New Stories from the Mabinogion: vols 1 & 2

Mabinogion Oxfird worlds classics

The Mabinogion is a collection of medieval Welsh stories of Celtic origin – they are written very much in the bardic tradition of oral storytelling. The eleven tales as normally collected have the four ‘branches’ of the Mabinogion proper, a set of Native Tales and three Romances;  the Native Tales also include early references to King Arthur. During my obsessive Arthurian reading period some years ago, (see the previous post) I did include the Mabinogion. Like Malory, it is not an easy read, and the Welsh names take some getting used to, but these stories are full of magic, nature, and always the cycle of life.

The publisher Seren, with its series of short novels ‘New Stories from the Mabinogion’ has commissioned contemporary re-tellings of the stories, (somewhat in the manner of the Canongate Myths). The first two are reviewed below, and I have the next pair to read very soon.

White Ravens by Owen Sheers

white ravens owen sheersBased upon the story of Branwen, daughter of Llyr, the second branch of the Mabinogion. This is a tale of two brothers, their sister and the love of her life.  Sheers has chosen to set a wartime story within another contemporary narrative.

We start in the near present on a farm in Wales where foot and mouth has caused Rhi”s brothers into the dangerous business of stealing and butchering lambs to supply fancy restaurants in London. Rhi hadn’t wanted to be a part of it, but one night necessity forced her to drive the van, and she abandons her brothers once in London – finding herself at the Tower of London.  There she meets an old man who tells her another story, that seems to resonate with her own life.

He tells of an Irishman, Matthew, who fights for the British in WWII. Wounded, he takes up office work, but one day is sent on a mission to pick up some raven chicks from a remote farm in Wales to replenish the Tower’s complement. Matthew arrives and meets a gentle giant of a farmer, Ben and later his sister Branwen and it’s love at first sight for both of them. Then on the day of their wedding, Bran’s other brother arrives back home from the war.  Aghast at losing his beloved sister he perpetrates a shocking act of revenge that makes all the blood of the other pair of brothers’ butchery pale in comparison – animal lovers beware …

The writing is very powerful indeed, and tears sprang to my eyes as I read this scene, and then again later when tragedy strikes again and again.  War changes people and violence begets violence, whether physical or emotional, indeed the food cycle itself has death at its core. The moments of happiness in this book are few and far between, yet there is a moral to take from this tale and maybe it is not too late for Rhi …

The Ninth Wave by Russell Celyn Jones

Ninth Wave Russell celyn jonesJones takes the story of Pwyll from the first branch of the Mabinogion and rewrites it as a dystopian vision of a world without oil.  Pwyll is a rich young aristocrat who has no idea of how to rule his land. One day out hunting he kills the dog of neighbouring ruler Arawn who proposes that Pwyll should swap places while Arawn quietly does some business, and he ends up getting drawn in to a plot by Arawn’s wife to murder her sister’s fiancée…

I really enjoyed the imagery of Jones’ dystopian world in this one. A land where everyone has gone back to horses for transport, yet Little Chefs and Starbucks are still going – it’s that close to us now.  Even more than now, it’s a land of haves and have-nots. Democracy has reverted back to medieval style feudal fiefdoms and tribal enclaves again which brings the story back full-circle to its origins.

Mounted up and heading along the old motorway, with a hand-drawn map in his hands, he practised the lines he was to use on Havgan. He turned off at exit fifteen and was soon catching the highlights of kids ripping copper pipes off the wall of a house. A car burned at the side of the road, with people walking casually by as if this were nothing special. From shop to light manufacturing unit, there was precious little glass left anywhere in one piece.

I would find it very hard to pick between these two marvellous short novels.  Each brings the essence of the original story to life and expands on it to create a whole from the episodic narratives of the Mabinogion.

I loved them both and will be reading vols 3 & 4 very soon.  (both 9/10). 
I bought these books.  For another review of these two tales, read Lizzy’s Literary Life

To buy the books mentioned from, click below:
White Ravens (New Stories from the Mabinogion) by Owen Sheers
The Ninth Wave (New Stories from the Mabinogion) by Russell Celyn Jones
The Mabinogion (Oxford World’s Classics) trans Sioned Davies

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