Tagmyths

New Stories from the Mabinogion: Lewis and Griffiths

Gwyneth Lewis, The Meat Tree (2010)
Niall Griffiths, The Dreams of Max & Ronnie (2010)

These are the latest two volumes in Seren Books’ series reworking the medieval Welsh tales of the Mabinogion. I don’t really know those myths, but, luckily for me, there’s a handy synopsis at the back of each book that helped me get up to speed. However, when I read the synopsis in Gwyneth Lewis’s The Meat Tree (based on the fourth branch of the Mabinogion, the story of Blodeuwedd), I thought, how do you make a novel out of this, when it’s so disjointed by comparison?

Well, Lewis tackles that issue head-on and has come up with a fascinating solution. The Meat Tree is set in 2210 and focuses on Campion, an ‘Inspector of Wrecks’, and his apprentice Nona. They investigate a ship which has apparently come from Earth, though surely it’s too well-preserved, and there’s no sign of what happened to the crew. In the hope of gaining some clues, Campion and Nona turn to the virtual reality system placed prominently on the ship; this plunges them into the tale of Blodeuwedd – but what was its significance to the crew?

Representing the myth as a VR game addresses its episodic nature, as the protagonists experience it episodically (‘the progression of the plot can feel very uncomfortable,’ says Campion [p. 37]). But, more significantly than this, it also puts a distance between the myth itself and our viewpoint characters, which allows Lewis to interrogate the myth as she goes, as well as retelling it. The text becomes something of a live laboratory, as Campion and Nona try to puzzle out what the story might have meant to the people who told it (both in their immediate fictional context and, by implication, to the original medieval tellers); they explore issues such as the symbolic representation of gender and power in a way that doesn’t feel at all forced.

On a narrative level, though, The Meat Tree is also fascinating. The story is told entirely through the medium of Campion’s and Nona’s ‘synapse logs’ and ‘joint thought channel’, so that’s layer another of perception to add to all the rest. The protagonists’ identities shift and accrete (for example, near the beginning, we have Nona and Campion in the game playing male characters who have been turned into animals, one male and one female – and how well Lewis handles the writing of it), and even eventually bleed out of the game. There are also moments that bring the bare details of the myth sharply off the page, such as when Blodeuwydd (a woman created magically from flowers) realises that she is ‘a flower made of meat’ (p. 173).

Towards the end of the novel, there is perhaps too much of a sense of the two protagonists slotting everything together conveniently – but, then again, what else was going to happen? It would be too much of a let-down if the mystery of the ship stayed a mystery, and there’s no one else to do the figuring-out. Whatever, The Meat Tree is a spectacular work of the imagination.

***

After that, Niall Griffiths’ (relatively) more conventional retelling of two dream stories in The Dreams of Max & Ronnie pales a little in comparison, perhaps. But, still,

The first and longer of Griffiths’ novellas, ‘Ronnie’s Dream’, is based on the Mabinogion story of Rhonabwy, whose dream was a vision of King Arthur and a vast gathering of knights. Griffiths’ Ronnie is a squaddie about to set off for Iraq; the leader he meets in his dream is not Arthur, but an analogue of Tony Blair. Reading ‘Ronnie’s Dream’, I felt the limitations of not having read the Mabinogion; a synopsis is fine, but it can’t give me the sense of the original tale. Griffiths’ version is a satire, primarily on the Iraq war, but it doesn’t quite work for me on that level. For one thing, it feels like a bit of a grab-bag – mostly stuff on the war, but it also squeezes in some swipes at celebrity culture and some social stereotypes – which dilutes the focus somewhat. For another, as targets of satire, these issues seem to me quite well-worn, and I’m not sure that this tale says much about them that is fresh.

This is not to say, though, that ‘Ronnie’s Dream’ has no bite. Some aspects certainly have, such as the Blair-figure’s stock speech (‘By my actions have I answered questions. The time has come for an end to talking…’ [p. 68]), which is repeated until ground down into empty rhetoric. In addition, the contrast between the poetic style of Griffiths’ narration and the more modern, colloquial dialogue is very effective; and there’s general interest in seeing how the author adapts details of the myth for the present day.

Griffiths’ second novella is ‘The Dream of Max the Emperor’; originally the story of Maxen Wledig, a Roman emperor who goes (or sends his men) in search of a beautiful woman he saw in a dream, here Max is a Cardiff crime boss. He eventually finds his beauty in north Wales, but all is not as it seems; for example, the castle in his dream turns out to be a film set. This theme goes deeper into the story; one of Griffiths’ best effects in the novella is the way he portrays the Wales outside Cardiff as a place that’s as strange to Max’s men as any land of myth would be:

They travel out of the city limits and each one feels a small falling-off as they enter a land they don’t recognise, through valleys between dark slag-mountains and past heaps of refuse and rotting industrial machinery, past rusting pitheads and smelters and quarries and all of it a-crumble. Over a plain. Across big green bumps on the world’s face. (p. 127)

Something that both Griffiths and Lewis manage to do in their respective books is evoke a true sense of fantasy, the disquieting and disorienting sense that (at least within the pages of the book) the world is not as you thought. In doing so, they show just how much vitality these myths still have.

Elsewhere
Seren Books
Gwyneth Lewis’s website
Sam of Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood reviews The Meat Tree
Annabel Gaskell reviews The Dreams of Max & Ronnie and The Meat Tree
Paul Kincaid reviews the first two New Stories from the Mabinogion for Strange Horizons

This review (half of it, anyway!) is posted in support of ‘women and sf’ week at Torque Control.

Knight Crew (2009) by Nicky Singer

Just when you think there are no new twists to be found on the Arthurian mythos, along comes Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew, which takes place among feuding street gangs in a contemporary British city.

Our narrator is Art who, along with his hot-headed brother Mordec, is a member of the (mostly mixed-race) Knight Crew, rival gang to the (white) Saxons. Tensions escalate between the two gangs when, in the heat of a fight, Art fatally stabs a member of the Saxons – but it’s OG, the leader of the Knight Crew who ends up being held by the police, leaving a power vacuum. Myrtle, the strange old ‘baglady without a bag’, has prophesied that one day, Art will become ‘king’ – and, in due course, he does. But if Art wants to find happiness with his girl, Quin, he’ll have to deal with Mordec’s ambitions; Lance, the dashing white knight who later appears on the scene; and the Saxons, who are out for revenge…

Let’s be clear at the start that Knight Crew is not an Arthurian fantasy – it’s not a case of gangs throwing magic at each other, or anything like that (the only ‘spells’ in the book are periods of imprisonment). Rather, the purpose of the Arthurian references is to dictate the shape of the book. This goes far beyond superficial naming, and into the heart of the issues with which Singer is concerned (for example, knives gain a similar significance to the Crew as Excalibur has as a symbol of Arthur), not to mention the trajectory of the plot (there are signals throughout that all ends in tragedy; this point is probably laboured too much, but still I didn’t foresee what actually happens).

The Arthurian elements also give the story something of a timeless quality – not entirely so, as we’re recognisably in contemporary Britain; but there’s a sense that Knight Crew takes place in its own little world. The city in which it is set is not named – it’s probably London, but the lack of any recognisable place names generates a feel of somewhere to one side of reality. This works well with the bold strokes of the plot; but I was also going to say that it acts as a cushion, even if only in a small way, from the harsh reality of the gangs’ world.

Ah, but it’s not that simple, because the life of the gangs creates its own sense of being in a discrete bubble of reality. The vast majority of the book takes place ‘inside’ the Knight Crew: when the plot intersects with life outside, it is like stepping into another world. One of the key themes of Knight Crew is the power of words to make change, to shape reality; and we see this very clearly in the book – the Crew’s street argot is a way in which they structure their identity, but it proves inadequate for Art as he struggles to come to terms with what he has done: ‘murdered is not the same as merked [street slang for killing]. It’s more serious. More dreadful.’ The contrast between the street language Art uses in dialogue and his more conventional narrative voice is symbolic of the emotional transformation he undergoes over the course of the novel.

Art himself is a pleasingly rounded character, very much a flawed hero. He recognises that he has done wrong, and does his best to change, but never becomes squeaky-clean (he’s not above petty jealousy of Lance, for example). Not all of the characterisation is as sharp, which is fine to an extent (the Knight Crew are all about action, not reflection), but it does leave some of the minor characters hard to tell apart.

I haven’t really mentioned the prose yet; and I should, because Singer writes some beautiful passages – such as this expression of the burgeoning love between Art and Quin [edited slightly to avoid a spoiler]:

I took her then, took her in my arms and pressed my lips over hers as if I could take some of that sorrow and that joy in mouth. She gave herself to me, folded into me, all arms and softness and wanting and no division at all, and that lit something in both of us and we were mad and passionate for a while, tumbling on the earth beside the canal…and under the stars…

I also haven’t gone into much detail about the plot, and don’t really feel a need to. It seems to me that the details of Knight Crew’s plot are less important than its broader arcs; after all, the book draws on one of the most fundamental of all British stories, a story which deals in archetypes. Nicky Singer has brought together the old and new to craft a fable that demonstrates the enduring relevance of even the most apparently well-worn legends, whilst asking questions about the world in which we live today.

***

I understand that Knight Crew is currently being adapted into an opera, to be staged next year. Now, I don’t pretend to know anything about opera, but I can see this working well; it’s the kind of story that could be told well in song. It’ll be interesting to see the results, anyway.

BOOK REVIEW: Ideomancer, December 2008 (Vol. 7, Issue 4)

Now up at The Fix: my review of the December 2008 issue of Ideomancer. Includes escaping chickens, gods at war in the playground, a factory with a gruesome purpose, a princess with a secret life, the android equivalent of an urban legend, and more besides. And I enjoyed all of it.

Links:
Review
Ideomancer

BOOK REVIEW: Ideomancer, September 2008 (Vol. 7, Issue 3)

My first publsihed review of the year is now online at The Fix, and it’s of the September 2008 issue of the e-zine Ideomancer. Here’s the review, then here is the zine itself (click on the images to read each piece). Have a look, there’s some good stuff in there.

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