The first time I encountered The Mabinogion was as a schoolboy in Swansea. I would describe my initial reading of it as reluctant: I was told how important it was by teachers and the like and yet I couldn’t get any kind of numinous feeling for it running through my system. It felt so, oh I don’t know, far away from me somehow.
I re-read it again in my university days and enjoyed it a little more. But it was when I returned to it as a writer that I experienced something akin to an epiphany – there was something in these stories that chimed with the contemporary.
I didn’t take this feeling any further, until Seren, Wales’ leading literary publisher in English, commissioned me to re-write any one of the cycle’s branches. Here was an irresistible opportunity to become intoxicated again by this old legend, to misquote W.B. Yeats, and revive a dead art entirely in my own way. I chose to reconstitute the first story, Pwyll Lord of Dyfed, for reasons I’ll explain shortly. But first I had to think of an approach. I knew from the outset that I didn’t want to keep the story in the medieval period and very quickly decided to set it in the near future, for, let’s face it, with religious wars, piracy on the high seas and global plagues in the ascendant it is not too difficult to imagine a fully medieval world becoming our destiny.
The Mabinogion follows in the tradition of ancient Greek drama in that most of the dramatic action is set off-stage rather than on. And the landscapes of Wales that I know and love so well are barely described. Themes alluded to, such as identity, chivalry, the supernatural are never more than speculative. Randomly calamitous or magical events that create social and political upheaval are rendered in a fashion that fails to satisfy the modern reader. Where is the drama? Where is the emotion? There’s no doubt in my mind that this antiquated style of telling a tale is the main reason why one of the world’s oldest and most revered texts is only ever studied now, not read for pleasure on the beach. I wanted to bring new audiences to what is a rich and rewarding piece of literature.
There is so much packed so tightly into the original text that it is hard to ‘see’ anything. It’s more like a treatment for a work yet to be realised, juxtaposing the mundane with the magical, the private with the public. Characters are courtly and refined, the product of an early Christian society in a predominantly pagan world. There are references to power struggles in the court and political in-fighting, the experience of women in violent society, sex and childbirth.
These themes are deeply embedded in the medieval branch of the cycle, but once found they chimed with my preoccupations as a novelist. I was keen to bring to life the rivalry between men, codes of behaviour separating genders, experience of war, the enterprise of marriage and children, and the rites of passage of boys into manhood.
I’ve never written about aristocracy before and the model I had in mind for the young Lord Pwyll was our current Prince Harry. His reputation as a hell-raiser, nightclubbing and drinking his youth away, and the rather staged attempt to show the world his manliness by placing him with the British Armed Forces in Afghanistan, was my reference point for the story of Pwyll. Another specific interest for me, and a theme with striking contemporary resonances, is the disappearance of Pwyll’s son. I wanted to explore how such a trauma would impact upon a parent. Living with such a loss and then dealing with the child’s return a decade later is as much a test of manhood as war is meant to be.
The fact that the story is confined to the South Wales where I spent my childhood was another bonus. It made me feel like I was returning to some unfinished business. The experience of writing it was enjoyable in a very different way from writing a novel and rewarding in a way that I hope extends both to those readers familiar with the original text and those picking up a Mabinogion tale for the first time.