One of the reasons I chose to study Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at university is because many of my ongoing novels and other writing projects have their basis in Celtic mythology and history, particularly my Death and Fairies series.
For those who are unaware, D&F is a huge project I’ve been working on in some form since 2010. By huge, I mean it consists of eight books, the last three of which are the first ones I wrote when I thought it was a trilogy, and it spans four hundred years. It has multiple first person narrators, features some very unconventional relationships and unlikely heroes, and involves fairies and a lot of death. As you might have guessed from the name, which was originally a joke, but sort of stuck.
I came to start these books by a roundabout route. When I was about ten, my grandma gave me a book called The New Policeman, which introduced me to Irish music and dance, something I became passionate about. Father Person also decided to tell me about our (distant) Irish heritage and the family connection (maybe) to Niall of the Nine Hostages, about whom I started writing a book. It was terrible. I was eleven, so what can you expect?
My interest in Irish music led me to watch Lord of the Dance, which I quickly became obsessed with, and I took up Irish dancing as well as playing music myself. One day while I was in Foyles — the first time I went there, actually, in October half term 2009 — I saw a book called Lament, which was also the title of my favourite track on the Lord of the Dance soundtrack. Picking it up, I discovered it was about fairies and Irish music and all of those things I was obsessed with.
That was my introduction to Maggie Stiefvater, but it also came at a pivotal point in my writing life, as in November I started writing what would become my first complete novel, however abysmal it was. For Christmas I was given Ballad, Lament’s sequel, and that was the last book I read before I started writing the very first iteration of what is now book six of the Death and Fairies series. At the time it was heavily influenced by Stiefvater’s work, but I think I’ve moved away from that and made it more original over the years.
So. That’s how this started. Now you have the whole story, or what I remember of it, anyway.
I wanted to write more accurately about the mythology and history that I loved, but it was pretty hard to get hold of the information. When I started, I thought I knew a lot from the books I’d read, but the more I researched, the less I felt like I knew, because it all seemed contradictory. I would rewrite to take into account new things I’d learned, as well as to improve the writing itself.
So I thought, “I know what I’ll do. I’ll study this stuff at university.”
(Okay. It didn’t happen quite like that. I stumbled across my course when I was looking for degrees similar to the ‘Irish Music and Dance Performance’ course I was considering, and typing in keywords like ‘Irish’ and ‘Celtic’. So again, the music and performance led me here. What a song and dance all this has been. EYYYYY PUN
I looked at various Celtic Studies courses and ultimately found myself here, at Cambridge, studying possibly the weirdest course the university offers and certainly the most esoteric.
And to some extent, it worked. As part of the research for those novels, I mean. The more I read about the Old Irish system of fosterage, the more I want to integrate that into the worldbuilding for D&F, and the more I think about how it would affect my characters. The more I learn about important social spheres, like kings, poets, and warriors, the more I think about which of my characters would fit into which category, and how I could subvert and use those.
That said, it can sometimes mean I’m making notes on texts that aren’t exactly related to my essay titles. I might be reading The Wisdom of the Outlaw to research ‘the problems involved in any attempt to chart the literary development of the legend of Finn mac Cumaill’, but what I’m actually thinking is how it can be applied to my character Irial, who fulfills the outcast-warrior-poet role that Finn also occupies.
Or maybe I’m reading Duanaire Finn to get a handle on the material I’m working with (I happen to be working on Finn at the moment: there’s plenty else in Irish Lit that I could use as an example here) and I start noting down certain lines of the poems. Because they’re relevant to an essay title? Because I think I might need them in exams? Nope. Because they remind me of characters, scenes, and ideas I explore in my books.
Plus there’s the age-old problem that the more I learn, the less I know. I often joke that ASNaC exams should, like QI, come with a ‘nobody knows’ option. Medieval literature and history is a difficult topic because you’re always working with incomplete information, and whatever I read in more basic texts is probably actually only theory.
You think you know what happened at the Battle of Hastings? Turns out we don’t know if Harold actually got an arrow in the eye, because the Bayeaux Tapestry (which isn’t actually a tapestry, it’s embroidered) doesn’t specify which of the figures in that panel is meant to be Harold. Your primary school history lessons were a lie. DEAL WITH IT. And that’s my entire degree in a nutshell.
So I thought I knew the basics of Irish mythology, but it turns out there’s really no such thing. What we have are representations by writers (usually from a Christian perspective) who were transcribing stories in their own way from a period considerably earlier. We have folklore — a lot of what I ‘knew’ is far more recent, by which I mean seventeenth or eighteenth century. And we have vague ideas from archaeological evidence that’s nearly impossible to interpret for certain.
I know more, but I know less.
What I’ve basically resigned myself to, though, is that Death and Fairies will not emerge unscathed. In fact, I’ve already planned some worldbuilding overhauls that are going to change parts of it dramatically, hopefully for the better. By the time I graduate, this is not going to be anything like the book I wrote in 2010. And thank the goddess Danu for that… because really, it was terrible.
It can feel like a waste. Five years of work and very little of it’s going to last. Why bother? But ultimately, those five years were what I needed to reach this point. Without them, I wouldn’t have these responses to my studies, and I wouldn’t think this way. They’re what make it interesting to me.
So I guess it wasn’t a waste after all.