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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

THE MABINOGION TETRALOGY by Evangeline Walton

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!

25 comments:

  1. Gary,

    I, too, have read many of these same books. Loved Marion Zimmer Bradley and her "Lady of the Lake" series. In fact, my second unpublished mystery novel, "Sanctuary Stones," is set in the Wiltshire villages that surround Stonehenge and Glastonbury - previously known as Avalon.

    Judy

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  2. Do you know the legend about the alleged excavation of Arthur's grave at Glastonbury and the "three Gweneveres" that were buried there? Is the Lady of the Lake series based on the Lady who gave Arthur
    his sword?

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  3. This is off the line of commentary, and I hope to see the answer to Gary's question. However, I wanted to take a moment to say, I am determined to eventually cease being surprised by Gary's seemingly endless supply of marvelous works that I wish I had known about all my life. I am used to being with people, smart people, who I have to explain a little about the authors I am currently reading. When I'm with Gary I spend a good part of the time answering, uh, no, I haven't heard of them, no, I'm not familiar with that author. Makes me feel like Kaspar Hauser just emerged from the basement. Sweet bejeezus, Batman, did you just publish two book reviews in one day? I am inspired to force more reading time into my day. As a sidenote I'll mention that Gary and I first hit it off by a mutual appreciation for Werner Herzog. I quickly discovered that he had seen and was familiar with far more international films (and domestic) than I, and exponentially at that. By the way I'm a film studies major. I can't count how many films and books I have sought after a little discussion of them on Gary's porch. Okay, enough of that. I found Gormengast through Jon Williams. Always a Tolkien fan. Found The Worm Ouroboros by happy accident. Always loved The Once and Future King. (What's the deal with The Book of Merlin? Bah.) This Tetralogy is news to me and I can't wait to dig in.

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  4. Thank you, kind sir. By way of explanation, let me say, if you are a deaf misfit, READ. If your personal life is a disaster and you can't make a living, find solace in READING. If you are a manic depressive who only finds peace when he is reading, READ. I guess I read more than most people (and I am a very slow reader) and watch more movies than most people, because unlike happy, well-adjusted people with families, children and a rich collection of friends and relatives, I only have books, movies and a modest talent for telling lies....but thank you for letting me talk ... and talk ... and talk.

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  5. Gary,

    Yes. The Lady of the Lake is the one with Excaliber. And of course Merlin helped bring those sarsens to Stonehenge...

    Judy

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  6. Yes! He just waved a wand or muttered an incantation and all those huge stones jumped out of quarries and flew across oceans to arrange themselves at Stonehenge. That is a lot more exciting than the "historic theory" as to how they got there. I also remember that Arthurian legend is filled with contradictions. For example, is the sword in the stone the same sword that the Lady of the Lake gave Arthur? Are there two Excalibers?

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  7. Gary,

    The sword is the same, depending on the legend you prefer, of course. One version explains that Arthur pulled a sword from the stone, put there by Merlin, and thereby proved he was the rightful king. However, when Arthur got into a fight with the current king - named Pellinore - the sword was broken. Merlin took Arthur to the Lady of the Lake - Isle of Avalon - and she pulled the repaired Excaliber from the waters and gave it back to Arthur. The catch - isn't there always a fly in the ointment? - was that Arthur had to return Excaliber to her when he was dying. Arthur had a second battle with Pellinore, who was defeated this time. He joined Arthur and became a knight at the newly created Round Table. And of course, when the time came, Arthur did return Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake, as she had requested.

    Judy

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  8. Yes, I know that part and believe that Tennyson does it better than anybody. Okay, I have my own idea about this, but I'm interested in yours. When the dying Arthur is carried on the barge, he is tended by three ladies. I have never understood why his enemy, Morgan Le Fay, is there. Why do you think she is there?

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  9. Gary,

    Again, it depends on the version you like. Morgan can be Arthur's half-sister, thus the mother of Mordred, who kills his father, King Arthur ; the Priestess on the Isle of Avalon; or perhaps she's the Lady of the Lake...if you look at this way, Morgan could be all three. She is a mystical being, after all...trained by Merlin.

    Judy

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  10. Yeah, and she sealed him up in a tree. I sort of like the version in which she is "an instrument of
    Destiny." I've seen a similar theory about Judas.
    I guess the reasoning for both Judas and Morgan Le Fay is that they are supposed to be a "catalyst" that propels Arthur/Christ toward his destiny. Are you familiar with the movie, "Excaliber" which has the marvelous version of Arthur's parentage?

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  11. Gary,

    I've probably seen it a long time ago. Be fun too look at it again - any of the movies made from these legends are enjoyable - at least they are to me.

    Judy

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  12. Mythology is filled with stories about men who acquire the help of a magician or god to change them into the likeness of a husband of a woman that they want to sleep with. I think Hercules originated from a deception like that. There is a version of Arthur's conception that happens that way.

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  13. Gary,

    I have requested The Mabinogion Tetralogy from the Tacoma Library. Can't wait to dive into it!

    Judy

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  14. Judy,
    Please join my blog as a "Follower." Just go to the top of the page and click on "Follow." I would be pleased to have you. Let me know what you think
    of the journey to Annwn and the episode about "The Black Caldron." I read it over 20 years ago, but I remember it vividly.

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  15. You sure struck a chord with this Gary. I’ve read most of the series you mentioned but I fear my memory is not nearly as good; however, I do recall that Marion Zimmer Bradley depicted “The Lady Of The Lake” as a title for the head priestess, the equivalent of a “Mother Superior”. Morgan La Fey was a much more sympathetic character in those books and rose from a novice to become “The Lady Of The Lake” later on in the epic. I don’t know if the old legends support that or not. I think you’re probably right in comparing her to the figure of Judas. Comments? When I was around five and six years old I stayed with the Sloan family during the summer and after kindergarten during the school year while my parents worked. Todd Sloan, the grandfather of the clan, was retired and we kids clustered on the sides and back of his overstuffed chair everyday while he read to us from his favorites-Tennyson and Kipling; not a bad introduction to literature for a bunch of little mountain kids! Consequently I loved all that Arthurian stuff growing up. Also, a very nice retired man who I called Uncle Elbert (no actual relation except for the shared kinship of books) lived next door to my grandparents in Asheville and gave me a series of Arthurian classics when I was eight or nine. I remember lying under the trees out in the woods, staring up thru the leaves and branches at the sky, whiling away the summer hours with Arthur and his knights. This stuff sure brings back good memories. By the way, I don't think anyone mentioned Steinbeck’s foray into the Arthurian legends. I think the book he wrote was adapted from Tennyson but it’s well worth reading too. I haven’t had the pleasure of reading the “Mabinogion” but thanks for the tip Gary. Alas, I just wish I could recover the leisure of those summer days to lie under the trees and go questing with The Knights of The Roundtable again.

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  16. My greatest influence was probably Mary Stewart. I guess she followed the traditional Arturian themes, but she did a hell of a Modred and Morgan le Fay, mother and son and committed enemies of Arthur. The part of Tennyson that still moves me deeply is the final chapter when the barge carrying the dying Arthur vanishes into the fog and Kay (the man who "returned" Excaliber to the lake, climbs the cliff hoping to see the barge again. He doesn't, but he hears a faint cheering, as though a crowd were greeting a warrior home form the war. It is New Years Day.

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  17. I say we get a group together and go visit Glastonbury, Stonehenge, and other Wiltshire shrines and see these sights first hand. Gary, you can be the tour guide. I'll take care of the chocolate snacks...

    Judy

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  18. Do you think I can get some special rates through my social security? I remember reading an interviewe with Mary Stewart in which she stood in the ruins of a castle in Wales until she more or less "cannneled" Modred. He was in a bad mood.

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  19. Yes, social security should be willing to fund our trip. Maybe even pay for all that chocolate I plan on eating.

    I think Mordred would always be in a bad mood. He was a very naughty boy.

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  20. what a beautiful cover...

    Stopped to say Hello Gary!

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  21. Yes, it is beautiful. I tried, without success to identify it. Although I found it in my old Times-Warner collection of Irish myths, the artist is not named.

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  22. I went back and read the small print. This painting is in the Dundee Art Galleries and Museum in Dundee, Scotland. The artist's name is John Duncan. This is in the Times-Warner publication,
    The Enchanted World: Spells and Bindings.

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