Prince of Annwn: An excellent read

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Evangeline Walton The Mabinogion Tetralogy 1. The Prince of AnnwnEvangeline Walton The Mabinogion Tetralogy 1. The Prince of Annwn 2. The Children of Llyr 3. The Song of Rhiannon 4. The Island of the Mighty book reviewsPrince of Annwn by Evangeline Walton

Evangeline Walton first wrote the MABINOGION TETRALOGY in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Only the fourth book in the sequence was published at the time, under the title The Virgin and the Swine. The series was rediscovered in the early 1970s; The Virgin and the Swine was reprinted as The Island of the Mighty, and the other three books saw publication for the first time. Prince of Annwn is the first in the sequence but was the last to be published. It was a nominee for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature in 1975.

The four novels are based upon four related tales from Welsh mythology, known as the Four Branches of the Mabinogi. Prince of Annwn is an adaptation of the first “branch,” “Pwyll Prince of Dyfed.” Walton expands upon the original tale, fleshing out descriptions and journeys and character motivations, but keeps the essential elements of the story and strives for a similar prose. In her own words, “My own method has always been to try to put flesh and blood on the bones of the original myth; I almost never contradict sources, I only add and interpret.”

In “Pwyll Prince of Dyfed,” Pwyll has a series of encounters with the uncanny. He meets Arawn — king of Annwn, the land of the dead — and switches places with him for a year. He meets his otherworldly bride, Rhiannon. Then, he and Rhiannon lose their son for a time, and Rhiannon is unjustly blamed for his disappearance until the child is returned. Prince of Annwn includes the first two of these plotlines but not the third.

Walton’s Wales is a time and place in flux. The female-centered paganism of the Old Tribes is giving way to the male-centered paganism of the New Tribes. Christianity has not yet arrived but is on the horizon. Pwyll is a man of the New Tribes, typical of his people in some ways and atypical in others. He’s a manly-man; his favorite pursuits are hunting, fighting, and wooing fair women. He firmly believes, too, that men should rule. Yet he loves women and has more respect for them than many of his peers, and questions some of the teachings of the New Tribes’ druids. He’s a sympathetic character, possessing all manner of human weakness but doing his best to live up to his sense of honor.

With his internal conflicts and doubts, he makes a great character through which to experience the story and its themes. Prince of Annwn is a good yarn, but it also makes you think. Walton raises a number of questions. Can human belief shape reality? When is innovation beneficial, and when is it destructive? Is death a thing to be feared? How does one know whether one has chosen the right side of a fight? These ideas, and more, are explored through Pwyll’s thoughts and his conversations with others.

The writing style is deceptively simple. Walton never takes very long to describe anything, and she doesn’t use a lot of twenty-dollar words. Sometimes the writing seems almost dry, and then suddenly you’ll find yourself reading a passage that, in a few brief sentences, perfectly captures the beauty or dread or wonder of whatever Walton is depicting. Imagery of light and color is particularly well-done. This isn’t heavy prose that feels like a seven-course meal; it’s more reminiscent of the simple fare Pwyll enjoys in Rhiannon’s orchard: a perfect apple and a cup of pure, clear water.

  • Pwyll did not want to meet those eyes, but he could not escape them. Through their shining blackness cold seemed to stream through his blood and bones. Knowledge streamed with it, knowledge that he could neither understand nor keep. His brain reeled away from that awful wisdom, that poured into it as into a cup, and overturned it, and was spilled again. 
  • A woman sat there, and it was from her that the light in that place came. Her body shone like the sun; her one thin garment hid it no more than water would. Her hair shone, it streamed red gold to her noble, high-arched feet, which were tender and rosy white as the apple blossoms. But when Pwyll tried to look at her face, he could not, his eyes fell, so he knew that She was no woman but a Goddess, and that that place lived through the living Glory that was Herself.
  • A great road of light cleft the dark sky, fell in purifying brilliance upon the lintel where that monstrous Bird had sat, enthroned. Down that glorious pathway flew three singing birds, and one was white, and one was green, and one was gold as morning.

As mentioned above, Walton leaves off the final episode of the story, in which Pwyll and Rhiannon have a son, Pryderi, who goes missing. This makes the ending feel a bit abrupt to a reader familiar with the original, and is my only disappointment in Prince of Annwn. I wanted to see what Walton would do with this part of the story. I wonder if it appears in one of the other three books.

I’ll certainly be seeking out the others as soon as possible. Prince of Annwn is an excellent read, whether you’re new to the Mabinogion or already familiar with it. It’s also a valuable piece of fantasy history. I’d been meaning to read it for years, and only regret taking so long to get around to it.


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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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