incorporated into national identity and belief systems. Today of course, the use of Irish mythology has been superseded by scientific rationale, but its core narratives remain intrinsically linked to Ireland’s self-identity and cultural values.

From an Irish perspective therefore, when you see your native cultural icons plucked from their normal environment, repackaged in some pseudo-Celtic bullshit and then reproduced out of context in a fantasy product, you can start to appreciate why other native groups complain about the commercial appropriation and exploitation of their cultures. For Irish people in particular, it feels as though we’ve been bombarded by mawkish, overly romanticised and culturally inaccurate interpretations of our own mythology for decades.

Not-So-Mystic Knights of Tir na Nog

The Mystic (cough!) Knights of Tir na Nog – spelled wrong of course!

Even today, if you really want to bug an Irish friend, show him or her a copy of Darby O’Gill and The Little People (starring that famed ‘Irish’ actor … Sean Connery) or perhaps a section from the execrable Mystic Knights of Tir Na nÓg’ (a kind of ‘Oirish Transformers’ television series). Alternatively, you could share the ‘Disneyfied’ commercial version of Fionn mac Cumhaill created by the British National Trust Board at the Giants Causeway or read them any number of twee ‘Oirish Fairytales’. The choice is truly endless but some of them are so culturally offensive they should have been put down at birth of concept.

KICKBACK

Over the last few decades, within all genres, we’ve seen increasing numbers of English-speaking writers explore other ‘exotic’ cultures (and their historical belief systems) as a source of creative inspiration. More recently, however, we’ve also seen increasing kickback from ethnic minorities (and majorities) at the continued misrepresentation of their cultures. This has resulted in an increased use of ‘sensitivity readers’ (and whoever came up with that term needs to have their head examined!) by mainstream publishing companies, although the trend hasn’t really extended to indie publishing.

This situation, I think, reflects a shift in the reading population, in that readers are cottoning onto the fact that some of the ‘cultural’ stories they’re being presented with aren’t exactly authentic. It also reflects increased scrutiny and accountability on authors/publishers who misrepresent other people’s mythology/belief systems. In the fantasy genre, you may recall the recent furore associated with J. K. Rowling’s portrayal of Navajo belief systems in History of Magic in North America, but keep an eye out because you’ll probably be seeing a lot more of this over the years to come.

I don’t believe for a moment that it’s any author’s intention to be offensive when they use mythologies that aren’t their own. In fact, I’d suspect the vast majority of them would be dismayed if they knew their work was somehow considered offensive. Unfortunately, authors write stories based on their own experiences or what they’ve managed to learn and, frankly, sometimes you just don’t know what you don’t know. Different cultures aren’t easily transferable (although if you spend enough time living in them or studying them intensely you can certainly pick up a lot) and this makes wading in the mythological shallows that much more dangerous. This is particularly the case with Irish mythology as there’s so much misinformation already out there (many people, for example, through no fault of their own, still believe W. B. Yeats is a credible authority on Irish mythology!).

The British National Trust reduce a thousand year old cultural hero to a cartoon caricature.

Neither do I believe that Irish people have a particular aversion to non-Irish authors writing fantasy based on Irish mythology. That said, it would probably help if those authors acknowledged it, treated it with a minimum of respect and managed to get even some of the basic cultural context correct. Unfortunately, many ‘Celtic Fantasy’ authors don’t, and in some cases their idea of cultural authenticity is to chuck in some Irish names and a smattering of Gaelic – a language they neither speak nor understand, and care even less about. Given all of this, it’s no surprise Irish mythological fiction has such a bad name among Irish readers and, consequently, Irish writers.

And this is probably one of the saddest ironies about this situation. If you look up any ‘Irish mythology’ or ‘Irish fantasy’ list on Amazon or elsewhere, you’ll struggle to find a single Irish author (although you’ll find plenty of Paddywhackery). This is because most of those authors are non-Irish authors writing a commercial kind of ‘Oirish’ mythology fiction for American/Canadian/Australian etc. markets – not an Irish one. As a result, you now have a bizarre situation where Irish/Gaelic culture has now become a commercial commodity that the English-speaking creative world feel perfectly entitled to use as it sees fit.

A TOUGH CALL

Watching the recent upsurge in protest publishers and film producers, it’s no real surprise to see parallel occurrences with Irish people increasingly pouring online scorn on fantasy authors/filmmakers who couldn’t be bothered to get the basic facts right or who try to establish themselves as authorities on something they clearly don’t understand. With Irish (and Sottish and Welsh etc.) creators now finally starting to reassume control of their own mythology/cultural heritage, it’s more than likely that clashes between ‘authentic Irish’ and ‘commercial Oirish’ are only going to increase from here on in. This is a shame because, at heart, this is essentially a question around how far the argument of creative licence allows you to go in terms of using someone else’s culture for your own commercial benefit. That’s actually a tough call for anyone to make as it comes down to an individual’s personal values and judgement. Given that there’s no real consensus on this at present, for the next few years you can probably expect to keep encountering young girls called ‘Death’ obliviously wreaking cultural havoc at the far ends of the earth.

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14 Comments

  1. Billy Bathgate says:

    Who cares? Authors repurpose and play with mythology all the time. Ask the Greeks and Romans. I love that I’m supposed to feel sorry for the Irish now because people write leprechaun stories. Welcome to the SJW victimization Olympics! Let me know how you do in the medal count.

    • No one is asking you to feel sorry for anyone . . . except the poor girl whose mother named her ‘Banshee’. Did you actually read the article? Because your comment sounds a lot like political knee-jerking that has little relevance to the discussion.

      Please try to keep your comments less antagonistic. There’s absolutely no need for such a confrontational tone here.

      • That girl called Banshee is either going to hate it or she’s going to grow up to star in a series of Mil-SF thrillers from Baen Books

        HOWLING BANSHEE! by John Ringo and Sarah A Hoyt, about a badass Irish-American merc and her crew of badasses. Power armour optional.

      • DDJ says:

        Perhaps Billy could have been a bit less confrontational in tone but his underlying point remains. If we’re not being asked to feel sorry for anyone, then what precisely are we being asked? And why is the girl named Banshee a “poor” victim? What about other Celtic names? Deirdre meant “sorrowful” or “sad one.” Kennedy meant “ugly head.” If I tell you that you made a “nice” post, does your reaction change if you look up the etymology of that word?

        https://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=nice

        You can feel superior to the parent who thought they were celebrating their Irish culture with the name choice if it helps you feel better about yourself but I doubt the historical context will affect the child’s life in any meaningful measure. You can also call it “political knee-jerking” if that helps you dismiss opinions that are different from your own. But I reject much of the underlying philosophy that supports the viewpoint that culture is either sacred or something that can be owned by a select group of people. All culture is an amalgamation of items and beliefs and thoughts taken from other cultures. It’s what we human beings do. We borrow and combine and appropriate. If any of us is guilty of misappropriation, we are all guilty of it. I also think it’s relevant to both the article and your response to Billy to note that one cannot give offense. One can only take it. For those who choose to take offense, have at it. It’s your choice. I have better things to do with my time.

        • Fraser says:

          I think “Banshee” sticks out because it’s not exactly obscure–probably lots more people have heard of banshee as a death omen than, say, have heard what the Salmon of Knowledge is. And the concept of wailing like a banshee is well known even to people who don’t know what a banshee is in folklore. The jokes that kid will deal with ..

          • The article has nothing to do about feeling superior to anyone. The confusion and ridicule that kid I referred to is going to experience (or probably has by now) could have been avoided if her parent had been more connected to her cultural heritage.
            I’m not really sure what you’re on about in the rest of your comment.

  2. Liambp says:

    I too am Irish and I love spotting Celtic references in my fantasy books,films and video games. Films and game however do often give me cause to wince at the (to my ear anyway) mangled pronunciation of Irish names.

    Here is a list I made a few years back of Irish names used in the famous video game “Dragon Age” along with my thoughts on the pronunciation:

    Eamon: should be “Ayemon” not “Eee-mon” (I have a brother called Eamon so I should know 🙂 )
    Riordan: should be “Reardun” not “Ree-ore-dan”
    Niall: should be “Nile” or perhaps “Neel” but not “N-eye-al”
    Fergus: should be “Fur-gus” (don’t remember how it is pronounced in game)
    Connor: Well its just “Connor”, I think they got this one right 🙂
    Bodhan: should be “budan” Can’t remember what they did with this

  3. The thing is, that people complained that they were fed up of the Anglo-Saxon and Greco-Roman settings, and so authors naturally looked elsewhere for something more (or percieved as more) original. If they didn’t understand what they found…did they ever understand or is it only noticeable when it’s your mythology? Brian doesn’t like what the NT has done at the Giant’s Causeway, but the Cornish would, and do, say that the same thing is going on at Tintagel and the erasure of its history in favour of Arthuriana.

    Considering how hard bordering on impossible it would be to create a world completely from scratch with no mythic or historical resonance I’m not sure a meaningful solution – a solution that doesn’t simply shift the problem from one group to another – is possible.

  4. Mica Cooper says:

    I was very keen to read this as am fascinated by ‘Celtic Mythologies’ and by that I mean anything from the United Kingdom. I grew up in a wee place called New Zealand but was well aware of my english/scot heritage. I love folk music and pipes and being an artist am drawn to the art. I had hoped to read a bit about what ‘it was’ rather than wasn’t it your article …. maybe next time. Because I will admit I don’t know much. But and here is my point, I like many people are fascinated by the Irish and Celts. That’s a good thing no?A lot of that is due to these bands and artists and TV shows. We are talking mythology which were made up stories by someone a very long time ago or mis-held beliefs? Mythology is meant to inspire and spark your imagination or teach you a lesson and if someone wants to put their thoughts on what they heard on paper, I will probably read it and dream of an Ireland long ago. See its fantasy … fantasy is not real. I will get a history book out if I want the facts.

    I do get where your coming from being from NZ and living in the UK I had to deal with an awful lot of mis- conceptions about New Zealanders, including sheep jokes …. these days I am sure some people think I actually am a hobbit. But if their misconceptions led to a literary masterpiece or a lighthearted film then I would support that …. its fiction. At the end of the day everyone wants to be Irish and see the support on st pats day (yeah I know fantasy, short people in Ireland are not leprechauns) and I would even marry an Irish man in a heart beat if he promised to talk alot 🙂

  5. Lily says:

    I enjoyed what I was able to read of this article. White on black is more difficult for some of us. I appreciate stylistic variations of color, but usually black text is easier for most to read, despite various uncommon visual conditions. Thank you.

    • Carla says:

      I agree – I usually copy the whole thing and paste it into a Word document if I really want to read it. I didn’t do that today and now all I can see is black stripes in front of my eyes.

  6. […] outside their culture with reverence and sensitivity. This is a topic that has recently come up in an article at Fantasy Faction by Brian O’Sullivan with respect to Celtic, and particularly Irish cultural artifacts. (You can also read my […]

  7. Seems to me that Celtic fantasy got really big in the 70s, usually written by people from the USA, so I always figured that, while they had done some research, they might not have got everything exactly right – just like all the faux-English fantasy does as well. Often this “Celtic” fantasy was very Welsh, and a lot of fantasy lands were just a slightly adjusted Wales with a lot of the names and even geography intact. For the most part I assumed this was explicit rather than an attempt to pass off their inspiration as their own work, and as such it seemed a useful shortcut which made for some very evocative fantasy.

    However, using any real culture as a shortcut to fantasy is always tricky because the author has to balance the needs of the story and their own creativity with the accuracy and respect for what they’ve adapted. The way I see it, if you don’t change much, then you need to be more accurate or at least respectful, but if you change a lot, it may be worth erasing the last links to your shortcut so that readers don’t make false associations.

  8. […] recently I read a post from Wading in the Shadows about cultural appropriation of Celtic mythology. The problem not being appropriation in itself but a)not getting Celtic culture right and b)in […]

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