Here is a a list of my favorite Celtic novels. Enjoy!
P.S. I'm really, really picky, so it's kind of on the short side.
I admit to preferring the Romanized King Arthur, although I have done the "classic" medieval King Arthur from time to time.The themes here seem to be good research, minimal magic, but above all, good characterization. Well, here goes:
Sword at Sunset, Rosemary Sutcliff
Many consider this the definitive Roman King Arthur novel. Crucial reading, especially for the place names. Morganna and Mordred are especially cruel and "disfunctional" in this one. Shudder!
Lantern Bearers, Rosemary Sutcliff
Sort of a prequel to Sword at Sunset although Arthur does not appear much. It's the story of the son of a Romano-British family who stays on after the withdrawal of the army. It's frightening to watch a way of life collapse, yet it all comes right in the end.
Road to Avalon, Joan Wolf
One of my favorites because it assumes that Arthur is just a little bitter about being abandoned. The love story is especially tragic, yet inspirational in the end. Interesting characterization of Mordred also.
Firelord & Beloved Exile, Parke Godwin
King Arthur is a true Roman general here, and Guenevere is more than his match as his wily Celtic queen. If only they had marriage counseling back then.
Queen of Camelot (dual edition), Nancy McKenzie (has a sequel I haven't read yet)
Yes Guenevere loves Lancelot, but also loves Arthur as well. This novels treats the love triangle with dignity and compassion. I also liked the twist of the grail quest here.
White Raven, Diana L. Paxon - Tristan and Isolde
This retells the Tristan and Isolde story from Isolde's "poor cousin" point of view. Very romantic and bittersweet, but leaves you wondering "Was it worth it?"
The Winter Prince, Elizabeth E. Wein
This is a more Welsh King Arthur, but in an "alternate" universe where Arthur and Guenevere have a legitimate, if sickly, heir. Can he and Mordred form a lasting attachment? Hmm...
Avalon, Stephen R. Lawhead
We all have a fantasy in which Arthur comes back to save Britain, but how many of us imagine he's in a referendum to maintain the monarchy? Fun take on monarchy and the electoral process in the modern era.
It's not at the highest literary level, but it captures the uniue combination of magic, sex and violence found in all the Celtic classics. Plus, you can't beat the Old Irish chant and the appearances of young Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, Gabriel Byrne AND Helen Mirren as Morgana.
The Eagle and the Raven, Pauline Gegdge
This is the story of both Caradoc and Boudicca who unsuccessfully tried to resist Roman rule. The ironic twist is that the love story works out for Caradoc, even though his land loses its freedom.
Eagle of the Ninth, Rosemary Sutcliff
Of course Britain does assimilate into the Empire (sort of) and Roman culture becomes an important influence on later British Celtic culture. But the transition was none too smooth as this story of a young Roman officer in Britain shows. Still he decides to stay in the end.
I find this one interesting because it turns Britain, which still had strong memories of being a colonial super power, into a colony like India. I imagine the relationship between the British and India was much the same mixture of admiration and loathing on both sides.
Crown in Candlelight, Rosemary Hawley Jarman
If you like your historical novels full of love, tragedy and a touch of mysticism, then go no further. This is the story of Owen Tudor who fell in love with Queen Katherine and begat the line of Henry VII. It also happens during the Owen Glyndwr rebellion, so there's drama there. It's told from both Catherine'spoint of view and Welsh Hywelis, a healing woman with the "gift" who also loves Tudor. I like this one because the mysticism is presented in a matter of fact way making Hywelis a little too wise for her own peace of mind. Catherine is also sympathetic as French princess with a mad father who loves both Henry V because he represents escape and later Owen Tudor because he is the quinitessential romantic Welsh bard warrior.Sadily out of print, but worth looking around for.
Here Be Dragons, Sharon Kay Penman
Sharon Kay Penman's story about Llywelyn the Great who fights off both King John and rival Welsh princes in an attempt to forge a politically viable Welsh nation. He succeeds in his lifetime, which is interesting but has to make some pretty painful compromises with the English to do it. One of the main subplots is his marriage with King John's daughter Joan (Siwan in Welsh). It becomes a love match, but she does have an adulterous affair at some point for some reason even she is not sure about. Interestingly, Llywely banishes her, but decides to forgive her and bring her back to court (see the next play for more on that).
Siwan, Saunders Lewis
This was originally written in Welsh, but is available in English. This play focuses on when Llywelyn finds out his queen Siwan (Joan) is having an affair, banishes her, but then forgives her at the end. In this version, Llywelyn loves Siwan, but she's more ambivalent. One the the harsher lines in this play is Siwan saying "I gave my womb to politics."
Evan Evans mystery series, Rhys Bowe
A twee rural village mystery series which is entertaining yet compelling. Evan Evans is a Welsh speaker who returns to his hometown after spending too much time in tough Swansea (which has a relatively high crime rate). It's one of those villages where a lot of quirky outsiders come to die, but it's all plausable. It has some great modern touches, like a day trip to France through the Chunnel, as well as authentic Welsh village moments. Bowen's a native so she knows whereof she is speaking.
Teresa Edgerton (Green Lion Trilogy & Kingdom of Celydon Trilogy)
These novels show what you can do when you actually read Middle Welsh litetature. None of these are retellings of either the Mabinogi or King Arthur, but they capture the drama and the magic of the literature. The magic is particularly subtle - no need for swords and fireballs when a bouncing a spell off a mirror might do just as well. And it's sort of fun to see how the leading ladies mess with the heads of earnest rightdoing heroes...they gotta learn the facts of life sometime.
The second trilogy is a fun side trip into the "pre-Christian" era and shows how actions (good and bad) tend to linger even when they're no longer "relevant."
Aria Comic Book
The ocassional adventures of a sidhe woman Kildare passing her time running an antiquities shop in the Village (Lower Manhattan) and trying to make sure the mortals don't get too damaged when they mess around with the magic world. It's known for its art, but I like the writing by Brian Holguin which captures the idea of Celtic magic as being only a few degrees astray from our reality. Kildare is eternally hip and beautiful, but the story of why she leaves London is as wrenching as any ancient Celtic story.
This is one of the few Welsh language movies to make it to the U.S., so I had to watch it. Hedd Wyn was the bardic name of a youn WWI soldier who won the poetry chair in the National Eisteddfod for a pastoral poem about Wales. But when they called out the winner, it was revealed that he had been killed in action, so it became the "Black Chair." This could have easily been a very sacharinne story, but fortunately the movie presents Hedd Wyn as a handsome rogue with a gift for words and a bevy of women to appreciate his talents. He has been dabbling in poetry contests, but hadn't reached his full potential until he was "inspired" by the war to remember home. Although it depicts the brutality of the war vividly, it is non-judgemental about it, allowing at least some of the English soldiers to show compassion for the situation.
This is another Welsh language movie about English kids being sent to rural Wales in the WWII. I don't remember too much about it other than that Welsh kids can be just as bratty as anyone else. Still, it's worth watching.
The Man who Went Up a Hill... vs. Waking Ned Devine
It's sort of interesting to compare twee rural village comedies from Wales, Ireland ( Waking Ned Devine, etc.) and Scotland (Local Hero). I think Local Hero (see below) is the smartest of them all, but the others are not a bad way to spend a rainy evening.
The Man Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain is the Welsh one with Hugh Grant coming to a village to demote a border Welsh mountain into a hill because it was only 990 feet. Sure enough, the villagers work together to distract Hugh Grant and sneak in enough extra dirt at night to get it up to the required 1000 feet and save it from the dreaded demotio. There are some good Welsh touches such as all the nicknames (Johnny Twp and Johnny Shellshocked), but there's some heart too, such as when the villagers rally around Johnny Shellshicked during a particularly bad episode. One other touch I liked was how the movie felt it was important to explain WHY they needed to do this to get over the post-WWI blues and preserve border town pride. We can't have unjustified silliness here!
In contrast, there's no guilt in the Irish Waking Ned Devine. If a man with no relatives dies and he's holding the winning lottery ticket, you do what you have to get that ticket and claim the money. Well, maybe there should be a pause to ponder Ned's life, but hey let's remember what the true meaning of a winning lottery ticket is. Lots of fun in this rural village.
One of the ultimate MacBeth novels where MacBeth is a beloved, but wily prince of Gaelic and Viking descent who plays on an international political stage. If you think Highlanders were always stuck in a cycle of eternal clan wars among their sheep herds, read this immediately.
This is the story of Francis Crawford, a multi-talented Renaissance man whose needle sharp tongue and some badly timed political misfortunes land him into a world of trouble. By the time the series is done he's been to France, Scotland, Istanbul, Russia, England, back to France then home. He has many "issues", so most of his friends and family are exhausted by providing emotional support while trying not to wring his neck. Not surprisingly, tough love turns out to be the best solution for him.
Although it's one of the most beloved modern Scottish historical novel series, it's not so much a Celtic series as story of a very complicated individual living in "interesting times." The day I understood some of Crawford's behavior, I knew it was time to re-examine my life. The only "Celtic" theme I can see is one of maintaining a national identity while playing on a modern world stage. Can you play with the "big boys" in the world arena and still be Scottish/Welsh/Irish? The answer is a definitive yes!
A Hungarian-American whose family took on the name "McIntyre" goes to the Highlands to scout a location for a new oil refinery. Mocks just about every bad Scottish stereotype possible while providing a great virtual field trip to the Highlands. When you see the Presbyterian minister from Africa who stayed because "I just fell in love with the place" you know you are in the hands of a true expert.
From the maker of Local Hero. It's a great teen romance that could take place anywhere, but happens to be in Scotland. Hollywood should learn from this, but I wonder how bad a big-studio remake would be?
This movie presents the crushing realization that Scots live in cities and get high on the weekends. Some get addicted to heroin, just like in every other European metro region. Fortunately, they still make classic anti-English insults and go off to London to get rich (after a detour in rehab).
Never use this as a presentation of the facts, but the "Freedom" speech is truly stirring and it does provides the definitive answer to the eternal "what IS under those kilts" debate. (Only Scots should ever be allowed to make kilt jokes - they do them the best). I also like the portrait of Robert the Bruce as a cynical man who gets sucked into patriotism in spite of himself. I'm not sure how accurate that is either, but it makes for interesting viewing (kind of like the 1930's version of Richard III which is more enjoyable now that you don't have to worry about historical accuracy.)
She's not the queen of the historical Irish novel for nothing.
Gráine, Morgan Llywelyn
The story of the "Irish pirate queen", Gráine (Grace) O' Malley who give the English a few difficulties and forced them to negotiate a bit. This is probably one of my favorites since it manages to paint a heroic picture of the Irish while not making the English comic book villians. Also, Gráine is well characterized as a woman who likes to command, but still feels the sacrifice of not leading a "normal" life. Her true love is a man who knows when to fight her and when to duck.
Lion of Ireland, Morgan Llywelyn
One of her earliest novels was about the High King Brian Boru, the leader who united Ireland and was able to dislodge the Vikings permanently. Full of subplots, intrigue, tragedy and tender moments - the way all historical epics should be.
Red Branch, Morgan Llywelyn
A historical "retelling" of the CúChulain stories from the Táin. This one is interesting because it doesn't just re-tell the story in a historical setting, but also explores how CúChulain is fatally attracted to warfare, often against his better judgement. It's an even closer parallel to that other Indo-European classic war epic, the Iliad.
Bard, Morgan Llywelyn
This one is wildly speculative (did the pre-Celtic population really just disappear into another dimension?), but fun reading nonetheless.
Irish Magic I & II, Morgan Llywelyn, ed
Just because you have to look for these in the Romance section does not make them unworthy. Both volumes contain thoughtful, well researched love stories based on Heroic Age Ireland and Irish mythology. I wish I could say the same about Scottish Magic and other collections in the genre (sigh).
Book of Kells, Patricia McKillop
A time travel romance to Viking Age Ireland with all the blood, gore and muck. Some stay in the past, but some come forward. Affectionate, but not sentimental.
Grey Horse, Patricia McKillop
What's a shapeshifting sidhe man to do in 19th century Ireland when the British are determined to "civilize" the Irish? Why marry a woman of true Irish sprit - even if that's not exactly what she had in mind. A lyrical story set in a small fishing village. It makes me want to drive to JFK Airport and take the next flight to Shannon Airport.
Last Rainbow ( Saint Patrick), Parke Godwin
If you are offended by the idea of Saint Patrick having a non-chaste love affair with a Pictish princess, this is not for you. However, I liked it because it talked a little about the differences in some early Christain sects, and described Patrick's emotional journey from Irish slave to Irish savior. A little new Agey, but respectful of the tradition of Christianity in Celtic societies.
The Secret of Roan Inis (Seal Island)
A G-rated movie guaranteed not to make anyone gag. Two siblings come to be with their older relatives during the War and end up hanging out in the village and learning about their heritage on Roan Inis. Includes a selkie ancestress.
The Irish band which sings classic blues. Who can resist a movie with a soundtrack like this? It also contains one of the most perceptive social comments I have ever heard - "The Irish are the Blacks of Europe." It sounds flippant, but actually explains a lot...
There are some excellent movies about Ireland, but in my opinion no movie about Ireland should be made unless: it's filmed in Ireland, the leads are from Ireland, and either the script writer or director are Irish. Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise with Irish accents doesn't do it for me. I haven't seen the Gangs of New York, but frankly I'm a little scared to based on the previews I've seen.
Fortunately, there are some movies from the Isles which I have enjoyed and found moving.
Sins of the Father
As a person of Protestant culture, it is a good reminder that fighting terrorism (which I do think is both wrong and counterproductive) is no excuse for dispensing with civil rights and doing a hatchet jobs on investigations. Plus, I thought the U2 theme song was excellent.
Cal and The Crying Game
On the other hand, we can't forget how destructive terrorism is. Cal is a good look at the appeal of extremism for a young disaffected man, but how it's destructive in the end. As for the The Crying Game, I appreciated the Helsinki Syndrome bonding between an IRA member and a British soldier at the begining of the movie, but was disappointed with the "surprise twist" in the second part.
© Elizabeth J. Pyatt,
2004. All rights reserved.
LAST UPDATE: March 8, 2001.