Some years ago, Canongate began to publish a series of re-workings of the world’s great myths. It was a good idea, and it’s produced some interesting and surprising works, among them Dream Angus by Alexander McCall Smith, a startlingly resonant retelling of a relatively little known group of Celtic tales. Seren Books is now doing something similar. Fittingly enough, as a publishing house that specialises in English writing from Wales, it’s cast its net close to home and hauled in the Mabinogion, along with a group of writers with Welsh connections. I first read the Mabinogion during an early Tolkienesque phase some forty years ago, and remembered very little of it apart from a woman made of flowers, which inspired, in its turn, Alan Garner‘s wonderful novel, The Owl Service. Books lead on to books. I would probably never have picked it up again if Seren hadn’t sent me the third and fourth in the series of new books based on the original tales. So I’m doubly grateful, because the book behind the series is well worth reading in its own right. It’s a fascinating mix, as these things tend to be, of fantasy and politics, and one of its main functions seems to be to establish the specialness of the place and people it describes. It’s a foundational work, like any body of myth worth its salt, a powerful cocktail of naming and genealogy and marvels, with just enough history stirred in to stiffen the brew. But it’s also an unexpectedly knowing work, aware of its effects, playful and not without its own satirical take on mediaeval chivalry and its ideological underpinning.
That Niall Griffiths is more than aware of this aspect of the work can be seen from his choice of stories to retell in The Dreams of Max and Ronnie. The two sections draw on later tales in the original collection, The Dream of the Emperor Maxen and Rhonabwy’s Dream. The former tale, despite being based on the actual historical figure of Magnus Maximus, has the stuff of fairy tale, as the emperor dreams of a long and typically magical journey that leads him to a maiden whose beauty is no easier to gaze on than the sun ‘when it is at its brightest and most beautiful‘. Waking from his dream, he is desolate with love, neglecting his duties as emperor. Finally, he sends out messengers, who find the peerless maiden in Wales (well, it is the Mabinogion) and greet her as Empress of Rome. Understandably, she demands to see Maxen himself. Maxen conquers Britain to reach her and, to win her hand, agrees to the maiden’s rather onerous demands (the Island of Britain for her father, various islands for herself and a string of forts, with annexed highways). This is the point at which the story originally ended. In the extended version, Maxen is ousted from his role as emperor after seven years. He hurries back to Rome, lays siege to the city and eventually retakes it with the help of the maiden’s brothers, who receive an army as reward. The brothers spend the next part of their lives conquering lands and castles and cities, killing all the men but leaving the women alive. Finally, one of the brothers decides to settle down with his followers in a conquered land. In order to preserve their language, they cut out the tongues of all the women there. And on that rather gruesome note, the story ends. As a whole, it’s an interesting descent from the tropes of fable to a gory – and apparently unrelated – bit of misogynistic Realpolitik, in which the oneiric superlatives of the original dream are soon replaced by the clash of armies and a striking metaphor about the dangers of cultural assimilation, and how to avoid them.
Rhonabwy’s Dream, on the other hand, is entirely devoted to the dream and is more complex – and intriguing – as a result. Three soldiers find themselves obliged to take shelter in a decidedly non-chivalric smoke-blackened hovel, with a piss-covered floor and an old hag feeding a fire. The building contains a yellow ox-skin, which will bring good luck to whoever sleeps on it. And this is where Rhonabwy sleeps, and dreams. It’s an extraordinary dream, about conflict, and meta-conflict, in which violence and the formal strategies of a board game called gwyddbwyll are folded into each other. It’s a powerful, densely-told tale, made all the more memorable – ironically, perhaps -by a disclaimer at the end that a tale so complex can no longer be told without the use of a book,
‘because of the number of colours on the horses, and the many unusual colours both on the armour and their trappings, and on the precious mantles and their magic stones.’
Griffiths devotes more space to his retelling of the second of these tales, which he places first in his book. I think it’s the right decision to have made, and certainly his version is a hard-hitting and disturbing tale in its own right. It seems to me that the reworking of myth can be done in two basic ways. You can explore what makes it essential by finding some new way of stripping the body bare – something Gwyneth Lewis does, to great effect, in The Meat Tree – or you can take its basic structure as a mannequin to be clothed in a brand-new suit of meanings, with the underlying structure providing the archetypal underpinning required. Griffiths goes for the second option in both his stories. In the first, Rhonabwy, now Ronnie, is a modern-day soldier who rolls up with two other soldiers at the flat of Red Helen, ‘a woman made of dough and with hair the colour of a wound‘. Due to be sent back to Iraq, they’re looking for a final bit of fun, which Red Helen provides. In these opening pages, Griffiths takes the language of myth and subverts it, much as the original tale subverted the language, and setting, of chivalry. Ronnie drops a tab and soon after falls asleep on a ‘blanket yellow in colour and decorated with images of smiling moo-cows’. According to Helen, it’s a lucky blanket. And so Ronnie sleeps, and dreams. Griffiths follows the structure of the original closely, finding ironic contemporary counterparts for each of its details with imagination, wit and a sort of controlled rage at the state of modern Britain, in which the representation of valour has been delegated to a certain tattooed footballer, who shall remain nameless. Griffiths points his finger at the various follies of the world we live in, notably its tendency to the mindless worship of power, perhaps less subtly than the original, but that’s only to be expected, as the success of the retelling depends on the – basically anti-mythical – precision of its focus. The only major deviation from Rhonabwy’s Dream comes at the very end. But I’ll let you discover that for yourselves.
The modern version of the second dream is shorter, but operates in a similar fashion. Instead of replacing the knights of old with squaddies, Griffiths recasts his tale in a world where Cardiff gangsta Max, aka the Emperor, ‘sells illicit drugs and stolen goods‘ and spends his evenings in a nightclub called Rome. He’s a dangerous, powerful man, used to getting what he wants, so when he dreams of a woman – ‘She was Beyoncé, Alesha Dixon, Lisa Maffia’ – he wants her too. In his reworking of this story, Griffiths is more selective, but the effect is equally striking. What’s remarkable in both these pieces, apart from the way they bend the earlier works to their purpose, is the way Griffiths takes what he needs from that earlier language, of chivalry, and works it into a newer more debased language, contaminating the latter and allowing it to be contaminated back. Neither language – and neither concept of authority – emerges unscathed.
In The Meat Tree, Gwyneth Lewis takes on perhaps the most well-known of the tales in the Mabinogion, essentially because of its most arresting image, that of a woman being made of flowers. It’s surprising to find, when reading the tale, that this transformation takes place towards the end of the story, after a lot of other magical business has already been carried out. Indeed, the driving force behind the entire tale is that of supernatural transformation. It’s a further reminder of the licence given to myth that a story that forms part of a national mythology should take bestiality, incest and some pretty awful parenting techniques in its stride, but there you go; the past, as they say, is a foreign country, even if it does, in this case, resemble an episode of True Blood. What Lewis has done, though, is remind us that the past is not nearly as foreign as we might like to think, and she’s done this by setting her own reworking of the story in the future, 200 years from now, and on a spaceship somewhere close to the Mars Outer Satellite Orbit. The original tale had a cast of, if not hundreds, a good dozen (not counting transformations); the retelling is more economical, with the number reduced to two: an elderly male Inspector of Wrecks on his last mission, and his younger female assistant, on her first. They’ve been sent to investigate what appears to be a ‘bog-standard rudimentary Earth vessel’. But all is not what it seems, as they discover when, in order to find out exactly what happened on board the derelict ship, they reactivate its virtual reality game system. Like Griffiths, who replaces the gwyddbwyll of the legend with a computer game called, more graphically, Killzone, Lewis is attracted by the opportunities virtual reality games offer. But she takes the opposite tack to Griffiths, using the game, and the way in which her two protagonists interact within it and towards each other, as a way of interrogating the very essence of the original myth, without sacrificing one jot of readability in the process. It’s a work of great intellectual vigour and emotional honesty, warning us of the very real power of tales as it captures us in its own, not always benevolently. At one point, the female protagonist thinks, ‘I’m caught up in a work of art that doesn’t have my welfare at heart‘, and there’s a sense in which this is true of The Meat Tree, if, by welfare, we understand the providing of consolation. More deeply, of course, it’s absolutely concerned with the imagination, which is anything but consolatory. In her illuminating afterword, Lewis, herself a highly regarded poet, says:
‘I believe that poetry itself is one of the earliest technologies and the imagination is a form of virtual reality…. I particularly wanted to look at the shadow side of the creative mind, the way in which it can consume as well as generate.’
It would be hard to imagine two books more different than these, nor more successful in achieving their aims. I’m looking forward very much to reading the rest of the series.