Monday, January 26, 2015

Evangeline Walton's "Mabinogion Tetralogy": Book Review

This retelling of the Welsh Mabinogi, acclaimed as one of the best fantasies of the 20th century, finds a long-overdue reprinting in a single volume from Overlook Press. I review the 2002 printing; the volume appeared with a better cover in 2012. As a teenager, I always meant to read the Ballantine four-volume paperback box set, part of the revival by that press of worthy tales post-Tolkien, but somehow I forgot. Inspired by two sources, Morine Krissdottir's 2007 biography of John Cowper Powys, and David Goodway's enthusiastic acclaim in "Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow" for Powys' "Porius," I started that even longer epic but paused three chapters in as it reminded me of Walton.

I had to start with her fiction dramatizing the tension between the Old Tribes (akin to pre-Celts, indigenous inhabitants of Britain) and the New (as in the Celts, although they are not named as such), and hints of even newer religions emerging in very far off lands that one day will seek to wipe out tribal faiths and undermine traditional beliefs and customs over all these isles and more. Powys praised Walton's 1936 debut, originally called "The Virgin and the Swine." It met with no wider success then. While not the best title for the masses, the symbols of commodified woman and coveted magic pigs both fit her emphasis, cleverly teased out and elaborated by her into druidic rituals and Pythagorean cosmologies), of the clash between Old Tribe "conservatives" affirming free love and no bonds between men and women, and the New Tribes, who insist on marriage to lock women into their increasingly patriarchal system, one which traps both sexes into lifelong commitment. It's surprising for that time period, but very congenial with Powys' own take on tribal times. Both Walton and Powys imaginatively delve into this cultural strife, and both elaborate the battles both physical and spiritual, sexual and tribal, between those who push empire or impose rule, and those who fumble to try to attain a more individually based, and erotically liberating, lifestyle.

It's livelier in Walton than this summary sounds. Renamed "The Island of the Mighty" after Betty Ballantine finally tracked Walton down in the 1960s to learn that she had written three other installments, which precede it in this omnibus, the series was published in roughly chronological order as to its narrative in the early 1970s. "The Prince of Annwn" starts off splendidly with the weird hunt, the bargain with forces beyond, and it progresses smartly into the epic fight in the Underworld.

Her prose carries the action along, yet pauses for insight, and commentary. "Blackness terrifies; it is sightlessness, it blinds a man and hides his enemies; yet the darkness within the earth is warm and life-giving, the womb of the Mother, the source of all growth. But in snow or in white-hot flame nothing can grow. Whiteness means annihilation, that end from which can come no beginning." (18)

However, Walton leavens the mythic tone by making her characters believable, and taking down a peg the boasts of legends. "The Mabinogi says that no house or ship could hold him, though if that tale has not grown in the telling, houses and ships must have been very small then. One thing seems certain: Bran was very big." (153) Lightening the tone of much of the original, wit proves welcome.

Poetry fittingly enters into a Welsh setting. "At night the stars, watching those many bright fires upon the once dark earth, must have wondered and searched the sky for a gap in the constellations, shivering lest they too should fall." (164)  This is early in the second book, "The Children of Llyr," which describes the stubborn rivalries that will tear apart not only the Mighty Island but Erinn too.

My favorite hero in this section? A brave starling who speaks. Amidst the war, powerfully evoked. "Dawn found them there, gray men fighting amid gray shadows; as perhaps every man who fights in war fights a shadow, the death that he sees as death because it sees him as death; so that out of their common passion for life all are turned into its foes and kill." (243) Walton subtly raises dark specters of brutality and cunning, even as she gently commemorates those who resist evil with compassion.

An eerie gray figure makes a prophecy not only the Welsh live with today, when "fair-haired invaders will sweep over all and subject us all." The power of women having been abandoned as birth is limited to their domination by men (as procreation begins to be understood by the Old Tribes), and as rebirth (a subject sprinkled deeply into these tales by Walton's hand) eventually is denied, "for ages women will be as beasts of the field and we men will rule, and practice war, our art. By it we will live--or by it, rather, we will struggle and die." (277) The earlier respite from pain gives way to pain.

Bran's prophetic head predicts, too: force will be unleashed, beyond its proper use "only to keep one man from hurting another"; and governments will elevate the masses over the individual. (289) Gods having been corrupted and cruel, people will set up government, and that in time too will threaten all.

Against this top-down oppression, happiness tries to rebound. As "The Song of the Rhiannon," part three scans the fate of a few who escape human destruction and divine vengeance. In life's plain magic, fragile and elusive hope rests. "Yet a Head that talks after being cut from its shoulders is not, if we stop to think, nearly so vast or all-moving a Mystery as the wonders of growth, or or sunrise and sunset." Walton's narrator avers: "We have made of 'natural' and 'everyday' poor words, ordinary and trite, when they should be the Word, full of awesome magic and might; of cosmic power." (348)

Unlike many who delve into this material, Walton refuses to excavate a spuriously "Celtic" artifact to parade as a proto-New Age bauble to gush about. Her story-cycle fairly examines the strengths and weaknesses of Old and New Tribes, and she judges the excesses and follies of rulers over the ruled, as well as the inevitable bickering and petty strife which appears doomed to haunt families everywhere. Even if paternity at this distant point remains a debated theory and a novel supposition that the New Tribes from Dyved appear to import into the neighboring realm of Gwynedd, it hovers.

As this theory starts to become reality, and as women begin to be vowed for life to one man, the anthology as it progresses gains momentum. The storm that assaults Dyved, the flight of the survivors, the increasing despair of their lives, the poignancy of death, as a few seek to rally magic against cunning power, set up the entry of the last and longest portion. "The Island of the Mighty" feels at first more archaic, having been written nearly forty years before. Some spellings of Welsh names differ, and the register of the prose seems more hesitant in the first chapters of volume four.

Then, the excitement grows: the punishment meted out to impetuous Gilvaethwy and scheming Gwydion, their three transformations, the fate of Pryderi, the spite of Arianrhod, the odd births of Llew, Dylan, and Blodeuwedd, the predicament of Goronwy, and the final rounds of cunning retribution. All these resound. While fantasy looms over all and magical spells proliferate, Walton wisely sticks to the everyday, if that adjective works, reactions of confounded characters trying to survive. This reliable set of plot complications drives the last few hundred pages along swiftly.

A generation gap widens. "For it is a strange thing that the most intimate relations of our lives, those which hold our holiest and deepest loves, should also be innate antagonisms, individual combats in the universal war that is as old as sex and as consciousness and the reproduction of life. Yet it shall be so until the day when the world is healed and the sundered halves are welded, and consciousness is more clearly and truly conscious than ever, yet has fused and melted into the One." (560-1) While I suggested above that New Age musings are absent from Walton's presentation as to "Celticisms," she admits that she interposes some slight Atlantis hints, if not named as such, to account for lore from distant times and lands, and to encourage a "stair of evolution" as Math mentions towards unity. I find hints of Platonic models, or Neo-Platonic conceptions, which on the other hand enrich these themes.

Math warns how, in suppressing these "Ancient Harmonies," the New Tribes' "recognition of fatherhood will enslave women." Either that submission by women or their hiring out of their bodies will make women "the bondmaids of men." (588) Arrayed against coercive arrangements, the consciousness of the Whole--as bees and ants possess-- contends against the individual ambition within humans who fight systematic injustice. Llew learns from Gwydion how people lost consciousness of the Whole so as to shut themselves off, to work for their own gain. In turn, this confounds systems, "for in all systems there is injustice, and one class profiting at the expense of another; and since individuals will always work for their own gain and not the system's, the suffering class will always end by turning and preying upon the other." What will eventually transpire is the winning back of a collective identity, when this "wider consciousness" into a oneness with all species and a fellowship where all creatures are known "alike for our fellow beings" will happen. (595) But "millions of ages will pass" before the world moves ahead this far. By then, who knows about human evolution? Heady topics for a rendering of medieval Welsh legend, but reason why Powys praised it.

Again and again, the "magnet and the sting" of attraction reverberate as men and women strive to first couple and then divide again. Peace must come for this to happen safely, and plenty of instances in the previous six-hundred pages, by the time Math and Gwydion muse about this, demonstrate the hazards of trust and the dangers of lust. Each side tries to devour the other, yearning (again the Platonic notion lingers) "unknowing after that lost wholeness." In the "give and take of exchange," Math observes, "through the brief moments when their flesh achieves it, life goes on and the endless round renews itself, and more souls are embodied in the world to carry on the ceaseless quest and strife." (615) This suggests also a Buddhist notion, perhaps, of clinging to the flesh and the worldly.

Requiring the desire of women for men to be buttoned-down into a life sworn only to one man sparks Llew's lament as to marriage as a "crucifying riddle: how to make painless the love between a man and a woman when love must die in one heart at a time." (704) While this saga ends without resolving this eternal question, the wisdom filling this thick book merits reflection. It's a welcome addition to the shelf, although my 2002 printing has six errors on the copyright page alone, and it has typographical slips here and there throughout the text. Finally, the fantasy genre label may confuse some expecting nothing more than swords and romance. On the other hand, the thoughtful presentation of weighty subjects, and the good-natured tone with which Walton leavens arcane lore, provides readers with a vivid immersion into an ancient time of what-ifs, made relevant for moderns. (Somewhat edited for Amazon US 8-14-2014)

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