Celtic Fairy Tales and Legends

Rosalind Kerven

Batsford, £14.99

Author of more than 60 books, Rosalind Kerven has spent her life delving into myth and folklore for titles that range from In the Court of the Jade Emperor to Dark Fairy Tales of Fearless Women. From her home in the rugged landscape of Northumberland National Park, she has put together this collection of fairy tales from Scotland, Ireland and Wales, drawing on numerous versions from a variety of sources and retelling them in her own words.

It’s a compendium of shapeshifters, tricksters, ill-advised bargains and arduous quests that can be read simply for pleasure or to appreciate the recurring themes and motifs that flow like ocean currents through the ancient culture of the Celtic nations.

Giants and wicked kings find themselves outsmarted by a courageous young girl or an ardent lover. People change into animals and back again. Challenges are issued and lessons are learned about the pitfalls of greed, the importance of kindness and forgiveness and the virtue of self-sacrifice. An inexhaustible supply of handsome princes and beautiful princesses are on hand, to be doled out as rewards for bravery and perseverance.

Fittingly, the stories from Wales place the most stress on the importance of bardolatory and its connection with magic. “Long ago, in the days when history was preserved only in poems, and magic was a respectable profession ...” one begins. From another: “They awoke the next morning to a new era, in which the art of poetry and the stories it shapes had gained equal status to the art of war.”

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From Ireland, none other than the legendary warrior king Fionn mac Cumhaill has a fun adventure in which he has to trick his way out of a giant’s dungeon, and Aonghas, the god of love, is smitten by a harp-playing woman and has to outsmart the father who would keep her under his control.

The Scottish tales have a remarkable number of female protagonists, including Kate Crackernuts, who saves an ailing prince’s life by venturing into the faerie realm, and the fearless Mally Whuppy, who daringly steals the belongings of a murderous giant.

The Black Bull of Norroway is one of the book’s many shapeshifting stories, and concerns a scheming washerwoman who tries to keep a girl from rightfully marrying her prince. Bogles make an appearance, as do roanes, which are closely related to selkies, and we see what they do to a seal-hunter who does them harm.

The Herald: Celtic Fairy Tales and LegendsCeltic Fairy Tales and Legends (Image: free)

The tiny typeface can be a bit of a strain to read, but Kerven gets many bonus points for sourcing a copious number of vintage full-colour illustrations from the likes of Arthur Rackham, Henry George Theaker and even Gustav Dore, all reproduced on thick high-quality paper stock.

There are hours of enjoyment to be had in reading these time-honoured tales, passed down through many generations of storytellers. But if read in one sitting the thread of loneliness and self-sacrifice that many of them share casts a melancholy and quite affecting spell. It’s almost obligatory for their heroes to endure years of isolation and separation from their people.

So it’s surely deliberate that the story saved for last is The Daughter of King Under-Wave, common to Scotland and Ireland, in which Fionn mac Cumhaill’s brother-in-arms Diarmid has to undertake a long and lonely quest to mend a broken promise to the woman he loves. Diarmid’s tale ends the most poignantly of all, in a twist that is hard to see coming, and which proves that these ancient stories still have the power to move modern, sophisticated readers.