Sunday, June 5, 2011

Fantasy Masterworks #39: Evangeline Walton, The Mabinogion


That day Pwyll, Prince of Dyved, who thought he was going out to hunt, was in reality going out to be hunted, and by no beast or man of earth. (p. 15)

Myths are an absolute bitch to translate properly. Grounded in a particular milieu, myths rarely reveal their full power to those not raised in that particular culture's time and values. Yet a good translation can approximate the best qualities of the original, making for a powerful tale that carries the echoes of something deeper, wilder, and more mystical than what a present-day reader may behold.

I have only the tiniest trace of Welsh ancestry (being in most part Irish and Cherokee ancestry, I grew up with other legends), so while I had heard of the Welsh myth/story cycle called the Mabinogion, I was not familiar with its particulars. So in some senses, I am the ideal reader for American writer Evangeline Walton's adaptation of that story cycle, also entitled The Mabinogion. Originally published as four books (Prince of Annwn, The Children of Llyr, The Song of Rhiannon, and The Island of the Mighty) in the 1930s, Walton's books aimed to "modernize" the Welsh stories without (according to Walton, in a couple of her endnotes) adding or subtracting from the originals. However, these stories were not successful until they were republished in the 1970s, likely in response to J.R.R. Tolkien's popularization of fantasy stories.

Each of the four books is in turn broken down into parts that revolve around particular story events. In the first volume, Prince of Annwn, the young Prince Pwyll dominates the first thread, while in succeeding "branches", the reader encounters the wizard-prince Gwydion, the beautiful Rhiannon, and the doughty Branwen. In each of these stories, there are echoes of certain cultural clashes, such as the invasions by the Romans and (later) the Anglo-Saxons, or of the infiltration of Christian values into what originally were pagan myths. Walton does not attempt to whitewash these, but instead she went to great pains to keep these competing cultural values embedded within the stories. From what I can judge, being almost wholly ignorant of Welsh mythology, Walton attempted to do for that story cycle what John Steinbeck at the end of his life aimed to do for Thomas Mallory's Le Morte D'Arthur: make the story "readable" for a "modern" audience while as retaining as much of essence of the original as possible.

Did Walton succeed? For me, I found myself paying very close attention to the stories. There were echoes of other cultures' mythologies in Pwyll's day-long duel with Havgan, whose strength waxes and wanes with the sun's rise and setting. Walton told stories such as this in clear, evocative language that was in turns direct and poetic, but never dull or obtuse. In reading this omnibus, I saw names and locales which I believe were later used by other fantasy writers, making me wonder if they had been influenced by Walton or if they too were tapping into the same mythological streams. Some might say these tales are very "Celtic," and I suppose that would be an aptly vague, almost meaningless title, except Walton's tales do not feel as though they are copies of greater works. Instead, she manages to infuse these stories with a vitality that makes for a very enjoyable read.

Is Walton's The Mabinogion worthy of being called a "Fantasy Masterwork?" In my opinion, yes. She relates powerful, timeless tales in clear language that might make many readers want to delve further into the original Welsh myths. The best translations inspire a curiosity as to how the original would be for the reader, and in this, Walton has succeeded with me.

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