There is a surprise to Irish viewers in a few episodes of Amazon’s exhilarating new fantasy series The Wheel of Time, when Maria Doyle Kennedy shows up at the head of a brightly colored train of wagons. She plays Ila, a leader of the “Tuatha’an”.
The Tuatha’an, according to the semi-official Wheel of Time wiki, are “a nomadic people who live in brightly colored wagons.” They are also known, the wiki continues, as Travelers.
So that the Irish reference does not escape you, Ila’s sidekick, Aram, is played by another local actor, Daryl McCormack (Vikings, Peaky Blinders, Fair City). All except greeting us with “Howya, mate?” It looks like he’s heading towards Tallaght rather than Tar Valon. And it brings a cheerful Dublin irreverence to this realm of glittering wizards, warriors and CGI citadels, which is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
The wheel of time is a mixture of cultures and historical eras
The Wheel of Time is an adaptation of Robert Jordan’s sprawling fantasy saga. And Jordan obviously adapted the Tuatha’an from the Tuatha Dé Danann, the supernatural demigods of Irish mythology.
Among readers of the books, it is widely believed that Travelers are modeled after Irish travelers. This is probably the reason why Doyle Kennedy and McCormack were allowed to speak in their native accents as everyone in The Wheel of Time assigns a British Shakespearean stamp (it doesn’t matter that several actors are from Australia and New Zealand).
Jordan, a former dance and theater critic who served two periods of service as a helicopter gunner in Vietnam, was a clear supporter of Irish mythology. Its great story begins with the humble inhabitants of the village of Emond’s Field preparing to celebrate Bel Tine, a spring festival whose name is almost certainly a corruption of Bealtaine, the former Irish May Day.
His research into Irish folklore also introduced him to the concept of the aes sídhe, or aos sí, another magical breed from ancient Ireland. At least that is what must be concluded given the name that Jordan chose for his sect of warrior priestesses dedicated to the police of the use of magic: the Aes Sedai (pronounced “Eye Said Eye”).
Ireland has not been given special treatment by Jordan, it must be admitted. Although set in the distant future, The Wheel of Time is a mixture of cultures and historical eras – further in the novels there are analogues from Imperial Japan, Ming Dynasty China, Medieval Spain, Teutonic Knights and more.
Jordan was unusually explicit about relying on stereotypes about the Irish. He explained, for example, that he had done everything possible to give Aiel, his race of desert warrior, the “classic” Irish features of red hair and pale eyes. This is to overturn the idea that people who live in hot climates tend to have a certain appearance. The Aiel inhabit the vast arid hellish landscape of the Aiel Waste, east of the Spine of the World mountain range. Jordan wanted them to appear as if they had just arrived from north Cork.
Since the Lord of the Rings, the genre has drawn heavily from Irish folklore.
The Wheel of Time is one of the most popular fantasy sagas. In terms of sales, it’s neck and neck with George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, with around 90 million copies staggered. And the new Amazon series, with an epic budget of $ 100 million, captures the scope and intrigue of the books. Yet, throwing in a random assortment of Irish references, Jordan leaned into a long-standing fantasy snap.
Since Lord of the Rings, the genre has drawn heavily from Irish folklore. Tolkien has denied any indebtedness to Celtic mythology – which in fact he went to great lengths to despise. He once observed that Celtic legends “are brightly colored, but are like a broken stained-glass window wound up without a pattern.”
Maybe he protested too much. It is now widely accepted that the Burren was at least in part an inspiration for the devastating desolation of Mordor. (Tolkien was a frequent visitor to Co Clare as an external reviewer for what was then University College Galway). It is also believed that the Noldor, his ancient race of elves, owed something to the Tuatha Dé Danann. The similarities between the ancient Celtic villain Balor of the Evil Eye and Sauron, the great eye that does not blink from Barad-DUR, meanwhile, do not require elaboration.
While The Wheel of Time contains a lot of things that are familiar to it, its world-building also finds a way to weave itself into what is new and surprising.
Fantasy has always been left for real cultures, and there is no reason why Ireland should be an exception. Sometimes the rampage lacks subtlety, however. In Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher novels, for example, the dryads of the forest greet each other by shouting “Ceadmil eithne! It is not the magpie syndrome that is rampant. It’s cod Irish gleaned from a random internet search in a way that implies the language is not a living being but a repository for fantasy writers needing weird syllables to put together. (Welsh undergoes roughly the same treatment.)
The good news is that The Wheel of Time tries to subvert rather than rely on stereotypes. The Tuatha’an seem to be a shortcut for “the Irish” in this world. Yet Jordan rejected the Irish fighting trope. Rather than launching into challenges with raised fists, Travelers follow a code called “the way of the leaf,” which prohibits violence.
So while representing Jordan’s nod to the elder, they are also fantastic hippies, spreading peace, love, and understanding. It’s a reminder that while The Wheel of Time contains a lot of what is familiar to it, its world-building also finds a way to weave itself into what is new and surprising.
The Wheel of Time is available on Amazon Main video