The Mabinogion is the Welsh contribution to the canon of medieval literature; a collection of 11 prose stories first translated into English by Lady Charlotte Guest in the mid-19th century.   Immensely important to Welsh culture, The Mabinogion remains a syllabus text in Wales to this day and is now the focus of a new publishing project by Seren Press who have commissioned contemporary retellings of the stories. The first two were published last autumn and authors Russell Celyn Jones and Owen Sheers have now embarked on a tour of the literary festivals to promote them.  This event at the 2010  AyeWrite festival the first, I believe.

Before attending,  I read the first story in Lady Charlotte Guest’s translation and both of the Seren Press publications.  Why did I stop after only one original tale?  It failed to engage me – it was dry and the narration was very much this happened, then that, then that.  Flat.  Considering that the story involves wife-borrowing, a contest to win the fair damsel and a case of child abduction, it’s surprising that it wasn’t a page turner!  Russell Celyn Jones, a non-Welsh speaking  author,  admitted to similar ambivalence.  He suggested that modern readers are more demanding than their counterparts.  It’s no longer enough for a child to be abducted and returned 9 years later without an explanation of the psychological ramifications.  Very, very true.  So, he said (as did Owen Sheers) that  he wrote into the spaces of the original story.
In The Ninth Wave he does more than write into the spaces.  He creates a new world.  Set in the near future, the oil supplies have dried up and the horse is once more the primary means of transport.    (Brilliant – how to make the story current while preserving the medieval flavour of the original.) The story arc of the original is also followed with slight twists.  Sleeping with someone else’s wife isn’t so chaste.  The contest for Rhiannon’s hand is altogether more sinister and Pwyll, the “hero”, not entirely honourable.  The real strength of The Ninth Wave  does lie in the psychological insights.  Pwyll and Rhiannon’s child is abducted in infancy, Rhiannon is framed and punished.  The child is eventually found.  While the Mabinogion tells it like that – well, not quite that starkly – the pages of The Ninth Wave deal with the fallout – the strain on the marriage, the growing estrangement between the parents and, even more tellingly, the difficulties that arise when the child returns as a truculent adolescent. It makes for many lump-in-the-throat-swallowing moments. While there is hope that father and son will recover, it’s doubtful that the mother will.

There is similar feminine pain in Owen Sheer’s White Ravens although the Branwen of his story is less passive than her medieval alter-ego..  This story has also been brought forward in time, with the main narrative set during the time of World War II and the 1950’s.   Matthew, an Irishman, decides to support the British war effort.   Returning after the war, wounded but with a beautiful bride, he is determined to heal the wounds of the past and ewestablish himself in the heart of the community.  But memories are long and Matthew’s estrangement  transposes itself onto his bride.  Like Celyn Jones, Sheers writes into the space of the original.  How does this and the birth of their son affect the marriage?  How does Branwen feel?

It was as if, she thought, she’d been cursed by her own name, and like those white ravens, too different,  too beautiful for the nest of their parents, she was being abandoned to suffer and starve on the cold rocks of Matthew’s indifference.

Branwen makes a decision which has stark consequences and her decision is to serve as an object lesson to Rhian, a 2000’s girl from the valleys, whose story provides the framework, the beginning and end of Sheer’s retelling.  It’s a device that serves the purpose of preserving the oral traditions of the Mabinogion – Branwen’s story is related to Rhian by a stranger (might be Matthew?) as they watch the ravens on Tower Hill in London.  It also happens to be a device I adore, reminding me that great German novella writer, Theodor Storm.  No idea if Sheers has come across Storm (why didn’t I ask him in the book-signing queue?) but brownie points awarded nevertheless.

One other thing to point out – animal lovers should approach this story with caution. There was no sentimentality to animals in medieval times and there is none here.  Sheers admitted wanting to retell the second story due to one particular scene in which horses are viciously attacked. In the afterword he explains “I’m sure it’s partly because of the quality of the writing – the mythic prose that describes the action so coolly while also hitting all the right triggers”.  The equivalent scene in White Ravens hits them too as do those portraying the devastation of the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease.  Ingenious the way in which this is woven in.

I enjoyed both these novellas very much and am looking forward to frrther episodes in the series.  Installments 3 and 4 are due in October. 

The Ninth Wave – Russell Celyn Jones

White Ravens – Owen Sheers