In New Stories from the Mabinogion ten great authors have taken the Celtic myth cycle as a starting point to give us masterly re-workings with a modern twist in a series both various and wonderful. We have reached the orbit of Mars, the Tower of London and the edges of India, travelled in time to WW2 and forward to the near future, seen Iraq in drug-addled dreams, and viewed Wales aslant, from its countryside to its council estates. We have touched on nation-building and personal tragedy, bravery and betrayal.
New Stories from the Mabinogion gives leading Welsh authors the chance to retell these medieval stories of Celtic mythology and Arthurian Britain in entirely their own way, creating fresh, contemporary novellas while keeping the old tales at the heart of the new.
I loved the two novels I bought- “The Ninth Wave” and “White Ravens” and am excited about reading more in this collection.
“White Ravens” by Owen Sheer is based in Branwen Daughter of Llyr, one of the four branches of The Mabiniogion. If you’re like me and aren’t familiar with the original text there’s a synopsis to refer to at the back of each book.
“White Ravens” updates the myth in two different time frames: Wales after the devastation of sheep farms by foot-and-mouth disease and WW2 Britain, where a man is entrusted with taking raven hatchlings from Wales to the Tower of London. Owen Sheer’s career as a poet is in every line of his prose:
“…our ravens went looking for their own carrion: big bloody black rags of birds, coughing and corkscrewing into the air above our tumbledown farm, so old and crooked you couldn’t tell if it’d been built on the hillside or just grown out of it” and “I kept looking at the ravens, running their big old beaks under their wings like they were sharpening them, then settling again to catch the day’s first heat in their midnight wings.”
“The Ninth Wave” by Russell Celyn Jones is from Pwyll Prince of Dyfed. This stayed with me for a while afterwards because the author made the future mythic. Pwyll struggles with the mantle of leadership in feudal post-oil Wales, where kids queues up at the local fish and chip shop to buy Class A drugs and franchises like Starbucks still exist.
“They rode past weaving and embroidery factories, a John Deere tractor workshop (defunct), trailer park, units making bathroom tiles, bamboo flooring. Each street was named after a famous composer. Gangs of teenagers walked their pit bulls down Mozart Avenue towards the War Memorial and ackowledged Pwyll like they would the police. Since his father and mother died, powers had been invested in him. he was meant to rule here but he didn’t know how.”