'The bards were founded in the dim and distant past. They were around when Caesar invaded the islands, as a part of the druid order, and they seemed to have survived in Scotland up into the beginning of the eighteenth century when the clan system was finally destroyed. They were poets and, as such, originally held a sacred function in Celtic societies.'
-- Robin Williamson in an interview with Charles de Lint.
Do come in... I'm getting ready to look at a couple of mythopoeic books that got added to the Green Man library. So let's snag a bottle of Dragons Breath stout from the kitchen, sit in one of the overstuffed library chairs over by the fireplace, and we'll talk of the Mabinogion, Arthurian legends, Robin Williamson, Merlin, and whatever else catches our fancy. Comfy now? Good! Let's begin...
It certainly won't surprise you that Green Man gets a lot of mythopoeic books for review. Grey Walker, for example, has reviewed Tolkien's Legendarium: Essays on The History of Middle Earth, and I reviewed Fantasy Fiction and Welsh Myth: Tales of Belonging, which I found to be not the best look at the Mabinogion that was ever done. Hundreds of other books of like nature have been reviewed here over the years, and now I'll add another to that list: Mabon and The Guardians of Celtic Britain: Hero Myths in the Mabinogion, which is far superior in every way to the aforementioned Fantasy Fiction and Welsh Myth: Tales of Belonging. Mabon and The Guardians of Celtic Britain is the first authoritative reader's companion I've seen to the ancient Celtic myths in the Welsh literary masterpiece, the Mabinogion. I know that you've read the Mabinogion, but check out this look at two editions of the Mabinogion that Jo Morrison wrote for Green Man. She correctly notes in her commentary that 'grand quests, swords, sorcery, gods, mortals, love, war, and a healthy sense of mystery can all be found in The Mabinogion. These eleven ancient Welsh tales date back to somewhere around 1200 in written form and are classics of the folk tale genre. There are few places where you can find so many archetypal folk themes, presented within such a short space. Celtic lineage, culture, and heritage are presented with grace and passion within the framework of a group of stories. These tales are a must for anyone interested in Celtic folklore or in Arthurian legend, for Arthur plays a minor role in many of the tales.' G'nough, but what if you want a readers guide to the often confusing tales? Then you should go to Caitlin Matthews, a woman who, along with her husband John Matthews, is well-versed in all things Celtic!
The Mabinogion has a very short history as a written work, some one hundred and fifty years, but as an oral work may well be even older than Beowulf, the epic Nordic ballad written down roughly a thousand years ago. Unlike Beowulf, which has an internal consistency to it that suggests a single author, the Mabinogion most likely evolved as it was told over and over again down the ages. And unlike Beowulf, it consists of multiple texts that are themselves comprised of bits and pieces put together into a tales! Very messy indeed... Almost any teller of tales can, with some work, memorize Beowulf, but the Mabinogion is much, much more difficult. And understanding it may be even more difficult -- which is why Mabon and The Guardians of Celtic Britain is useful.
That Caitlin knows her Celtic material is not in doubt, as she is the author of nearly forty books, including The Celtic Tradition and The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom. The question is, 'Is this a useful companion?' And yes, it is. It starts off with a succinct 'how to use this book' that's combined with one of the better guides to pronouncing Welsh that I've seen. (It is a difficult tongue, worse than Gaelic!) The meat of the book is a detailed look at the stories themselves. Caitlin, being of a Jungian bent, relates the tales to a Campbellian world mythos. Fortunately, that does not get in the way of her laying out the tales for the reader. I strongly suggest reading her book before tackling the Mabinogion (if you haven't already), as you'll understand it a lot better. But do skip the appendix called 'Three Mystery Songs to Mabon,' as it's just New Age-y garbage. Same holds true for the afterword, 'The Song of Remaking' which feels like it was tacked on. Now the bibliography, on the other hand, is excellent -- even if it doesn't include me favourite translation of the Mabinogion, the one done by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, with illustrations by Alan Lee. Despite me minor quibbles, Caitlin's book belongs in the library of anyone interested in The Mabinogion.
Have you visited our library to look at our collection of Arthurian fiction yet? No? When you do, ask Liath to show you the first edition of T.H White's The Once and Future King; you know the 1958 Collins true first is quite rare these days. (She keeps it in a locked case behind her desk, as White signed it to her.) Speaking of Arthur and Merlin, have you heard of Merlin Dreams? No? Let me tell you 'bout it...
Merlin Dreams is an odd book, a novel, yet not not a novel. What Peter Dickinson had in mind is, I think, a radical re-envisioning of Merlin as the dreaming teller of tales. There are nine stories, more or less interconnected, from the Arthurian myths and legends herein, some interesting, some not. Illustrated throughout by Alan Lee in black & white and colour, this is the tale of Merlin, entombed under a great stone by the trickeries of a woman named Nenyve (according to Sir Thomas Mallory in The Tale of King Arthur; other tellings have Morgana tricking him). Merlin dreams of things that might be and things that most likely won't be (and does Merlin age backwards as he sleeps? Or only when he's awake?)
It's certainly a lot better than such shite as Deepak Chopra's The Return of Merlin! Peter, husband of Robin McKinley (who is herself a creator of many a great tale), clearly knows his Arthurian material. Certainly more folks know the fictional variants of the Arthurian mythos from such works as The Once and Future King than have ever read the historical accountings of Arthur Rex. And more visualize the Arthurian myth from Excalibur than they do from knowing what really happened. Merlin Dreams is simply keeping with the cyfarwydd, the Taleweaver or storyteller, who embellishes tales of what he has heard in order to make them more interesting. Dickinson has admitted that in Merlin Dreams he 'used' Merlin rather than 'explored' him. Merlin is a plot device here, not the character that Dickinson is interested in. Merlin merely serves as the narrator for these tales -- he is, after all, sleeping! Ahhhh, but the tales that he dreams/tells are worthy in and of themselves, even without his active presence. Merlin Dreams starts off with the telling of how Merlin came to imprisoned beneath the great rock by the girl/woman who was his apprentice and eventually his superior. No, I cannot say if it is Morgana. All I can say is that she, too, will someday be felled by the magics she has used to keep him sleeping away the centuries...
So which of these two should you read? For pure reading pleasure, I'd say Merlin Dreams, but it won't tell you much about Merlin. And the other, though good as a reference, ain't terribly readable. So what should you do? Get a copy of Mabon and The Guardians of Celtic Britain -- you will find it useful. But don't purchase Merlin Dreams -- it ain't worth it. Just get it from the library. If you need to own a good book that has Merlin in it, go for T.H. White's The Once and Future King.