Sunday, December 1, 2013

Book 138, Wales: "The Mabinogion"

I know, I know. I said I was going to do the UK as a single entity, not as the four separate nations of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. But somehow I gave in to temptation and had a peek at Welsh literature - and it occurred to me that quite apart from the popular opinion of my friends (which was that I should indeed read four separate books), there is simply a lot of good writing from each of these lands, and I might as well avail myself of them while I'm in the British Isles. And anyway, didn't I do Macau as if it was its own country?

I had a choice of texts, too. At first I was skimming through Dylan Thomas's memoir-cum-short story collection, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog. Got through half of it in an evening, too. But then I flipped through the first few pages of this baby, and I was hooked:

The Mabinogion is a series of eleven Celtic tales, dated between 1382 and 1410, translated from Welsh to English in the nineteenth century by Lady Charlotte Guest. The first four of these are 'The Four Branches of the Mabinogi': ancient, primal tales of kings and witches and savagery that will f*cking blow your mind.

Lemme tell you what happens in the Fourth Branch, to give you a taste of these nuts. There's a guy called Math son of Mathonwy, and he can't live unless his feet are in the lap of a virgin. (No explanations. Just go with it.) But then his nephew, Gilfaethwy falls in love with said virgin, a gal named Goewin, who's the fairest maiden of her generation. So he and his brother Gwydion come up with a  plan. They approach Math with a plan: they wanna team up with him to capture these strange creatures who've never been seen before on the island of Britain who taste better than beef (they're pigs, I think). 

They dress up with eleven other men as poets, and go to the court of Pryderi, son of Pwyll. They offer in exchange for the pigs twelve stallions with golden saddles and bridles, and twelve hounds with golden collars and leashes, which Gwydion made out magic, because that's a thing. And they get the pigs, but when they get back to Math, they tell him, oh no, Pryderi is after us because the magic's worn off and he now knows he's been cheated. Math and his armies flee to another cantref (province) where the pigs are being held, and meanwhile Gilfaethwy rapes Goewin on her master's bed.

Then there's a huge war between Math and Pryderi over these pigs, and when peace returns and Math returns to his castle to lay his feet in Goewin's lap again (he didn't die because the rules don't apply when he's at war), she says, sorry, I'm not a virgin anymore. And Math gets crazy mad at Gwydion and Gilfaethwy, and says they'd better not show their faces up here again. And they don't. For several years. But then they do turn up, 'cos Math banned anyone from giving them food or drink, and they come to the court, and Math takes his magic wand, and turns Gwydion into a stag and Gilfaethwy into a hind. And he curses them to live and mate with each other like wild animals, and return within a year.

And they do return after a year, and they've got a little fawn with them. Math keeps the fawn, but he turns Gilfaethwy into a wild boar and Gwydion into a wild sow. And they go off and mate with each other for a year, and they come back with a wild piglet, which Math keeps. Then he turns Gwydion into a he-wolf and Gilfaethwy into a she-wolf, and they go off and mate with each other for another year, and come back with a cub. And Math say, okay, you guys have been punished by having to have incestuous cross-gendered sex with each other for three years, here are your fawn and piglet and cub who've turned back into boys and I've had baptised. Oh yes, and I need another virgin please. So they suggest their sister Aranrhod, and Math makes her walk over his magic wand, and she immediately gives birth to a yellow-haired boy, which makes her flee in shame...

And that's just the beginning of the tale of the hero Lleu Llaw Gyffen, who is said yellow-haired boy, cursed by his mother to never have a name, never have weapons, never get married, et cetera, all of which he manages to overcome by outsmarting her.

Talk about magical realism - these stories just rattle off impossible things in crazily compressed language and expect you to deal. There's Bendigeidfran, who deals with a demolished bridge in a battle by lying across a river and letting his men walk over him (because suddenly he's a giant!), a massacre in Ireland that leaves no-one alive but five pregnant women, whose sons eventually grow up and repopulate the island by having sex with each other's mothers, a giant and an even bigger giantess who can only be got rid of by luring them into an iron house and heating it until it's white hot (and even then they manage to flee by breaking down a near-molten wall), talking immortal salmon and stags and eagles, murderous shieldmakers and shoemakers, a hero who tries to hang a pregnant field mouse despite being dissuaded by a cleric, a priest and a bishop (she turns out to be the queen of an enemy king who turned his army into mice to eat up all the grain in the fields), a princess made of flowers, a cauldron that reanimates the dead, Welshmen stranded in England who maintain their language by cutting out the tongues of their English wives, so their children will speak only Welsh...

Trippy. Things actually get a little more standard and formulaic in the book's second half, which is dominated by Arthurian romances - all these Welsh knights fulfilling their destiny in the court of Arthur and Gwenhwyfar (yes, that's how they spell Guinevere), and every knight more handsome and noble and strong, and every maiden more beautiful than the last. But it's still gloriously mad, and by the time we get to the piss-soaked stable and unexplainable ravens and gwddbwyll games (it's a board game of some kind) and half-red half-white half-black horses of "Rhonabwy's Dream", we're pretty much spent.

Anyhow: while I'm in Great Britain, I'm gonna milk it for all it's worth.

Also of note: this is where Lloyd Alexander got his Prydain series from! I grew up on that stuff. There's even a forgotten Disney movie based on the books, The Black Cauldron. I know: Disney did a Welsh princess before a Scottish princess. Odd, huh?

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote: 
           ‘I want the birds of Rhiannon, they that wake the dead and lull the living to sleep, to entertain me that night.’
           'It is easy for me to get that, though you may think it's not easy.'
           'Though you may get that, there is something you will not get. The cauldron Diwrnach Wyddel, the steward of Odgar son of Aedd, king of Ireland, to boil food for your wedding guests.'
           'It is easy for me to get that, though you may think it's not easy.'
           'Though you may get that, there is something you will not get. I must wash and shave my beard. I want the tusk of Ysgithrwyn Pen Baedd to shave with. It will be no use to me unless it is pulled from his head while he's alive.'
           'It is easy for me to get that, though you may think it's not easy.'
           'Though you may get that, there is something you will not get. I will not enturst the keeping of the tusk to anyone except Caw of Prydyn. The sixty cantrefs of Prydyn are under him. He will not leave his kingdom willingly, nor can he be forced.'
           'It is easy for me to get that, though you may think it's not easy.'
           'Though you may get that, there is something you will not get. I must dress my beard to be shaved. It will never straighten out until you get the blood of the Very Black Witch, daughter of the Very White Witch, from Pennant Gofid in the uplands of hell.'

Next book: Seamus Heaney's "The Spirit Level", from Northern Ireland.

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