Review: Pumed Gainc y Mabinogi by Peredur Glyn
Our best-known quartet of folk tales, Y Mabinogi, and the larger series of stories in The Mabinogion which includes them, have inspired legions of writers, theatre-makers, artists and musicians and continue to do so.
It’s as if the Cauldron of Rebirth in the second tale “Branwen ferch Llŷr” continues its Lazarus work of magical resurrection, giving the characters in the old tales new life in new guises.
So, in recent years we’ve had Theatr Genedlaethol’s Blodeuwedd, memorably staged at Tomen-y-Mur above Trawsfynydd, the Seren retellings in New Stories from the Mabinogion and, this year The Mab by Matt Brown and Eloise Williams.
The latest in a long line of such Mabinogi-inspired artists is debut novelist Peredur Glyn. His Pumed Gainc y Mabinogi offers us a set of dark and playful riffs on very, very old material, new tales taking the medieval ones as departure points, lodestones or springboards.
Thus familiar characters drift through from “then” to “now, ” sometimes in a spectral manner. So we encounter the magician and master storyteller Gwydion, or Lleu Llaw Gyffes, now enchained in the underworld and Matholwch, swirlingly cast as a primordial god of chaos, one made of unchained and very angry energy.
But there are other characters who seem more recently constituted, like the revenant figure who has a pint with his mate Tegfryn in a pub in Upper Bangor in “ Yn y Croen Hwn,” (In This Skin).
Tegfryn has grown suspicious about the true identity of his drinking mucker. Unknowingly he challenges the identity of a creature who has existed for a very long time, staying alive by inhabiting a succession of living human bodies.
Poor Tegfryn slurps his very last lager on this earth and ends up being subsumed or slurped up in a metaphysical tousle in the gents.
But we also find a character who sounds a lot like the author himself, a man who spends long solitary hours in libraries, poring over ancient manuscripts as he searches for meaning, and sometimes hidden meaning in the old forms of Welsh.
It’s not exactly auto-fiction, but Peredur Glyn clearly enjoys tiptoeing into his own tales.
The author cites the influence of horror fiction of H.P.Lovecraft on his work, just as it has percolated like thick blood into the work of Stephen King, morphed into the aliens in the film of the same name and inflected some dark tones into the music of bands such as Metallica and the appropriately named Black Sabbath, whose song “Behind the Wall of Sleep” is inspired by a Lovecraft story of the same name.
One band, Septic Flesh has even recorded a heavy metal hymn to the author called “Lovecraft’s Death.”
Lovecraft himself described his brand of cosmic horror as being based on ‘the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity of significance in the vast cosmos at large.’
There’s a powerful sense of place in play in many of the concatenating stories in Pumed Gainc…, something very much present in The Mabinogion, as John Updike explained in his introduction to the Everyman edition of the eleven tales, as he commented on the adventures of what he describes as Celtic super heroes and many wonders they contain – the magical birds, the mutilated horses and a bridge made from a giant’s body:
What freight did such a caravan of marvels carry for its auditors? They inhabited a world where the naming of places was still in progress; psychology had not yet replaced geography as an orienting science. What we are is, to an extent, where we are, and what links of loyalty, to political entities embodied in kings and chieftains, hold us in place.
One such place is a lake in Pumed Gainc is found in the story “Drwy Waelod y Llyn Dienw” (Through the Bottom of the Lake Without a Name):
They said of the lake that its waters are dead, and its depth is beyond the knowledge of men, said they, and animals and birds all avoid its shores. A local legend says that lights shine from the bottom of that lake on the night of a full moon (which are the lamps of the tylwyth teg, they blasphemed) & that any man or animal that goes into those waters disappears from the Lord God’s land & go unto an unknown land & do not return after. In the opinion of this Christian author, there is no truth to such foolishness, yet despite this no owner of the lake is known to the author nor any man other & no name is given to it in any book that I have read either…
I was reminded of the similarly dark and troubling underworld in the similarly Lovecraft-ian work Morwyn by John Cowper Powys, who shares Peredur Glyn’s fascination for Annwfn, the Celtic underworld, which can only be accessed from special places, or by people with special knowledge and are terrifying beyond all reason.
In Pumed Gainc y Mabinogi we find old stories inventively and vividly transplanted to fresh settings. Thus the story of Teyrnon, who loses the foals of his mare, the most handsome horse in the kingdom, to a monstrous claw which seizes them in the night is given a new contemporary backdrop.
In “Cysgod y Crafanc” (The Shadow of the Claw) the story now takes place on a horse-breeding ranch and its hero is a young student, Alexandra Mair Thomas who is studying animal welfare in Wrexham and ends up playing detective to follow the trail of a snatched foal into the bowels of the earth, where monstrous creatures live, having hidden away for centuries.
There’s precious little animal welfare on show in this blood-bespattered tale.
This is one of the pleasures of reading these stories, the sense that there are remote parts of Wales where anything can still happen, where old gods prevail or standing stones can exert extraordinary powers or a monstrous claw can still slash through the night-time air and snatch a foal, or even a baby.
I once met a woman in mid Wales who told a story about just such a baby-snatching as if it had happened in living memory.
So in one story a woman called Mererid Puw acts as watcher on the west coast of Wales, keeping her eyes peeled for inhabitants of the deep who once lived in the great wildwood that blanketed the country who she knows will return. And they do, draped in seaweed and staring out through saucer-like, globular eyes.
For these are the inhabitants and creatures of nightmarish worlds who step through or leach into the present with unsettling consequences.
And as they do so you can feel the author’s dark delight in unleashing them all in the first place, like a tendril-like finger palping your shoulder as you tremblingly turn another page.
Pumed Gainc y Mabinogi is published by Y Lolfa. You can buy a copy from any good bookshop or you can buy a copy here.
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Why does Jon Gower call the Mabinogi ‘folk tales’?It is hard to imagine anything less ‘folksy’than these fantastical finely wrought tales of ancient aristos.