The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (book review).

April 28, 2018 | By | Reply More

‘The Mabinogion’ is the cornerstone of Welsh myth comprising of a collection of tales that fuse folklore, culture and Arthurian romance. They are hugely valuable in our understanding of the myth of Arthur as the stories have been dated to before the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth, where our analysis of the legends of Arthur can really begin. This collection is the version adapted by Evangeline Walton named ‘The Mabinogion Tetralogy’ comprising of the four books she wrote: ‘The Island Of The Mighty’ (1936), ‘The Children Of Llyr’ (1971), ‘The Song Of Rhiannon’ (1972) and ‘Prince Of Annwn’ (1974). Despite being written last, ‘The Prince Of Annwn’ is actually the first book in the sequence and ‘The Island Of The Mighty’ is the last.

This sort of myth-making is not for the faint-hearted. I found the writing to be comparable to that of Tolkien’s earlier work such as ‘The Song Of Kullervo’ though Walton, an American woman who lived in the mid-west and wrote most of her novels during the 20s and 30s, has a lighter touch than the Oxonian Professor. This is a world where characters cross from our ‘real’ world into the otherworld to encounter strange beasts and compelling romance.

One of the things I love about this age and style of writing fantasy is the lack of need for systems. In many fantasy works, the need to explain how much works, like it was a set of tables in the ‘Dungeons And Dragons Players Handbook’ can often drag the prose down. Here in Walton’s world, magic just occurs, as ethereal and inexplicable as it would be to us in reality. It gives the stories a very dream-like quality.

I enjoyed very much the third book ‘The Song Of Rhiannon’ (no, not the Fleetwood Mac one), in which Rhiannon and her son, Pryderi, fall victim to a curse and are only able to return to the world once a trial over a corn-destroying mouse has been convened. What is so striking is that the myths here reflect the real fears of the time they were founded in. The need to eat, the need for agricultural success and protection from outside invaders would have been vital to the tribes and villages of the time. There are stories that reach back into the past thousands of years.

That we can enjoy ‘The Mabinogion Tetralogy’ is largely thanks to the work of Barbara Ballantine. Walton had originally had ‘The Island Of The Mighty’ published in 1936, but the title was changed to the ‘The Virgin And The Swine’. Ballantine Books decided to republish the novel in 1970, discovered by fantasy author Lin Carter, as part of their ‘’Adult Fantasy Series’ and were delighted to discover that Walton was still alive and had a number of other novels written and ready to go. The remaining parts of the ‘Tetralogy’ were published subsequently in the 70s and Walton found herself in demand.

Overall, I found ‘The Mabinogion Tetralogy’ quite a tough read, but a rewarding one. Just getting used to the Welsh spelling of names took some time and the tales are packed so densely with prose, I often had to re-read passages to be sure I’d understood it correctly. However, this is an ancient and magical text and deserves to be as well-known as the Arthurian tales that followed it.

John Rivers

April 2018

(pub: Overlook Duckworth, 2012. 718 page small enlarged paperback. £14.99 (UK), $24.95 (US), $26.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-58567-504-3)

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Category: Books, Fantasy

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