Enchantment permeates Celtic mythology, shrouding the tales in a haunting, dreamlike quality. The all-pervasive otherworld lies behind much of the mystery and magic, penetrating the forests and lakes, and crafting charmed rings and weapons such as King Arthur’s sword Excalibur. There are in fact many otherworlds of Celtic myth: invisible realms of gods and spirits, fairies, elves and misshapen giants, some of them sparkling heavens while others are brooding hells. The veil between the visible and invisible worlds is gossamer-thin and easily torn, allowing seers, bards and some privileged heroes to pass in and out on spirit-flights or journeys of the soul. Common gateways to the otherworld are by water and across narrow bridges, beneath mounds or wells which hide glittering subterranean paradises or dark purgatories. Above all, it is on the eve of Samhain, October 31, that all the gates to the otherworld open and spirits emerge from beneath the hollow hills.
The archetypal inspired bard was Thomas the Rhymer, who slipped in and out of the otherworld, drawing on divine sources of inspiration for his poetry. Bards, like druids, possessed supernatural powers of prophecy and inspiration when seized by awen, the divine muse. Their power to satirize with the glam dicin, an undermining song, made them more feared than fierce warriors. Another famous bard from Celtic mythology was Taliesin (“shining brow”), who was gifted with all-knowing vision when he drank three drops of knowledge from the cauldron of the witch Ceridwen. The Mabinogion is the title given to a collection of eleven prose stories collated from medieval Welsh manuscripts in which Taliesin is quoted as saying “I am old, I am new. I have been dead, I have been alive.”
But the otherworld is just as often depicted as a perilous place in Celtic myth. The Enchanted Forest of Arthurian legend was alive with beguiling fairy maidens, who often taunted errant knights. One such, Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci, was a banshee who attracted mortal lovers for her own amusement, inspiring them with a hopeless infatuation and then leaving them bereft of will or purpose until they withered on the lake, “alone and palely loitering”. Pwyll, a Welsh chieftain, was another hero who fell foul of the otherworld. After riding through a lush, wooded idyll, he suddenly found himself in the otherworldly realm of Annwn. After driving off some shining white hounds from a fallen stag, he encountered Arawn, the grey-clad ruler of the underworld. Arawn was the Lord of Winter, who fought an annual battle with Havgan, the Summer King, and asked Pwyll to swap places with him for a year, at the end of which Pwyll fought and won the seasonal duel.
Even the great wizard Merlin, wise and thoughtful though he was, became enchanted by the ravishing Lady of the Lake, Nimue. Despite Merlin’s foresight, he allowed himself to be lured deep beneath a stone and bound there by his own magic spells. In another legend, Nimue put Merlin into a trance beneath a thorn tree and then trailed her veil around him, creating an invisible tower of air in which he was trapped forever. It is said that his voice can still be heard in the plaintive rustling of leaves. Above all it is Balor and his misshapen people, the Fomorii, who symbolize the dark forces of the otherworld. They oppressed the Irish with crushing tributes and cruelty and Balor’s single eye paralysed his enemies with its deadly gaze. The Fomorii were finally defeated by the Tuatha De Danann, the children of the goddess Dana, at the second battle of Magh Tuireadh, at which Balor was slain by the hero Lugh of the Long Arm.
The classic takes on Celtic mythology are The Mists of Avalon by Marion Bradley, The Pendragon Cycle by Stephen Lawhead and The Arthurian Saga by Mary Stewart – all of which are books that have reached almost legendary status in fantasy circles. Although they are lighter and are usually considered books for children, Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising Sequence and Jenny Nimmo’s Snow Spider trilogy are also all highly recommended for anyone with even a slight interest in Celtic lore. The aforementioned Stephen Lawhead wrote an intriguing re-imagining of Celtic myth and legend with his Song of Albion series, where the present mingles seamlessly with the mythic past, a pastiche which was employed to far greater acclaim in Robert Holdstock’s Mythago novels. For an interesting slant on the conflict between the Fomorii and the Tuatha De Danann, read Mark Chadbourn’s Age of Misrule trilogy, in which a new Dark Age descends on Britain as the two ancient races of demi-gods bring their conflict to the 21st century. Chadbourn’s stirring depiction of a gritty, post-apocalypse world inhabited by dragons and other mythological creatures in which the beleaguered remnants of humanity struggle for survival is as good as any other fantasy series out there and totally authentic in its references to Celtic myth. All well worth a look if you find the Mabinogion hard going!