Re-writing the Mabinogi

Seren Books are currently publishing a series of novels based on Y Mabinogi . Two have so far been published: Owen Sheers’ White Ravens and Russell Celyn Jones’ The Ninth Wave. I don’t want to comment now on the novels themselves, though I might do so in the future. Rather I want to say something about the view taken of the original texts. I’m prompted to do this by an article in the current number of The New Welsh Review by Russell Celyn Jones on his re-working of the First branch: Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed. The use of such material for modern fiction is, of course, quite justified and there is no reason why a modern author should feel constrained by the need to accurately represent the original tales. Even if an author chooses to use them, for instance, as a jumping off point for a narrative that eventually turns out to be unrecognisable as a representation of the original tales, that too is a quite legitimate imaginative exercise.

So what is there to take issue with? Russell Celyn Jones says in the article that he first encountered ‘The Mabinogion’ at school. He says that he was unimpressed with it in spite of being told how important it was by his teachers (understandable enough, many pupils have the same experience with Shakespeare), but thought a little better of it when he read it while at university. He doesn’t say what translations he used for his earlier readings (he does not read Welsh) but says that for the re-working project he wanted to achieve ‘distance’ so chose an American translator (Jeffrey Gantz). I would have been inclined to sample a few translators and would certainly not want to take Gantz’s as definitive but I emphasise the point about translation because he then goes on to say that “The Mabinogion doesn’t read as well as The Iliad or The Odyssey. This may have something to do with the Greek epics being attributed to a single author. With Homer there is more coherence. In handing down the stories of The Mabinogion orally, details were lost and only the outline survived.”

Jones also objects that the tales are not sufficiently “rooted in the landscape” [!]. He describes the story he is adapting as “arid” and expresses the need to “breathe oxygen” into a “revered text” and “to bring its characters to real life using modern fictional techniques”. He wants to make what is magical psychological; what is whimsical realistic. At the same time he wants to retain “the mythical character of the original”.

There are a number of things to take issue with here, not least the apparent failure to take the text on its own terms and approach it with a proper understanding of what to expect from it. One is tempted ask ‘why bother’? But he does find, on his adult re-reading, that there are potentially exciting story lines than he can develop and this is what he has attempted to adapt. Again, fair enough. But the implication that the Homeric epics were not handed down, that the Four Branches were not, as many scholars believe, a literary construction by a single author feeds further misconceptions. As does the comparison between one translation of a medieval Welsh text and (presumably?) translations of the Odyssey and the Iliad.  To say that one “doesn’t read as well” as the other  seems way off the mark. I need no convincing of the value of reading the Odyssey but this is a quite different type of narrative and anyway to compare translations of texts is not the same as comparing readings of the originals.

The concern with the details of the story focuses on the scene where Pryderi is snatched by the creature that Teyrnon encounters when it snatches his foal on May Eve. He says that all the action here seems to happen ‘off-stage’ like a Greek tragedy. It may be that there are layers of folklore or myth that are implied but which the medieval author chose not to develop or didn’t fully understand. But Jones perceives a failure of story-telling here which he ascribes to the suggestion that some details are missing. So we have a modern novelist finding fault with a medieval narrative because not enough information about relationships is supplied: “With not a single glimpse of interiority, it resembles more a report in a newspaper”.

He is also working on the assumption that the extant text is an incomplete version of an Ur text, an approach that is often rejected when it is advanced by Celtic revivalists. This, again, leads to an assumption that the medieval author didn’t know his business, or, as he puts it, “the medieval oral-telling tradition has failed to keep pace with the modern reader’s expectations.”

It is fair enough for a modern author to say what he needs to do in constructing a novel to meet these expectations, but what is said here simply suggests a lack of engagement with the material he is supposed to be adapting.

1 comment:

Bo said...

ASalutary salvo there! Reading your account I'm tempted to concur. Sounds like he hasn't the foggiest what he's doing. He certainly doesn't understand the mabinogi (do/can any of us?) but he seems guilty of a particularly dispiriting kind of failure of the imagination here.

I was reflecting the other day that the Chronicles of Prydain need rereading: it was through them that I encountered the world of the mabinogi (after a fashion) when my mum read them to me when I was little!