New words for old

The eleven Welsh tales collected under the title The Mabinogion are one of the great underappreciated wellsprings of literature: Robert Graves and Charlotte Guest have dipped into them for arguments, and at least one of the tales reads like a precursor to the legends of King Arthur. Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain stories and Alan Garner’s The Owl Service all drew from the Mabinogion.

So this review of a new translation of The Mabinogion caught my eye. I only know the 1976 translation by Jeffrey Gantz, which the reviewer knocks for keeping too much of the Victorian bric-a-brac that cluttered up the earlier translations. I always considered it a pretty trim and modern-sounding version, but the only Welsh I know is rarebit so I’ll have to take the reviewer’s word for it.

I’m on much higher ground, though, when it comes to knocking the reviewer for overlooking Evangeline Walton’s four commanding fantasy novels drawn from The Mabinogion. In particular, the second and third books — The Children of Llyr and The Song of Rhiannon — are more powerful than anything J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, and a film version of those two linked novels would challenge Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings for sheer grandeur and emotional impact. There are plenty of splashy special effects opportunities in Walton’s novels, but the dark heart of her storytelling is the way she has fleshed out the characters, most memorably, Evnissyen, one of the most convincing and monstrous villains ever caught on paper.

I’ve heard so many complaints about the omnibus edition put out by Overlook Press, you might be better off seeking the separate editions of the original novels: Prince of Annwn, The Children of Llyr, The Song of Rhiannon and The Island of the Mighty. And if, like me, you are inspired by them to check out the source material, the new translation by Sioned Davies sounds like a good place to begin.

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