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.]


  1. It looks like you've done a lot of reading.

    1. Well, I have during my lifetime. And I always enjoy analyzing what I read. Goes back to my college and grad school days. I loved to do term papers, hated tests!

  2. To create a block quote in HTML, put <blockquote> at the beginning and </blockquote> at the end.

    1. I will make a note of that useful bit of knowledge!