Some forty years ago, I went on a reading jag that proved to be the most exciting adventure in my life. I discovered Arthurian legends, the Holy Grail and all of the major literary works that use this mythical world as a vehicle for fantasy. I plowed through Mary Stewart, and White's The Once and Future King. I read Mallory, Tennyson and E. A. Robinson, and when I ran out of Arthurian material, I turned to Mervin Peake's Gornmagast, Tolkien and the whole Wagnerian cycle. At some point, I encountered Evangeline Walton (1907-1996) and her fantasy novels based on The Mabinogion.
I had only heard of the Mabinogion in graduate school where I had one instructor who referred to it as "an obscure collection of 14th century Welsh tales with ties to the Arthurian legends." That got my attention, but when I attempted to read them, I quickly became frustrated by obscure and archaic language and references. The proper names of the characters (Pwyll, Llyr, Annwn,Gwydion,Blodeuwedd) were enough to defeat me since I couldn't pronounce them or tell them apart.) The stories were tangled strands of magic, lost love, Celtic deities and horror. Then, I discovered Walton who had separated and translated the "eleven branches" into four magnificent novels. It is an astonishing accomplishment.
Walton sorted these bewildering strands into four distinct novels, and reconciled all of the problems with spellings and contradictions. Under her masterful hand, the stories not only made sense - they were fascinating, heartbreaking and inspiring.
I was mesmerized by this world of magic birds, mythical pigs, tragic lovers and heroes who venture into supernatural kingdoms (and lingered too long). Curses, prophecies, demons and love betrayed. Merlin's father is here, and a wonderful, heartless woman who was created from flowers (which is why she has no heart!)
I still have my battered paperbacks of Walton's four novels. However, last week I learned that the complete tetralogy has been reissued. It seems that the critics consider these novels to be a major achievement in fantasy literature. In evidence,Walton received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989 and was named "Grand Master of Fantasy" by the World Fantasy Convention. At present, it appears that Walton's accomplishments will enjoy a new audience since her novels are being reissued and a number of major critcs have acknowledged this tetralogy to be on a par with Tolkien. I intend to read them all again.
Note: the striking artwork on the cover of the tetralogy depicts the four children of Llyr who were converted into swans by an evil (but remorseful) stepmother for 900 years. On the day that the enchantment was lifted, they became human again, but as this painting illustrates, one child retained the wings of a swan and a fourth one in the background isn't making the "transition." Not yet, anyway. However, soon after the change, all four children grew old and died in a matter of hours. After all, they were over 900 years old!