‘Don’t be surprised to find here stuff that feels uncomfortably relevant in modern society’ – New Stories from the Mabinogion

The Mabinogion are part of the rich heritage of Welsh mythology. The eleven stories were originally discovered in two 14th Century manuscripts. Sub-divided into what are known as the four branches of the Mabinogion they are bold accounts of the life cycles of an interrelated group of figures. Don’t be surprised to find here stuff that feels uncomfortably relevant in modern society. Romance, incest, cloning, DNA, gender-swapping, gaming and much else besides. In 2009 Seren Books commissioned four authors to write their own contemporary versions of these ancient tales under the title New Stories from the Mabinogion. The third and fourth books in the series are reviewed here.

The Dreams of Max & Ronnie by Niall Griffiths

In two parts, the first relates the outlandish dreams of squaddie Ronnie. To fortify themselves prior to departing for Iraq he and two mates visit the disreputable Red Helen in her grimy house. They purchase some dodgy narcotics from her which only Ronnie swallows. While his chums spend the time watching daytime TV, drinking lager and eating Doritos Ronnie sleeps for three nights. A kaleidoscopic sequence of dreams has him watching an addictive series of war games played out in a surreal Arthurian landscape, interspersed by encounters with some of the most unpleasant facets of modern-day Britain – poverty, the death of communities, protests, racism, hooliganism and mindless hero worship. In the second part of the book gangsta Max is tired of the nightclub at which he is a regular customer. Stretching out on one of the benches he falls asleep and dreams of finding his perfect woman and settling down. The dream is so vivid that when he wakes he sends his adherents in search of her. Leaving Cardiff behind they are out of their comfort zone as they scour the Welsh countryside. Eventually they wash up in a castle town in North Wales where they are directed to a large white mansion. Gate-crashing a party going on there they believe to have at last found the perfect woman for their boss. With a little persuasion she agrees to meet Max. Dashing back to Cardiff to give him the good news they drive him to the mansion. Max and the woman disappear upstairs, but just as the men are congratulating themselves on their accomplishment Max returns in furious mood. In hot pursuit is the woman demanding to be paid for her services.  

The Meat Tree by Gwyneth Lewis

Set 200 years in the future an investigator of wrecks, on his last job before retirement, and his female apprentice set off in his spaceship to a destination millions of light years away. Their job, to uncover the mystery of a ship found deserted, but for three bodies floating in the hull. Finding the ship’s virtual reality system has a medieval game loaded onto it they begin to play hoping this will provide them with some answers. Campion, the investigator and his apprentice, Nona, take on various key roles and are drawn ever deeper into this virtual world. The more involved they become the harder it is for them to remain objective. In the style of a screenplay the reader is allowed to observe the game. Two brothers who rape a virgin must pay penitence for their misdeeds. It will be three years before they are absolved. During the first they turn into deer, the second into boars, the third into wolves. Each time one of them swaps gender to allow them to procreate. Their offspring are eventually returned to human form. Finally, a woman is born out of flowers to be bride to a son cursed never to have a human wife, but she tricks him by falling for another. Coming out of the game for the last time Campion and Nona realise they have solved the mystery. The VR system  is the log of what happened to the ship’s crew. The vessel mirrors evolution – birth, life, death and all the complex shifts and changes in between. In another age and space imagination and virtual reality are interchangeable.  

At the end of each book the series editor helpfully provides a brief summary of the original story.

Any Cop?:  Not easy reading by any means these modern-day interpretations of medieval Welsh stories are nevertheless as gripping as they are imaginative and disturbing. For anyone interested in studying the Celtic myths and sagas these novellas are must-reads.

Carola Huttmann

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