In 2001, Eoin Colfer’s first “Artemis Fowl” novel hit the shelves in bookstores around the world. The story centers around a twelve-year-old mastermind, the titular Artemis, who schemes to steal gold from the Fairy People to finance a search for his missing father, the head of the Fowl criminal empire. However, the People aren’t at all like Artemis learned about in his native Ireland.
Their law enforcement, the Lower Elements Police, is not in the business of handing out gold, and a magical tit-for-tat begins. Throughout the course of the series, Artemis becomes increasingly intertwined with the People, the line between the worlds of Men and Fairies inching closer and closer.
The world of “Artemis Fowl” is both fantastical and deeply intimate. On a grand scale, it is a story about someone with the power and intelligence to alter the world (and even the timeline) as we know it. However, at its core, it is about a child born into unusual circumstances, armed with his wits and the legends he believes in, on a mission to restore and protect his family.
I had the joy of meeting Eoin Colfer in 2019, on his book tour for “The Fowl Twins,” a spin-off centered around Artemis’s adventurous younger brothers. As a longtime fan and aspiring children’s fantasy author, I knew I had to attend his talk, and he didn’t disappoint.
He regaled the audience (of child and adult fans) with stories about growing up and living in Ireland, as well as how Irish mythologies influenced “Artemis Fowl.” For instance, leprechauns were the driving force behind the whole concept of the Fairy People’s Lower Elements Police. Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance, shortened to LEP Recon – leprechaun!
Sometimes I wonder how much of my decision to study Gaeilge in college was influenced by my deep love for this series. I have no intrinsic connection to it, my background being Jewish, and my knowledge of the culture didn’t extend far beyond a rigorous deep dive into the Cranberries’ discography.
Irish Language Class in Pittsburgh
When I really think about it, it was the vivid picture of Ireland painted by Colfer that drew me to Marie Young’s class at the University of Pittsburgh. I’ve always been fascinated by folklore, especially after everything I picked up from books as a kid, so it made perfect sense to learn the etymology. I had also developed an interest in indigenous languages in my teen years, which fueled my decision to major in anthropology and dive headfirst into Gaeilge.
This semester, I decided to reread the series and revisit what inspired so many of my current interests. Out of the many admirable techniques Colfer employed in writing “Artemis Fowl,” the time I’ve spent with Gaeilge highlighted one in particular. I was, for the first time, hyper-aware of the decision to call the origins of the Fairy People the “Dé Dannans,” no doubt pulled from the Tuatha Dé Dannan, a group of supernatural deities in Irish mythology.
The Sidhe, the modern name for the People, is derived from “aos sí,” roughly meaning fairies. The People also maintain the hill Tara as their spiritual center, performing a ritual to renew the magic near the Lia Fáil, the real-life coronation stone of the ancient kings of Ireland.
As I continued reading, I was delighted to be able to make these connections between language and legend Colfer established in his universe. Every little reference or callback to Gaeilge jumped out at me in a way that would not have been possible if I hadn’t pursued the topic and the class.
My time learning Gaeilge, combined with my return to “Artemis Fowl,” has been comforting and daring. On one hand, I felt a bit like a kid again, wrapped up in the magic and schemes. On the other hand, however, I was able to read with fresh eyes.
The Irish language has allowed me a new perspective on something I thought I knew like the back of my hand. It goes to show why a good anthropologist will tell you to study the language of your desired area of interest.
Language is, after all, the most powerful tool we possess. It is often the most difficult obstacle to overcome in forming an understanding of anything. How do you extrapolate meaning from words that simply look like characters floating around on paper?
I think back to how much of the book I could not fully connect with, simply because I did not have the language to do so. In that sense, Gaeilge has become more than an elective or passive interest.
Rather, it’s given me a foundation to build upon, whether I choose to continue into linguistics or keep it as a hobby. I will always be able to take what I learned, and use it to become a more well-rounded person, both in my personal life and academic life.
It’s amazing what experiences become pivotal for our worldview as adults. I never considered the implications of language in “Artemis Fowl” as a ten-year-old, but now it’s hard to ignore for very long. I feel fortunate that I was able to find a class here in Pittsburgh that not only taught me how to develop new skills, but also bridged the gap between my childhood daydreams and academic pursuits.
Maybe one day it’ll even carry me all the way to Ireland! No matter where I end up, I’ll always have Gaeilge and the enchanting series that started it all.
*Leah Walper is an Anthropology student at the University of Pittsburgh. Her main academic interests are language revivals, folklore, and music-based subcultures. In her free time, she is a musician, singer, and writer.