Friday, February 8, 2013

Prince of Annwn, by Evangeline Walton: Analysis, Pt.3

This is the third 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

Rhiannon Circles the Mound, Pursued by Pwyll
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       The second half of the First Branch of the Mabinogion is even more skeletal in nature than the first, and again Evangeline Walton fleshes it out and makes many additions in the second half of her novel Prince of Annwn.  Pwyll mounts the mound called Gorsedd Arberth, having been warned that anyone who sits upon it will either receive blows or wounds, or else see a wonder.  He goes anyway and sees a beautiful woman riding past on a horse at an ambling pace.  Smitten, he strives over a period of days to catch up with her on his own horse, but no matter how fast he rides, she still remains ahead of him.  Finally, in despair he calls out for her to stop, and she does so willingly  (A metaphor for the way men should treat women, with courtesy rather than brutal pursuit?)  She tells him she is Rhiannon the daughter of Hefeydd the Old (his identity and the location of his kingdom are not explained) and she is about to be given in marriage to a man she doesn't favor.  She would prefer to wed Pywll and she will do that if he comes to her wedding feast in a year's time.  He agrees without any question.  However, at the feast her suitor, Gwawl ap Clud tricks Pwyll into granting him a boon, then of course asks for Rhiannon's hand.  Unfortunately, Pwyll is forced to keep his promise, but Rhiannon has a few tricks up her own sleeve.  She sets another wedding feast for a year later and gives Pwyll instructions as to what to do.  When the time comes, he enters the feast disguised as a beggar carrying a bag and begs that all he wants is to receive enough food to fill up the bag.  However, the magic bag is bottomless and can never be filled unless a man of means and dominion steps into the bag and treads down what is within.  Of course, Gwawl bites and steps into the bag , only to be closed up within it by Pwyll's men.  Afterward, everybody takes turns beating and kicking the bag until Gwawl relents, swears to give up Rhiannon, and is then released to go on his way, after which Rhiannon and Pwyll spend a blissful night together and live happily ever after (until the third section of the tale, which Walton omits from her interpretation).

       One of the many additions to this tale that Walton supplies is the reason Pwyll agrees to  mount the mound: his reluctance to marry according to given rituals, which include mating with a sacred white mare (considered a stand-in for the Mother).  He agrees to submit to the Druids' demands if he succeeds in returning from the mound alive and if he has potent dreams there.  The mound turns out to be an access point to the Bright World, which is an alternate dimension of the dead similar to Arawn's Twilight World but also comparable to Faerie.  In lore such burial mounds are often seen as places where Faerie and Earth connect.  In the original, the journey to Heveydd's kingdom takes one sentence.  In the retelling, Heveydd is explained as the first King of Dyved and after Pwyll and his men ride through a magical opening in the mound, we meet the dead King's bones, set as a guard to the entrance to the Bright World.  It's a memorable scene, worth excerpting here.

       "They came out at last into a great chamber, and in the center of it stood a man in golden armor, in a golden chariot.  But the steeds that had drawn that chariot were long dead, their bones shone white in their harness, and their Lord too was dead.  His head almost had been won by his enemies; they could see the cracked, hewed neck bones beneath his white skill. ... His beard had grown after death; like a great silver coverlet, spun from moonbeams, it reached to his feet.  ...
      "And then they all screamed, for the skeleton was moving in its chariot!  And of a sudden all their torches went out, as if blown out by a great wind. ...
      "Then a fiery light filled the chamber, and they saw that the skeleton was about to step down from the chariot.  It faced toward Pwyll, the eyeless sockets in its skull seemed to hold black flames that glared at him.  And what had been its right hand was lifted, and in it gleamed a great sword from which the light came, a sword that blazed like lightning.  ...
       "[Pwyll's] fingers closed round those bones that once had been housed by fingers.  He spoke again ...
       " 'You have gone to a world where none lifts hand against another, King Heveydd.  You have no more need of this sword.  Give it to me who am King in Dyved now, and will be your daughter's man.'
      "Gently he took the sword from those skeleton fingers, and though it looked like flame it did not burn him.  Gently he set the skeleton down again, in its ancient place.  He smoothed out the great silver beard, so that those poor bones were covered again.
       "Then he straightened and held up the sword.  And under its light the mighty stone that he faced quivered like a wave of the sea.  ...  Grey stone became grey mist, a solid barrier no longer.  Pwyll walked into it as before he had walked into the darkness.  Once again all his men followed him."
       This is a good place to insert an example of how Walton utilizes the Celtic love of color that was mentioned in the previous post.  Here is how Pwyll and his men are introduced to the world into which they emerge:
       "Fair indeed is the Bright World.  None can say which is fairer: the blue of the sky that covers it, or the deep blue of the sea that rings it round.  None can say which is more delicate and lovely: the white clouds with their great purity or the many-colored clouds, gold-shot glories that gleam with every hue from dawn pink to sunset red.  Lovely too is the crystal foam that makes manes for the blue-green sea horses, they that play upon the silvery sands forever, born of a stormless sea."
       I have to say, I find that a ravishing piece of description!  And it forms a wonderful contrast with the gloom and terror of the interior of the mound.

      We will see the living Heveydd at the wedding feast, so we will understand that we have entered a world of the dead.  We will even meet the Grey Man of this world, a figure far more ominous and more deceitful than Arawn.  So if everyone in that land is dead, what is Rhiannon?
      On a prosaic level, her name probably derives from Rigantona, another name for the Celtic Great Goddess, and she is often equated with Epona, the Celtic horse goddess.  But she becomes much more complex in the Mabinogion and particularly in Walton's adaptation of it.  Here is what she herself tells Pwyll after he has called to her to stop her amble around the mound.  "I am Rhiannon of the Birds, Rhiannon of the Steeds, and I have come from my world to yours." 
       And indeed Rhiannon is at least an aspect of the Goddess.  After Pwyll has proved his honor in the bed of Arawn's Queen, this Queen herself is shown to be Modron, the Brenhines-y-nef (which I believe means "Queen of Heaven").  She speaks to the birds that roof the palace of Arawn.  "Rhiannon shapes you, but she too is born of me."
       So what are these birds?  Rhiannon is always associated with birds.  Her birds are mentioned in the Third Branch of the Mabinogion, and also in the tale "Culhwch and Olwen" where they are described as "they that wake the dead and lull the living to sleep."  And when Pwyll first encounters Rhiannon between his two trials in Annwn, she is sitting in her apple orchard (reminiscent of Robert Graves' "Apple Island" and Aphrodite's apples -- apples are frequently associated with the Goddess) whittling birds from apple wood, animating them, and setting them free to circle above her head.  Walton makes extended use of Rhiannon's birds.  As I mentioned, Arawn's palace is roofed with birds and when Rhiannon appears on her horse at Gorsedd Arberth, the birds flying with her are the first thing to carch Pwyll's attention.
       Of course, Pwyll is instantly in love and willingly accepts Rhiannon's choice of him to be her man.  When Pwyll questions her as to whether her status as Goddess might restrict her from taking a mortal husband, she assures him, "I am woman enough to wed."  And later, during the wedding feast when Pwyll is stupefied on drugged wine, she and her father and the Grey Man of the Bright World spar about the wisdom of her choice of mate. 
       Rhiannon has lived on Earth before; she is truly the daughter of the first King of Dyved. Walton makes some strange, ambiguous, and rather troubling remarks in Chapter 6 of Book II (p. 142 of the Collier Books edition).  These seem to suggest that Rhiannon came to the Bright World because she was raped and killed, perhaps by her own father or it could be by a brother ("raped by the forefather of that fool who lolls drunken beside you!")  
       The Grey Man questions her desire to return to earth and become the wife of a mortal man.  "If you go back to earth, you will learn what corruption is, woman.  ...  Age will wither your youth and beauty."  And Rhiannon answers him, "All those ills I know.  I have borne them many times before.  ...  Is the Great Going-Forward a ladder up which we can climb straight to the top?  Those who have climbed high may turn back to help those below. ...  I can do something.  I can keep Old Tribes and New from rending each other.  Pwyll does have a foolish love of fighting -- he might back Caswallon against Bran when Beli dies.  But with me beside him his word will be for peace. ...  Poets will make songs of Pwyll and me, and of how we loved each other, and some of the men and women who hear those songs may seek finer things in each other.  Many things -- little things; it is from these that great things spring at last."
        And those last words epitomize the philosophy that I myself have promulgated as a key to the renaissance of the Earth after the Second Dark Age -- the philosophy of the Mythmakers.
       I have to give up -- this book seems to require yet another post, because I desperately want to discuss Walton's philosophy in more detail and doing it justice here will make this post hopelessly long.  The philosophy is so intertwined with the plot that it's hard to extract one from the other and consider them separately.  So expect a fourth post on this topic soon, which will begin by discussing the history of the Island of the Mighty and those names Caswallon, Bran, and Beli mentioned above.

Read earlier posts on this topic: Part 1 and Part 2

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