I’ve been obsessed with stone circles since a family holiday to Brittany when I was 15. I remember vividly my fascination with the stone alignments at Carnac which kicked off a lifelong passion. I’m what my best friend’s husband, who’s an archaeologist, calls “a stone botherer” which doesn’t bother me at all as my stone obsession has taken me to some incredible places from Orkney to Ireland to Cornwall and back to Brittany.
When I started writing ‘Beltane’ I always knew there was going to be a stone circle in it and that it’d be an important part of the story. There’s something otherworldly about stone circles which has always intrigued me. It’s partly because no one knows why they were built and why the Neolithic people went to such trouble to align them to the sun or the moon. I also find there’s an energy about them which doesn’t exist in other places. It’s this energy which I imaged as awen, the magical power of the druids. I realise this may sound either very hippy or completely bonkers but I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this. Non-fiction books like ‘The Sun and the Serpent’ about ley lines and the connection of ancient sites and, also the comments I get from readers have helped me recognize that other people experience this too.
Recently when I was choosing the cover design for ‘Storm Witch’ I started thinking about the role of stone circles in fiction. When I thought about it I could only come up with a very short list of books with stone circles in them. Possibly that’s because I’ve not been reading the right books. When I was researching this post, I googled and found a Goodreads list which has 65 books, both for adults and children, on it but that doesn’t seem a lot when I think about the number of stone circles in the UK, Ireland and France.
Interestingly only one of the books that I thought of is on the Goodreads list which is ‘Outlander’ by Diana Gabaldon. Craigh na Dun is the portal which allows Claire Fraser to travel back and forwards in time. It’s fictional but there’s a theory that it’s based on Clava Cairn near Inverness which I visited years before I read Outlander and which definitely isn’t on the top of a hill.
The concept of a stone circle as a portal is in Guy Gavriel Kay’s fabulous ‘The Fionavar Tapestry’, a fantasy trilogy about a group of Canadian students who are transported into the world of Fionavar. The book draws on Arthurian and Norse legend and is definitely worth reading if you’ve not discovered it yet. In the series, Stonehenge operates as a magical portal to transport the students back to Fionavar. I find this portal idea really interesting as it acknowledges the unknowability of stone circles and also their liminal quality; they’re in the world that we know and yet apart from it.
Thomas Hardy uses Stonehenge as the setting for the arrest of Tess in Tess of the Dubervilles. There’s some fairly heavy-handed symbolism with Tess lying on one of the stones to sleep which ties in with Hardy’s theme of the gods determining Tess’s fate. I remember being quite cross with Hardy that he’d ended the book in this way because I’d expected Stonehenge to symbolise Tess and Angel’s escape from Victorian society’s oppressive morality not the moment with the law caught up with them.
There’s so much folklore surrounding stone circles that I’m surprised not more of it has found its way into fiction. Folk tales were a way of making sense of the landscape and, as Neolithic sites are still difficult to understand, it’s not surprising that people made up stories about them. This is why they’re often believed to be the work of giants, like the Devil’s Arrows in Yorkshire, or people turned to stone, like The Hurlers in Cornwall or Long Meg and her Daughters in Cumbria.
Although I go to museums, watch TV programmes and read books which seek to explain why stone circles were built, in the end, those are only theories and provoke as many questions as they answer. The folktales matter more to me as they retain the sense of mystery that I find so strongly at stone circles. I think that’s what fiction can do too. It’s another way of interpreting the purpose of these monuments and, although stone circles don’t actually transport you to eighteenth century Scotland or another world, they are a glimpse of long forgotten ritual and half-remembered folklore which can be powerful inspiration for a writer.
I’d love to hear about your experiences of stone circles and any books which you recommend that feature them.
Thanks for reading this. I hope you have a good bank holiday weekend.
Beltane and Storm Witch are both available on Amazon. Storm Witch is currently only in ebook format but the paperback is on its way.
Images from Shutterstock and Pixabay.
The Sun and the Serpent by Paul Broadhurst and Hamish Miller (1989) Mythos
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (1991) Random House
The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay (1984-86) Harper Collins
Tess of the Durbervilles by Thomas Hardy (1891)
9 thoughts on “Stone Circles in Fiction”
I’m fascinated by stone circles too and have visited them whenever I can. The ones that spring to mind are the Rollright stones on the Oxfordshire/Warwickshire border. We used to live quite close to them. I think they represent people turned to stone. Avebury, of course and Castlerigg-quite a large circle in Cumbria. I also became aware of another small circle of just 5 stones in Northumberland-the Duddo stones-through reading The Cunning Woman’s Cup by Sue Hewitt. It’s quite a trek to that particular site but worth the effort.
Hi Cathy, Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I’m delighted to hear you’ve got a passion for stone circles too! I found the Duddo Stones last summer totally by accident when I was driving around Northumberland looking for locations for Spellworker Chronicles book 3. I’ve not heard of the Sue Hewitt book but I will look that up. I went to the Rollright stones last summer too, they’re fascinating. How wonderful to have lived near there. I really wish there was a stone circle near York as I could do with a bit of stone circle magic at the moment! Alys x
With a surname like mine I’ve got to love stones ain’t I? 😊 I love all kind of stone structures be they circles standing or burial chambers. Here in Wales where I live most of the stone circles are modern ones as it used to be the custom that a stone circle was built on the site of the annual national eisteddfod which rotates between North and South Wales each year. At Pontypridd – four miles from where I live – the stone circle surrounds the famous Rockingstone – left there from the Ice Age – and has a serpent leading to and from it in similar fashion to the early Avebury circle – with the Awen as the serpents head and two carved stones as it’s eyes – this was the work of one Evan Davies whose bardic name was Myfyr Morgannwg – which in English means Student of Glamorgan – Pontypridd was the epicentre of the Neodruidic Revival in Wales in the nineteenth century and he built the circle and serpent in the 1860’s – local nonconformist ministers complained at the time that more attended Myfyr’s ceremonies at the Rockingstone than attended their Sunday schools – if you ever fancy a visit give me a shout and I’ll give you a guided tour of that site and a few other Neodruidic sites in the town. Btw by the spelling of your Christian name are you Welsh or have you Welsh ancestry?
Hi Ken, I didn’t know about these modern stone circles. They sound amazing. I’d love to visit them and next time I’m down your way I’ll give you a shout as I’d love to experience them.
Very interesting article (and linked Goodreads list). I collect classic children’s fiction, which was started off by a fascination as to how prehistoric monuments had been treated and interpreted through fiction. A few in that list that are missing (all children’s): ‘The Shaman’s Stone’ by Hugh Scott; ‘The Hill of the Ring’ and sequel ‘The Seekers’ by Joyce Lupton, and ‘The Witchfinder’ by Mary Rayner. Oh, and the rather terrific ‘Darkhenge’ by Catherine Fisher. To be honest, I’d argue that such monuments in the landscape inspired a plethora of books and tv series from the 60s and 70s, almost as if there was some collective, cultural osmosis taking place in the British psyche. One pattern I’ve noticed is that US books that deal with them seem obsessed with the idea of time slips, where the children or adults are transported through time via the power of the stones, whereas the British authors tend to see them more as places where ancient power bleeds through into the present day, usually with disquieting or unpleasant consequences. Fascinating topic anyway!
Hi Colin, Interesting additions to the list. Thanks for those. I’ll look them up. That’s a fascinating point about the different ways in which UK and US authors see stone circles.
Yes, I wondered if it was more because in the US where that history isn’t part of the national narrative, travelling through time to visit those periods becomes a more interesting experience, and the circles are simply a mechanism for that? It could simply be apparent rather than real. The other thing I was interested in is why this seems a peculiarly British phenomena – many other countries have similar remains and monuments, but they don’t seem to impinge on their cultural awareness in the way they do here. They don’t seem to look as large in the national consciousness in France or Spain or Germany.
Thank you for an interesting blog anyway, it’s pretty much the only one I’ve seen on the subject!
I visited kinnity castle in Ireland last summer. I knew their was a “Druid altar” but didn’t really know what that meant. My friend and I went on a walk and literally stumbled across it. We didn’t talk much and went inside it. We each did our own thing. I walked from stone to stone not understanding. My whole body was buzzing. Ears ringing. Dizzy. I was puzzled. But I knew I had been welcomed and accepted in the circle. I wasn’t sure what to do and as hard as I’ve tried I can’t put words to it. I knew I belonged there on that particular day and time. Like it had been waiting. My friend and I walked out. We had not spoken. We headed to the forest and she was freaked a little because she felt a jolt of energy through her body when she was I. The circle. She said it was like someone shot caffeine into her.
I was dizzy and felt confused and really felt like We were in a time long ago walking through an ancient forest. It was unsettling. I was really speechless. And the whole time an owl was hooting.
I’ve tried hard to come up with something important I learned. But I can’t.
However I guess I learned that sometimes you can’t go searching for important things. Can’t necessarily go searching for wisdom. It comes to you. And you have to accept the mystery and unknown surrounding things you can’t make sense of. And that’s hard.
I am grateful an honored to have been invited and accepted into such a magical and sacred place.
That sounds like a really intense experience. I think you’re right that we have to accept the mystery in stone circles and places like that. There is more to them than we can understand. I often feel that these places tell us what we can understand and accept at that point in our life’s journey and that if you went back another time you might have a very different experience. Thank you for sharing what happened to you and your friend at the Druid Altar. Alys x