Re-inventing the Mabinogion

Mabinogion - White Ravens and The White TrailIf you live in Wales for any length of time, you cannot avoid noticing the love of storytelling that has filtered down through centuries of tradition. The Mabinogion is the name given to an assortment of Welsh legends dating back to a pre-Medieval era of mythology and Arthurian romance. Seren books commissioned 11 Welsh writers to re-write these tales for a modern audience, bringing them to life in twenty-first-century Wales.   

The White Trail by Fflur Dafydd re-creates the story of ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’. Not being familiar with this particular tale, I found it helpful that the book includes both a brief introduction to the series in the front and a synopsis of the original story in the back. I read the synopsis first, and wondered how such a magical tale could be turned into something believable and modern, but Fflur Dafydd has managed to do just that.

Dramatic and Strange

The opening scene is dramatic and strange, but I was engaged immediately by the author’s descriptive language and the wry sense of humour which runs throughout the novel. It begins with the sudden disappearance of Cilydd’s heavily pregnant wife (Goleuddydd) from a supermarket aisle. The description of his grief and anger is very real. Eventually her body is found, but the baby has been taken from her womb.

Cilydd suffers long years of grief, anger and hope. He joins the local missing person’s network, creating profiles online for all those who have gone missing, working tirelessly, always wondering whether his son might be alive somewhere in the world. I particularly love Dafydd’s depiction of King Arthur as an unsuccessful private eye, searching and failing to find numerous missing persons.

Eventually Cilydd does come face to face with his son, Culhwch, and we discover where he’s been all these years. The novella turns into a quest to rescue the beautiful, pregnant Olwen, who has been kept prisoner by Ysbaddaden Bencawr, and they discover an incredible secret.

The Writing Process…

The book also contains a short afterword, in which Dafydd describes how she “fell in love with the Mabinogion as a child” and yet, when she began to write, the task ahead of her “seemed overwhelming”. She realised that she was “concentrating too dutifully on what was present in the text”. Instead she needed to “look beyond the tale, behind the tale” at the other characters, and that’s why The White Trail focuses on Cilydd’s version of the story. “I found that Cilydd and Goleuddydd… were the original Culhwch and Olwen”, she explains.

The MabinogionDafydd describes the process of writing as “charging on ahead in bold realist strides with surreality trailing at its heels, waiting to bite.” Her evocative descriptions seem both real and surreal at the same time:

“The farmhouse was grey and decaying; pale green moss creeping up the walls like bad facial hair, a monster of a building. There were some disused tractors and farm machinery lying about, metallic skeletons gawping at him.”

White Ravens by Owen Sheers

I was impressed with The White Trail and decided to read some of the other books in the series. White Ravens by Owen Sheers is very different to Fflur Dafydd’s re-creation, but just as fascinating. It is a re-imagining of the second branch of the Mabinogion, the tale of Branwen, daughter of Llyr. It starts with Rhiannon’s story – a tale of devastation on a Welsh sheep farm which leads Rhiannon and her brothers into a life of crime. Rhiannon abandons her brothers and walks off, alone, uncertain whether to escape from them and their new ‘business’ for good. Sitting on a bench outside the Tower of London, she meets an old man who tells her a story…

The old man’s story takes her back to the time of the Second World War. He tells her about a young, injured Irishman called Matthew O’Connell who is sent on a secret mission to rural Wales to bring back six raven chicks to the tower. Whilst there, he meets Branwen, falls in love and gets married.

Branwen’s brother (Evan) returns home from the trenches and reacts badly to the strange Irishman who has married his sister, taking out his frustration on the man’s horse. From this point onwards the story has a tragic edge to it, as Matthew takes Branwen to his native Ireland and they are ostracised by the local community, leading Matthew to drink and to blame his wife. Branwen, who now has a young child, eventually decides she’s had enough and contacts her brothers, who turn up to fetch her. The tale ends dramatically, with violence and death. Poor Matthew had the chance to read the Mabinogion years ago, and heed its warning. Now it is too late.

The story moves back to Rhiannon, sitting on the bench outside the Tower of London. After hearing the story, she now has a choice to make. Will she heed its warning or will she make the same mistake?

Lessons to Learn

I love the way Sheers focuses the message of the book around how we respond to old myths and tales, and whether we can learn from them in order to make decisions in the present. This story is far more realist than The White Trail, and the choice of period – during the Second World War is clever. It helps the reader to understand that behind Evan’s seemingly inexplicable and shocking actions might be an experience which has affected him deeply. It can also go some way to help us understand Matthew’s behaviour towards his wife, as he is unable to cope with the humiliation of returning to Ireland with a war injury. In the afterword, Sheers describes this as “the irrational violence of men suddenly returned from a world of conflict into a world of peace”.

Having read these two re-creations, I’m now hooked, and will be adding the rest of them to my ‘to read’ list. There is something addictive about old myths and legends. We don’t know where they came from, or how they started, or what their original meaning was intended to be, but they continue to live on, to change and develop through the telling…

Listen to a series of broadcasts from BBC3 to find out more about the Mabinogion…

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