Five by Five Books #7: “The Mabinogion Tetralogy” (1936 to 1974) by Evangeline Walton

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences).

What’s it about? The Mabinogion Tetralogy is a modern re-telling of a twelfth century collection of complex Welsh heroic tales called Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi (“The Four Branches of the Mabinogi”), which are often considered to be the earliest known prose literature of Britain. Each of Evangeline Walton’s four books correlates with one of the Branches of the Mabinogi, telling the inter-connected stories of Prince Pwyll of Dyfed (Prince of Annwn), Llŷr’s daughter Branwen (Children of Llyr), Llŷr’s son Manawyddan (The Song of Rhiannon) and Math, son of Mathonwy (The Island of the Mighty). Pryderi, son of Pwyll and Rhiannon is the sole character to appear in all four books, which are primarily set in the Kingdoms of Dyfed and Gwynedd, post-Roman states established in early Fifth Century Wales. The stories include fantastic and mythological elements, though they are deeply rooted in a specific historical time and place, feature exceptionally well-realized, very human (read: flawed) characters, and address a sophisticated series of issues related to gender roles and relations, science vs magic, modernity vs tradition, and inter-cultural conflict between antagonistic belief systems. The complex web of dynastic loyalties and betrayals is evocative of the more widely known Arthurian legend, especially in the ways that seemingly simple romantic entanglements can have profound ramifications well beyond the intimate spaces in which they occur.

Who wrote it? Evangeline Walton was the pen name of Evangeline Wilna Ensley, born in 1907 in Indiana and raised by highly-educated, liberal Quaker parents, whose progressive views infuse Walton’s works, especially with regard to her portrayals of female characters. The vast majority of her work was written between the 1920s and the 1950s, though little of it saw publication at the time of its conception. Walton’s first novel was the unfortunately-titled (by her publisher) The Virgin and the Swine, which disappeared without a commercial trace upon its release — only to be rediscovered three decades later, retitled The Island of the Mighty, and issued in 1970 as part of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series. The other three long-languishing volumes of what ultimately became The Mabinogion Tetralogy finally made it to market between 1971 and 1974 under the Ballantine imprint, and then the collection was re-published in 2002 as a single volume in its proper narrative order. As her work gained popularity late in her life, another intriguing facet of Walton’s youth emerged into public view: she had been treated for bronchial infections as a child with large doses of silver nitrate, which caused her skin to turn blue — making her quite the magical figure at science fiction and fantasy conventions. 

When and where did I read it? I first read The Mabinogion Tetralogy in 1978 to 1979 while living at Mitchel Field on New York’s Long Island. I loved the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series (even though I wasn’t an adult yet), having already read Lord of the Rings and The Gormenghast Trilogy on that influential literary imprint, which played a direct role in the successful commercialization of post-Tolkien swords and sorcery literature. (It’s hard to imagine Game of Thrones existing today without a generation of creative types having been awed by those Ballantine Books and their successors). The physical copies of the books I read were borrowed from my friend Jim Pitt, and I suspect that he pilfered them from his parents, since they did contain some frank sexual content that likely would have kept them off of the junior high school library where we usually found our books. I’ve re-read The Mabinogion Tetralogy twice since then (most recently during my early years living back in New York, circa 1993), and I was pleased to discover recently that the full set is now available on Kindle — so I can more readily pester other people into reading it and talking about it with me.

Why do I like it? One of my favorite books in elementary school was Norse Gods and Giants by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire, a beautifully written and illustrated re-telling of 30 Scandinavian myths that somehow made its fantastic characters seem very real and grounded in ways that resonated deeply with me. I jumped from that beautiful book to C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in fairly short order, and loved them both — but it was not until I read The Mabinogion Tetralogy (in the original four-book Ballantine editions) that I experienced the same sense of real-world earthiness that Norse Gods and Giants evoked, where characters engaged in fantastic battles or dramatic love affairs or behind-the-scenes skullduggery in ways that I imagined real people would, even if the settings for their adventures were other-worldly. (I would cite T.H. White’s The Once and Future King and Mervyn Peake’s The Gormenghast Trilogy — both of which I read for the first time soon after The Mabinogion Tetralogy — as equally resonant on that plane with me). I also liked (and still like) the fact that there were lots of strong women in The Mabinogion Tetralogy, and that the book addresses the nature of male-female relationships at some very granular levels, especially with regard to the biological and sociological rights and responsibilities associated with paternity, and proof thereof, in a pre-scientific culture. Of course, the sexy bits that came with all of those strong and assertive women were certainly more agreeable (and understandable) to a teenage boy than were, say, Aragorn pining away for the insipid and largely absent Arwen in The Lord of the Rings, but even without that adolescent hyper-hormonal response, the depictions of (again) those very real, earthy, grounded power dynamics between men and women during times of social and cultural flux remain profound.

A five sentence sample text (From Book One, Prince of Annwn): The Welsh say “She is casting rain,” not “it is raining,” and in Pwyll’s day men still knew why. Rain and sun, crops and the wombs of beasts and women, all were ruled by the old mysterious Goddess from whose own womb all things had come in the beginning. The wild places were Hers, and the wild things were Her children. Men of the New Tribes, Pwyll’s proud golden warrior-kind, left Her worship to women, and made offerings only to their Man-Gods, who brought them battle and loot. But now Pwyll began to wonder if those hunters were right who said that all who went into the woods to slay Her horned and furry children should first make offerings to Her, and promise not to kill too many.

ALL FIVE BY FIVE BOOK REVIEWS:

#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

#9: Gog by Andrew Sinclair (1967)

 

Click on the cover of the original Ballantine edition of

Click on the cover image from the original Ballantine edition of “Prince of Annwn” to order your own copy of the complete Tetralogy.

Twittering Killed the Blogosphere Star

(With apologies to The Buggles).

When compact discs first appeared on the market, I resisted them for many years, despite their advocates’ claims regarding their superior sonic quality and durability. My reluctance to adopt this new technology was not based on lack on interest in its purported benefits, but rather because I was the proud owner of some 2,000 vinyl albums — and I knew that once I made the leap to a more effortless platform for music listening, I would never return to the collection of clumsier, fragile, two-sided platters in which I’d invested so much time and money.

Of course, I finally succumbed to the allure of CDs and eventually sold off most of my vinyl, long before hipsters made pops and scratches cool again. And then iPods came along, and I also resisted their allure for a couple of years, while anxiously staring at the now massive piles of compact discs I’d accumulated over the prior two decades — many of them containing music that I’d already purchased in now unplayable (by me) vinyl or cassette editions.

No surprise, then, that the same cycle repeated itself again, and I now find myself with a catalog of some 12,000 songs stored on my computer (with external backup, of course), while my compact discs gather dust and take up shelf space. Once again, I find myself purchasing certain songs and albums for the third, fourth, or maybe fifth time, doing my fair share to support the artists I admire. (I should note that I never bought into the whole Napster-spawned “music should be free” paradigm; that always felt like theft to me, even if “everyone” else was doing it). I guess that’s progress, sort of, though each step forward comes with a wistful, lingering sense of loss for that which came before.

In contrast to my reluctance to embrace new musical technology for fear of devaluing my prior investments or losing access to my catalogs, for most of the past quarter century, I’ve been been very quick to homestead or adopt the new communications platforms offered by the world wide web. I’ve not generally felt any sense of loss or regret as I moved from ASCII bulletin boards to Compuserve’s Rocknet Forum to the Xnet2 Liste to my own website (you are here) to a blog (you are also here) to any number of social media platforms and virtual communities, some of them passing fancies, some of them long-standing online homes. Each step forward was generally a better one, or at least a lateral move, and if I lost something in transition, it was usually something I was glad to leave behind.

Until now, that is, thanks to Twitter. I resisted the ubiquitous micro-blogging application when it first came along, not because I worried about it impacting my other online platforms, but because I frankly didn’t see the use or benefit to typing in 140-character blocks of text on a phone. I can barely say “hello” that briefly — because I am a writer, sir, not a sparrow! Still, philosophical grumpiness aside, I eventually established a Twitter account, largely for work purposes, and occasionally tweeted the odd bon mot to the small cadre of folks who followed me, while continuing to chug away on my blog and other online outlets. It seemed but a mild diversion.

But then last year I finally grew tired of the soul-sapping force of social media communities like Facebook and dropped all of those platforms, and I found myself foraging Twitter more often for the sorts of political and cultural piffle and tripe that I used to harvest in Zuckerland and environs. And then I started responding to the things I found there, forcing my natural verbosity into the tiny chunks of text that the Twitter Gods allowed me to share, even embracing such terrible writing habits as substituting “&” for “and,” or not spelling out numbers lower than twelve (12), or compressing ellipses from the proper “. . .” to the less-space consuming (but incorrect) “…”.

It didn’t seem to be a problem at first for me, since I still kept a long list of “things to blog about” on my office white board, and generally wrote regular long-form articles, followed by tweets to promote them. Useful synergies, as it were. Until the fateful day when I posted a tweet about something — I don’t remember exactly what it was — and I decided that my one little block of text was all I needed to say about that topic, and I erased a line from my blog white board. And then another intended blog post was boiled down to 140 characters and erased. And then another. And then another.

And all of a sudden, I find that I’m not really much a blogger anymore, am I? While I used to launch three or four long and thoughtful posts a week into the blogosphere for my readers’ bemusement, I now just toss a dozen or so tweets into the air up there, where they spin briefly, and then vanish, never to be seen again — unlike the vast archive of blog posts here dating back to the earliest days of the internet, all of them easily searched, accessed and referenced when needed, by myself and others.

I have a sense that this is not a good thing, though I know that I am just as unlikely to go back to regular long form blogging now as I am to go back to listening to vinyl albums, hipsters be damned. And safe in that knowledge, for now, I am content to tweet regularly, write here on the blog occasionally, and listen to songs with no sleeves, stored on a computer, carried about on a pod — until such time as the Gods of Technology move their hands across the waters again, and I have to buy King Crimson’s Larks Tongue In Aspic for the eighth time, and learn to compose 30-character Queeflets by blinking my eyes rapidly in front of my KinphablaPad Nanodroid.

Oh, brave new world, that has such sparrows in it!

Tweet! Tweet tweet, I say! Tweet!