Monday, April 15, 2013

Celtic Folklore in Children's Fantasy: Some New Possibilities?

I will be the first to admit that I am not a folklorist.  Not a real one anyway.  I love to read folklore from all around the world and I am especially drawn to Celtic lore. However, when I write, I like to take bits of tales and twist them into new ones.  That’s what a storyteller, or seanachai (Gaelic), does—flavor the telling of a tale with a bit of their own soul.

Many creatures from Celtic folklore are quite popular—everyone’s heard of leprechauns (the famed shoe-makers for the faeries), pookas (faerie spirits who can take the form of one animal and shape-shift into another) and of course, the faeries themselves.  But there are many more paranormal creatures in Celtic lore—sufficient to give a middle-grade fantasy writer enough ideas to last a lifetime! The great thing is that even today, writers in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland are still collecting folklore from around their countries, just like WB Yeats did a hundred or so years ago.  Recently, I was doing a little research and found out about a few creatures I’d not heard of before.  Some of the uncovered legends are ancient, some recent.  Either way, they could be the kernels of some fantastical stories to come:

The Bean Nighe-I’d heard of banshees of course, ghostly women who brush their hair and wail when death is near, but a bean nighe is a bit different.  According to legend, the bean nighe is an old woman who washes clothes at the ford.  If you see her washing your clothes, it’s curtains for you UNLESS you manage to get between her and the stream.  In that case, she must grant you a wish. 
The Ginger Beast-The sightings of this beast are relatively recent.  He sounds much like Bigfoot with a ginger coat.  I have to say, I love his name.

The Ghostly Harper-This poor harper drowned in a lake, now called “The Harper’s Pool.”  They say certain people who visit the lake can hear his music.  (I would be fascinated, yet totally creeped out if I heard a tune!)

Hairy Bob-Sightings of Hairy Bob are also fairly recent, within the last two hundred years anyway.  He is reportedly a hermit who lives in a mountain cave.  I don’t believe he has any magical powers, except for maybe his name.  Hairy Bob is a most excellent name.

Kelpies-A type of waterhorse that lives in a lake or river.  Beautiful but deadly—don’t get on!  They’ll take you to the depths and you’ll drown.  In some legends, they are pookas, turning into human form at will.  In Maggie Stiefvater’s THE SCORPIO RACES, they are elegant and tragic.  (Okay, so I had heard of these before, but I’d forgotten they were also called kelpies.  What an awesome name—kind of like a mysterious breakfast cereal.)

The Fairy Boy of Leith-A young boy of 8-10 who is seen outside of Leith from time to time, disappearing into the fairy world for small or large chunks of time, always coming back with news from the future, for all reports say he has “the sight.”  Many have tried to follow him, none have succeeded. There are reports of him within the last century!

And that is just a few.  Now tell me, what creature most inspires you?  Might any of them find a place in your fantasy story?

Shelley Moore Thomas is the author of the Good Knight Series of easy readers in addition to a middle-grade fantasy novel, THE SEVEN TALES OF TRINKET, which received three starred reviews and much acclaim, including the coveted Caldebery Medal.  Actually, she just made that last part up to see if you were still reading.  You can find her at


  1. Boy that fairy boy of Leith is a book waiting to happen. These are great -- thank you for them.

  2. Fun post! I was reading Katharine Briggs on folklore of the British Isles when I got the idea for TEXTING THE UNDERWORLD, my book that's coming out in August, which is about a banshee. Apparently they often are either maidens who died too young or women who died in childbirth. (I chose the former.) Holly Black has kelpies in her Tithe series--they not only drown you, but EAT you. So much potential in these tales! I agree about the fairy boy of Leith.

  3. I love Celtic folklore, though I haven't studied it. Like you, I like to add a smattering of things into my fantasy stories.

  4. Oh, these are wonderful--just reading about them makes me want to sit down and start writing. My first (unpublished) novel was about corrigans, Breton fairies known for stealing babies and leaving changelings. I still love the idea; maybe I'll revisit it some day.

  5. Also, your bio above nearly made me spill my coffee. :D

  6. Great post - you've inspired me to go book hunting for local faerie lore when I visit Cornwall this summer!

  7. I love this post! I adore folklore, particularly those interesting ones that are very local and largely unknown. The only one of these I'd heard of was kelpies, but I particularly loved hearing about the Fairy Boy of Leith and the Bean Nighe.


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