A novelist hopes Celtic myths can help readers understand the world

Ayn Cates Sullivan knows she brings a unique personal experience to her books. After all, she asks, “How many Americans crawl around old cairns in Wales?”

Sullivan has visited Welsh cairns, along with other sacred sites in Britain and Ireland, and she has studied the myths and legends that make those places special. “It’s amazing to go to these sacred landscapes,” she says. “They hold a lot of wisdom.” Sullivan uses that firsthand knowledge to bring the world of myth to life in her books, the most recent of which is her first novel, Nimue: Freeing Merlin.

Nimue is the story of Nina, a modern teenager who travels from New York to England for the summer and learns that she is the ancient goddess Nimue. Centuries ago, Nimue trapped Merlin with her magic, and it is now up to Nina to reclaim her identity and free Merlin from his enchanted prison. As Nimue, she returns to fifth-century Britain, where she trains in ancient ways of understanding the world and her place within it. She interacts with Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, and other familiar figures from the legends of Camelot; develops a passionate bond with Merlin as she finds her own voice and strength; and ultimately discovers how to set him free and return balance to the world.

Kirkus Reviews calls Nimue “an exuberant fantasy,” adding that “Sullivan might have written a fantasy in which her lead throws punches while hunting for relics. Instead, she’s more faithful to Merlin’s complex mythology than to the genre’s tropes.”

“I think it’s useful to know that I didn’t just make it all up,” says Sullivan, who holds a doctorate in Anglo-Irish literature and, like Nina, has spent time living in the United Kingdom. “There are some autobiographical parts, but it’s definitely fiction,” she says, and the fiction has its roots in ancient stories. Nimue, like her previous works of nonfiction and short stories, is based on deep research into mythological history. “I go back to the fifth-century texts,” she says, and although Nina is obviously a fictional character, “I try to stay true to the Welsh myths as they’re written down.”

Sullivan’s deep research is evident in the book’s attention to detail, like this description of Nimue’s training:

A year passed, then another. I did not know when Merlin would return, but I knew one day he would. Meanwhile, like the other young bards, I memorized 250 poems and myths. I had my own polished black stone for scrying now, tended a well where initiations took place, and practiced seeing in the well’s dark waters. I learned to gather herbs for healing, and how to plant with the phases of the moon. I was sometimes called to be with the midwives bringing new souls into the world, and I was required to assist as the dead crossed to Annwn. My guide Merrow from the sea-folk assisted me with some of these tasks, and I felt strong, even powerful. I particularly loved casting spells, and the more I learned, the more I heard people whisper, Mage.

The legend of Nimue has its roots in the tradition of “ladies of the lake,” and Sullivan counts at least nine of them in Celtic mythology. Nimue “is one of the most complicated of the nine,” making her a worthy foil for the much more famous Merlin. “I didn’t think Merlin would be particularly attracted to just anyone,” Sullivan adds, and she worked to give the pair a well-developed relationship in the novel.

Sullivan’s interest in British and Celtic mythology goes back to her childhood. “My grandmother used to tell me stories about the knights of Northumbria,” she says. “It started out as genealogy,” because Sullivan can trace her roots to Eleanor of Aquitaine, the 12th-century queen who drew on her own connections to Arthur, Merlin, and other mythical figures. “She’s the one that made the stories famous.”

“Myth is usually based on something in history,” Sullivan notes, which is why she believes Nimue’s story offers insights into understanding both the ancient world and the modern one. “Each generation has dealt in some way with very similar archetypes,” she says, like the search for the Holy Grail at the center of Nimue’s legend. “What we’re doing is…looking for that spark of life within us.”

“I think it’s really important right now to offer solutions, and sometimes those solutions are in the past,” Sullivan asserts. In the case of Nimue, “the way I dealt with her good and evil side is she splits apart, and then she has to put herself together again.” Sullivan hopes that readers can draw lessons from Nimue to apply to their own lives. “We have all these different archetypes within us,” she says.

Sullivan has written more than a dozen books of her own and has previously worked in traditional publishing. Building on that experience, she founded a company, Infinite Light Publishing, to publish her own books along with the works of other writers who explore spirituality and metaphysics. “I think there’s a calling for this type of book,” she says, explaining that the company sees its mission as delivering “messages for an evolving humanity.”

Infinite Light Publishing’s books have been well received, and Sullivan lists awards that she and the other authors have garnered as well as positive feedback from readers. More releases are in the works—Sullivan is working on a card deck that will be a companion to Nimue and the other Legends of the Grail books, and she describes the subject of another upcoming book as “food as medicine”—that she hopes will continue to spread the messages of the ancient legends she studies. “The stories only stay alive if you retell them through each generation,” Sullivan says, and Nimue and her other books are a crucial part of that retelling.

Sarah Rettger is a bookseller and writer in Massachusetts.