Show Posts

This section allows you to view all posts made by this member. Note that you can only see posts made in areas you currently have access to.

Messages - Eadgifu the Fair

Pages: [1]
This was a FASCINATING article and one I will definitely be keeping in mind from now on when writing, well, pretty much anything set anywhere! It's interesting, too, because I think when we're writing stuff in a "real world" setting, to some extent we do actually instinctively work towards this - I think for example of a WIP short story of mine, set in a secondary school which I can neither confirm nor deny is ACTUALLY my own, where I find that places and the meaning associated with them and common school rituals seem to come to mind and imbue the school setting very quickly. (To the point that a friend who went to the same school immediately figured out where the story was set...)

This also reminded me of Elizabeth A. Lynn's book "The Dancers of Arun", which has some very strong place writing, even in (or perhaps because of) her very sparse prose. This may partly be because of the fact that the protagonist has lived in the same place his whole life before he sets out on the main journey of the book, and Lynn definitely leans in to how unfamiliar everything is to him; it may also be because of the sheer simple physicality of how she describes things, how they feel and what things are there and what food there is (also a feature of the first point); it may also be because she is very good at evoking a sort of ALIEN sense of ritual in place, the idea that one is in this place but not truly in this place, observing how every part of it has a meaning to its inhabitants that a stranger cannot share. (Again related to the first point.)

Exilian Articles / Re: The Problem of Focus
« on: February 11, 2019, 01:16:46 AM »
Fascinating article, and one that brings a lot of fantasy concepts/difficulties into sharp focus (ha)!

I was interested to see you describe Harry Potter as high focus - of course it is in comparison with Gandalf's magic: magic is (in theory) replicable if you use the correct words or ingredients in the prescribed way, hence the importance of cauldron bottoms... But so many Harry Potter fans, as far as I can tell, actually felt it was too low focus, or at least you would think so based on the fic and headcanons I have seen. A lot of fans seem to have wanted more information about the source of wizards' magic, what exactly is powering spells, why wands work, and so on, and if they felt that a plot point was overly low-focus, they would substitute their own high-focus plot explanation instead! I suppose it is the nature of intense fandom to attract people who really do want to know everything about how magic works in a given setting. Whereas I always liked the fact that while Rowling was willing to delineate the boundaries of her world to some extent, she was going to stick with the original wizards-and-witches conceit enough not to bother explaining or justifying the existence/power source of magic. It would be interesting to map the times she goes into low focus - as you say later, some high focus franchises do save their low focus moments for times of great emotional weight, and I think Rowling does that quite well. (Although that said, I did once map out the mechanics of Harry's "resurrection" in book 7 in a flowchart, just to see if it could be done.) On the other hand, a LOT of fans on in particular seem to have hated the moments where she went low focus - I have heard so many disparaging remarks about "the power of love" - and that's where you see massively AU fic series taking off in which something, ANYTHING else is the explanation.

That said, I really like what you say about Tolkien and Lewis writing in low focus, and why they do that! It would be really interesting to think about Gandalf's powers in particular, because I think the reasons why his powers are Like That probably shift a bit between Hobbit and LotR, and point to larger themes in Tolkien's thinking as he wrote each book.

Great points about the advantages of high focus and low focus, too! I don't think I'd ever heard the advantages of high focus - satisfying plot resolution, mystery structures - articulated quite so clearly. It made me think about shounen manga, of all things, since the examples I've read often have a high focus/low focus problem: they start out with fairly basic, low focus stuff, then develop more detailed explanations/hierarchies/worldbuilding as they go along, but then as the stakes rise, they begin breaking their own rules almost cavalierly, which is very frustrating for the reader. (Naruto and Bleach spring to mind.) On the other hand, Psyren, which I really enjoyed, managed to be high focus and use all the advantages of that to create a really tight, compelling plot (if I am remembering it right). But one of the reasons it managed to do that was because it kept its 'high focus' relatively limited and simple - it didn't create too many rules to break.

And low focus can work so fantastically well for atmosphere (COUGH Patricia A. McKillip COUGH). I'm going to break out of the brackets and say that Patricia A. McKillip's Riddle-Master trilogy is one of the best examples of low focus I've read. It uses low focus to its full extent to create atmosphere, especially because the story actually takes place in a fairly post-apocalyptic setting, so the reader is very aware that not only do we not know that much about how this world works, the characters don't either. McKillip takes care to make sure that while her low-focus magic doesn't necessarily make intellectual sense, it always makes a kind of emotional sense - it resonates. And she's still able to include forms of magic which the main characters are unfamiliar with or didn't believe were possible, and to include mystery by creating a kind of historical mystery (centred around the whole post-apocalyptic thing), rather than a mystery of magical mechanism.

Have you ever read any C.J. Cherryh? I think her work is really interesting in light of this discussion, because in terms of worldbuilding and plot, she comes off as - very high-focus, but in fact so much so that the EFFECT is low-focus. It may be my inveterate habit of skim-reading, but I always find when I read her books that I don't have much of an idea what the hell is going on or how anything in her world works, but it DOES create a very strong atmosphere which I enjoy. And the bones of high-focus are there enough that I can really enjoy the plot resolution - partly because she backs it up with emotional weight every time, so in addition to it all adding up, it also feels right.

I could go on and on, including touching on Nine Fox Gambit, which is REALLY high-focus and low-focus at the same time, but I think this is probably long enough already...!

Exilian Articles / Beowulf: A Film in Poetry
« on: December 03, 2017, 04:19:17 PM »
Beowulf: A Film in Poetry
By Eadgifu the Fair

It's inspired some pretty dodgy comics as well.
Beowulf has the dubious honour of being (to my knowledge) the only Old English poem to get itself three film adaptations – one of which contains Angelina Jolie spattered with strategic gold paint – and one for TV.

All of these, based on a quick Wikipedia check by yours truly, stray pretty far from the source material. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it might be odd in light of what I want to talk about: the fact that Beowulf itself, the poem, is very like a film already. 

As a disclaimer: I know nothing about films, other than having watched a lot of them, and have never watched any of the film adaptations of Beowulf. All quotes are taken from Jack’s student edition of Beowulf: the translations are my own.

The Opening Credits

Beowulf doesn’t start with Beowulf himself: it starts with Scyld Scefing, a character from the distant past who never appears again, the founder of the Danish dynasty. The poem sketches out the deeds of some of the Danes’ most glorious kings, culminating in the building of the magnificent hall Heorot by Hrothgar. We’re shown Scyld’s funeral: his body is sent out to sea in a royal ship, and we’re told this is also how he arrived in Denmark as a boy, laden with treasures and entirely alone.

The scene is set – this story is about heroism, and here is how the Danes demonstrated it, and here is how it led to the building of Heorot, glorious and ill-fated.

Hwæt, wē Gār-Dena in geārdagum,
þēodcyninga þrym gefrūnon,
hū ðā æþelingas ellen fremedon.

Lo, we have heard of the glory of the kings
of the Spear-Danes in former days,
how the princes performed courage.

But there’s a foreboding note in the fact that the poem begins with a funeral. An oddly symmetrical funeral, at that: from the sea Scyld came and to the sea he returns. In other words, we’ve been shown what glory looks like, but we’ve also been shown how it must eventually fall, how it blooms and withers in cycles.

I bring this up because during one seminar, I daydreamed about how I’d start a Beowulf film if I were writing and directing it, only to realise the poem had done all the work for me. Everything I’ve just described fits together beautifully into opening credits. Picture it: the crashing sea, the gold-laden ship, the king’s body... and a ghostly ship making its way over the waves, bearing a young boy to shore. The story’s background is sketched out for us, and the mood is set, as surely as if it came with a soundtrack.

Sketching in dialogue

Even when Beowulf himself appears in the poem, we don’t learn his name immediately: he is simply Higelāces þegn, Hygelac’s liegeman. We see him set out on his journey to Denmark and explain his purpose to the Danish coastguard without ever revealing who he is. It’s not until he reaches Hrothgar’s court that he says Bēowulf is mīn nama, to Hrothgar’s herald. The herald then goes to tell Hrothgar who is at his gates, and Hrothgar immediately places Beowulf as the son of an old friend. God must have sent Beowulf to them, he says, because hē þrītiges/ manna mægencræft on his mundgripe/ heaþorōf hæbbe (‘he, brave in battle, has the strength of thirty men in his hand-grip’). Incidentally, in Grendel’s first attack on Heorot, he slew thirty men...

This is very neat storytelling: the details are filled in for us as we go, and they’re slotted in exactly as they should be, as Beowulf progresses from coast to court and must observe the courtesies. His place in the story is explained by Hrothgar, the man best placed to know who he is – including his family – and how he fits into the situation. (By the by, knowing his family is important: the exile in The Wanderer laments that he cannot find anyone who knows of his own kindred, and the story here is establishing that Beowulf, far from being an exile, is a hero and an honoured guest.)

But it’s also very film-like! It’s making us experience the narrative rather than following it. Compare it with a fairy tale, or with the Four Branches (for those who saw my last article), which begin with formulae like ‘Pwyll was lord of Dyfed’. Revealing the situation through dialogue is a staple of films that centre on personal drama.

This isn’t the only time we see this: when Grendel’s mother comes to take vengeance, we don’t find out anything about the thegn she kills until Hrothgar laments his death to Beowulf, calling him Æschere... mīn rūnwita ond mīn rǣdbora (‘my confidant and advisor’). Again, we get the exposition in the most fitting place in the narrative and in the mouth of the one best placed to know.

Much later in the poem, we find out that Beowulf’s lord, Hygelac, was the last of three brothers, and the other two were killed – one by the other. We discover this through Beowulf’s monologue as he – now king of the Geats – thinks about the situations in which it is impossible to avenge loved ones, after his final foe, a dragon, has burned his hall to the ground. Him was geōmor sefa,/ wǣfre ond wælfūs (‘His heart was sad, restless and death-ready’)... This comes in the second half of the poem, in which we start to see the darker history of the Geats and of how Beowulf became king, his kinsmen fallen in war. Speech (albeit monologue rather than dialogue) sets out the background for us, right when it’s most emotionally resonant.


The Beowulf-poet seems to have been fond of revealing past events much later in the story, because they pull this trick a lot. Sometimes they do it in narration, as they do with Hygelac’s death in battle, which we don’t hear the details of until after we know Beowulf is king. Much  more often, though, they do it through dialogue or a song within the story. We learn the origins of the Swedish-Geatish wars (which now threaten to overwhelm the Geats) after Beowulf’s death, as a messenger foretells doom to his people; we hear about the feud of Finnsburh, in which the Danish princess Hildeburh loses husband, son and brother, through a song Hrothgar’s scop sings to entertain men at a celebratory feast.

Many of these flashbacks are there to evoke atmosphere, fill in important story details, or act as omens for the future, and might work better on paper than on screen. But some work exactly the way a film flashback ought to. When Beowulf arrives at Hrothgar’s court, he’s challenged by another warrior, Unferth, who attempts to embarrass him by telling everyone about the time Beowulf, young and foolhardy, lost a swimming match. Beowulf matches wits with Unferth and gives his own side of the story. In his version, he and his friend Breca rowed out together but were struck by a storm. Breca eventually managed to swim to shore, while Beowulf was attacked by water-monsters and fought them off with his sword. Beowulf is proving that he can take on a dangerous task and survive, even when storms try to throw him off course – but he’s also providing an important parallel for his fight with Grendel’s mother, who drags him to the bottom of her mere as he tries to fend off attacks by water-monsters, and who is eventually killed by a sword. In fact, the poem calls her a brimwylf (‘sea-she-wolf’) and merewīf mihtig (‘mighty sea-woman’). So being good underwater is pretty essential...

Beowulf’s description of his sea adventure is very visual:

Đā wit ætsomne on sǣ wǣron
fīf nihta fyrst oþþæt unc flōd tōdrāf,
wado weallende, wedera cealdost,
nipende niht, ond norþanwind
heaðogrim ondhwearf; hrēo wǣron ȳþa.

Then we two were together on the sea
for the space of five nights until a flood drove us apart,
surging waters, coldest of weather,
night growing dark, and the north wind,
battle-fierce, turned against us; the waves were fierce.

As you read his account you can almost see him, struggling against the waves, gasping for breath in the icy wind, fending off sea-monsters right and left.  In a film, this would be a perfect moment for Beowulf’s dialogue to turn into overhead narration, as we saw his younger self tossed by the waves, contending with the storm – a promise of what was to come in his fight against a merewīf mihtig.

Camera work

I owe this particular point to Alain Renoir, who first made it in 1962. Renoir suggested that the oral poet who speaks their poetry aloud must make their audience visualise the action at a rapid pace: that is to say, their words must do the same work that the images of a film do. They must make what is happening appear to their audience, as if real. For this to happen they must take advantage of all the tricks that a camera has – different angles, panning, different types of shot.

The best example of this is Grendel’s final journey to Heorot and his fight with Beowulf there:

Cōm on wanre niht
scrīdan sceadugenga. Scēotend swǣfon,
þā þæt hornreced healdan scoldon,
ealle būton ānum...

ac hē wæccende wrāþum on andan
bād bolgenmōd beadwa geþinges.

The shadow-goer came gliding
in dark night. Warriors slept,
those who had to hold that gabled hall,
all except one...

but he, watching, awaited enraged,
in hostile anger, for the outcome of the fighting.

Renoir analysed these lines as first a ‘long exterior shot’, dimly showing a danger approaching Heorot; then a ‘medium interior shot’ panning across the sleeping warriors within, his prey; and finally a close-up on Beowulf, the only man capable of saving them. Once it’s pointed out, it’s very easy to imagine.

Grendel himself is described in various terms as he comes closer and closer to the hall. We never truly find out what Grendel is through the whole course of the poem, though we know he is related to ogres, trolls and elves. He’s capable of thought and perhaps even of loneliness – he is drawn to Heorot initially because he is, in Tolkien’s words, ‘maddened by the sound of harps’, joys he can never share in. This makes it easy for the poet to have him verbally shape-shift. Initially he is a sceadugenga who comes scrīþan, the same verb used for the movement of clouds, as if he himself is darkness and mist descending on Heorot. Then he is a manscaða, a ravager; finally he is a rinc, a warrior. This deliberate ambiguity would be a problem for an action film, but for a horror film, clever camera angles could arrange that we never quite see enough of Grendel to know what he is – making the terror he inspires all the more effective. 

And the camera work doesn’t stop as we enter the fight: all the description is short phrases, two half-lines at most, and they focus hugely on body parts. Take for instance the moment when Beowulf rips Grendel’s arm off:

Līcsār gebād
atol ǣglǣca; him on eaxle wearð
syndolh sweatol, seonowe onsprungon,
burston banlocan.

The terrible fierce one
suffered body-pain; on his arm
a mortal wound became visible, sinews sprang apart,
muscles burst.

This is a fairly common technique in Old English poetry for descriptions of battles – you’ll find it in The Battle of Maldon, for a start – but in film terms, what we’re seeing is rapid-fire close-up shots, keeping the action moving and punchy. (In fact, this scene isn’t just punchy, it’s jarring, and the focus on damage to the body is unusual for Old English battle scenes: it’s meant to be monstrous. Interestingly, a similar technique is used to describe the funeral of Hildeburh’s brother and son at Finnsburh, with heads melting and wounds bursting open – a sign that something is very wrong, and the feud isn’t over yet.)

I could go on. This is a poem over 3000 lines long, and there’s a lot of material to talk about – but I think at this point I’ll leave you to it. Who knows, maybe this’ll inspire someone to make a Beowulf film where Grendel’s mother isn’t unnecessarily sexualised! We live in hope.

Further reading

Jack, G., ed., Beowulf: A Student Edition (Oxford, 1994)

O’Brien O’Keeffe, K., ‘Beowulf, Lines 702b–836: Transformations and the Limits of the Human’, Texas Studies in Literature and Language 23 (1981), 484–94

Renoir, A., ‘Point of View and Design for Terror in Beowulf’, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 63 (1962), 154–67

Tolkien, J. R. R., 'Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics', Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1936), 45 - 95

Exilian Articles / The Best Dialogue of the Mabinogion
« on: October 27, 2017, 11:05:36 PM »
The Best Dialogue of the Mabinogion
By Eadgifu the Fair

When you think about the Mabinogion, if indeed you do think about the Mabinogion – the collection of medieval Welsh prose tales found in the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest – you might think about magical boar hunts, or the birds of Rhiannon singing, or sheep that change colour. You might think about euhemerized deities or depictions of a fictionalised pre-Roman Britain. But it might not occur to you to think about dialogue, and that would be a shame, because as Brynley F. Roberts would put it, ‘Realistic natural dialogue which enlivens the narrative is a feature of all the tales’; or as I would put it, the dialogue of the Mabinogion can be really, really funny.

In this article I use Sioned Davies’ excellent translation; all the pictures are by Alan Lee.

Pwyll Pendeuic Dyuet

Pwyll begins as the story of how Pwyll, lord of Dyfed, won the friendship of Arawn, king of Annwfn (the Otherworld); but the latter half is devoted to Pwyll’s relationship with his wife Rhiannon. Let’s be honest, at that point it might as well be called Rhiannon, because Rhiannon is the best character in it – and a large part of that is her dialogue. Here’s her first encounter with Pwyll, after we’ve discovered that she rides past the same mound every day, and no-one can catch up with her:

Yeah. That’s the face of a woman who knows her horse is better than your horse.
‘Groom,’ said Pwyll, ‘I see the rider. Give me my horse.’ Pwyll mounted his horse, and no sooner had he mounted his horse than she rode past him. He turned after her, and let his spirited, prancing horse go at its own pace. And he thought that at the second leap or the third he would catch up with her. But he was no closer to her than before. He urged his horse to go as fast as possible. But he saw that it was useless for him to pursue her.
Then Pwyll said, ‘Maiden,’ he said, ‘for the sake of the man you love most, wait for me.’

‘I will wait gladly,’ she said, ‘and it would have been better for the horse if you had asked that a while ago!’

This is the first thing she says in the story. This is the best entrance anyone has ever made into a story. It’s almost the best piece of dialogue in this story, but Rhiannon surpasses herself later on! Her ex-fiancé comes to Pwyll, disguised as a suppliant, and asks for a favour; Pwyll agrees to give him anything in his power.

‘Friend,’ said Pwyll, ‘what is your request?’

‘The woman I love most you are to sleep with tonight. And it is to ask for her, and for the preparations and the provisions that are here that I have come.’

Pwyll was silent, for there was no answer that he could give.

‘Be silent for as long as you like,’ said Rhiannon. ‘Never has a man been more stupid than you have been.’

If I’m honest, I think this is the best line in all of the Mabinogion. But that might just be my overwhelming love for Rhiannon speaking. Pwyll must have been pretty impressed by this too, though, because at this point he starts calling her arglwydes – ‘lady’ – again, while she doesn’t call him arglwyd (‘lord’) again until he’s fixed this mess.

Branwen uerch Lyr

It’s difficult to pick funny dialogue out of Branwen because Branwen is not a funny story. Strange, yes, but dark: its climax is a battle which leaves almost all of Ireland dead, and only seven men of the British army alive. It focuses on Bendigeidfran, king of Britain, his sister Branwen and her ill-fated marriage to Matholwch, king of Ireland, and their brother Efnysien, an inveterate troublemaker. One of its major themes is the power of communication, whether that’s Branwen teaching a starling to speak so that she can use it to ask for rescue, Bendigeidfran’s head continuing to speak after it’s been cut off, or Efnysien – a character with a poisonous tongue if ever there was one – sacrificing himself to destroy the Cauldron of Rebirth, which can bring dead men back to life, but mute.

So it’s not surprising that really the only funny line in Branwen is from Efnysien, right before he commits the crime that sets off the final battle:

‘Why does my nephew, my sister’s son, not come to me?’ said Efnysien. ‘Even if he were not king of Ireland, I would still like to make friends with the boy.’

‘Let him go, gladly,’ said Bendigeidfran. The boy went to him cheerfully.

‘I confess to God,’ said Efnysien to himself, ‘the outrage I shall now commit is one the household will never expect.’ And he gets up, and takes the boy by the feet, and immediately, before anyone in the house can lay a hand on him, he hurls the boy head-first into the fire.

It’s a horrible act! It’s an awful moment, right after the British and the Irish had made peace! But it’s just such a cartoon villain thing to say that it still makes me laugh: ‘They’ll NEVER suspect my plans!’ Efnysien, by the way, is the name of either Crabbe or Goyle in the Welsh translation of Harry Potter: I haven’t figured out which.

Manawydan uab Lyr

Manawydan is just as strange as Branwen – less dark, but just as weird and ominous. It’s the story of Bendigeidfran’s only surviving sibling, Manawydan, who returns to Britain only to discover that his brother’s throne has been usurped by Caswallon. He decides not to fight Caswallon, and retires to Dyfed instead with Pwyll’s son Pryderi, becoming the widowed Rhiannon’s second husband. (The timing of Manawydan is... wonky: if this is pre-Roman Britain, where it’s supposed to be set, Dyfed shouldn’t exist yet.)

And then everything in Dyfed disappears, leaving only Manawydan, Rhiannon, Pryderi and his wife Cigfa.

There isn’t much the four of them can do at this point, so they decide to go travelling in England, which also shouldn’t exist yet. Manawydan and Pryderi resolve to take up crafts to support the group, and that leads to this delightful exchange:

‘What craft shall we take on?’ said Pryderi.

‘We will make shields,’ said Manawydan.

‘Do we know anything about that?’ said Pryderi.

‘We will attempt it,’ he said.

Of course, in the story, they’re so good at this – just as with every other craft they try – that they immediately become a roaring success, and the townsmen plot to kill them, forcing them to flee to the next town. Maybe we should all resolve to answer the question Do I know anything about that? with I will attempt it. On the other hand, it might lead to being driven out of town, so maybe not.

Math uab Mathonwy

Blodeuedd at her creation by Gwydion: the face of a woman bent on murder
This may be the best-known tale out of these four (known as the Four Branches of the Mabinogi). In the part of the tale at hand, Lleu Llaw Gyffes has been cursed by his mother Aranrhod that he will never have a wife from the race of men. Luckily for Lleu, he’s related to two powerful magicians, Gwydion and Math, and they conjure up a wife for him out of the flowers of the oak, the meadowsweet and the broom. She is named Blodeuedd, and duly given in marriage to Lleu.

There’s just the one hitch: no-one asked Blodeuedd how she felt about this, and she falls for local nobleman Gronw Pebr as soon she meets him. So the logical next step is for her to figure out how to kill Lleu, which she does thus, in conversation with him:

‘I am thinking about something you would not expect of me,’ she said. ‘Namely, I am worried about your death, if you were to go before  me.’

‘Well,’ he said, ‘may God repay you your concern. But unless God kills me, it is not easy to kill me,’ he said.

‘Then for God’s sake and mine, will you tell me how you can be killed? Because my memory is better than yours when it comes to avoiding danger.’

You wouldn’t think it could get less subtle than that, would you? But then comes this titbit, when Blodeuedd has led Lleu to his death-trap, and all that’s missing is the (necessary, for some reason) billy-goat:

‘Lord,’ she said, ‘these are the animals you said were called billy-goats.’

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘have them catch one and bring it here.’

Really, Lleu? CATCH ONE AND BRING IT HERE? Your wife is pretending not to know what a goat is, and you still think nothing’s up?

Lleu’s luck holds good, though, and instead of dying, he turns into an eagle. His uncle Gwydion finds him, changes him back into a man, and helps him to get revenge on Blodeuedd and Gronw Pebr – Gronw Pebr is killed by a spear, but Blodeuedd is turned into an owl and her name changed to Blodeuwedd. Blodeuedd means flowers where Blodeuwedd means ‘flower-face’, a term for the owl, so yes, this whole episode is one giant excuse for a pun.

Owain, or Iarlles y Ffynnon

This story is one of several that takes place in or around Arthur’s court, and it begins with the men of Arthur’s court exchanging stories to amuse each other, inspiring Owain to go seek out the black knight he hears tell of in Cynon’s story. The preamble gives you a pretty good idea of what kind of dialogue to expect in the rest of the tale:

Then Arthur said, ‘Men, as long as you do not make fun of me,’ he said, ‘I would like to sleep while I wait for my food; and you can tell each other stories, and Cai will bring you a jugful of mead and some chops.’ And the emperor slept. And Cynon son of Cludno asked Cai for what Arthur had promised them.

‘But I want the good story that I was promised,’ said Cai.

‘Sir,’ said Cynon, ‘it is better for you to fulfil Arthur’s promise first, and afterwards we shall tell you the best story we know.’

Cai went to the kitchen and the mead cellar, and came back with a jugful of mead and a goblet of gold, and his fist full of skewers with chops on them. And they took the chops and began to drink the mead.

‘Now,’ said Cai, ‘you owe me my story.’

‘Cynon,’ said Owain, ‘give Cai his story.’

‘God knows,’ said Cynon, ‘you are an older man and a better storyteller than me, and you have seen stranger things; you give Cai his story.’

‘You begin,’ said Owain, ‘with the strangest story that you know.’

When Cynon has told his story, Owain leaves the court to seek the black knight Cynon spoke of, and strikes him a mortal blow upon finding him. Later he finds himself in the castle of the dead knight, and falls madly in love with the knight’s widow. He also runs into Luned, the best character in this story:

Owain asked the maiden who the lady was.

‘God knows,’ said the maiden, ‘a woman you could say is the most beautiful of women, and the most chaste, and the most generous, and wisest and noblest. She is my mistress, known as the Lady of the Well, the wife of the man you killed yesterday.’

‘God knows,’ said Owain, ‘she is the woman I love best.’

‘God knows,’ said the maiden, ‘there is no way she loves you, not in the very slightest.’

Luned, you’re on thin ice.
Luned and Rhiannon clearly come of the same sharp-tongued breed, and I love them for it. For some reason, Luned agrees to help Owain court her mistress, the countess, and she does so with all the tact and sensitivity we’ve come to expect from her:

‘Luned,’ said the countess, ‘how can you be so bold, seeing that you didn’t come and visit me in my grief? And I made you wealthy. That was wrong of you.’

‘God knows,’ said Luned, ‘I really did think you would have more sense. It would be better for you to start worrying about replacing your husband than wish for something you can never have back.’

‘Between me and God,’ said the countess, ‘I could never replace my lord with any other man in the world.’

‘Yes, you could,’ said Luned; ‘marry someone as good as he, or better.’

‘Between me and God,’ said the countess, ‘if I were not repelled by the thought of putting to death someone I had brought up, I would have you executed for proposing something as disloyal as that to me. And I will certainly have you banished.’

‘I am glad,’ said Luned, ‘that your only reason is that I told you what was good for you when you could not see it for yourself. And shame on whichever of us first sends word to the other, whether it is I to beg an invitation of you, or you to invite me.’ And with that Luned left.

The countess got up and went to the chamber door after Luned, and coughed loudly. Luned looked back; the countess beckoned to her. And Luned came back to the countess.

‘Between me and God,’ said the countess to Luned, ‘what a temper you have.’

I can’t decide which is my favourite moment here: Luned’s total dismissal of her mistress’ grief, or the countess’ cough to get her attention. Either way, somehow Luned’s logic works, and the countess marries Owain. One can only hope he was nicer to her than to her late husband.

Geraint uab Erbin

Geraint is another of Arthur’s knights, who spends the first half of his story being brave and honourable and making good decisions, and the second half being the worst asshole alive. The first half of the story tells how he won and married his wife, Enid. For a while all is well, and then in the second half, he starts to doubt her faithfulness (for no reason whatsoever, I might add). So he makes the logical decision to take Enid on a road trip into England (another anachronism – England only ever enters these tales when the mood is turning scary and hostile) and forbid her to speak to him. Enid does her best, but can’t stop herself from trying to warn him when she hears people plotting to kill him. Geraint takes offence at this. I know. I don’t know why she stays with him either.

So it’s very satisfying when Geraint, while seriously injured, runs into his fellow knight Gwalchmai (known for being polite and having good sense, and thus a rare character), and Gwalchmai drags him to see Arthur, who treats his temper tantrums with the respect they deserve:

‘Geraint,’ said Gwalchmai, ‘come and see Arthur: he is your lord and your cousin.’

‘I will not,’ he replied. ‘I am in no state to go and see anyone.’

[Gwalchmai arranges for him to see Arthur anyway]

‘Lord,’ said Geraint, ‘greetings.’

‘May God prosper you,’ said Arthur, ‘and who are you?’

‘This is Geraint,’ said Gwalchmai, ‘and by choice he would not have come to see you today.’

‘Well,’ said Arthur, ‘he is ill-advised.’

[Arthur talks to Enid, the first person to say something nice to her for months, probably]

‘Lord,’ said Geraint, ‘we shall be on our way, with your permission.’

‘Where will you go?’ said Arthur. ‘You cannot go now unless you want to go to your death.’

‘He would not allow me to invite him to stay,’ said Gwalchmai.

‘He will allow me,’ said Arthur, ‘and furthermore, he will not leave here until he is well.’

‘I would prefer it, lord,’ said Geraint, ‘if you would let me leave.’

‘No, I will not, between me and God,’ he replied.

Most of all, I love this exchange because it proves that the trope of Petulant Manchild With Weapon Refuses Medical Aid is at least a thousand years old.

(If you’re anxious about the fate of Enid, Geraint does eventually realise he’s been wrong all along, although he never apologises. I know. He’s the worst.)

Culhwch ac Olwen

Culhwch is like a fairy tale, if a fairy tale had, among other things, a strange fascination with pigs and the concept of shaving. Many scholars of medieval Welsh see it as a parody of fairy- or folk-tales: I like to see it as the medieval Welsh equivalent of Shrek. Culhwch is destined to marry no woman except for Olwen, daughter of Ysbaddaden Bencawr (‘Chief Giant’). He invokes the help of Arthur, who happens to be his cousin, in first finding and then winning her. Here’s an excerpt in which the party sent to look for Olwen encounter Culhwch’s aunt, who’s excited to meet her nephew:

They made for the gate of the shepherd Custennin’s court. She heard them coming. She ran joyfully to meet them. Cai snatched a log from the wood-pile, and she came to meet them to try to embrace them. Cai placed a stake between her hands. She squeezed the stake until it was a twisted branch.

‘Woman,’ said Cai, ‘had you squeezed me like that, it would be useless for anyone else ever to make love to me. That was an evil love.’

No comment.

When Olwen is found, she reveals that her father will only live until she finds a husband, which is a fairly common motif for the daughters of giants, but not usually one they’re so blatantly aware of! Her father sets Culhwch several impossible tasks before he will give Culhwch Olwen’s hand in marriage: one of these is the hunting of the boar Twrch Trwyth, a king who was turned into a boar for his sins. Ysbaddaden must be shaved for his daughter’s wedding, and only the comb and shears that lie between Twrch Trwyth’s ears can do this.

Much to Ysbaddaden’s displeasure, Arthur helps out and Culhwch returns triumphant, and Caw of Prydyn comes to shave Ysbaddaden, leading to this exchange:

And Culhwch said, ‘Have you been shaved, man?’

‘I have,’ he replied.

‘And is your daughter now mine?’

‘Yours,’ he replied. ‘And you need not thank me for that, but thank Arthur, the one who arranged it for you. If I’d had my way you never would have got her. And it is high time to take away my life.’

Now, I’m not saying I’d like to be a giant who was fated to die when his daughter got married, but if I were, I think I’d like to go out on a note so ironic that I told her fiancé, It is high time to take away my life...


Charles-Edwards, T., ‘Honour and Status in Some Irish and Welsh Prose Tales’, Ériu 29 (1978)

Davies, S., The Mabinogion (2007)

Mac Giolla Chríost, D., Welsh Writing, Political Action and Incarceration: Branwen’s Starling (2013)

Roberts, B. F., Studies on Middle Welsh Literature (1992)

Pages: [1]