Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Prince of Annwn, by Evangeline Walton: Analysis, Pt. 4

This is the fourth 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.

Gwawl in the Bag (if that's Pwyll, he is disguised as an old man!)
From More Celtic Fairy Tales,
selected and edited by Joseph Jacobs
Illus. by John D. Batten
New York, Putnam's Sons, 1895
       Evangeline Walton sets up a history for the "Island of the Mighty" in Prince of Annwn as early as the second chapter of the book.  We learn of the Old and the New Tribes and later we learn that the New Tribes invaded from Ireland and colonized the region called Dyved while forcing the Old Tribes to retreat into Gwynedd.  (See Kingdom of Dyfed in Wikipedia, where it's stated that that area consisted of Irish tribal lands.)  Hence, Pwyll is of the New Tribes. The High King Beli rules over both areas and he has kept the peace, but he is aging and, because he is of the Old Tribes, he will be succeeded by his sister's son Bran, one of the Children of Llyr (the title of Walton's retelling of the Second Branch, by the way).  The Old Tribes retain their ancient Goddess-centered beliefs; they are matrilineal and they don't recognize the role of the father in child-bearing.  The New Tribes do recognize it and generally scorn the Old Tribes as troglodytes, in spite of their many mysterious powers.  Beli has a son named Caswallon, who wants to follow the new rules and seize the throne in his own right.  Thus a war is brewing. 
       Pwyll may be of the New Tribes, but he isn't completely comfortable with their practices.  At the beginning of the story, he thinks he wants to support Caswallon and he also practices the droit du seigneur, sleeping with many of his kingdom's brides on their wedding night, but he refused to mate with a white mare when he took the throne, a ritual that is supposed to ensure the fertility of the King.  When he first meets Rhiannon in the apple orchard, she assures him that if he had performed that act, she would never have sought him out.  "The mare would have been as defiled as you!" she tells him.  "Only your druids of the New Tribes could have devised such sacrilege, they who reject the Ancient Harmonies and twist what little wisdom they can gain into foul foolishness -- seeking their own ends!"  At first Pwyll is offended at this insult to his people, but then he acknowledges that he won his kingdom through the support of his warriors while only one of his Druids stood by him, a young kinsman named Pendaran Dyved.

       Now this prepares the way for the plot development in the final section of the book.  Pendaran Dyved is the only Druid to be named in the First Branch of Mabinogion itself, but he plays no major role there.  Walton introduces other Druids, especially an unnamed Chief Druid whose purpose is simply to embody the evil forces at work in the land.  It's he who goads Pwyll into sleeping on the dangerous mound of Gorsedd Arberth.
       In an important sequence in Part II, Chapter 10, the evil Druid lectures Pendaran Dyved in the realities of present-day life. 

       "Boy, under the Oldest Tribes Queens alone reigned in Dyved, and all of them were the Shadows She [i.e., Modron] cast among men.  When Kings came, they were Her sons at first, and later, when a new people came, Her husbands.  Even among us of the New Tribes, no King may yet reign in his own right; he must always wed the old Goddess of the land."
       And now comes a clue -- a remark I just noticed -- that may help explain the point about how Rhiannon was raped by a forefather of Pwyll.  Pendaran says, "My forefather and Pwyll's seized the last Queen, but she bore him no girl-child.  A pity."  And the evil Druid responds, "It is no pity, but a blessing that that time of witches came to an end.  To make men stronger and women weaker we druids devised the Bridal with the White Mare.  In her name we wield the Queens' ancient power. ... There is no more of Her in the White Mare than in any other she-beast. ... Sometimes it is needful for the wise to deceive common men.  ...  If the people lose the White Mare too soon, the power of women may wax again."  And then he coldly informs Pendaran, "We serve the Man-Gods.  ...  The day of the Mother is done."  In other words, they serve Havgan, the same destructive force that Pwyll has just fought so hard to eliminate.
       Interestingly, the evil Druid goes on to announce that "a day will come when men will fly higher than birds, when they will fare deeper undersea than the fish.  When the lightning shall be shut up in little boxes, and serve them like a slave.  And all these wonders will be worked by the hands and wits of men.  Woman -- she who only receives our seed and carries it while it shapes itself in her darkness -- how can she claim then to be a creator?"
       In his heart Pendaran Dyved does not buy this mechanistic definition of creator, but the evil Druid persists, even thinking to himself afterward, "To keep order always has been hard, but it will be ten thousand times harder when men's hands are filled with marvels.  They will be like children, playing with earth-rending toys.  We rulers will talk much of freedom but in the name of freedom, we must destroy freedom.  Questions can be more dangerous than swords."

       So, taking advantage of the old belief that those who mount the Gorsedd Arberth will either see a wonder or meet their deaths, the Druid, armed with his golden sickle, follows Pwyll onto the mound with murder in his heart.
       The plot structure at this point becomes confusing.  Pwyll actually remains asleep on the mound for almost the entire remainder of the story; everything he experiences during this part is a dream or a series of illusions, during which he meets Rhiannon, enters the mound, spars with the skeleton of Heveydd, participates in two wedding feasts, and travels back and forth to Dyved between these episodes. All this appears to take several years.  But the reader is not immediately clued into the fact that this is all taking place in a world of dream, so at first it's confusing.  The story keeps cutting back to the top of the mound where the Druid, who can discern what is happening in Pwyll's otherworldly quest, waits to kill Pwyll as soon as he fails one of the trials. Only when you get to the end of the book and think about what has happened do you fully understand. I consider this lack of clarity to be one of the book's flaws.
       However, Walton's underlying theme in this book (and in the other Branches) has surely become clear by now.  Since Prince of Annwn was finished last, she may have seen it as an opportunity to summarize her views concerning the oppression of women.  The loss of the recognition of the creative power of the Mother and the rise of a male-dominated society are situations that have persisted into modern times. Walton presents them as largely responsible for much of the tyranny and destructive behavior toward not only our fellow human beings but also toward the environment of the planet on which we live.  Walton is not relating just another sword-and-sorcery tale -- she is using her fantasy talents to spearhead the women's movement. 

       I can't conclude without a few notes dealing with the two wedding feasts.  I think Walton was uncomfortable with these sequences.  Fantasy worlds are supposed to be motivated by magic, but Walton's approach is a little different.  I would say her world is motivated by the supernatural -- by the forces of deity, which can't be equated with magic.  The final wedding scene is strictly a fairy-tale-like magic construction, with its introduction of a magic bag that can't be filled up.  This results in a demonstration of torture -- a mean parlor trick with nothing epic or heroic about it -- childlishly inconsistent with the themes that animate the rest of the book.  Walton tries to make the best of this.  At one point, as Rhiannon is instructing Pwyll on what to do with the bag, she says, "Great will be the sacrilege.  Perhaps, if I were a whole Goddess, instead of a mere aspect of one, I could think of a better way.  But I cannot, and I am not altogether sorry."  Clearly, Rhiannon is also not comfortable with the bag solution.
       Walton strives to give depth to these sequences by introducing the Grey Man (the death-giving god) of the Bright World, who, it develops, is also in league with the Man-Gods.  Therefore, he wants to keep Rhiannon from returning to Earth and perpetuating the Ancient Harmonies of the Mother, so he supports Gwawl son of Clud, Rhiannon's unwanted suitor.  Walton makes Gwawl reminiscent of Havgan, with his golden-haired beauty and sky-blue eyes.  Thus she manages to elevate the motivation in this episode to the supernatural level.  It's not merely that a fairy princess has taken a whim to marry a mortal and so wants to rid herself of an unwanted suitor through humiliating torture.
       Walton's purpose of promoting her views on the position of women in our culture causes this book to become a bit long-winded and sententious.  There are many scenes where one character lectures another about the situation with the Mother and the Man-Gods -- two scenes where Arawn talks to Pwyll, the conversation among the heads at the Gate where the Bird waits to devour the will, the scene between the evil Druid and Pendaran Dyved, Rhiannon's discussions with Pwyll, and the scene where she spars with the Grey Man and her father.  These scenes confer gravitas, but they do impede the narrative flow.  Perhaps they could have been condensed because they are quite diffuse and embedded in a way that makes it difficult to extract the salient points.  I wouldn't even begin to say how she could have accomplished this, however.
       Another flaw is the ending.  It has no punch, nothing memorable about it.  Pwyll wakes up on the mound with Rhiannon beside him, after having consummated his marriage in the world of illusion.  He has never faltered in his quest, so the Druid had no power to kill him.  Then the action cuts back to the Druid at a period before Pwyll awakens.  The Druid is dying, killed with his own sickle by men he had planted there to help kill Pwyll but who had proved loyal to the King in the end.  The Power of the Mother has won.  But the dying Druid predicts that Pwyll will never father a son.  Strange, because we know in the omitted third part that Pwyll and Rhiannon do have a son, Pryderi.  So I find that puzzling.  It's almost as if Walton needed something striking for him to say but couldn't think of anything.  (As a writer myself, I can understand how drawing a mental blank can lead to inserting some peculiar and ineffectual elements.)  If Walton had stopped with the predictive words of the Druid, the ending would at least have created tension, but instead she allows the other Druids to discuss whether they ought to tell anybody what the Druid has said and things just sort of fade off into nothing.
       Should Walton have proceeded to add an adaptation of the third part?  Personally, I don't think so; it would be anticlimactical. She has achieved her purpose.  Furthermore, Rhiannon has been presented as an enterprising and determined Goddess/woman with strong ideals and it would be out of character for her to accept a humiliating punishment for a crime she didn't commit.  It's even more folktale-ish than the unfillable bag ploy.  As I've said, I can't remember how Pryderi gets born in the later volumes, but as I re-read them in preparation for writing posts similar to this, we'll find out!

       After Prince of Annwn was published in 1974, Walton "admitted that she was never satisfied with her version of that branch" (from p. 14 of Douglas A. Anderson's introduction to an upcoming edition of Witch House, which Mr. Anderson kindly allowed me to consult).  Possibly she would have agreed with some of these flaws that I have pointed out.  Nevertheless, there is so much in this book that makes it a great read -- the invocation of wonder, the brilliant descriptions, the convincing characterizations, the depth of the philosophy, the humor, and the kind of realistic modern style that makes the best fantasy rise above its genre.  As she always does, Evangeline Walton achieves a modern sensibility without destroying the essential sense of mythic wonder.


  1. It sounds possibly a little heavy handed in places, which would be a concern. I note that overall you did like it, but words like sententious (great word actually) and long-winded do rather give cause for concern.

    1. Thanks for stopping over here, Max! What I say is true, and I do think this is the weakest of the four volumes, although I happen to like it quite a lot anyway. Heavy-handed may not be quite the right word, because there is a general lightness of tone to the book, and a lot of humor. But Walton does get a bit carried away with presenting her feminist agenda. I don't think the basic myth in the First Branch is as meaty and adaptable as the rest of the Mabinogion, so it's a shame it has to be the one the reader will start with. The Fourth Branch is the best, of course, and it's the first one Walton wrote. If you don't read any other, read The Island of the Mighty. It stands on its own.

  2. I notice an interesting ambiguity in the phrase "to keep order". In context, it of course refers to social or political order, prototypically a masculine business, but it can also mean housekeeping, prototypically feminine. Indeed, Le Guin defines housework as "the art of making order where people live".

    1. Interesting observation! Thanks for reading and taking an interest in my analyses.