Archives for category: Celtic myth

This week I’m recommending a story which begins with a pig bursting out of what should be an empty cupboard. It makes for an unforgettable opening page and yet Penelope Farmer’s “A Castle of Bone” is no longer as well known as it should be. When this short book was first published in 1972 it was described as being for “readers of eleven and over” but “A Castle of Bone” could also be seen as a story about teenagers for adult readers. Thankfully, most of Farmer’s fiction remains in print. You can get this novel in paperback or as an ebook.

“A Castle of Bone” is centred on four school-age teenagers: Hugh and his sister Jean and their next-door neighbours, Penn and his sister Anna. Aspiring artist Hugh is in trouble with his mother for having too much clutter in his room. She decrees that he must have a cupboard, so Hugh’s father takes him out to look for one. In a local junkshop, Hugh spots an ugly wooden cupboard and, “Immediately he had never wanted anything as much as he wanted that, not even his first box of proper oil paints”. On the first night that the cupboard is in his bedroom, Hugh dreams about walking through a wood, meeting a strange black-haired girl and seeing a distant castle which he longs to reach.

Since Penn and Hugh are close friends, the four teenagers spend a lot of time hanging out together. They are in Hugh’s room when he hears strange noises coming from inside the new cupboard. All of them see the large white sow emerge and chase her into the local park. After this impossible pig evades them the friends can’t agree about what has happened. Anna points out that the only thing in the cupboard was a pig-skin wallet which she had tossed in there. Hugh is willing to believe that the cupboard has transformative powers but Penn and Jean are sceptical. When Anna puts a sweater inside the cupboard and reopens the door to find it reduced to a pile of wool, everyone has to admit that something very strange is going on. Over the next few days, Hugh tries putting different things in the cupboard. Each night, his dreams about the ominous wood and the white castle become more vivid and they seem to be affecting how Hugh experiences the world in daytime.

When the cupboard turns a cat back into a kitten, Penn doesn’t want to believe it out of pride and Jean out of fear. They all know that they ought to be more careful but a stupid quarrel leads to a shocking transformation of one of the group. The remaining teenagers are left with a major problem to conceal from their parents. As his dreams become ever more real, Hugh seeks answers from the old man who sold him the cupboard. Can its magic be reversed and what will happen when Hugh finally enters the Castle of Bone which haunts his dreams?

If this story was being published for Young Adults today, Farmer would probably have been pressured to make it longer, more sequel-friendly, and less intellectually demanding. The original novel packs a great deal into its 154 pages. I would call it more short and sour than short and sweet. The writing is full of sharp observation and unsparing character dissection. Many extraordinary things happen in “A Castle of Bone” but Farmer provides few explanations. She sets up parallels between contemporary events and the wilder fringes of Greek and Celtic myth and then leaves it up to her readers to notice and interpret the patterns.

This is similar to the way that Alan Garner used a story from “The Mabinogion” (see my post of November 2012) as the underlying plot in his famous novel “The Owl Service” (ditto). “A Castle of Bone” doesn’t have the powerful sense of place (a wet Welsh valley) which you get in Garner’s masterpiece but I prefer Farmer’s more fluid and elusive use of myth. The central image of the castle keeps changing, as the shadowy Spiral Castle does in Celtic myth. Inside you might find a magical apple tree, the Cauldron of Rebirth, witch-queens and goddesses, all of which make it a dangerous place for male intruders.

If I’d simply summarized the plot of this novel without trying to convey the tone, it might sound like a comedy. Spells that go wrong, or have unintended consequences, are common in light-hearted Fantasy fiction for children. Some of the events in “A Castle of Bone” reminded me of the kind absurd things which happen in E.Nesbit novels such as “Five Children and It”. In Nesbit’s work (see my March 2016 post on her “The Book of Dragons”) the magical mishaps are played for laughs but in Farmer’s novel they seem part of something sinister and increasingly dangerous. Some episodes in “A Castle of Bone”, such as the wild chase after the pig and an embarrassing  trip to the chemist where Hugh has to buy things that a teenage boy definitely shouldn’t need, are told with a humorous edge but they remain disturbing. The feeling of dread is closest to the surface in Hugh’s brilliantly described dreams which begin to bleed into his waking life, making him see new threats and possibilities in familiar places and people.

In “A Castle of Bone” the story is mainly told from Hugh’s point of view. We get an in-depth portrait of this rather uptight young man whose creative side is stimulated by the extraordinary potential of the magical cupboard. Farmer is more interested in psychological realism than in making Hugh likeable. He’s a believable self-centred teenager, who despises his irresponsible mother and finds his sensible sister boring. Hugh and his family seem emotionally repressed in a typically English way when contrasted with the flamboyant Celtic temperament of Penn and his family. The two boys are both friends and rivals. In the course of the story, Hugh comes to realize that Anna isn’t a nice person but there is latent attraction between them. For much of the book I was rather irritated by the way that Jean is portrayed as a timid traditional homemaker – a Good Girl to contrast with Anna’s daring and capricious Bad Girl. However, at the climax of the novel, it is decisive action by Jean which determines her brother’s fate. Anyone who is experiencing, or who remembers, the painful changes that all teenagers have to go through will find “A Castle of Bone” an interesting read. Fantasy Reads is taking September off but I’ll be back with Ghost Month in October.




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, so 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 “The Island of the Mighty” in particular because I feel this is the novel that the author put her heart and soul into. Evangeline Walton was the pen-name of Evangeline Ensley. She was a sickly child, educated at home by her formidable female relatives. A medical treatment for bronchitis caused her skin to turn blue-grey, so it is hardly surprising that she became something of a recluse. For over thirty years her work was ignored or rejected but Walton went on writing her distinctive novels trying, as she said, `to put flesh and blood on the bones of the original myth’. To me that makes her a heroine among Fantasy writers and it is heart-warming to know that she finally found many appreciative readers. Try “The Island of the Mighty” and perhaps you might become one of them. Until next time…