I’ve just completed Patrick Ford’s The Mabinogi, a translation of medieval Welsh folk tales and mythological cycle. Reading this book lets me tick off one more on my list of reading to catch up on non-Greek mythology. I can say, with some embarrassment, that I have never heard of any element of these stories before, so when someone in my office glanced at the title of the book I was reading and commented, “obscure Welsh literature, great,” I felt a little absolved.
When I was just getting into the book, I was a little disappointed in the story telling. The story arcs rambled, and changed seemingly without explanation. Story lines ranged far beyond the interest point. And the laundry lists of heraldic titles and accomplishments; tasks and quests made for really dull reading. There was practically NO SHOWING. But that is what was recorded in the original manuscripts, which were written down by someone who heard someone else tell the oral story. Would the people back then simply “understand” all the tactile imagery that was possible when the characters go riding across the land? Had they done it all themselves, in an uneventful journey? The author of this book could only decipher what his modern day learnings let him to reach back and translate the Mabinogi.
The author, Patrick K. Ford is the Margaret Brooks Robinson Research Professor of Celtic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University. Needless to say he wrote this book with academic interests and not story telling in mind. Despite being very sparse, with little imagery and barely three dimensional characters the stories serve to give us 21st century denizens a peek into the ways of old cultures. However I can see how each of these 6 – 40 page stories could be turned into a rich novel, however dark.
These tales aren’t for the weak-of-stomach. From crushing skulls barehanded, stealing, rape, murder, torture to animal cruelty they show the worst of human nature. They show what people do to get what they want: woman, money, power, land, respect, honor and revenge. And sometimes people do terrible things to breach hindrances.
My favorite story was that of “Manawydan son of Llŷr.” Even though this story is rangy, and the events a little jerky we see magic, trouble, rescue, punishment by social decree and then the wrongs are righted. I just love happy endings; well I like it more when the jerks who were wrong get what’s coming. Mainly I like the story line where a group of people are displaced from their own land and must wander to find a new place, yet no matter how hard they work, they cannot find a place they fit in. And after some time they return home and break their curse. I like this because they didn’t give up. They didn’t sit idly waiting to find a way. Even when they weren’t trying to break the curse, they were working hard, trying to get by because they had to.
That's it for now. Maybe someday I'll come back to these tales for story fodder, or for further study.
Fantasy: Little, Big - John Crowley
Scholarly: Wizardry & Wild Romance, A Study of Epic Fantasy - Michael Moorcock
Writing:(I'm slacking here)