A novelist hopes Celtic myths can help readers understand the world

Ayn Cates Sullivan knows she brings a uniquely personal experience to her books. Finally, she asks, “How many Americans are crawling around old cairns in Wales?”

Sullivan has visited cairns in Wales, as well as other sacred sites in Britain and Ireland, and she has studied the myths and legends that make those places special. “It’s wonderful to go to these sacred landscapes,” she says. “They have a lot of wisdom.” Sullivan uses that first-hand knowledge to bring the world of myth to life in her books, the most recent of which is her first novel, Nimue: Free Merlin

Nimue is the story of Nina, a modern teenager who travels from New York to England for the summer and discovers that she is the ancient goddess Nimue. Centuries ago, Nimue captured Merlin with her magic, and now it’s up to Nina to reclaim her identity and free Merlin from his enchanted prison. As Nimue, she returns to fifth-century Britain, where she practices ancient ways of understanding the world and her place in it. She interacts with Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, and other well-known figures from the Camelot legends; develops a passionate bond with Merlin as she finds her own voice and strength; and eventually finds out how to free him and bring the world back into balance.

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

“I think it’s helpful to know I didn’t make it all up,” says Sullivan, who has a PhD in Anglo-Irish literature and, like Nina, lived in the UK for a while. “There are some autobiographical parts, but it’s definitely fiction,” she says, and the fiction has its roots in old stories. Nimue, like her previous works of non-fiction and short stories, is based on an in-depth exploration of mythological history. “I’m going back to the fifth century lyrics,” she says, and although Nina is clearly a fictional character, “I try to stay true to the Welsh myths as they are written.”

Sullivan’s in-depth research is evident in the book’s attention to detail, such as this description of Nimue’s training:

A year passed, then another. I didn’t 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 now had my own polished black stone to scry, tend a well where initiations took place, and practice seeing in the dark waters of the well. I learned to collect herbs for healing and to plant with the phases of the moon. I was sometimes called to be with the midwives who brought new souls into the world, and to assist in crossing the dead to Annwn. My Sea People guide Merrow helped me with some of these tasks, and I felt strong, even powerful. I especially loved casting spells, and the more I learned, the more I heard people whisper, magician

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 defender for the much more famous Merlin. “I didn’t think Merlin would be attracted to anyone,” Sullivan adds, working to give the couple a well-developed relationship in the novel.

Sullivan’s interest in British and Celtic mythology dates back to her childhood. “My grandmother used to tell me stories about the knights of Northumbria,” she says. “It started as a genealogy,” because Sullivan can trace her roots back 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 who made the stories famous.”

“Myth is usually based on something in history,” Sullivan notes. Therefore, she believes Nimue’s story provides insight into understanding both the ancient and modern world. “Each generation has dealt with very similar archetypes in one way or another,” she says, such as the quest 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 very important now to provide solutions, and sometimes those solutions are a thing of the past,” Sullivan said. In Nimue’s case, “the way I dealt with her good and bad side is she falls apart, and then she has to put herself back together.” Sullivan hopes readers can learn lessons from Nimue that they can apply in their own lives. “We have all these different archetypes in us,” she says.

Sullivan has written more than a dozen books of his own and has previously worked in traditional publishing houses. Building on that experience, she founded a company, Infinite Light Publishing, to publish her own books, along with the work of other writers exploring spirituality and metaphysics. “I think there’s a calling for these kinds of books,” 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 she and the other authors have received, as well as positive feedback from readers. More releases are in the works – Sullivan is working on a card game that will complement Nimue and the other Legends of the Grail books, and she describes the subject of a forthcoming book as “food as medicine” – which she hopes will continue to spread the messages of the ancient legends she studies. “The stories only live on if you tell them over and over again every generation,” says Sullivan, and Nimue and her other books are a crucial part of that retelling.

Sarah Rettger is a Massachusetts bookseller and writer.