Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Prince of Annwn, by Evangeline Walton: Analysis, Pt. 2

This is the second in a series of posts in which
I will examine Evangeline Walton's Mabinogion Tetralogy
and how she adapts the original myths.
Prince of Annwn is the first volume of the work,
retelling the First Branch of the Mabinogion.
The Tarasque de Noves
[Photos by Jacqueline Poggi, used under the following license:
        At the end of my first post on this subject, I stated that I intended to write a follow-up where I would discuss elements that Walton omits from and adds to her retelling.  I also want to talk about the social and philosophical ideas which run through all the books but which are particularly prominent in Prince of Annwn. She does have a didactic purpose, setting forth views of the feminine that fit in well with our modern outlook.

       The First Branch of the Mabinogion falls into three parts.   In the first, Pwyll changes bodies with Arawn the King of Annwn in order to take his place and fight an invader of his realm.  In the second, Pwyll mounts the mound called Gorsedd Arberth, a place where wonders manifest themselves, and meets his bride Rhiannon, whom he is forced to win through trickery.  In the third, Rhiannon gives birth to Pyderi, but when the baby is stolen by some type of monster, Rhiannon is accused of murdering him and is forced to do public penance, after which the child is found and restored to his heritage.
       Walton cuts out the entire third part.   In the "Introduction" to the original text, Gwyn Jones emphasizes that the Mabinogion is really the story of Pryderi, who is the only character to appear in every branch.  But Pryderi does not even appear in Walton's Prince of Annwn.  I can't recall if the birth of Pryderi is recounted in one of the later novels; I still have to reread those volumes before I can write about them.  I think she cuts this part because it doesn't really fit with her tone or some of her themes and would be difficult to integrate with the earlier sections.
       However, Walton also adds a great deal to the book.  The original is a lot like an outline -- it tells you what happens but not why or even how in many cases.  She provides more of a cultural setting and she gives the characters motivations. 
       For example, why is it that the god Arawn needs a human to slay his foe Havgan, who came back to life after Arawn killed him in an earlier battle?  Pyll asks that very question and Arawn tells him, "Against him I no longer have any power, and no champion of mine can do what I cannot.  All the might of Annwn is powerless against him now.  But you are called a bull of battle and a woe to your enemies -- the savage, rough strength of earth may do what we cannot."  And in one of those bathetic descents, Pwyll remarks, "There is certainly one good thing about earth.  When you kill a man there he stays dead. You have no more trouble with him, though his friends and kin may try to make some."  But Arawn emphasizes that none may kill Havgan a second time.  However, even with this, Walton doesn't make it clear why this is true.  It's one of those supernatural things in fantasy and myth that you have to accept.
       And why is it so important to kill Havgan, who is striving to seize control of the Twilight World of Annwn?  In the original his nature is never discussed . Arawn says only that "there is a man whose domain is opposite to mine forever warring against me" and Pwyll never questions him further.
      In Walton's interpretation Arawn tells Pwyll that every plane of existence has its Grey Man, its Death, and that Havgan is also a Lord of Death.  "There are Beings who cast shadows in many worlds. We Grey Men may all be shadows of One beyond your imagining; Havgan may be one of the Shadows of Another."   Oddly, his name means "Summer-White," which would make him appear to be benevolent.  But Walton presents him as the Sumerian god Nergal, mentioning in her "Sources" note: "We do know that the ancient Sumerians identified their blazing summer sun with Death himself, and worshipped him so at their temple in Cuthah."
       A brief sortie into Wikipedia produces the following: Nergal "refers to a deity in Babylon with the main seat of his cult at Cuthah. ... Nergal actually seems to be in part a solar deity, ... but only a representative of a certain phase of the sun. Portrayed in hymns and myths as a god of war and pestilence, Nergal seems to represent the sun of noontime and of the summer solstice that brings destruction, high summer being the dead season in the Mesopotamian annual cycle.  Nergal was also the deity who presides over the netherworld, and who stands at the head of the special pantheon assigned to the government of the dead (supposed to be gathered in a large subterranean cave known as Aralu or Irkalla). In this capacity he has associated with him a goddess Allatu or Ereshkigal."
       [I wrote about Ereshkigal here.   And see Nergal and Kutha in Wikipedia for more information.]
       Therefore, Walton makes Havgan a beautiful Eastern Sun-God who has come to invade the Western realms of the Great Goddess.  This  warlike god will destroy the Twilight Realm of Annwn (the Celtic Underworld, depicted as a peaceful place, one of the many stops for souls as they make their eternal round of existence).   However, Havgan will then move on to decimate Earth, the realm of humans, which makes it only fitting that Pwyll, a human, should help out Arawn in his struggle.
       But for me the intrusion of this warmongering Eastern god also suggests the invasion of Christianity, another Eastern religion that sought to subdue the worship of the Mother and the supremacy of the female principle and substitute a male god as the chief (or sole) object of worship.  Christ may have been a proponent of peace, but the religion his followers founded managed to lose that goal somewhere along the way, or to accord it only lip service.  Havgan is thus a shadow of another kind of god, a masculine god, perhaps Yahweh.  In The White Goddess (Chapter 4), Robert Graves postulates that the Achaeans brought Zeus worship into Greece, diluting the fundamental worship of the female principle among the original inhabitants.  And I found an interesting citation in a website entitled "Celtic Women: Myth and Symbol":  "What appears to have dismantled this [mother-goddess-oriented] society was the warrior culture and the spread of Christianity into Ireland. ...  The appearance of the war-goddess appears to develop as a result of the change in Celtic society to one of violence and paradoxically, Christianity."

       The original text moves rapidly.  Walton slows this pace.  Instead of having Arawn conduct Pwyll directly to the court and dwellings of Annwn (in about two sentences), she gives Pwyll three tests along the way, in some of the most memorable sequences in the book.  First off, she sends Arawn off on Pwyll's horse and puts Pwyll (in the guise of Arawn) on Arawn's horse.  Arawn's horse, which knows its way home and will take Pwyll there, is known simply as the Grey and Pwyll comes to love him.  It's a great addition because it gives Pwyll a helpful and trustworthy companion along the way. 
       First they encounter a truly horrific Monster.  "Its flat, black head pierced the grey sky, the mighty, hill-like width of the black-scaled chest  and shoulders towered above the mists ...  It had three sets of jaws, and the fangs of all three dripped blood.  From the two lower jaws protruded a human leg.  ...  Pwyll saw two immense forepaws, he saw a human head dangling from each, its hair caught in the great, glittering claws."
       Walton says in her "Sources" note that she based this Monster on the Celtic sculpture called the "Monster of Noves" (although all editions of the books that I've seen have it misprinted the "Monster of Moves"), also known as the "Tarasque de Noves" (a tarrasque or tarasque was a dragon-like creature that looks like a cross between a turtle and a stegosaurus).  The sculpture itself looks more like some other type of animal; the Encylopedia Britannica calls it a bear, and this image website here refers to it as a lion or perhaps a wolf.  Personally, I think it belongs in its own subspecies of monster! 
       At the top of this post you can see a picture of the Tarasque de Noves, and at the right is a detail from that same photo (you can also view more images here).
       The Tarasque de Noves seems to relate to the Celtic cult of severed heads.  Walton makes effective use of this belief (the heads come to life, as does the leg in the monster's mouth, and they and the Grey help Pwyll defeat it in a fast-paced, highly entertaining battle). 

       Walton also makes use of the "Bird which keeps age-long vigil above the skull-adorned pillars of the grim Temple of Bouches-du-Rhone" ("Sources" note).   I identified this as the Roqueperteuse Sanctuary, which includes a set of pillars with niches for skulls and a bird that originally perched above the lintel.  (Unfortunately, I couldn't find a photo of either the gateway or the bird that I felt comfortable reproducing here, so go to these links if you want to see pictures of the Bird and the Gateway.)
       In yet another trial of his strength and purpose, Pwyll encounters a free-standing gateway in the wilderness, with skulls and two freshly severed human heads in the niches and a giant bird of prey perched on the lintel.  These heads and skulls talk among themselves and we learn that this is the place where those who die in despair come, to become victims of this Bird, who eats more than their bodies -- it eats their very essence and denies them the power to enter the Cauldron of Rebirth.  This test is not merely physical; it is a psychological test of will.  Pwyll becomes immobilized at the foot of the gate as he listens to the conversation among the skulls and heads:
       " 'But the Mothers -- will they let this be?'
       " 'The Man-Gods from the East are draining their strength, even as She of the Dark Wings drained ours.'
       "But when the Son comes back -- He that at three nights old was stolen from the Mother?'
       " 'This time the Son will not come back.  He has joined the Man-Gods.'  Again both skulls laughed together."
      The reference here is to Mabon son of Madron, which means "Son son of Mother" -- a duo of important Celtic deities.  But it's difficult to avoid seeing in this dialogue another reference to Christ. 
       Pwyll is compelled toward the belief that life is a hopeless quagmire and death brings only oblivion.  But he passes this test, also, because he is buoyed by an event that happened between his two trials, yet another addition by Walton.  He had encountered Rhiannon of the Birds, whom he will see again in the next section, while retaining no recollection of their earlier meeting.  I'll talk a little more about that in the next post.

       Pwyll finally makes it to the Court of Arawn, where he passes one final test.  When in the guise of Arawn he goes to bed with Arawn's wife, he is tempted by her beauty, but he is too honorable a man to take advantage of his good fortune and he turns his back to her.  When the real Arawn returns later, his wife upbraids him for his coldness and he knows that Pwyll has not betrayed him.  For this reason, the Grey Man and the human hero form a lasting bond of friendship.  In honor of this friendship, Pwyll is granted the title of Head of Annwn, hence the title of the book Prince of Annwn.

       I can't end this part without saying a word about the battle with Havgan.  First off, the battle takes place at a ford, traditional in Celtic culture. And we get a final look at the Celtic head cult (those arrays of capering heads do help to make this book memorable).   When Arawn killed Havgan earlier, the Sun-God begged him to be merciful and to finish him off by cutting off his head, and Arawn, who is a quite benevolent Death God, is impelled to comply.  However, the head immediately hops back onto the body and Havgan is as good as new. 
       So Pwyll knows he mustn't decapitate Havgan.  And when he arrives at the ford, he sees this sight:
       "Smoke veiled the far side of the ford, smoke and the shadow of that massed blackness that filled the heavens above it. Dimly Pwyll could see the skeletons of trees, still seemingly writhing in the agony that had burned out their lives. This time words of Arawn came back to him: 'Where Havgan treads, nothing grows again. Where he rides, the earth is burnt black beneath his horse's hoofs. He sears the breast of the Mother; all his land is a barren waste.'"

       However, when Havgan enters the ford, Pwyll sees "a boy young and beautiful as morning," and he begins to doubt the rectitude of his cause.  How could anything so beautiful be evil?   If he kills Havgan, will the sun ever rise again?  Has Arawn been tricking him all along?  And Pwyll's physical prowess begins to weaken as his will weakens.
       But the power of Havgan himself wanes as night approaches.  Pwyll finally strikes the ultimate blow and Havgan begs him to put him out of his misery, just as he did with Arawn. 

       "Again Pwyll's arm rose.  The blue eyes lit with hope.
       "They were engulfing him, those sky-hued seas of beauty and longing, those eyes that promised a new universe.  And then something -- the cold feel of bonds coiling snakewise round his will -- made Pwyll tear his eyes away ...  He looked up ... and he saw the darkness beyond the ford.
       "It covered all now.  From the water's edge to the half-swallowed heavens that smoky blackness boiled ...
       "If Havgan rose, his men would cross the ford.  Would that hot, reeking darkess cross with them?"

       And so Pwyll refuses to behead his opponent and his lamenting men come and bear him away to die.  The world of the Mothers is saved.  But this scene can only remind you of ...
       Mordor!  Isn't it Mordor we're seeing beyond the river?  Havgan is another Sauron, only one who uses personal beauty to deceive.  Prince of Annwn was completed late enough for Evangeline Walton to have read Lord of the Rings, but I don't know if she did.  Certainly she hadn't read it when she first began the book.  Just the same, the resemblance between Mordor and the descriptions of the army beyond the ford is uncanny.

       I find that this analysis requires a third post.  Next time I'll deal with the second part of the original Branch, where Pwyll meets and courts Rhiannon.  And I'll also touch a little bit more on some of the book's themes and on some of its flaws.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Prince of Annwn, by Evangeline Walton: Analysis, Pt. 1

This is the first in a series of posts in which
I will examine Evangeline Walton's Mabinogion Tetralogy
and how she adapts the original myths. 
Prince of Annwn is the first volume of the work,
retelling the First Branch of the Mabinogion.

The Hounds of Annwn, by Deb Holman
         I'm trying to recall how I first discovered Evangeline Walton's retellings of the Mabinogion, but for the life of me I can't do it.  I own several paperback versions and usually I write in a book the date I bought it.  In this case, I didn't, but my original copies are all Ballantine Books and I know I was ordering a lot of their fantasies from a catalog back in the '70s.  I probably just saw the titles and was attracted because I studied the Mabinogion in college, in my senior seminar on medieval literature.  And they turned out to be some of my favorite books of all time, as those of you know who follow my Ruminations blog!  I used The Island of the Mighty in my own book The Termite Queen to effect a significant turning point in Part IV.

       First, a few words about the Mabinogion itself -- a compilation of Welsh myths, folktales, and romances that is probably not that familiar to the general public.  (The following information is taken from the "Introduction" to The Mabinogion, translated by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones.  London, New York, Everyman's Library [c1974])
       The tales exist in two Welsh collections: the White Book of Rhydderch (compiled ca. 1300-1325) and the Red Book of Hergest (ca 1375-1425).  The stories themselves must have originated much earlier, but they developed within an illiterate society with only oral traditions, as did all Celtic myth; consequently we have only these later redactions.  Lady Charlotte Guest published an original translation of the 14th-century compilations in the 1830s and '40s.  It was she who gave it the not-entirely-correct title of "Mabinogion," which she considered to be a plural of "mabinogi," although it was probably derived from a scribal error. (For more about the obscure derivation of the name see Mabinogion in Wikipedia.)  In fact, only those parts designated the Four Branches should be called by this name, since each ends: "And thus ends this branch of the Mabinogi."  The other tales (which contain interesting archaic Arthurian material), do not end with that phrase.
       The Four Branches are titled (in English) as follows (with the titles of Walton's adaptations in parentheses):
  • Pwyll Prince of Dyved (Prince of Annwn)
  • Branwen Daughter of Llŷr (The Children of Llyr)
  • Manawydan Son of Llŷr (The Song of Rhiannon)
  • Math Son of Mathonwy (The Island of the Mighty, originally published as The Virgin and the Swine, a publisher's unfortunate title)
       In this first post I will begin a discussion of Prince of Annwn.  It's the First Branch, but it was the last of the four adaptations to be published (in 1974).  I tried to research the order in which Walton wrote the books (since they were published out of sequence), but I couldn't find anything, so I wrote a note to the administrator of the Walton web page (  I got back a wonderful response from her current editor, Douglas A. Anderson, and I thank him for his interest.  He says that the chronology is difficult to  determine, but apparently the first major pieces that she wrote were The Island of the Mighty (the Fourth Branch) and Witch House (her occult horror novel), both of which were completed by 1936 (when The Virgin and the Swine was first published.  Witch House was not published until the 1940s.)  By 1940, she was trying to market the Second and Third Branches as one huge volume entitled Brothers of Branwen, but the publishing deal fell through.  Later, when Ballantine Books became interested in republishing The Island of the Mighty, she divided Brothers of Branwen into separate volumes for the Second and Third Branches.  She had done some work on the First Branch in the early '40s, then picked it up again in 1971.  It was finally published in 1974.  So in fact it was the last to be completed.
       My approach in this series of posts will be first to take a look at the original text and discuss how Walton adapted it.  I'm  using as the original text the Jones and Jones translation mentioned above; I don't own the Lady Charlotte Guest translation and moreover I remember reading somewhere that she, being a good child of the Victorian Era, bowdlerized the text somewhat (in fact way back in the '70s, I compared the two texts and it was true!)

       In the "Introduction" to the translated text, Gwyn Jones waxes enthusiastic about the excellence of the writing, with remarks like "the final redactor ... was a great artist.  ...  He wrote the finest Welsh prose of his age. ... [employing] a skilled management of dialogue ... a command of phrase that allowed him to move easily from tenderness to cruelty, from the grave to the grotesque ... [with] a sustained yet delicately varied pace of narration. ... Second, though it is the tendency of folktale to deal with types, our author had a fine feeling for character."
       I certainly wouldn't disagree with those points.  The modern reader can read original stories without any feeling of boredom, and that's probably a good place to start.  However, the novel hadn't been invented in medieval times and our literary sensibilities have changed a lot.  To me, the original still smacks of flat mythic exposition.  Walton turns this straightforward narrative into a fully modern piece of fiction.
       To illustrate, one need only compare the opening paragraphs of Prince of Annwn with the text of the original.  Here is the original opening of the First Branch:

       "Pwyll prince of Dyfed was lord over the seven cantrefs of Dyfed; and once upon a time he was at Arberth, a chief court of his, and it came into his head and heart to go a-hunting.  The part of his domain which it pleased him to hunt was Glyn Cuch.  And he set out that night from Arberth, and came as far as Pen Llywn Diarwya, and there he was that night.  And on the morrow in the young of the day he arose and came to Glyn Cuch to loose his dogs into the wood.  And he sounded his horn and began to muster the hunt, and followed after the dogs and lost his companions; and whilst he was listening to the cry of the pack, he could hear the cry of another pack, but they had not the same cry, and were coming to meet his own pack.
       "And he could see a clearing in the wood as of a level field, and as his pack reached the edge of the clearing, he could see a stag in front of the other pack.  And towards the middle of the clearing, lo, the pack that was pursuing it overtaking it and bringing it to the ground.  And then he looked at the colour of the pack, without troubling to look at the stag; and of all the hounds he had seen in the world, he had seen no dogs the same colour as these.  The colour that was on them was a brilliant shining white, and their ears red; and as the exceeding whiteness of the dogs glittered, so glittered the exceeding redness of their ears.  And with that he came to the dogs, and drove away the pack that had killed the stag, and baited his own pack upon the stag."

       These two paragraphs of no-nonsense narration take up less than one page in my Jones and Jones volume.  Walton expands them into nine  I'll quote part of her beginning and intersperse some comments.  Here is her opening sentence:

      "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."

       This is a terrific opening sentence -- a great hook. Right away we recognize that this is not an piece of archaic mythic exposition -- it contains too much stylistic artifice.   It creates tension by suggesting that this story will provide a lot more than we will immediately learn and that Pwyll is entering into a dangerous situation.

      Walton continues, "The night before he had slept at Llyn Diarwya, that lay halfway between royal Arberth, his chief seat, and the deep woods of Glen Cuch.  And at moonset, in the last thick darkness before dawn, he woke there.
       "He woke suddenly, as if a bell had been rung in his ear. Startled, he peered round him, but saw only sight-swallowing blackness that soon thinned to a darkness full of things yet darker. Of half-shaped, constantly reshaping somethings such as always haunt the lightless depths of night, and make it seem mysterious and terrible. He saw nothing that meant anything, and if he had heard anything he did not hear it again.
       "Then sharp as an order, came memory: 'You have come to hunt in Glen Cuch, so why not get to it?'
        " 'By the God my people swear by, I will do that!' said Pwyll, and he jumped out of bed."
       Walton has drawn us into the character of Pwyll Prince of Dyved -- not only what he is experiencing but also how it affects him.  Again we can sense ominous events brewing.  She stimulates the reader's emotions, giving us a little frisson of anticipatory fear.  Also, she is showing us what is happening, not simply telling us, as the original mostly does.
         Then she proceeds to add some humor and a down-to-earth tone, something totally lacking in the original.  I happened to be glancing through Ursula K. LeGuin's compilation of essays on fantasy and science fiction entitled The Language of the Night, and I came across this remark: "Evangeline Walton ... has achieved her own idiosyncratic blend of humor and heroism; there is no doubt that the Keltic mythos lends itself to such a purpose." (p.92)
       I call this technique "bathos," a descent from the lofty to the commonplace, sometimes defined by the term anticlimax. "Bathos" is often equated with the sentimental or the trival, but Walton uses the device with great skill.  It provides a sense of balance to the writing and prevents it from growing too heavy: "He rousted out men, dogs, and horses, he drove them forth with their breakfast only half eaten. 'I wish he would get married,' grumbled one man, looking sorrowfully back at his food as he made for the door. 'Then he would get up later in the morning.'

       "But that morning Pwll would not have stayed in bed if the loveliest woman in the world had been there with him.  The Mabinogi says that it pleased him to go hunting, but the fact is that it pleased somebody else.  The idea had been planted in his brain by another, one far older, more subtle and mightier.  Pwyll, who liked to do as he pleased, whose wont it was to give orders, not to take them, never dreamed that he was being as obedient as one of his own hounds."

       The author has briefly switched to omnipotent narrator mode (here building off the sentence that opens the book).  She gives us additional insight into Pwyll's character -- he's a man accustomed to exercising power. 
       "Out into the first feeble grey of dawn he rode, his hungry, sulky men with him.  Soon the forest of Glen Cuch loomed before them, still black as night, mighty with the mystery and darkness that fill all deep forests. ...
       "Pwll's horn sounded, and the dogs were loosed.  For a space the huge beasts stood sniffing, red eyes, the hair on their backs rising.  Then, with a great wild bellowing they were off.  The black woods closed over them like gigantic jaws.
       "One man, looking after them, said uneasily: 'I never saw them act quite like that before.'"

       Pwyll then proceeds to get lost in a forest that seems much thicker than he remembers it.  He loses track of his men as he follows the belling of his unseen hounds.  As the woods grow black as night, the author continues to humanize Pwyll. "He began to wish that he could hear some of his men, no matter how far off, and to be ashamed of how much he wished it."  Then Pwll hears the cry of another pack coming to meet his own .

       Now Walton makes a significant enlargement.  The final sentence of the first two paragraphs of the original read like this:  "And with that he came to the dogs, and drove away the pack that had killed the stag, and baited his own pack upon the stag."  Walton's version requires about three pages to flesh out that one laconic statement.  When we see the unfamiliar dogs, here is Walton's description, intensified to emphasize horror and deathliness:

        "The eyes and ears and the blood-dripping teeth of the strange dogs glowed red, red as fire, but their white bodies glittered more savagely, with an unnatural, deathlike brilliance of paleness."

      Striking colors and color symbolism play a large role in Celtic myth.  Animals from another plane of existence are often portrayed as being white, but they might also have strangely particolored bodies, and trappings and costumes are often described in vivid detail, particularly in the tales and romances of the Mabinogion.  For example, here is an extract from "The Dream of Rhonabwy":
       "He could see a youth with yellow curly hair and his beard new trimmed, upon a yellow horse, and from the top of his two legs and the caps of his knees downwards green.  And a tunic of yellow brocaded silk about the rider, sewn with green thread, and a gold-hilted sword on his thigh, and a scabbard of new cordwain for it, and a deerskin thong and a clasp of gold thereon.  And over and above those a mantle of yellow brocaded silk sewn with green silk, and the fringes of the mantle green.  And what was green of the rider's and his horse's apparel was green as the fronds of the fir trees, and what was yellow of it was yellow as the flowers of the broom." (p. 139 of Jones and Jones)  Throughout Walton's version she makes fine use of this colorful bent of Celtic myth; I'll point out more examples in the next post.
       (According to, green combined with red are the favorite colors of fairies in Celtic countries.)
       The appearance of the otherworldly dogs is followed by another bathetic shift, when Pwyll sternly orders his own cringing pack to take the stag away from the intimidating hounds. 

      "They looked at him beseechingly; they wagged their tails, begging him to change his mind.  Their eyes said pitifully: 'Lord, we have always done your bidding.  Anything we can do for you we will always do.  But this ... Do not ask it of us, Lord; do not ... '
       "And because he himself was afraid that they could not do it Pwyll was miserable; also their misery hurt him.  And because he felt guilty he glared at them harder than ever.
       " 'I said: take that stag!'
       "They cowered yet lower; they whined. ...
       "He never had struck any of them.  They were his darlings and his heart's pride.  Yet now he stooped and picked up a stick.
       "They could not bear that; death was less dreadful to them than his wrath.  They moved, they advanced, tails down, bodies trembling.
       "Pwyll dropped the stick and drew his sword.  He would not let them fight alone."

       Walton draws an interesting comparison here.  Picking up on the earlier sentence (Pwyll "never dreamed that he was being as obedient as one of his own hounds"), she identifies Pwyll with his dogs: both are scared and reluctant to do as their master wants, although Pwyll doesn't yet know he has a master.

       And then we meet that master.  Inexplicably, the ominous pack withdraws and allows Pwyll's hounds to take the stag uncontested.  As they gorge themselves, the strange pack simply watches.

       " 'They are waiting for something,' thought Pwyll.  He glanced over his shoulder toward the west from which they has come.  But there was nothing there; only trees.
       "His heart leapt, then sank; there was Something!
       "A namelessness, a far-off greyness, not solid enough to be a beast, too thin to be fog ...
       "The bole of one enormous old tree hid it; for a breath's space Pwyll could not see it, and then a Grey Man on a Grey Horse rode out into the glade."

       And so we meet Arawn, Death himself, the Grey Man of the Twilight World of Anwnn, one of the parallel planes of existence where souls go when the body dies -- master of the Hounds from Hell --  the entity that has been exacting obedience from Pwyll all along ...

       Here is how the original text introduces us to the King of Annwn:

       "And whilst he was baiting his dogs he could see a horseman coming after the pack on a big dapple-grey steed, with a hunting horn round his neck, and a garment of brownish-grey stuff about him by way of a hunting garb."  Period.  That's it.  No sense of horror, not even any suggestion of the supernatural.  Just a flat statement.  I have to say, I'm biased -- I prefer Walton's version!

       Obviously I can't continue to compare texts in this much detail for the extent of the whole book, although it would be great fun!  But I hope this is some indication of how skilled Evangeline Walton is in taking the flat, straightforward narrative of the original Mabinogion and introducing the tension, excitement, humor, and complexity of character that we like to see in contemporary fantasy. 

      In a follow-up post I intend to discuss the elements of the original that Walton omits in her retelling, and also some which she adds.  I will also talk about the social and philosophical ideas which run through all the books but which are particularly discussed in Prince of Annwn.  She does have a didactic purpose: an interesting view of history to promote and a quite modern philosophy.  Her books are much more than well-written sword-and-sorcery adventure tales.
[A note on the formatting of this post: I'm well aware that large amounts of quoted material should be presented as block quotes without quotation marks, but I have no idea how to use HTML to get block quotes (indented on both margins), so if anyone cares enough to tell me how to do it, I'll fix it.]

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

So What Makes Fantasy Literature Valuable?

       This piece is a response to a guest post in the website Mythic Scribes entitled Secrets of Fantasy Literature – Interview with Harry Potter Scholar John Granger
       I looked up John Granger's biography because he is obviously an academic.  While reading the article, I felt like I was back in graduate school, charged with preparing an exposition of I. A. Richards' Practical Criticism (I believe that was the title in question -- it's been a long time!)  I'm not sure such an approach is very accessible to the 19-year-old college freshman who has just read Tolkien and is inspired to write a fantasy novel, but I did find some interesting material here.      
The post opens as follows:
       "I think Mircea Eliade was right when he wrote that reading serves a mythic or religious function   in a secular society, which is to say that we read fiction in general because it offers us an escape from or transcendence of our ego existence.
       "I think we read fantasy literature because it, more than any other genre, is designed, if you will, for just that sort of persona transcendence. As Ralph Wood said, fantasy literature is not an escape from reality but a means of entering into it, our subjective existence being a relative delusion."
       In other words, fantasy provides a mythic function for a society that has rejected traditional dogmatic religions but is willing to accept traditional religious stories as myth (fantasy).  This may not be exactly what Granger meant, since it seems he is a Christian and I'm a spiritual humanist, but it certainly plays perfectly with my Mythmaker philosophy -- that (according to Precept No. 6) "The closest humans can attain to deity is the symbolism of myth and art."
       The interview then goes on to discuss how fantasy achieves the goal of achieving "not an escape from reality but a means of entering into it."  In fact, this question boils down to -- how do you write a good novel?  (The genre really doesn't matter.)  Granger mentions three things.  Two of them are givens for all fiction:  great plot, great characters.  I won't even discuss those. 
       I will quote the third requirement: "Artistry of the traditional sort — ring composition, literary alchemy, symbolism, soul triptych/diptych, etc. — that not only delivers meaning alongside the morality of the plot points but an experience of the meaning the reader has alongside the protagonist."
       Frankly, in reading this sentence several times and supplementing it with the subsequent paragraph, I don't especially get it.  Let me paraphrase what I think Granger means.  The writer should work within a realistic context, while utilizing symbolism, metaphor, and analogy, together with subtle literary structuring according to certain rules.  This helps the reader suspend disbelief and be carried along in an empathic relationship with the characters.  The reader can thus absorb the "moral" (the "mythic content," the underlying implications of the story) -- in a way that causes it to enter and become part of his or her consciousness -- "the reading heart."  Is that any clearer?
        So what is "this ring composition"?  It seems to me that it's really just parallelism (or even dramatic ironies) within the plot -- tying everything together and bringing things back to where they were at the beginning.  Let's use the ouroboros for an illustration -- the snake that eats its own tail.  (Remember E. R. Eddison's novel The Worm Ouroboros?)  In Granger's context this even has a "literary alchemy" function, since the ouroboros is an alchemical symbol. 
       Here is how Granger defines "soul triptych": including in the story three characters who represent "desires/passions, will/mind, and heart/spirit (what we call 'body, mind, and spirit')"  More on that in a minute.
       Being a Harry Potter scholar, Granger uses those books as examples.  But since this is my blog, I'm going to point out some examples of ring composition from my own book, The Termite Queen, and also talk about the "soul triptych" in that context (I have never written anything that includes his "literary alchemy" thing in it -- I don't get the point of that unless your book is about the kind of magic that uses alchemy).  My main premise here will be that I suspect very few writers sit down to write a book and first say to themselves, "Now how am I going to make this circular?   And I must be sure to have characters that represent body, mind, and spirit."  That certainly is not how I think.  I rarely think in terms of literary theory, although I certainly studied it back in my higher-education days.  I have an idea -- an inspiration -- and I just start writing.  It has to come out the way it wants to come out, or it won't come out at all.
       Strangely enough, The Termite Queen actually exhibits the quality of ring composition.  Three events in the book mirror one another, one near the beginning, one at the big climax at the end of Part III, and one right at the end.  (If I tell you what these events are, I'll be playing the spoiler!)  It seemed natural to do it that way.  Other incidents and events mirror each other throughout the book and foreshadow each other -- the emphasis on the concept of forgiveness, for example, and the discussion of ancient religious values.  I think I did pretty well in unwittingly creating an ouroboros!
       What did I do about a "soul triptych"?  I have to say, I don't think I have that.  I can't say, Kaitrin is mind, Gwidian is body, Kwi'ga'ga'tei the Shshi Seer is spirit.  I suppose you could divide it that way, but it's too simplistic.  Kaitrin finds her sensual side during the course of her relationship with Gwidian, and her spiritual side in the way she copes in Part IV.  Gwidian holds all three aspects within himself, although we can't see that that until near the end of the book.  Kwi'ga'ga'tei is both mind and spirit but hardly body.  And then there is Mo'gri'ta'tu. He fits only as a personification of evil.  I think any story where a character is too rigidly tied to one aspect of this triptych is going to be shallow and lack satisfying complexity and ambiguity.
       So what does all this amount to?  My advice to beginning fantasy writers is to produce a well-written book with a soundly constructed plot and great characters -- a book with something complex to say that is portrayed not overtly and moralistically but through metaphor and ambiguity (almost as if the book were poetry).  This is what myth does, and fantasy writers are constructing the myths for a modern age.
       Or, as John Granger says at the end of his interview, "If you just like dragons and swords, well, I guess there is a place for that, too"!
[Illustration from Wikimedia Commons: "Ouroboros drawing from a late medieval Byzantine Greek alchemical manuscript"]

Friday, January 4, 2013

New FREE Publication: The Blessing of Krozem

Available only from Smashwords
And it's now FREE!
In this fantasy novelette we read about the slate-blue world of Ziraf. In addition to humans, Ziraf’s Dreamers created spirit beings called the Troil, who communicate with and sometimes counsel their mortal companions. The Troi Wagmi suggests to the Headman of Greivat Fastness that he might ask the Zem’l for immortality. But when the Headman approaches the aged Shrine Guardian Gilzara with a request for help in summoning the correct Zem, Gilzara himself is seduced by the idea of immortality, if he might obtain it not only for himself but also for his dying wife. Krozem, the Creator of Humankind, proves to be surprisingly receptive, but things do not turn out quite as planned.               

       I finally finished the cover for this short piece that I wrote way back in the 1970's.  And I'm going to try publishing it only Smashwords for now.  It's too short for a print book - it would be a pamphlet.  And for you Kindle users, a Kindle version is easily downloadable from Smashwords - all you need is to run it through the MobiReader, which isn't that hard to do.  And you can also get a PDF version for any of your computer setups - PC, laptop, tablet, whatever.
       Above is the cover art.  It's not the best thing I ever did, because I'm not good with anything resembling the human figure (even if it's really a spirit being who hasn't got a bone in his body!)
       Also, it appears Blogger has changed their picture upload method.  The picture link won't allow access to one's own Picture file.  I had to put this in a Picasa Web Album before I could access it, and now I can't change the size and I can't add a caption.  You can, however, still click on it to get a larger view.