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Opinion

Wales and the Mabinogion deserve better: An open letter to Stevie Nicks

16 Jun 2024 11 minute read
The Mabinogion translated by Sioned Davies. Harry Styles and Stevie Nicks.

Stephen Price

The news that Stevie Nicks is working on an adaptation of the beloved tale of Rhiannon from the Mabinogion resurfaced earlier this week, along with her hopes to cast English pop-star Harry Styles in a leading role.

It goes without saying that we in Wales are excited for a long-awaited Mabinogion movie to hit the big screen, and to share our timeless legends that have inspired art, poetry and prose for hundreds upon hundreds of years with the rest of the world.

And it also goes without saying that Stevie Nicks’ involvement is, in itself, a wonderful thing: An iconic artist with a unique and exciting back catalogue that, just like the Mabinogion, continues to move and influence as much today as ever.

But if the first hints at what’s to come are anything to go by, I think it’s time the project went back to the drawing board.

“An old Welsh witch”

Stevie Nicks’ love affair with Rhiannon began in the early 1970s after reading a novel called Triad by Mary Leader.

The novel is centred around a woman named Branwen who is possessed by another woman named Rhiannon.

There is mention of the Welsh legend of Rhiannon in the novel, but the characters in the novel bear little resemblance to their original Welsh namesakes in the Mabinogion.

“It was just a stupid little paperback that I found somewhere at somebody’s house, lying on the couch,’ Nicks explained in an interview with Classic Rock magazine. “It was called ‘Triad’ and it was all about this girl who becomes possessed by a spirit named Rhiannon.

“I read the book, but I was so taken with that name that I thought, ‘I’ve got to write something about this.

“So I sat down at the piano and started this song about a woman that was all involved with these birds and magic.”

Triad, Mary Leader

Pryderi

Compelled to read more, Nicks later bought the rights to Evangeline Walton’s adaptations of the Mabinogion after being “transfixed” by the prose.

It was then that the musician started to research the story of Rhiannon and began work on a decades-long project, initially unsure if it would become a movie, a musical, a cartoon, a TV series or even a ballet.

Over the years there have been several Rhiannon-centred Stevie Nicks songs to emerge from this ongoing project, including ‘Stay Away’ and ‘Maker of Birds’: Nicks wrote the Fleetwood Mac song ‘Angel’ from the band’s 1979 album ‘Tusk’, based on the Rhiannon story.

The singer revealed in interviews that working on a Rhiannon movie had been her priority after Fleetwood Mac had finished touring in 2019.

After intending the Rhiannon story to be adapted as a movie, the project became so big in scope that she now hopes it will be turned into a television miniseries.

The Rhiannon miniseries is set to explore the mythology and folklore surrounding the fabled story.

It is rumoured that Nicks has 10 songs she never released that she is holding onto in order to include in the Rhiannon miniseries.

And for those of us who understand the significance of the Mabinogion to Welsh culture as much as she appears to, this is where it gets worrying.

One Direction: the bargain bin

The musician has no plans to star in the project herself, although she has revealed she is keen for her friend, X Factor entrant and former boyband singer Harry Styles to appear in the series.

Stevie Nicks, The Mabinogion, Harry Styles

Nicks has said that Styles “is definitely in the running,” adding: “I’m going, ‘Harry, you cannot age one day. You have to stay exactly as you are’.”

Unsurprisingly, owing to the timeless prose that still continues to inspire Welsh art and music to this day,  Nicks has “already sold him on it.”

But is Wales sold on it?

Surely if Nicks has any understanding of Wales and the Welsh, and any desire to tell the story with even an ounce of authenticity, she might guess how this casting choice would go down in the birthplace and spiritual homeland of the Mabinogion.

But then, of course, we also know all too well the long history of Welsh people being overlooked for Welsh roles.

From recent travesties such as Save the Cinema, Bridgend and Gwen, or slightly older films such as Very Annie Mary and The Englishman Who Went up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain right back to the early days of cinema and the abomination that is How Green Was My Valley, movies about Wales and the Welsh without any actual Welsh input always fail to gain genuine homegrown acclaim.

Hauntingly familiar

We can fairly assume that the series won’t be told in the Welsh of the Mabinogion, so the need for ultra-purism isn’t called for – it will no doubt feature a cast speaking with a take on modern Welsh accents.

We all know, at least this side of the border anyway, that there isn’t one Welsh accent, so they’ll most likely go for a generic possibly-somewhere-in-the-valleys-but-not-too-deep-mun accent.

A stab at a generic one-for-all accent is never going to cut the mustard for a native audience – and for something of such cultural and national importance as this, it has to get its sound, indeed its tone, correct.

And secondly, it also needs to get its look correct.

To give our roles out to others as if we aren’t a distinct people with a distinct cultural identity is a disrespect on the same level as any other miscasting of marginalised people.

Is it any wonder so many countries across the world use England and Britain interchangeably when, even on this relatively small level, we aren’t even given an opportunity to be represented?

And while we’re on the subject of looks – if it’s not set in Wales, it’ll also fall at the first hurdle.

The people behind the otherwise decent Mr Jones, starring (surprise!) an Englishman as Gareth Jones had no issue filming in Scotland, with the most Scottish vernacular architecture they could find, in place of Barry.

Although if Harry Styles does take the part, spare us the visit and film in Birmingham if it keeps the costs down – I’m still processing the weeks of news reports about the time Eva Longoria came to town back in 2016.

Those were the days.

Don’t mention JK, don’t mention JK…

Stevie Nicks has an opportunity to really pay homage to the birthplace of the Rhiannon legend and the people who have kept these stories alive for centuries by following the lead of JK Rowling in her casting for the Harry Potter movies.

These films are modern classics for a reason, and their charm and cultural relevancy owe much to Rowling’s insistence on casting British actors.

Culhwch entering King Arthur’s court. Created by Alfred Fredericks and published as an illustration to The Boy’s Mabinogion: being the earliest Welsh tales of King Arthur in the famous Red Book of Hergest, edited with an introduction by Sidney Lanier (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1881)

For that level of reverence to be bestowed upon modern fantasy novels, then, suggests an even greater need for respect when it comes to the works of a minority culture and language that are not simply tales, but important pieces of ancient literature and thought.

Further need to tread carefully around casting is required when working with prose from a culture that has suffered and continues to pay the price of colonisation, subjugation and cultural and language erasure.

To cast actors from outside of Wales, and dare I say specifically a Poundland Bowie wannabe, would do a complete disservice to perhaps the most important surviving body of Welsh literature ever (eventually) put to paper.

Taking on the responsibility of sharing Wales’ rich and exciting literature with the world is just that – a responsibility, and in the search for a fast buck stands to completely misrepresent Welsh people and culture.

Tens across the border

The arts are embedded in Welsh culture, and acting prowess is in our blood – from Anthony Hopkins and Richard Burton to Aneurin Barnard and Morfydd Clark, there has never been a shortage of Welsh talent, and when it comes to telling uniquely Welsh stories, our own people are naturally the best people for the job.

Luke Huw Llewellyn from the Silurian Folklore Society who is currently running an online Mabinogion book club said: “The Mabinogi and the wider Mabinogion in particular stand out as some of the most uniquely magical and enthralling compositions of prose ever made, earning a place shoulder to shoulder with any other ancient classical literature.

“What makes them even more special in my opinion, is that they were clearly designed to be performed and acted out by the ancient Bards and Cyfarwydd (A class of storytellers during the medieval period) in the grand halls of our native Kings and Queens. It is truly a gift from our ancestors that these stories and wisdoms exist with us today.

“Anything promoting this remarkable collection of prose, poetry and lore on the wider world stage is always a positive thing, however it would certainly need careful handling, just as any native and indigenous traditions are and should be as these tales are not only stories for entertainment but also sacred myth.

“If Stevie would like to adapt the tales in an entertaining way, whilst respecting the sacredness of our native mythology then it would be worth hiring experts and consultants. Someone like Dr. Gwilym Morus-Baird who has done that sort of thing numerous times in the past and knows the collection of work intimately like nobody else.”

Keep your visions to yourself

Of course, just like the prose that inspired Nicks’ love of the Mabinogi all those years ago, stories from Wales have travelled the world and continue to inspire, but more often than not they come not with our name attached, but with that of England.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

English people playing the post-Roman native British King Arthur battling Anglo Saxons, for example, is an accepted absurdity in the movie world, but can we avoid that at the outset with this most sacred of works, please?

To be known world-wide as the Scots and Irish are, and not for our country’s association with the English Royal Family is a dream many of us have, and a well-executed Mabinogion film might just be the thing that does it.

The vast body of Welsh tradition that spans the best part of two thousand years has influenced the fantasy genre since its inception and in many ways is one of its most important roots, from Tolkien to George R.R Martin, but all too often any real sense of Welshness is cast aside and made Elvish.

Only an adaptation of the Mabinogion that has Welsh input at every level will succeed past the glory days of the box office.

To emulate the success stories of past Welsh movies in the English language and to retain ongoing relevance and timelessness, it will be the people of Wales who will make the call on whether to take this to their hearts and down the generations when others have moved on to the next ‘in’ thing.

The Mabinogion on screen must be done well, and with Wales and its people’s backing.

Don’t let us down, Ms Nicks.

Follow Silurian Folklore Society on Instagram to join the Mabinogion book club.

Follow Gwilym Morus-Baird’s Celtic Sources on Instagram for further information on the Mabinogion and other Celtic prose.

For younger readers or those new to the Mabinogion, discover The Mab, eleven stories from the Welsh classic retold for young people here.

Sioned Davies’ celebrated translation of the Mabinogion can be found here.


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Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
29 days ago

No shortage of ‘Welsh’ talent in Hollywood…

hdavies15
hdavies15
29 days ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

They are too busy chasing the $$$ !

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
28 days ago
Reply to  hdavies15

This article is a challenge, I must speak out for all the talented actors I’ve known and worked with over the years in Cymru…

hdavies15
hdavies15
29 days ago

Why do you expect Ms Nicks to respect Welsh cultural sensitivities when our own cultural, heritage institutions are being attacked from within by all sorts of people more fixated with the issues of modern lifestyle choices ? Given half a chance they would rewrite our history to suit their particular and peculiar tastes, and ditch any focus on our language ?

Shan Morgain
Shan Morgain
28 days ago
Reply to  hdavies15

Agreed there is strong disagreement on where and how much the Welsh language should be visible here in Wales. Disagreement however is healthy and shows active interest. So far the Cymraeg is doing pretty well, visible everywhere on roads in supermarkets, official documents etc and many Welsh arts media.

hdavies15
hdavies15
28 days ago
Reply to  Shan Morgain

I disagree that it’s doing “pretty well” with ample evidence that it is under attack from the more malign end of the private sector and within the public sector we have an array of relatively new ishoos and causes who are quite aggressively pursuing their own agendas with little or no regard for the native language,culture, heritage.

Riki
Riki
28 days ago
Reply to  hdavies15

That has already happened, if you call yourself “Welsh” you have already in part accepted a change in our history.

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
28 days ago
Reply to  Riki

‘Commissaire’ on deck…

hdavies15
hdavies15
28 days ago
Reply to  Riki

I could be pedantic and refer only to subjects as Cymry, Cymreig, Cymraeg etc etc or better still refrain from using any form of English at all. That might please you but would not assist in the small matter of communicating with others on pints of agreement or disagreement on this site. Elsewhere efallai taw yr iaith Gymraeg ddyle gael blaenoriaeth.

Riki
Riki
28 days ago
Reply to  hdavies15

It’s not being pedantic! It’s called helping people understand their nations origins and why using a term “Welsh” is not only incorrect in terms of geographical evidence, but culturally incorrect also. How are we “Welsh”, foreigners to Britain? Britain is literally named after our ancestors name for it!!! It comes from our language, we are BRITISH! Thee British!!!! No person in Wales will ever force me to call myself a foreigner in my own country and on my own island. Concise terminology is highly important, otherwise it indicates a basic ignorance of a nations origins. Tell me, does an incident… Read more »

Last edited 28 days ago by Riki
Nia James
Nia James
29 days ago

Totally agree Stephen. Promoting Welsh literature and mythology, and Welsh history, is something we should all aspire to do, so let us hope that Stevie Nicks creates a piece that isn’t cringeworthy. My fear, like you, is that we’ll have some Welsh actors in minor roles with the big parts played by Styles and other acceptable luvvies. No doubt David Beckham will appear, with ponytail, as a character that none of them will be able to pronounce. Shouldn’t Welsh Government announce a scheme to create Welsh ‘classics’, or am I still dreaming?

Shan Morgain
Shan Morgain
28 days ago
Reply to  Nia James

There has been no fresh news on Nicks’ plans for a miniseries for three years. So I don’t see any urgency about its issues. When we do hear of any new developments I agree it would be appropriate to check and pressure for Welsh participation.

There have been excellent media and theatre projects on the Mabinogi. Moving Being. Brith Gof. S4C mixed media. Emma Watkins. Mallabar. To name a few.

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
29 days ago

Re. ‘The Englishman’…although I may not have seen eye to eye with the Writer/Director,

I believe there were some good performances and it had a heart…

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
28 days ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

‘Interesting’ fact…the original ‘Mac’ with Pete Green had a singer/bottleneck player whose aunt was from Tal-y-Bont, that ‘fact’ got me and my mate into an early Fleetwood Mac gig in Llundain free, a ride in the van and a night on Danny’s mum’s parlour floor and a cooked breakfast…all the above are now dead heb fi…

Last edited 28 days ago by Mab Meirion
hdavies15
hdavies15
28 days ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

If you remember Danny Kirwan, or better still acquainted with him, then you have good vintage on your side. You have “survivor” written all over you.

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
28 days ago
Reply to  hdavies15

With great affection and for the ‘Mac’, Pete Green had it in Spades, it made my transition from Trad to Coltrane then via Howling and Muddy and Buddy (I met a 3 year old Otis in S’s chippy in PG day before and just stopped myself from the list) to John Mayall and Eric, Jeff Beck and Jimmy H…

Just lucky I guess…diolch…

PS as I’m sure you know the vulgar tongued devil who played slide was Jeremy Spencer…

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
28 days ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

There is some great footage in b/w of Pete and Danny and the Transit on youtube…

Shan Morgain
Shan Morgain
29 days ago

I have just completed a PhD on Rhiannon of the Mabinogi (‘Mabinogi Rhiannon’, Swansea University, supervised by Prof. Christine James ex-ArchDruid of the National Eisteddfod, and Prof. Alan Llwyd three times chaired poet at the National Eisteddfod. Both have spoken highly of my work; Alan says it is ‘a masterpiece’). Of course I agree that Stevie Nicks’ project needs to feature Welsh actors, Welsh staff like technicians, and Welsh landscape. But I think it is premature to condemn her for not doing so as we have no information on all that except one actor she likes. This article gives a… Read more »

John Davies
John Davies
28 days ago

I was privileged to grow up ten miles down the road from Arberth. Rhiannon is our local lady. I get a little tired (actually very tired and quite angry) at people from other nations and cultures borrowing themes from ours, producing their own versions then marketing them to the world (including back to us) as if they are authentic and no doubt making loadsamoney in the process. A London Welsh friend came up with a memorable name for this sort of thing. “Spiritual strip mining”. I might call it cultural exploitation or even colonialism. Best of luck to Ms Nicks… Read more »

Shan Morgain
Shan Morgain
28 days ago
Reply to  John Davies

Well said (as always) John. Your Three Things There Are … back in 1993 called out the colonial exploitation of our heritage loud and clear. The concern about an ‘an all-American rock opera’ is very valid. I just feel that rattling the chain whips about Steve Nicks in particular is noise about nothing as her project is currently not progressing. I have written to her management to enquire.

Riki
Riki
28 days ago

Well, we all know they will anglicise it to best of their ability, as they do with everything about Wales. It will be seen as British, which in theory I’m fine with, but unfortunately that has come to wrongly be seen as solely “English”. So they won’t even need to lie about its origins, the assumption will be good enough for them.

Shan Morgain
Shan Morgain
28 days ago
Reply to  Riki

Hear hear. Unfortunately a whole series of Mabinogi translations into English while they greatly expanded the audience have also created an Anglicised version. In my own work while I write in English, I use bilingual Cymraeg/ English titles and subtitles, and a generous scattering of key Cymraeg words. Llys/ book. Testun/ Text. Marchoges/ noble horsewoman. Welsh theatre and the Mabinogi has also been very good about similar double practice. To me it is a matter of pride that we are a bilingual nation. Research shows that bilingual children/ people are more intelligent because the brain has to bridge between two… Read more »

Shan Morgain
Shan Morgain
28 days ago
Reply to  Shan Morgain

OOPS Cymraeg words. Llyfr/ book. Testun/ Text. Marchoges/ noble horsewoman.

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
28 days ago

All the comments above are a plea to the’Welsh Film Industry’ to get their fingers/quills out and do the job ourselves…

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
27 days ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

Well well, look who turns up today…

Ramona
Ramona
28 days ago

I am American and understand very well that the Welsh have a separate identity. I may be more well informed than average, but still you all should know that the message is getting around. I would expect many fine Welsh creatives to be involved in any retelling, something I am eagerly awaiting having read Evangeline Walton decades ago. But please do not reject Styles or any other non-Welsh actor who might be included out of hand. Finding the right combination of creatives could make any such series a breakthrough event for Wales. It would be really good if it became… Read more »

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
28 days ago
Reply to  Ramona

To Ramona, such a hauntingly beautiful name…like Rhiannon…set to music…

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