(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)