Classics Reissued: The Mabinogion Tetralogy
by Evangeline Walton
Overlook Press, 2012
Those of us who’ve been recommending Evangeline Walton’s epic “Mabinogion” quartet of fantasy novels since the 1970s had ample cause to rejoice back in 2002 when Overlook Press issued the whole thing in one sturdy hardcover volume. No more hunting down the old four-volume box set put out by Ballantine! Instead, here was a pretty single-volume collection with a creamy cover illustration and a lively Introduction by Betty Ballantine laying out the general story of how this great work by Evangeline Wilna Ensley (1907-1996) was discovered and brought before the public. The edition had its share of slipshod editing problems, but its appearance was a godsend just the same, since the tetralogy itself is one of the towering works of fantasy literature, a rollicking, thoughtful, harrowingly beautiful prose dramatization of the medieval Welsh myth-cycle known as the Mabinogion. The old box set, lovingly re-read for forty years, was showing dismaying signs of age; this volume was ready for a fresh lifetime of use.
Now, ten years later, Overlook has come out with a new paperback edition with a brooding new cover, excellent flexible binding, the same Betty Ballantine Introduction, some of the same stubborn textual gaffes, and a very nearly criminal price-tag of $25, and this, too, is cause for rejoicing. The entire field of epic fantasy – now as always overrun with third-rate pastiche-poseurs – is enriched by the return to bookstores of one of its only practitioners to stand as a full coeval and equal of J. R. R. Tolkien and Lord Dunsany.
The tetralogy consists of Prince of Annwn, The Children of Llr, The Song of Rhiannon, and The Island of the Mighty, and it draws its many characters, plots, and sub-plots from the exotic wilds of Celtic mythology, to which Walton adds both garish horror elements worthy of Robert E. Howard, as in a scene where our heroes try to resurrect a fallen comrade and manage instead only to resurrect a thing in his rotting body:
On the lip of the great vessel hands appeared. Fingers that looked unpleasantly long, unpleasantly eager. There was a scrabbling sound, and a body swung itself over the side, its long legs, its shaggy hair and beard half covering the setting moon.
Its eyes shone greenish, and the dead firelight seemed to glow on within them, evilly.
It came to the ground in one spring, and glanced about it, without recognition, into the faces of the Irish. Its nostrils worked, like a dog’s, as if seeking a scent it could not find. Then, with an inhuman scream of rage, it leapt for the nearest Irishman.
Before he could move, its teeth had torn out his throat. Before the swords and the combined weight of all there brought it to earth, it had seized two more men and knocked their heads together, so that their skulls smashed like eggshells. Bran and Manawyddan came running from the British tents, and Matholuch came running out of Branwen’s.
They heard what had happened. They looked down at what lay dead again, hacked by many blades, and Bran mopped his forehead.
“You see now, brother,” he said to Matholuch, “what I warned you of.”
… and moments of sharp, simple wisdom worthy of Walton’s contemporary, Mary Renault:
That night in council it was decided how many men would go with the High King into Ireland, and how many should stay at home. No doubt the strongest and bravest went with Bran, those with the finest bodies and often the finest minds. In war the first-goers are always the fittest fathers of the future, perhaps not only of men but also of poetry and thought. Our world might have been darker had Homer not been blind.
These volumes defy specific plot summary to an extent, mainly because there is everything in them. All the ‘branches’ of the myth-cycle are brought separately to life, and yet a thread of powerful narrative links all four books. Walton is a fundamentally, obstinately optimistic writer (in a way Tolkien very much is not); more than one reader back in the 1970s likened reading these books for the first time to being showered in light. That experience is abundantly retained in this new paperback edition. Readers of all genre denominations are urged to pay the exorbitant price and savor the magic.