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?
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.
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.
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.
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.