I love Celtic elements in fantasy. That’s why I’ve been looking for some series which not only contain such elements but which are entirely Celtic.
I’ve chosen two of them—Deryni and Deverry series. They are both quite looong—the first one contains more than fifteen books, and the second one consists of three tetralogies and one trilogy. I couldn’t have gone bankrupt, however, and that’s why I bought only six Deverry books and five Deryni ones. It means, probably, that I’m not especially entitled to give an opinion on those series, but I’ll try anyway. Let’s call it a preview.
I have a problem with the both of them, because they were quite easy and decent reads, but they lacked something, each of them on a different level.
Let’s begin with the fact that Deryni series doesn’t actually belong to Celtic Fantasy genre. It’s more like an average Medieval Fantasy.
The main setting—the kingdom of Gwynedd ruled by the Haldane dynasty—is more an evocation of British Isles overall than of anything else. The Norman-like and Anglosaxon-like elements are still numerous and mixed together. There are Celtic names, but they are anglicized, and the only typical collocation with pre-Germanic tradition of the Isles are clans, actually. The gods… Do not count on any Celtic gods or the remnants of pagan traditions. The world of Eleven Kingdoms (another name for the confederated lands of Gwynedd and their neighbours) is a typical example of Christianity in Every Universe. And if I have a problem with it, it isn’t because I’m an evil atheist and Freemason. The Latin prayers and formulae sounds all elegant and elaborate, and So Much Medieval-like, but I have just one question—how even Christianity has appeared in this world? Have the aliens brought it through a portal of Deryni magic? In the face of an alternative geography, WHERE ARE Bethlehem, Jerusalem and so on, all the places crucial for the Biblical stories? Where? South of
The Land of Apostrophes R’Kassi?
The anglicization of Gaelic names and portraying the Irish-like Mearans as opponents rebelling Our Good Haldanes tell us a lot of the place of Celtic tradition in this series altogether. It’s the tradition which is underestimated and misunderstood, thrown into without any awareness of the symbolic power and abuse with which the descendants of real Celts have been threatened on British Isles from the medieval times on. It’s almost like writing a book about ante-bellum South and symphatyzing with slaveholders. It’s almost like writing a book about colonialism symphatyzing with the colonists and portraying the natives as the antagonists and instigators.
It’s almost because in Deryni series, we are never told how the tribes and ethnic groups of Eleven Kingdoms are related, as if it had been always peacefully and friendly there, and the ethnicity hadn’t mattered. It’s all so mixed-up together—Celtic names, French names, Anglosaxon names, Norman names—that sometimes you can’t even make out on which land a particular realm is based. And it wouldn’t be a problem if only the series hadn’t pretended being so close to the real history. But it pretends, and it raises only more problematic questions. The British Isles, let’s say, were shaped by particular events which caused particular social changes. In the case of Gwynedd, one can’t be sure of such a historical logic. For example, where is an equivalent of French Normans conquering England if there is hell bunch of nobility with French-like surnames? It seems as if Kurtz looked at fourteenth or even fifteenth century UK and took its mixed heritage for granted without realizing how it had all begun. And she took for granted not only this, but particular customs as well. She seems to use religion and chivalry ethos, and clothes&names, as a mere decoration of Medieval Times. She doesn’t see all the dark things behind the medieval society—like knights behaving kindly only towards the well-born women and treating the low-born women like unpaid prostitutes and workers. She doesn’t see that the said chivalry ethos was to exclude the commoners from the “fine” society with its elaborate rules and manners. Because, oh wait, the commonfolk isn’t present in her books at all except for loyal servants at the farthest backstage and an architect SPOILERS whose rash actions lead to the death of the sister of one of the main characters. SPOILERS And the main characters are the good ones because they are offering charity to the poors once a year, during the local Christmas. I don’t know how to even comment this. It’s like reading Nancy Mitford (because weddings and engagements are the core of at least one Deryni trilogy) mixed with Philippa Gregory and Santa Montefiore in Middle-Earth. Such an ignorance about the commoners wasn’t present even in Darkover series.
The funny thing is to observe how the supposedly historical elements of Deryni universe are falling apart and come out to be a realistic decoration only as long as you aren’t keen on Middle Ages.
We are in an alternate eleventh and twelfth century, but the garments and armour resemble more that Late Medieval/Early Reinessaince ones. We get even alternate hairdresses, why not—Alaric Morgan has whiskers centuries before they would be fashionable. We are told that the names are usually given after the saints and ancestors, and then we got Princess Xenia (ROTFL) and King Kelson. Why not Xylia and Jackson? Kelson doesn’t sound royally at all.
Another question are so-called “Christian values” when they are truly needed. Why eleven-years-old Alaric Morgan having sex is described so casually? Why ladies-in-waiting are oversexualized just for the sake of being quasi-French? Where are the Catholic notions of sin, purity and so on? And what one has in one’s mind writing about a pre-teen in such a way?
At somebody else, it would be a good point to show the hypocrisy of medieval times when boys were discreetly allowed to sleep around from the very young age, just for the sake of being those who cannot bear kids and thus bring bastards and shame into their homes. But Kurtz seems to take such behaviour as neutral, and I wouldn’t say it’s evoking the real Medieval-like mentality. It’s rather putting into your books what you like to put, the things gathered from scraps here and there. The Catholic Church was important? Let’s make half of the bishops villains! The kings’ actions were morally dubious? Let’s make our kings arguing with their Church and slaughtering the people fighting for independence! There were double moral standards? Let’s portray preteens lads having sex as something exciting and teenage girls doing it as something shameful! The magic was feared? Let’s make the Good Ones the magic ones and tolerant ones!
As the result, the series makes comments on Medieval worldview when it is convenient for the author, pointing out religious intolerance but omitting classism, sexism and hypocrisy.
I must admit, however, that at least some books of Deryni series aren’t typically sexist. Oh, yes, the only women in Deryni Rising—the series’ installment—are a villainous throne-pretender and an emotionally unstable widowed queen. Oh, yes, the same queen withdraws early in the prequel—Deryni Checkmate—and the only significant female character is Bronwyn Morgan who’s mostly defined by her love towards her fiancee. Oh, yes, the whole series lacks some “strong women” in the medieval meaning of this term—a queen-regent or a duchess who rules on her own and truly takes part in the political life.
The Childe Morgan trilogy grasps something else, however. It grasps the sisterhood of women and the hardships of womanhood alike—the too-early arranged marriages, the dying infants and children, the risk being taken with every labour, the friendship of mothers, sisters, stepmothers and stepdaughters. It reaches beyond the patriarchal culture-codes of evil stepmothers and women-rivals.
As for the intrigue and the world-building, the culture and custom inconsistencies aren’t the only ones. The lands beyond the federation of Gwynedd are hardly distinguishable except for the biggest one, the kingdom of Torenth. Torenth is some mix of Russia, Hungary and Germany which can say a lot what the position of Eastern Europe is in Deryni series’ imaginary. Who cares, this country or another? It is an Exotic Guise. It’s a good place for false pretenders and Villainous Villains, filled with sinister nuns and mages, with fanciful clothes and fabrics. If you haven’t guessed yet, describing a country in such a way is the Orientalism in its best.
The plot is also some kind of a guise. At first, you think that it’s about some broader history—assuming hell bunch of names and dates, and the style which grows more deft and detached over the books. But behind this decoration, there is the typical fantasy pattern of following not any historical process, but the Beloved Characters of an Author. The Beloved Characters of Kurtz are King Kelson and Alaric Morgan, apparently. The first one defeats an accomplished magician at the age of fourteen and is a spitting image of his Deceased and Respected father, king Brion. The second one is not only a commander, a magical guardian of Brion and Kelson, a magician and a duke, but a hipster who is bored with the high society and wears completely unmedieval whiskers, too. Well, I smell two Mary Sues.
Another question is covering quite a calm and daily-life-centered plot of Childe Morgan trilogy with Occasional Treats from Evil Bishops, Evil Mearan Rebels and Superstitious Commonfolk. Those treats are really occasional, popping out when they are necessary to push forward the story arc. But, you know, in fantasy one cannot admit one is focused on dailyness.
Don’t get me wrong. From what I’ve read, the series about Deryni isn’t a bad one. It’s good as a basis for ASoIaF-ish novels, and its style is only improving with the course of following books. But it’s still a child of its time, and the main problem with it is that it pretends being something more than it actually is.
Deverry Series is actually the series which appealed to me more, and which I would read eagerly from cover to cover. It isn’t the best written series or the most original one, but there are several elements in it which I liked a lot.
Unlike Deryni series, it’s a true Celtic fantasy, at least. It’s based on a concept of a fictional pre-Christian Gaulish tribe escaping from Ancient Romans’ (Rhwmanes) rule and migrating magically to another world—full of elves, dwarves and other races—and establishing a kingdom called Deverry. And I must confess that this is, at least, an original idea of Katharine Kerr.
The gods and names of her setting sound and are Celtic, freed from anglicization and romanisation alike. They are as the Gaulish names—far away from the Romans’ influence—might have been. Even if those names sounds sometimes either a bit Welsh (like Rhodry or Bronwyn) or Gaelic (Alastyr), they are given in Celtic form, according to its own spelling, not to the English one. Just compare it to all those Kelsons, Silkes, Xenias and Jovetts. Yay. Additionally, in Deverry not only the names are Celtic, but the clothes (brigga pants and checked coats), architecture (round-walled buildings) and tradition (an equivalent of vergobreti) too. The series evokes the pre-Christian beliefs of reincarnation and retells the story of Merlin and King Arthur. It gives even some sense of Celtic landscapes—vast moors and dark forrests, while in Deryni series, the land seemed just bland. All this looks just deliberate, like a vision on which the author has been working for years, not only picking this element from here and that element from there. For the names and customs of other races in the series are easily distinguishable as well. As a result, we receive a climatic and convincing setting, a true world, not a fancy decoration.
The worldbuilding is somehow troublesome, however, especially when it comes to depicting “exotic” nations. It’s actually quite funny that both Kurtz and Kerr didn’t avoid describing some cultures in an Orientalist way. In Deverry Saga, you have the islands of Bardek, whose inhabitants are some kind of hellenized dark-skinned Moors who’d been through a magical immigration similar to that one of the Deverrians. Although there are many positive characters among Bardekians, with their own traits and opinions, they are still stereotypized in general. They are seen as eccentric and sophisticated slaveholders and they train sinister magical assassins who draw their powers from thwarted sexual rituals. And, oh wait, those Evil! Magicians are gays. I’m only hoping that such a depiction is merely a testimony of its time—the first Deverry books appeared in the ’80s. The fact that the main male character of the series SPOILERS was in a relationship with another man (even if the man was more a spirit) SPOILERS gives some comfort, even if a small one.
Another question is the portrayal of women. Here, the scope is much broader than in Deryni series. There are female warriors, rulers on their own, queens-consorts, sorceresses, priestesses-warriors, craftswomen, farmers and healers, well-born ones and low born-ones. Their position isn’t always obvious—for example, widowed farmers or business-owners are quite independent, just as the single women who’ve chosen following a craft. The well-born women, on the other hand, could gain a lot of power when there are no male heirs in their family.
It doesn’t mean, however, that the series avoids the bitter truth about the female fate in the patriarchal society—the serving maids and tavern maids are treated no better than sex-workers, and the women overall must be careful about challenging their so-called traditional roles in social and sexual life. And all this is described in such a form that we get neither medieval-like people speaking like modern feminists, nor obedient females glad with their subservient position. We get the people shaped by their culture and thinking according to its rules, but by no means accepting it thoughtlessly. And the culture described by Kerr can tell us a lot about patriarchy. It isn’t about any rightful or immemorial rules which have been never improved or changed. It’s about keeping well-to-do girls in line to gain heirs whose origin is unquestionable. And sometimes, its rules are proved wrong openly in the books, SPOILERS as in the case of Rhodry’s sister-in-law who was dismissed by his husband being suspected of infertility. Married off to a widower with several kids, she bore a healthy child. SPOILERS I wish there had been a plot like that in some of the books about Six Duchies.
I’d like also Kerr having an equally nuanced attitude towards feudalism and social inequalities. Well, at least she writes a lot about ordinary people, even if they aren’t always the main characters. She writes about servants, tavern-keepers, witch-doctors, merchants, craftspeople, farmers, mercenaries, and gives some insight into their work and life.
The main female character could tell us a lot about the portrayal of women, sexism and classism in the series, anyway. Jill is a mercenary from the commonfolk SPOILERS who over the years choses rather learning magic than following and loving her military companion, prince Rhodry Maelwaedd. SPOILERS Her story arc is unique in this way that instead of getting “happily ever after” we are clearly reminded that in a patriarchal society, women have to choose between improving their talents and having love&family. Being expected to be mostly wives and mothers, they can’t have both. Gil, additionally, choses independence from feudal rules and labels, wandering as a free magician, over being a well-to-do wife supposed to represent her princely husband and keep herself away from improving her secret magical skills. She’s a character with her own aims, not defined by her love towards a man or by his needs.
There are other important female characters as well, like Lovyan—a noble woman ruling on her own whose ladies-in-waiting are her most trusted political counsellors—or Dallandra, a powerful spiritual Guardian who befriends the following incarnations of Jill. They don’t match the stereotype of women who are rivals jealous of one another; they form bonds of friendship and sisterhood.
It doesn’t mean that I appreciate everything about Kerr’s women characters and their relations. Her narration still contains some creepy moments (like making a brother and a sister entering an incestous relationship or Jill’s father being jealous of her) and the main TrueLover of the series is a poor one. Rhodry would be convincing as a typical feudal lordling carelessly impregnating commonfolk girls and then brooding over himself because of being exiled, relying on his lover a lot at once. But as a Love Interest, he is just irritating and ridiculous.
Still, there is something sincere and touching about Kerr’s writing. She doesn’t conceal that she has some favourite characters and tropes, like Jill&Rhodry&Nevyn the magician + their numerous incarnations. Thus, her stories sometimes follow more her personal appeals than the important historical figures and processes of her setting. For example, in Deverry Saga, the first quartet of the series, the king of Deverry seems quite unimportant. In the series’ finale, on the other hand, the lands of elves and dwarves grow more crucial than the kingdom of Deverry. The author is sincere about her attitude, however, and actually does more good than bad by focusing on a “pack of heroes+their incarnations”. Over books, the main story and the stories of the Deverry past get entwined together on purpose, revealing not only a lot about both daily life and political intrigues in the kingdom, but about the pattern which follow the characters and their succesors, too. As a result, the whole saga becomes something more epic, mystical and intricate than one could suppose, evoking the Celtic way of thinking and telling. Would I’ve read the whole series, I had seen it even more clearly, I suppose.
The narration of Kerr can surprise on another level, too. Especially its “past” section often focuses on the daily life of commonfolk and the court customs of aristocrats, describing the plot over decades as if it was a family saga. On the other hand, there are moments when we get a broader perspective instead of typical PoVs—and then we really have an impression that we are reading about the events profound and remote in Deverry’s world—Annwn—history. This history, unlike as in Deryni saga, is something beyond “this dynasty is good and this clergy is villainous”. It’s about establishing something better for all the sentient beings—from elves to humans, from aristocrats to peasants—about establishing something which brings peace and concord.
Even if it’s not easy. Even if it requires entire generations. And Nevyn, the “No One”, becomes the symbol of this struggle for a better world.