Every society has their own early myths and legends. There are actually several sets in the British Islands, from Beowulf of the Anglo-Saxons to the Ulster Cycle of the Irish. Perhaps my favorite are the Welsh legends of the Mabinogion.
Reading through these works set down in in the twelfth through fourteenth centuries we can catch glimpses of the earlier stories, the stories created long before the Normans, and even before the Anglo Saxons, come onto the scene. There are hints that some of the stories predate the Romanization of the British Isles.
I often want to try to recreate the originals from these tantalizing hints. Perhaps create a whole new universe from them. The Icelandic Sagas have spawned some of the greatest works of the western world, from Wagner’s Ring Cycle to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Why can’t The Mabinogion be such an inspiration for genius?
Well, it has.
In the 1960’s Lloyd Alexander wrote an award winning series of children’s books, The Chronicles of Prydain, based loosely on The Mabinogion. There are five books in this series: The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer and The High King. They follow Taran the Assistant Pig Keeper from an awkward youth to a responsible young adult.
Although the Chronicles are based on the Welsh legends and are full of names straight from The Mabinogion, these books describe their own universe and go in their own direction.
As with many fantasy series aimed at children, the books gain maturity as they continue. By The High King is reached, Taran is an adult living in a complex adult world and the book reflects this world. People are not painted in black and white. Adventures are not things to be sought after but unfortunate events that happen to good people. Heroes aren’t warriors but gardeners and potters.
I don’t remember when I first stumbled upon these books but I know I had read the whole series by the time I was 11. I bought a copy of the High King and read it several times during my early teens. As a preteen I loved all of the books. I identified with Taran. In ways I thought I was him – change a few letters and Taran becomes Trent. And, of course, I was in love with Eilonwy. But I outgrew the series and Eilonwy’s bauble lost some of its glow.
From Prydain I moved on to The Hobbit. The Hobbit was more adult in length and language than The High King, but in many ways below it in maturity level. Alexander’s book made a great introduction to the world of fantasy and prepared me to take on The Hobbit. After that I discovered The Earthsea books and by high school was devouring The Lord of the Rings, TLOTR. In my mind TLOTR is the pinnacle of fantasy. There have been other great books and series, but nothing quite like TLOTR.
I have spent a large part of my reading life in lands of fantasy and imagination. Dragons and elves, witches and vampires, wizards and ancient gods, I have met many characters based on myth and legend. I was first introduced to this land called fantasy by the gentle hand of Lloyd Alexander and the Welsh legends. Perhaps the reason I find the Mabinogion so special is I grew up there.
Last year I decided to reread The Chronicles of Prydain, the first time I had read the complete series since I was a pre-teen. They were just as wonderful as I remembered and I found I was still in love with Eilonwy. For a week I spent a few hours every evening as a ten year old exploring a magical land. I think part of me is still exploring the hills and fields of Prydain.
Thank you Lloyd Alexander.
Image by Alan Lee – This is the image on the cover of one of the copies of The Mabinogion I use. I could find no other copyright information even though I found the image on several sites dealing with The Mabinogion.
(I’ve been out of town so there has been no time to draw an original image. Sorry.)
Note – My book The Fireborn was very influenced by my early reading of The Chronicles of Prydain. I spent a lot of time with the Welsh myths before I started, so some of the references are the same. If you are curious, read more about The Fireborn.