Fantasy Writer Callie Bates on the Importance of Neolithic Monuments


Carrowmore Tomb in Ireland, CC/Wikipedia

My love affair with Neolithic monuments began when I was ten years old. I first visited Ireland that spring, and my favorite spot was a Neolithic cairn at Knocknarea in County Sligo, known as Maeve’s Grave. The tall hill, Knocknarea, shoulders up high and alone above the ocean. Reaching the top requires a steep scramble, and once there, you find yourself facing another, smaller hill atop the larger one, this one composed of thousands of stones. Legend has it that Maeve, the Queen of Connaught, is buried within, upright, spear in hand, to defend her country against invasion. To this day, no excavators have dared open the mound.

Back then they still let you climb to the top of the cairn. Standing on the path, I leaned into the stiff wind, so cold and fierce and bone-rattling it dizzied my ears. I felt magic there, the kind of magic I read about in books. It’s a magic that’s followed me ever since, and into the pages of The Waking Land.

William Butler Yeats, who hailed from Sligo, described the land, its people and their stories in his wonderfully trippy book The Celtic Twilight: “In the western tales is a whimsical grace, a curious extravagance. The people who recount them live in the most wild and beautiful scenery, under a sky ever loaded and fantastic with flying clouds.” I’m not Irish, but my ancestors were, and their stories linger in my blood.

I went back to Ireland in 2012. I’d written a draft of something that would eventually turn into The Waking Land, but it had a long way to go. I knew it needed more.

It turned out it needed Neolithic monuments. My mom, aunt and I spent much of that trip tramping around ancient sites in the Irish countryside, getting our shoes dirty and our heads wet. We visited Glendalough and Glencolmcille, Mount Brandon and Muckross Abbey. Somewhere in our wandering, Ireland’s stone circles began to mix in my mind with the wild, rugged forests of my home in the US. Like everyone who visits these mysterious stones, I wondered why they had been built. Who had built them. And how they might have been used over the years.

Eventually we returned to Yeats Country, and to Maeve’s Grave. The wind didn’t speak to me the way it had when I was ten—our openness to such magic does, it seems, fade over the years—but I still knew the place hugged secrets and stories inside itself. I began to wonder what these stories might be like, told in a world that is not quite our own.

Down the road from Maeve’s Grave lies another ancient stomping ground, Carrowmore, one of the oldest Neolithic sites in Ireland. The visitor center sat closed, so we wandered around the stone circles and surprisingly delicate dolmens with only ourselves as guides. These stones aren’t huge and towering like Stonehenge. They have a shyness about them. They are mossy and cracked and somehow contemplative. They sit, both powerful and inexplicable, and surrounded by grazing pasture.

I knew they needed to be in my novel. I wouldn’t try to explain them—why they’d been built, or for what exact original purpose—I’d leave that as a mystery for the reader. But, in the long centuries since their construction, the characters of my world would have used them. For good, and for ill. And my main character would, of course, realize they could be used again.

Across the border into Northern Ireland, we found ourselves at another stone circle, this one called Drumskinny. According to some legends, people were transformed into standing stones as a form of punishment. Dear reader, I submit to you that a stone in this circle had an excessively person-like presence. We left rather quickly and wondered if we had imagined feeling observed. Naturally, this had to appear in my book. I tied some specters to my stone circles.

But stone circles don’t make a novel on their own, so I reached into other travels I’d taken—to Scotland and England, in particular—to create the world of The Waking Land. Writers are, of course, thieves by nature. I wanted to pillage not-entirely-accurately from a time that felt more modern than the ever-popular Middle Ages, where social change and scientific advancement were happening at a relatively more rapid pace. So, I stole from the 18th century, in particular from the life of Bonnie Prince Charlie and various Jacobite rebellions. For those who don’t know, these rebellions were led by the Scottish against their English overlords, with the aim of putting a Stuart (Scottish) king back on the throne. The last of them was led by Charles Edward Stuart, a.k.a. Bonnie Prince Charlie, who famously escaped the horrors of the Culloden battlefield in a small boat, disguised as a lady’s maid.

History and fantasy have a funny relationship. My character Finn is not, by personality or fate, particularly similar to the bonnie prince. Yet creating this character afforded the opportunity to ask a question: is a prince who’s been raised on foreign soil different from any other conqueror? What ties him to the people and the land? By the same token, these questions must be asked about my main character, Elanna, raised as a hostage for fourteen years away from her home and family.

History, thus, becomes a jumping-off point for fantasy; a place where one can slip in and pose a question. What if? What if the victims of the European witch hunts really were sorcerers? What if a woman could make a plant grow and feel the heartbeat of the earth; what would her relationship to the land be then? Landscape offers the same opportunity—what if those stone circles concentrated magic? What if we could use it? (Although I’m still open to the possibility that this is how they actually work in the real world …)

These questions create a world of their own, and their own history. So, though the world of The Waking Land is not ours, I think the two worlds sit side-by-side, companionably.

As for me, when I returned from Ireland, the Neolithic monuments followed me—into the pages of my manuscript.