This week I’m recommending another novel inspired by Celtic mythology. “The Island of the Mighty” is based on one of the ancient Welsh stories from the collection known as “The Mabinogion” (see my post of November 2012). The life-history of its American author, Evangeline Walton (1907-1996), makes her sound like the heroine of a story by Edgar Allan Poe – though fortunately one with a happy ending. Her first novel was published in 1936 under the rather unappealing title of “The Virgin and the Swine” but it wasn’t a success until it was reissued as “The Island of the Mighty” by Ballantine in 1970. This led to the publication of more novels by Walton based on `The Four Branches of the Mabinogi’. Her “Mabinogion Tetralogy” can now be found as a `Fantasy Classics’ paperback or as an ebook.
The plots of the Four Branches range from the odd to the extremely odd. “The Island of the Mighty” is an expanded version of the Fourth Branch, the oddest of them all. In `the druidic days of Britain’, Gwynedd was ruled by King Math the Ancient, who always sat with his feet in a virgin’s lap. When one of Math’s nephews, a hot-headed young man named Gilvaethwy, fell in lust with the King’s Footholder, Goewyn, she would have nothing to do with him. Gilvaethwy turns for help to his older brother, the enchanter Gwydion, who devises a ruthless plan to lure Math away from his castle and his Footholder. Gwydion provokes a war with the ruler of the neighbouring kingdom of Dyved by tricking him into parting with some of his magical pigs. This action leads to a callous rape, a death in combat and a bizarre punishment for the guilty brothers.
After three years, Gwydion is restored to his place as Math’s heir but he longs to have a child of his own to bring up. Gwydion tricks his sister, the sorceress Arianrhod, into giving birth to a premature baby and uses his magic to ensure that the boy grows and thrives. Furious that her reputation as a virgin has been ruined, Arianrhod refuses to have anything to do with her son and places three curses on him – that he should have no name, no weapons and no wife. Math and Gwydion work cunningly to avert the curses but the third of them leads to a dark story of betrayal, murder and revenge.
“The Mabinogion Tetralogy” is sometimes marketed as a straightforward retelling of the classic Welsh stories but it is very much more than that. Walton made herself thoroughly familiar with the original source material and wrote in her Foreword to “The Island of the Mighty” `I have altered little, but added much’. She accepted the scholarly consensus of her day that the leading figures in the Four Branches were Celtic deities transformed into medieval rulers but she wanted them to have the psychological depth of characters in a modern novel. That involved the difficult task of giving mysterious beings such as Math, Gwydion and Arianrhod plausible motives for their very strange behaviour. One of the ways Walton did this to was to apply ideas from anthropological studies of primitive cultures. She imagined ancient Gwynedd (roughly North Wales) as a society in which women were honoured as the sole makers of new life and marriage was unknown but assumed that in Dyved (roughly South Wales) a patriarchal culture had been established, which emphasized the importance of fatherhood and the need for women to be faithful to long-term partners. Some of the oddities of the plot make sense in this context and Walton was able to use a traditional story to examine whether the very idea of marriage is oppressive to women. I think it must have been this aspect of the novel which struck a chord in the 1970s and suddenly made her work popular.
When “The Virgin and the Swine/The Island of the Mighty” was first published in the 1930s it must have seemed almost as daring as the novels of D.H.Lawrence. It describes rape, incest and adultery and contains open discussions of virginity and free love. Walton didn’t censor or prettify her source material and she preserved much of its grim humour. She obviously had the gift of empathising with all her characters, even the ones we might now regard as villains or villainesses. In this novel the author appears as a kind of bardic voice commenting on the sources and the action of the story. It is clear that her sympathies lie with Goewyn, the dignified victim of a brutal rape, but she also makes us understand how Gilvaethwy and Gwydion fail to see the horror of what they are doing. Fascinating Gwydion, is a supreme magician and storyteller in love with his own cleverness. Walton brings out his flaws but still makes us sympathize with Gwydion’s desire to experience fatherhood and his over-protective love for his son by his sister.
The two leading female characters in the Fourth Branch are the proud Princess Arianrhod and Blodeuwedd, a woman made out of flowers to be the bride of Gwydion’s son: an episode which inspired Alan Garner’s famous novel
"The Owl Service” (see my post of November 2012). The original story could be seen as quite misogynistic, portraying woman as deceitful, unfaithful and unreasonable. Walton slants it differently by showing that Arianrhod’s feelings towards Gwydion are a complex mixture of hate and love and by making us understand her outrage at losing control over her own body and being forced into motherhood. Poor Blodeuwedd begins as little more than a `puppet to do Gwydion’s will’ who longs for a life of her own, s
o it is hard not to cheer when she chooses a lover and learns to make her own decisions, even if they are very bad ones.
“The Island of the Mighty” now reads like a pioneering work of Feminist Fantasy. There are other strong women who have to contend with extraordinary fates in Volumes I-III of this tetralogy
: “Prince of Annwyn
", “The Children of Llyr”, and “The Song of Rhiannon”. These novels are set earlier in the mythical history of Britain, so if you like the sound of Walton’s work you might want to start with the first of the sequence. I have recommended