All manner of beasties
The Goblin Wars trilogy
Teagan Wylltson is the teenage heroine of Tyger Tyger (2010), In the Forests of the Night (2011), and When the Stars Threw Down their Spears (2013), the books that make up author Kersten Hamilton’s Celtic mythology-driven Goblin Wars trilogy, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. According to Hamilton, who corresponded with Pasatiempo via email, she first conceived of Teagan when she herself was just a child, while reading The Princess
and Curdie by George MacDonald, a 19th-century Scottish writer and Christian minister who was a contemporary of Lewis Carroll. Hamilton, who was born in High Rolls, New Mexico, in 1958, described reading about a dog-like creature that turned out to be a human child.
“I felt the child’s hand inside a rough paw-glove, and I knew I was going to pull a child out of a goblin one day. That’s the day Teagan was born,” she said.
When we first meet sixteen-year-old Teagan in Tyger Tyger, she works a few afternoons a week with chimpanzees at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo and is planning a career in veterinary science. Her mother writes and illustrates children’s books, and her father is a librarian. Her little brother, Aiden, who has autism, spends most of his time singing songs with a developmentally disabled eighteen-year-old named Lennie, cousin to Teagan’s best friend, Abby Gagliano, an aspiring painter who comes from a sprawling Italian family.
The Wylltsons read poems and stories aloud together in the evenings and accept each other’s personal quirks as well as those of their kids’ friends, who come and go freely, even living with the Wylltsons parttime when their own homes overflow with too many relatives. When an orphaned teenage cousin of Teagan’s, Finn Mac Cumhaill, gets in trouble with the law, her parents take him in. It turns out Teagan’s mother grew up among Irish Travelers, a loosely connected clan whose members are often caught up in financial scams and other confidence schemes. In Hamilton’s William Blake-infused world, Travelers are the descendants of the mythical Fir Bolg people, who were enslaved by the Greeks and made to carry bags of soil or clay. “I thought that fit nicely with wanderers upon the earth, carrying their culture with them,” Hamilton said.
Finn’s arrival sets off a series of catastrophically magical events, and a door to the mythical Irish land of Mag Mell opens in a neighborhood park, letting goblins in and out of Chicago. Mag Mell is supposed to be paradise, but long ago it was taken over by the evil Queen Mab and her husband, Fear Doirich, or “Dark Man,” who summoned and twisted all of goblin-kind to do their bidding. Aiden, who communicates with the essence of creation through music, along with Teagan and Finn, must travel in both worlds to restore balance to Mag Mell and save the Wylltson family and everyone they love from destruction. “Mag Mell is equal parts myth, nightmare, and A Midsummer Night’s
Dream. It is the stuff that real fairy tales — the kind we had before Disney came along — are made of. It is a world where Fear Doirich and Queen Mab rule unopposed,” Hamilton said. Mag Mell is populated by goblins, also known as highborn and lowborn Sidhe. “They consider themselves one people and one flesh, but they are not. They are a chimera of peoples pulled out of place and time, cobbled together by the Dark Man’s will.”
Highborn Sidhe are the family of Mab, unearthly beautiful but wicked, and lowborn Sidhe are beasts stolen from their own worlds by Fear
Doirich, bound to obey him as their god. Teagan insists on connecting to the humanity of the lowborn Sidhe, unfazed by their ghoulishness or their sometimes-diseased bodies, which she attempts to nurse back to health. Highborn Sidhe, who look human and can hide in plain sight, are far more terrifying, with their penchant for savagery.
Though the characters spend a great deal of time in Mag Mell, the books’ Chicago setting also plays a crucial role and grounds the tale in the tangible world, even as that world is suddenly alive with ghosts, angels, and all manner of Irish beasties. A sprite named Lucy takes such a shine to Aiden that she makes a nest in his hair and lives off mealworms and candy. Gil, a beastie with a crush on Teagan, longs so much to be a human man that some readers might wind up rooting for Teagan to like him as more than a friend.
For her earthly characters, Hamilton engages certain stereotypes about ethnicity and culture in service of emphasizing that every one of us can trace our roots to some mystical or mythical tradition. As the narrative extends into the second and third books, Abby’s family takes a greater supporting role, especially her cousins — Don, Leo, Mike, and Rafe — wannabe-mobsters named after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
“The names are a nod and a wink to my readers, letting them know I am going to play with parody and tilt at a few stereotypes. The original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who are named after famous Italian artists, were created as a parody of the superhero genre,” Hamilton said.
While there are many dark elements to the Goblin Wars trilogy, including violence and death, the books are fundamentally positive, filled with poetry, literature, art, music, the philosophies of numerous world religions, and a great deal of warmth and humor. Hamilton again cited George MacDonald as an inspiration, because his perspective tended toward the goodness of all things. Hamilton’s books stand in contrast to many contemporary young adult fantasy series, like Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, which presents a dystopian future rather than a rich and magical past that lives concurrently with the present.
There is, of course, a love story at the heart of the Goblin Wars trilogy. Teagan and Finn — who are not related by blood — have chemistry so strong it prompts her to vomit the first time they meet and him to swoon the first time they kiss. Teagan’s father, a sensitive soul if ever there was one, is wary of their growing attraction and keeps a close watch on their proximity to each another. But in this series, where empowerment rests in intellect and compassion rather than sexual agency, Mr. Wylltson’s protective impulses are less about guarding his daughter’s chastity than they are about helping Teagan navigate the power she wields and the multilevel reality into which she was born.
Kersten Hamilton’s “Tyger Tyger,” “In the Forests of the Night,” and “When the Stars Threw Down their Spears” are available at bookstores and online.