Saturday, March 17, 2012

WATERSPELL’s Celtic Connections

     In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, here’s an excerpt from a Q&A in which I talk about the Celtic elements in the WATERSPELL trilogy.

     “The goals of science and magic are identical: the unlocking of the mysteries of Nature.” —Michael Patrick Hearn, Introduction to The Annotated Wizard of Oz. W.W. Norton, 2000

     To the unlearned common folk of the Middle Ages, science was magic. The two have always rubbed shoulders. Alchemy was a blend of philosophy, mysticism, and chemistry. The Druids—the original “wizards”—were the intellectuals and learned professionals of ancient Celtic society. I suspect they got their reputation for working magic from their knowledge of astronomy—being able to predict eclipses, alignments of the planets and such—and their skill as physicians, curing the ill with herbal remedies. Such knowledge was potent: revered and feared. They took pains to preserve their mystique by keeping their lore secret. Knowledge was not written down, but was passed orally to new initiates. Druidic poets, for example, spoke “in a dark tongue” so that the uninitiated could not understand. It’s easy to see how and why the ignorant masses would begin to think that these learned professionals were actually working magic.

     In fact, the English language still reflects this connection in the words grammar and glamour. I read in David Crystal’s fascinating Encyclopedia of the English Language an etymology of the two words that shows the close ties between science and magic. Grammar had come into the language by the early 14th century. To the illiterate, the word came to be identified with the mysterious world of the scholar, and therefore developed the sense of “learning” in general, and then of “the incomprehensible,” and even of “black magic.” Later, in 18th-century Scottish English, a form appears that is spelled with an l—glamour—which retains its magical sense. Mr. Crystal points out that the Scottish poet Robert Burns links the two words in referring to gypsies who “deal in glamour” and those who are “deep-read in hell’s black grammar” (1781). Glamour developed the sense of “enchantment” or “charm.” Katharine Briggs, in An Encyclopedia of Fairies, defines “glamour,” in terms of fairy-lore, as “an enchantment cast over the senses, so that things were perceived or not perceived as the enchanter wished.” By that definition, I can certainly claim that there’s a good deal of glamour in WATERSPELL—and good grammar, too!

Q: And quite a lot of research, it seems. Aren’t there echoes of Scottish and Irish English in the books, and many references to traditional folklore?

A: Yes, I made a deliberate effort to pay my respects to those great old Irish and Scottish storytellers who are a link to the Celtic mythology that underpins much of the genre. Readers who are familiar with Irish Fairy & Folk Tales (1892, edited by William Butler Yeats) may recognize some of the uses I’ve made of the vernacular and common sayings or figures of speech. For instance, at one point my melancholy sorcerer, Lord Verek, tells Carin: “It's a long lane that has no turning.” That’s an adage taken from “The Kildare Pooka,” by Patrick Kennedy—one of the selections Yeats included in his anthology. Sharp eyes may also notice that I’ve adapted to my purposes that old saying: “Rowan, amber and red thread / Puts witches to their speed.”

Q: Does WATERSPELL take its inspiration from Celtic mythology?

A: Broadly and indirectly, yes. When I started reading the early Irish legends and Celtic myths, I was looking mainly for “the telling detail”—authentic figures of speech, colorful descriptive terms, gritty background textures. But as I read, I noticed that aspects of the mythology had their counterparts in this fantasy I was writing. Or vice versa. For instance, water often has mystical qualities in the legends: Irish rivers like the Boyne were held sacred. It’s pretty obvious from the series title—WATERSPELL—that water has magical properties in my story, too. The traditions tell of quests, leading into the Otherworld and back. “Other worlds” figure prominently in WATERSPELL: the premise that what’s harmless in one world or reality may prove deadly if it arrives, whether innocently or by skullduggery, where it doesn’t belong. Also central to my work is the heroic quest, undertaken to gain information or wisdom, to bring healing, or to find or restore lost objects.

     I am by no means an expert on Irish legends. Given the huge number of books that have been produced on the subject and the very few of them that I’ve read, I can barely claim a nodding acquaintance. My sole aim, in working into my writings details from the legends, is to make WATERSPELL “fit” into the world of Celtic mythology the way Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings fits with traditional Scandinavian mythology. Katharine Briggs said of Tolkien’s work: “The whole was not decorated but deepened by the use of traditional folklore which gave it that sense of being rooted in the earth which is the gift of folklore to literature.” That’s what I’m after: to create a fantasy world that’s rooted deeply in an ancient tradition.

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