Folklore, Ireland, Mythology, Writing

Borderlands

I spent a lot of time in my academic life writing about borderlands. I had a real love/hate/and then total love relationship with Gloria Anzaldúa’s Le Fronterra. I obsessed for a while about literature involving Northern Ireland, my dissertation was about the way in which Anglo-Irish characters in the early Irish novel had to skirt a border between playing the “native” and seeking respectability in social circles that would allow them to champion Irish causes. So it’s no wonder that my book is so obsessed with exploring boundaries, borders, and borderlands. For me, the metaphor comes into play with the border between the “underworld” of the fairies and the mortal world. Like most folks, I had a vague understanding of Irish mythology and folklore before traveling to Ireland, but what I didn’t know was how this demarcation between the mortal world and this super magical world came about.

I think I could trace the root of this book to a single moment in 2004 when a couple of my good buddies and I found ourselves sort of stranded (no money) at the Grapevine Hostel in Dingle, Ireland. We had no intentions to stay there for more than a couple of days, but the weather was grand, and there was a nice ice cream shop in the square, but most importantly…there was Morris.

Ok, let me explain Morris to you. Are you ready? Are you sitting down? Because I’m going to attempt to describe a human being that is beyond words, beyond the limits of any blog post, beyond all limits of the imagination. I still, to this day, thank my lucky little charms that I stepped into that hostel and met Morris because without him, none of this would have happened. I would have no stories to tell. I mean, no great stories to tell.

Morris was tall,with a velvet voice and a penetrating thousand mile stare. The son of a CIA agent, he spoke twelve different languages and could recite “The Song of Beren and Lúthien” from The Lord of the Rings IN ELVISH. I’m not even shitting you guys. In the original elvish. We were all a little tipsy one night on a nice Shiraz and he burst out with it, fumbling a little on the words. He broke down, a blush creeping up his cheeks. I poured more wine. “Keep. Going,” I whispered because…elvish, guys. Elvish.

Morris came to Dingle to study Irish Gaelic and learn about Irish folklore. He was the only black guy in this tiny little town, and every morning the little Irish children of Dingle would bang on the windows of the hostel shouting, “George Foreman! George Foreman!” Morris would smile and turn to us with a sad, bemused smile. “I’m the only black man they’ve ever seen.” His Irish was beautiful, and he taught us a few words. Dia duit. Dia is Muire duit. And those were the first Irish words I ever spoke, and I still remember the way they rolled off my tongue for the first time, like a first kiss.

Morris told us tons of stories, and some day I’ll tell them all to you, but one story in particular haunted me for years. It was the story of Amergin, a Milesian, or a Celt, you might say. It’s the story of how the Fae lost Ireland.

As Morris told it, Ireland was invaded by three mythical races before the Celts–the Fir Bolgs, the Fomorians, and the Tuatha Dé Danann. Each invasion has a long intricate history I won’t go into today, but suffice to say, that when the Celts touched down on the western shores of Eire to stake their claim, the mythical world of Ireland was already a pretty complex, diverse place. But it would be the Tuatha Dé Danann, the last magical race of Ireland, that would confront the Celts in battle.

Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Imagine a small, dimly lit room, a peat fire smoldering in the hearth. It’s late, the cheap Spanish wine you bought from the corner store is only a trickle in your glass. You’re twenty-four, sitting on the edge of a purple velveteen chair, a hard spring cutting into your ass. The last drop of your Syrah settles into your belly and your eyes flicker to your best friend. Aren’t you glad we came to Ireland? She nods. Morris sets down his wine glass, licks his lips, and spreads his arms wide in some ancient, visceral gesture, the international language of “STFU, I’m going to tell you a story,” and this is what we hear.

When the Celts came to invade Ireland, they confronted the mythical race of the Tuatha Dé Danann who appeared to them in the form of a great white mist. Every day, the Celts would come to shore and slaughter the Tuatha Dé and then return to their ship victorious. But then the very next day, they would awaken to see the Tuatha Dé back on the shore, line after line after line of spectral warriors stretching into the distance. The Celts would fight, slaughtering the fae folk, but every morning they would return. This went on for days until the bard Amergin stepped forward and made a pact with the Tuatha Dé . He said, “If our ship can reach the shore, Ireland is ours. If it cannot, we will leave and never return.”

The Tuatha Dé laughed at the bard because they controlled the land, the sea, the air, and could not imagine a mere mortal having the power to conquer the ocean. But that day, Amergin called the air and with his unrelenting power, sent Celt’s ship to shore. The Tuatha Dé and their Druids tried to call upon the ocean to push the ship back, but Amergin won the day. He stepped upon the strand, and said, (okay, imagine a really hot black dude standing up before a crackling peat fire, wine glass in hand, and reciting this poem)

I am the wind on the sea;
I am the wave of the sea;
I am the bull of seven battles;
I am the eagle on the rock;
I am a flash from the sun:
I am the most beautiful of plants;
I am a strong wild boar:
I am a salmon in the water;
I am a lake in the plain:
I am the word of knowledge;
I am the head of the spear in battle;
I am the god that puts fire in the head;
Who speaks light in the gathering on the hills?
Who can tell the ages of the moon?
Who can tell the place where the sun rests?

After Amergin and the rest of the Celts came to shore, they made a pact with the Tuatha Dé. The Celts would have Ireland, but the Tuatha Dé, and the rest of the magical faerie folk, would retreat into the hills. They would become part of the underworld, the invisible space just a hairsbreadth away from our own. Ancient Ireland was split into four distinct provinces, Munster, Ulster, Leinster, and Connacht, but some legends say that Ireland possesses what is known as a “Fifth Province,” the invisible realm to which Amergin exiled the Fae. Yet, the way Morris told it, the Faeries didn’t seem so upset about it, and that makes sense. To them, they ruled the world of magic, of endless possibilities, of mischief and mayhem.

In Morris’ story, Amergin played out as a sort of mythical, Merlin-Gandalf-kinda hero, and when I originally sat down to pen The Children of the Fianna, that’s what I wanted from this character, kind of like a Dr. Xavier, but Irish and in control of a race of immortal Celtic warriors. Yet, no matter how hard I tried to transform Amergin into a warm, friendly, fatherly, presence on the page, he kept ending up sounding like a jerk.  I mean, a super jerk. With every draft he grew meaner and meaner, and I couldn’t figure it out. He’s Amergin, the great Celtic bard, Chief Ollam–higher in status than any king, the dude that knew all the songs, all the histories, ALL the magic. But he antagonized my MFC, Elizabeth, taunted her with subtle digs to her fae origins, and in the end became the chief manipulator of a lot of my major plot points (no spoilers!).

For me, Amergin represents the dangers of creating arbitrary borders and the kinds of discourse of distrust, discrimination, and mythology of the “other” such boundaries produce. I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to use the Amergin story as a metaphor for what happens when we break up the world into territories, create imaginary geographies, and label people as belonging to one “tribe” vs. another. In the middle of my book, I have this little exchange between Elizabeth and Amergin. Amergin is trying to shuffle her back into the Tir na nÓg (the fae realm) because her magical abilities are a BIG problem for him.

   “I know the legends,” I said. “You have just as much faerie blood running in your veins as I do. We all come from the same source. Don’t pretend that we’re any different!”
Amergin turned, a wide, cruel grin plastered on his face. “Oh, but we are different,
aos sí. It was your tribe that lost the war. Never forget it.”
“I won’t,” I said through gritted teeth. “I will never forget.”

Oooooooooh… 🙂

While readers will know and see (I hope!) that Amergin is a villain, I’m more interested in examining how Elizabeth’s character has to resist buying into her own “tribal” identity as the story evolves. As the people around her fall victim to Amergin’s machinations, will she fall into the same discourse of “us” vs. “them”? I guess I’ll have to get on that next book and find out!

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