Donna R. White: A Century of Welsh Myth in Children’s Literature

Kimberly Bates wrote this review.

A Century of Welsh Myth in Children's LiteratureThe prospect of an adult discussion of some of my favorite childhood authors has great appeal, if only because it legitimates my occasional re-reading of Alan Garner and Lloyd Alexander as an adult. Although my adult self wishes to quarrel with certain aspects of their interpretation of the Mabinogi (a series of Welsh tales told orally for centuries and then written down in various forms), their work undeniably had a great impact on how I came to view the world, at least the best parts of it. White delivers a very competent discussion of both Garner and Alexander, particularly the influence of poet Robert Graves’ The White Goddess on both authors, and includes enough interview material to satisfy adult fans looking for a reason to revisit these works.

She also does a good job of documenting how contemporary mores affected the ways that children’s authors approached the material, beginning with those drawing on Lady Charlotte Guest’s popular 19th-century translation of the eleven tales erroneously called The Mabigion. However, the title of this book is also somewhat misleading because White deals only with authors drawing on the four branches of The Mabigion, excluding material that builds on the other Welsh medieval stories translated by Guest.

This focus on The Mabigion provides White with a convenient rationale for excluding material related to Arthurian tradition, despite the presence of one of the earliest accounts of King Arthur, “Culhwch and Olwen,” in Guest’stranslation. But it also leads her to exclude more recent works that draw on Welsh folk tales, particularly those originating from oral tradition in Wales. I would have liked White to compare the themes of recent works with those taken from the Mabinogi, and compare the folklore sources with the Mabinogi, as well.

What makes The Mabigion and its accompanying tales such rich source material is partly plot, partly great characters, as well as the blending of physical reality with the Celtic otherworld in the stories. But perhaps most fascinating of all is a curious lack of the large dramas of Good versus Evil that characterize modern fantasy literature. The characters often act in ways that we would categorize as both good and evil, and the world of the dead, Annwn, is not a place of darkness and dread, but rather a world similar to our own, on another level of reality. Yet the greatest 20th-century stories that draw on The Mabigion are modern morality tales, with good versus evil in sharp contrast.

Graves was the first to infuse The Mabigion with these themes. In The White Goddess, he tried to demonstrate that some of the material amounts to a secret tree alphabet whose meaning has been lost over the centuries. More importantly, he assumed that this symbolic system was part of the worship of a great and terrible goddess, who was feared for her power to give and take life. Most modern authors build on this interpretation of the material to polarize the characters into Good and Evil.

Although White does not discuss this polarization in the modern interpretation of the source material, she does give lots of great detail about Graves’ influence on Garner and Alexander. She also provides interesting accounts of their creative processes through interviews. Both authors borrow characters and some plot elements from the four tales of The Mabigion, but do not directly retell the tales. Earlier authors presented sanitized versions of the stories based on Guest’s translations, which were themselves somewhat sanitized from the medieval stories.

Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain are aimed at primary school children. They boast great plots, straightforward humor and spunky characters of both genders. His Companions, a group of the main characters, eventually banish magical evil, thus triggering the exodus of the protective, magic-wielding Sons of Don to the mythical Summer Country. Alexander’s themes are democratic and oriented around the passage of the two young characters into adulthood, where one’s wits are the only magic available. Many of Alexander’s works reflect his experiences in World War II. White provides a great discussion of how he weaves his experiences into his many children’s books.

Garner’s work is darker, partly because he vividly communicates Graves’ sense of dread, awe and fear of female divinity through his female characters. Garner’s books are aimed at young adults. Characters are more complex, as are the elements of symbolism layered and woven through the stories. While several of his books draw loosely on Welsh myth, The Owl Service draws heavily on the parts of the fourth branch of the Mabinogi, yet does not ever present the story in its entirety. Instead, the reader is drawn to explore the original tale to understand how the characters are forced to act out the roles of the mythological characters, and somehow become, or perhaps already are, the same people who have acted out the story over the centuries. Garner loves to play with time, and with states of consciousness, which is why so many readers like to revisit his work long after their first encounter. White’s accounts of Garner and his book are rich in description and details from interviews with the author, including a fascinating tidbit about the cosmic consequences of one character’s dysmenorrhoea.

White laments the fact that few authors since the 1970s have gone back to the Mabinogi proper, given the enormous popularity of Garner’s and Alexander’s works, both of which have remained in print since the 1960s. At the same time she is dismissive of the recent offerings that build on other portions of Welsh traditional lore. I have to sympathize with the contemporary authors here! Just as both were compared to Tolkien, contemporary authors would probably like to avoid accusations of ripping off Garner or Alexander.

This book will interest adult fans of the Mabinogi in its various modern interpretations. Both the detailed histories of modern treatments of the material and the communications from the authors are presented in a clear and accessible manner. The book is part of a series on the impact of science fiction and fantasy from Greenwood Press that has several other tempting titles, including one White describes as complementary to this volume, examining the use of Welsh myth in literature for more mature audiences.

(Greenwood Press, 1995)

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