The Mabinogion: Fantasy Masterworks 39
(Gollancz, £8.99, 716 pages, paperback published 9 October 2003.)
Not, as one might expect, a modern edition of the ancient Celtic myth
cycle, but a collection of four fantasy tales based to some degree on
the old myths. I must admit to not being entirely familiar with the
original Mabinogion, and I'm little wiser
but I'd always imagined it contained more mystical material than this
volume. Walton's adaptations concentrate more on human politics than
on divine hi-jinks -- although she proposes in a note at the end of
the book that her source material is "really a story of the ancient
tribal gods euphemerized into mortal kings and princes." Main themes
seem to be the establishment of the early Celts and the shift from matriarchy
to patriarchy, via family disputes and tribal warfare.
As an aside, I'm tempted to wonder what the implications are of presenting
the retelling of a religious (or at least mythological) text as a Fantasy
Masterwork. (Can we class nativity plays as genre works? and other cheap
shots of that nature.) Moving swiftly on ...
Walton's Mabinogion begins with the story of Pwyll, Prince of
Dyved, recruited by the Grey Man Arawn to help him fight off a pretender
to the Otherworldly throne of Annwn. This is the most openly fantastic
of the four parts of the book -- in fact Walton admits to embroidering
the story in order to add mystique to what was previously quite a straightforward
tale -- but for all that it's not exactly a leap into the unknown. Annwn,
the realm of Death, is essentially little different to the court of
any other Celtic lord seen elsewhere in The Mabinogion, and for
all its apparent wonder I found it a little bland. Perhaps I'm unfairly
judging it by modern standards. I found the second part much more engaging.
Here, the unpleasant Eurosswydd contrives to rape Penardim, wife of
the noble Llyr, and the chapters that follow depict the brawlings of
the two sets of children Penardim has borne. This is a tale founded
on action but carried along by emotion and believable personalities.
Part three of The Mabinogion felt very much to me like it was
marking time. It follows directly on from the second part, but here
the lineage of Llyr plays itself out, and I could feel the story winding
down accordingly. Still, on the plus side it ends with the introduction
of Gwydion ap Don, who goes on to steal the fourth and final part from
Math, King of Gwynedd, its nominal hero.
Overall verdict: not as much fun as I'd hoped. Admittedly it was written
a while ago -- some of it as far back as the Thirties -- but even trying
to make allowances for its age, I feel Walton's quartet of myth adaptations
has long since been left behind by its fantasy successors.