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So Maybe I’m Going to Scotland for a Degree in Celtic Literature… But Also For Dragons!

Last week, I explained that I’m going to Scotland for very important reasons.  You know, things like acquiring a castle, finding dragons, locating Narnia, procuring the services of a brownie, and watching sheep frolick in the heather.  I will definitely be making the most of my time there.  What better reasons do I need?

Okay, fine, so I might work on a degree while I’m at it…  If you must know, I did apply to the University of Edinburgh to earn a degree in Celtic studies (clearly, brownies, castles, Narnia, and dragons are closely related, so I feel justified in those extracurricular pursuits).  If you want, I can even tell you what this degree of mine is going to focus on.  Actually, since this is my post, I can do what I want, right? My post, my rules.  You have no choice in the matter!  Hahaha!

Is anyone still reading?

….. Hello?

Well, never mind that.  I have things to say.  My degree is officially called an MSc by Research in Celtic Languages and Literature.  Basically, I get to spend my days reading stories about Celtic heroes and writing a paper about my own particular interests in the Celtic field.

I chose the Celtic Otherworld.  With my general obsession regarding portals to Narnia and finding magical creatures, it’s probably not that surprising that I want to study the underlying inspiration for magical worlds in English literature.

Fortunately, this one did not sing showtunes. Unfortunately, it also did not bear Erik or myself off to a magical kingdom.

Most of you have probably read a novel or two that have characters who are transported to other worlds.  It might be a doorway, an incantation in an old book, a mysterious cave, or a ride on a big pink pegasus who sings showtunes (don’t ask – I haven’t read that one either, but I might have to write the story now…).

The fact is, in western literature, the idea of entering a magical land owes its existence and inspiring details to the Celts.  If you look at other major mythologies, such as the Norse or Greek myths, magical otherworlds don’t exist.  There is only one plane of existence.  For the Norse culture, that plane of existence includes divided realms, but those realms are all connected by the great tree Yggdrasil.  You can go from one to the next with the right knowledge and power.  There’s nothing “out of this world” about it, merely “out of this circle.”

For the Greeks, our world exists along with the divine realm of Olympus and the dark realm of Hades, the underworld.  Again, they are connected and can be reached through physical journeys on the right roads.

No such divisions exist for the Celts.  Trying to uncover the magic of the Celtic religion is tricky because they didn’t write anything down.  However, bits of pieces of old religion can be pieced together through archaeology and later texts penned by Christian monks in the medieval period.  What seems to exist are parallel worlds.  Like a Celtic knot, the worlds of magic and mundane are intertwined, distinct and connected at the same time.

Monks like Brother Aedan or young Brendan from the fanciful and beautiful movie The Secret of Kells were faithful in writing down stories as they heard them.

For the Celts, it is possible to pass into a forest and simulatoneously pass into Faerie.  The forest can be just a forest or it can be a portal.  At the right time for the right person, it is a portal.  Tomorrow for someone else, it is just a forest.  Time and space fluctuate and the Otherworld connects and disconnects with this world, every so often allowing someone to pass through and experience Faerie.

So, when we read those books about magical worlds, our immediate acceptance of the general storyline is rooted in Celtic myth and a mindset that allows for other worlds that can somehow be reached from our own.  Any other literary heritage in western civilization might include magic, but not those portals to supernatural places not physically distant, but in another dimension entirely.

How could this not be a passage to somewhere magical? At the time between times, of course.

So why am I going to Scotland (besides the brownies and dragons and castles and Narnia wardrobe and the sheep/heather/frolicking)?  I’m going to write a paper about the Otherworld, where it came from, what we know about the core Celtic beliefs, and how it made its way into English literature and the books that we know and read and love today.

But mostly for the dragons.

A Book to Share: Entwined by Heather Dixon

Reading new books that have neither been recommended by friends nor advertised on some trustworthy site (like this one!) as a good book is very dangerous.  It is hard to find a decent book to begin with, so sticking with recommendations and trusted reviewers is usually the best way to avoid wasted time, frustration, and potential literacide (the murder of a book, in case my brilliant wordsmithing was unclear – movies commit literacide all the time, you know).

However, sometimes I give in to a certain weakness despite myself. It is a weakness that has cost me a lot of money and really isn’t often worth it.  On the other hand, my bookshelf looks very pretty as a result.

What I’m talking about is judging a book by its cover.  Yes, I do it.  Yes, I know that it is the height of irony for someone as opposed to clichés as I am to give in to such a particularly heinous one.  I just can’t help it!

I love these kinds of books!

Books are meant to be pretty.  I truly lament the fact that books today are usually cheaply bound and often have the most uninspiring covers imaginable.  I particularly adore old books with engraved covers and pages that seem to have their own special texture.  That’s what a real book should look like.  Sadly, that is rarely the case anymore.  People prefer cheap books over pretty ones.  After all, it’s what the book says that matters, right?

*insert despairing sigh here*

This has lead me to purchase hardbound copies of books I already own simply because they came out with a new version with prettier covers than the ones I had.  It has also lead me down the dangerous path of purchasing books because the covers are just so darn awesome.

Now, before you judge me too harshly, I do read the backs of the books and usually the first chapter before I buy a book with which I am not acquainted.  I do make sure it’s about something that might conceivably interest me.  But I also admit that my judgment becomes somewhat inhibited when the cover is a gorgeous portrait and involves a lovely dragon, castle, or shiny object.  I just love the way that a beautiful book looks on a shelf.  I hate when a good book has a bad cover.  It almost ruins it for me.

Unfortunately, books with good covers can be truly awful books and I’ve thrown more than one away that was just so bad that even the pretty cover wasn’t enough to leave it on my shelf.   Nonetheless, I continue to purchase novels that I don’t know anything about in large part because of the prettiness of the cover.  And sometimes, I even get lucky and find a good one!  (That does continue to feed my addiction, of course…)

Am I not justified in loving this cover?

Such a book is Entwined by Heather Dixon.   The cover is beautiful and tantalizing, a girl in a ball gown exploring a misty fantasy realm, complete with castle.  I was lost from the moment I saw it.  But the plotline did sound interesting too!

I love books that are based on fairy tales, such as Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (she has others as well, but that’s her best work)  or Goose Girl by Shannon Hale.  Fairy tale retellings can, of course, be poorly done, but I love the idea of taking the short and usually unembellished stories and turning them into engrossing and complicated novels in which the characters have personalities, motivations, and backgrounds.  Entwined takes the fairy tale of the twelve dancing princesses and turns it into a lengthy and engaging story that closely follows the lives of the princesses in a world that feels like nineteenth century England, but isn’t.

The original fairy tale does not spend any time at all with the princesses.  They are merely the reason for the hero to achieve his rise to fame and power.  In Entwined, the princesses are central and an entirely lovable group of girls.  The story is told from the perspective of Azalea, the eldest and future queen.  A few different romantic plots and a dark and magical overarching storyline give this book plenty to talk about in the several hundred pages it takes to finish the tale.

Pretty painting of the traditional twelve princesses tale

I think what I loved most about it, though, were the details.  The world that Dixon crafts is very different from the usual fantasy style realm.  The royal family is impoverished and the castle is run down.  The parliament runs the government instead of the king, but the king is respected and works hard in support of the country.  Magic isn’t necessarily gone, but past evil has caused the kingdom to suppress its use.  Only little bits of it remain, such as a magic tea set that the girls use in the castle.

And then there is the dancing.  All the girls love to dance and different types of dancing come up throughout the story, which I found very fun.  Dixon does well incorporating the original story into her well developed tale.

Despite the audacious defacing of a book, I still think this is an awesome idea...

This young adult fantasy novel is lengthy and slow, but in a good way.  It’s the kind of book that takes a while to get into, but once you do, you are glad you were patient enough to stick with it.  Sometimes predictable, but charming and fun to read, I was happy to find Entwined as pretty on the inside as it was on the outside.

Now, on to read the other book I bought with a very pretty cover: Pegasus by Robin McKinley.  I will let you know what I think!