Mythology in Movies: The Celts

Hellboy 2 movie

While modern adaptations of Greco-Roman mythology abound, movies with direct links to the Celtic tradition can be difficult to find. King Arthur is obviously the most well-known figure of British mythology, but he’ll warrant a post of his own. In the meantime, here are a few of the lesser-known stories with roots in Celtic legend: Ondine Colin Farrell selkie Ondine This is a movie about an Irish fisherman (Colin Farrell) who finds a mysterious woman in his net. Farrell’s daughter believes the woman might be a selkie, a mythological creature said to shed her seal skin and walk on land as a woman. If a man hides her skin, he can keep her for a wife; but if she ever finds it, she’ll escape back into the sea. Michael Vartan Lancelot Mists of Avalon Morgaine The Mists of Avalon While I do plan to write an Arthur-specific post, I think Mists of Avalon should be categorized with the Celts. The tv-miniseries was admittedly a terrible bastardization of the book, but the story as it was written focused on paganism and Druidry in Great Britain, rather than the fantasy and chivalry of Camelot. It depicts the Lady of the Lake as the matriarch of a female-centric religion under attack by the oppressive regime of the priests and the intolerance of the “new” Christian religion. Though the book is excellent, I can’t recommend the movie, which caused me actual physical pain with its low production quality and horrific British accents (I’m looking at you, Michael Vartan).
Tristan & Isolde This story is often wrapped up into the Arthurian legends, but it actually predates them – and probably inspired the story of Lancelot and Guinevere’s romance. The details of the story vary, but the gist is that Isolde is married to King Mark, but in love with Tristan. In some versions they live happily ever after; in others, they bite it Romeo & Juliet-style. Unfortunately that means we’ve pretty much seen every version of the story told before, and told better. This adaptation was pretty lousy (which you probably could have guessed from the fact that the trailer features an Evanescence song), due in large part to the overwhelming sense of tragedy that casts a pall over the entire story. It’s incredibly dour and something of a chore to sit through. The story of Tristan and Isolde (and of Lancelot and Guinevere) is an unhappy one because their love is rooted in the betrayal of a good man they both care for; James Franco’s sullenness doesn’t help matters. Banshee X-Men First Class X-Men: First Class You might have lost track of him amidst all the newbies, but one of the “first class” of Xavier’s mutants was named Banshee. Banshee is capable of ultra-sonic screaming; as the character is Irish, he named himself after the (traditionally female) banshee spirit from Irish mythology, who begins to wail if someone is about to die. Hellboy 2 Prince Nuada Hellboy 2 This comic book movie delves deeply into Celtic mythology, using as a villain Prince Nuada, who is modeled after the first king of a mythological, magical Irish race (Tuatha De Danann). The movie itself explores the idea that humanity has been immeasurably damaged by the dismissal of old beliefs and mythologies. Prince Nuada states: “the humans have forgotten the gods, destroyed the Earth – and for what? Parking lots – shopping malls – greed has burned a hole in their chests that can never be filled. They will never have enough…” He also gets some pretty badass fight scenes.

Count Dracula Bela Lugosi

Dracula The name Dracula was taken from a Romanian title for Vlad the Impaler (Vlad Dracul/”Vlad the Devil”), a local ruler who fought against the Ottomans. But being an Irishman, it’s possible that Bram Stoker was also influenced to some extent by the story of the Irish vampire Abhartach, an undead ruler who drank the blood of his subjects. A Druid or a Christian saint advised the people to kill him with a sword made of wood, to bury him upside down with a large stone on top, and then to plant thorn trees around the grave.
The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe C.S. Lewis, another Irishman, was also heavily influenced by Celtic (along with Greek and Norse) mythology, as well as other aspects of Celtic heritage. He incorporated a number of well-known mythological creatures in his Narnia stories, including hags, boggles (or boggarts), white stags, and wooses (woses). The Celts also believed that parallel worlds lay on top of and next to each other, and that you could pass from one to the next (a major theme in the Mists of Avalon, both with the land of the Faerie and the Isle of Avalon itself), which may have inspired the very idea of the portal to Narnia. See also Mythology in Movies: The Greeks, Mythology in Movies: The Norse, Mythology in Movies: The Egyptians, and Mythology in Movies: King Arthur

19 thoughts on “Mythology in Movies: The Celts”

  1. Mists of Avalon is my absolute favorite – I felt like I aged a lifetime with each of the main characters, like a sixty year long book

    1. haha… 60 year long book is spot-on, that thing is a tome. You’re right though, I definitely felt like I was an observer to their lives; it was fascinating to watch them grow and change because they were so fully developed and felt like real, flawed women with complex motivations.

      That’s another reason the movie (which I couldn’t even finish) felt so cheap. “Soft dissolve…. aaaaand… BAM, 10 years later, Morgaine’s a priestess!” wait, what? Half the book is characters reflecting on their own actions, which is how she kept them from becoming cheap caricatures. Cheesy voiceover doesn’t carry quite the same weight.

  2. Excelent article! I agree Celtic myths are hard to come by in movies. I love that mythology and I wish that more films borrowed from it and certainly in better way than they did – Tristane and Isolde is such a bad movie and Ondine, as lovely as it was, really didn’t feature as much of the myth as I was hoping it will.

    1. You may be in luck.. Michael Fassbender is working on a movie based on Cú Chulainn! He pretty much can do no wrong in my book, so I’ve got high hopes that he’ll stay true to the mythology instead of reducing it to standard action hero/period piece fare.

  3. Glad to see some love for Ondine. Another selkie movie definitely worth checking out is The Secret of Roan Inish. I reviewed both those film as part of my “Fairytales for Adults” category.

    1. Thanks for the suggestion, I’ll have to check it out! I love the other movies on your list; Pan’s Labyrinth, Ever After and Penelope are some of my all-time favorites.

    1. I love Arthurian legends too, that’s why it’s going to be so tough to narrow them down for a post! 🙂 Before I finished Mists of Avalon earlier this year Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy was the clear standout for me; like MoA it delved more into the culture and political maneuvering of the time and less into courtly romance. I really hope they do a good adaptation of that one someday (I’ve never found the old BBC version).

      Thanks for reading!

  4. I seriously wonder how you could not list “into the west” as a movie inspired by celtic mythology.

  5. In keeping with the selkie theme found in Ondine, might I also recommend the very charming “Secret of Roan Inish” (1994) directed by John Sayles. The story is set on the west coast of Ireland, and follows a 10 year old girl named Fiona, who is sent to live with her grandparents and her cousin Eamon near the island of Roan Inish, where her wee brother Jamie disappeared as a baby, and where selkies are rumored to be.

  6. Oh, and how could I forget 2007’s “The Water Horse”? The main character itself being Nessie (the Loch Ness Monster), and referred to in the film as a kelpie of Celtic legend (the handyman in the film tells the children the mythical story of the kelpie).

  7. Unfortunately, the dominant Anglo centric culture is too threatened by Celtic, especially Gaelic, Myths and legends or anything that makes that culture seem cool, glamorous or heroic. It’s simply too close to home(Scotland, Wales, Ireland) to be celebrating.

    It’s why we see endless King Arthurs(Anglicised Celtic story) Greek and Roman and Viking stuff. Middle Eastern stuff is allowed too, with tales like Sinbad, Prince of Persia etc. The Far East is no problem either, with lots of martial arts with Ninjas and Samurai.

    Fassbender won’t be able to get his Cu Chulainn film made for the same reason. Here we are 3 years on from when it was first mooted and it hasn’t been of heard of since. It’s a great pity really because there are some fantastic tales relating to the likes of the Tuatha De Danann, the above mentioned Cu Chulainn, Fionn Mac Cumhaill and his Fianna.

    Admittedly, Star Wars does owe quite a bit to Celtic myths but is very much a 20th century Americanisation, just as King Arthur is a medieval Anglicisation.

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