Sonia Garcia de Alba | April 11, 2018
I have met many adults who confess to reading Young Adult novels for fun. While we may be willing to admit that we use them to disengage from our routines or to while away time, we should question whether such entertainment is the sum of these texts. Some of these books, like the novels of Sarah J. Maas, prompt us to explore and learn about other things, like the fairy tale tradition and Celtic folklore.
I read the Throne of Glass (TOG) novels when I was starting a master’s degree in Medieval Literature. After long days spent reading Breton lais and sagas in dead languages I welcomed the time before bed when I would read something just for fun. One night, as I was reading about King Brannon Galathynius, the founder of the kingdom of Terrasen in TOG, I was suddenly reminded of another King Bran I had recently encountered: King Bendigeidfran from the Second Branch of The Mabinogion, also known as Brân the Blessed, famous for protecting the Isle of Britain from invasion .
The more I read, the more references I found, not only in TOG but also in some of Maas’s other novels like the trilogy A Court of Thorns and Roses (ACOTAR). There were the obvious ones, like the Irish warrior-queen Maeve and the goddess Morrígan, or the cauldrons of rebirth, but also subtle appropriations like the carranam, a play on anam cara, an Old Irish term that loosely translates to “soul friend”, or Erawan, the evil Valg King that might remind Celticists of Arawn, King of the Otherworld in both Irish and Welsh traditions. There was even a small reference in ACOTAR to the Picts, a tribe that used to populate the north or Scotland, though they were sadly portrayed in a rather unkind light.
It soon became a sort of game, I would spend my days learning about medieval literature and go home to find the now-familiar characters in different renderings. I was aware that most of the adaptations were very liberal, small borrowings that were reshaped to serve Maas’s narrative, yet I found the tenuous connections to the original characters fascinating. After all, isn’t this how literature has evolved through the centuries?
Rewriting medieval tales and the characters in them is by no means a new trend. There is a long tradition behind it that starts in the medieval period itself and goes on to our day and age, with J.R.R. Tolkien being the most prominent modern example. In the YA sphere, the blossoming fantasy sub-genre draws heavily from this tradition. Yet within the YA fantasy umbrella, Sarah J. Maas’s novels stand out to me as particularly medieval.
The fundamental difference lies in how the source material is used. Whereas some authors will use the medieval tales as settings upon which to impose modern characters and plot devices, other authors, like Maas, are more skillful at weaving the medieval aspects into the tale itself. Rather than simply using the medieval as a platform, Maas builds her worlds with the medieval elements at their core.
In TOG and ACOTAR, the medieval references are more than an accessory to the tale. A great part of the plot of ACOMAF and ACOWAR revolves around finding and destroying a cauldron of rebirth, and the TOG series is ultimately about fighting the evil King of an Otherworld. You don’t need to be a medievalist to recognize some of these symbols and characters. Whether we readily identify them or not, they hold power over our imagination. It is the process of partial recognition—the echo every avid reader feels when they come across something they feel they have read or heard about before—that pushes the most curious among us to search for their meaning. It is the sense that these tales are connected to something else that prompts us to look for the source of these connections.
I may never know whether the bookish and charming High Lord Rhys of ACOTAR is modeled after the historical Lord Rhys ap Gruffydd, now commonly remembered as The Lord Rhys, but I like to think he was. I doubt the former Prince of Deheubarth and patron of the now ruined Strata Florida Abbey—where some of the most important medieval Welsh manuscripts were produced—would dislike the association. Though many references will forever remain obscure, and perhaps a product of chance, reading the novels of Sarah J. Maas has reminded me that not all YA novels are mere entertainment. When they successfully establish a dialogue with an older tradition, they can inspire us to engage with old tales and enduring problematics in new ways, just as any canonical work of literature might.
Sonia is currently studying an MSc in Medieval Literatures and Cultures at the University of Edinburgh. Her research interests include understanding the influence of myth and folklore in medieval narratives, particularly in their relation to the supernatural in these texts. She is also an avid reader of fantasy novels.
Article edited by Laurie Beckoff and Julian Menjivar
 A good translation of Bran’s adventures in the Second Branch of The Mabinogion “The Mabinogi of Branwen” can be found here: http://mabinogi.net/branwen.htm.