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The Mabinogion: Fantasy Masterworks 39

by Evangeline Walton

(Gollancz, £8.99, 716 pages, paperback published 9 October 2003.)

Review by John Toon

Not, as one might expect, a modern edition of the ancient Celtic myth cycle, but a collection of four fantasy tales based to some degree on the old myths. I must admit to not being entirely familiar with the original Mabinogion, and I'm little wiser cover scannow, but I'd always imagined it contained more mystical material than this volume. Walton's adaptations concentrate more on human politics than on divine hi-jinks -- although she proposes in a note at the end of the book that her source material is "really a story of the ancient tribal gods euphemerized into mortal kings and princes." Main themes seem to be the establishment of the early Celts and the shift from matriarchy to patriarchy, via family disputes and tribal warfare.

As an aside, I'm tempted to wonder what the implications are of presenting the retelling of a religious (or at least mythological) text as a Fantasy Masterwork. (Can we class nativity plays as genre works? and other cheap shots of that nature.) Moving swiftly on ...

Walton's Mabinogion begins with the story of Pwyll, Prince of Dyved, recruited by the Grey Man Arawn to help him fight off a pretender to the Otherworldly throne of Annwn. This is the most openly fantastic of the four parts of the book -- in fact Walton admits to embroidering the story in order to add mystique to what was previously quite a straightforward tale -- but for all that it's not exactly a leap into the unknown. Annwn, the realm of Death, is essentially little different to the court of any other Celtic lord seen elsewhere in The Mabinogion, and for all its apparent wonder I found it a little bland. Perhaps I'm unfairly judging it by modern standards. I found the second part much more engaging. Here, the unpleasant Eurosswydd contrives to rape Penardim, wife of the noble Llyr, and the chapters that follow depict the brawlings of the two sets of children Penardim has borne. This is a tale founded on action but carried along by emotion and believable personalities.

Part three of The Mabinogion felt very much to me like it was marking time. It follows directly on from the second part, but here the lineage of Llyr plays itself out, and I could feel the story winding down accordingly. Still, on the plus side it ends with the introduction of Gwydion ap Don, who goes on to steal the fourth and final part from Math, King of Gwynedd, its nominal hero.

Overall verdict: not as much fun as I'd hoped. Admittedly it was written a while ago -- some of it as far back as the Thirties -- but even trying to make allowances for its age, I feel Walton's quartet of myth adaptations has long since been left behind by its fantasy successors.

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