Solving a little puzzle in Lloyd Alexander’s Welsh research

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about one of the main authors I have included in my forthcoming monograph (Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy): Lloyd Alexander. Lloyd Alexander’s fantasy world of Prydain is modelled upon a particular vision of medieval Wales and its legends, mainly as represented in Lady Charlotte Guest’s 19th-century translation of the Mabinogion, as well as her extensive notes. In a number of published talks and essays, Alexander reflected at length on his inspirations and research for The Chronicles of Prydain, and emphasized (and provided details about) the enormous range of material he consulted and the intensity of his fascination with Welsh mythological texts.

One example of Lloyd Alexander’s self-reflection appears in his article “The Flat-Heeled Muse”, published in The Horn Book Magazine in April 1965, only a year after the first volume of the Chronicles, The Book of Three, was published (and a few months before the second volume, The Black Cauldron, appeared). The extract below shows not only the obsessive nature of Alexander’s “Welsh research” but also his eventual realization that research is only the starting point and that, after a while, the creative mind needs to put the research aside and start shaping his/her own narrative – or, in the case of fantasy literature, his/her own imaginary world (with its own, consistent mythology, cultures, etc.):

My first intention was to base a fantasy on some of the tales in the Mabinogion, and I started research accordingly. However, I soon found myself delving deeper and deeper into the legends’ origins and significance: searching for what exactly I didn’t know — to the despair even of the librarians, who must be among the most patient people on earth. A historical-realistic approach did not work. Unlike the Irish and Norse, the Welsh mythology has been irreparably tampered with, like so many pictures, old and new, cut apart and pasted every which way.

Sifting the material, hoping to find whatever I was groping for, I accumulated box after box of file cards covered with notes, names, relationships, and I learned them cold. With great pains I began constructing a kind of family tree or genealogical chart of mythical heroes. (Eventually I found one in a book, already done for me. Not the first book, but the fifteenth!) Nothing suited my purposes.

At that point, the Muse in Charge of Fantasy, seductive in extremely filmy garments, sidled into my work room. “Not making much headway, are you? How would it be,” she murmured huskily, “if you invented your own mythology? Isn’t that what you really want to do?”

She vanished. I was not to see her again in her aspect as temptress, but only as taskmistress. For she was right.

Abandoning all I had collected, I began once more, planning what eventually became The Book of Three. My previous labor had not been entirely in vain; it had given me roots, suggestions, possibilities.

Indeed, the Mabinogion provides some of the main structures of Prydain, but Alexander creatively reshaped and reconfigured his Welsh source-material to create an original world, memorable characters and exciting plotlines.

What got me excited, though, was the second paragraph of this extract, especially the phrases I have highlighted in red. To take them one-by-one:

I accumulated box after box of file cards covered with notes, names, relationships…

Lloyd Alexander’s manuscripts are held in the Free Library of Philadelphia, and the “file cards” he is mentioning here are now part of the Lloyd Alexander papers in the Children’s Literature Research Collection of the library. The catalogue describes them as: “Alphabetized set of index cards with names for characters, places and objects. Also includes brief planning notes.” I was lucky to see some of these cards for my research. Some of them are very detailed indeed, others are very brief, but they all represent Alexander’s genuine effort to master the tangled web of characters and their roles and relationships in the tales of the Welsh Mabinogion.

I began constructing a kind of family tree or genealogical chart of mythical heroes…

Now this reference was even more intriguing, because as soon as I read this I knew I had seen this family tree somewhere! Or, rather, it happened the other way round. While pottering around with the few items from the Lloyd Alexander papers that the Free Library of Philadelphia have digitized and included on their website as images, I found one entitled: “Prydain nobility family tree” (see here for the image and description, and here for the image in higher resolution). However much this may look like a family tree of the “noble” families of Prydain, because of its inclusion of key figures such as Gwydion, Math and Pryderi, it isn’t: it is, actually, exactly Alexander’s attempt to create a “genealogical chart” of the “mythical heroes” in the Mabinogion described in the article above. A number of Mabinogion heroes and heroines (e.g. Arianrhod, Blodeuwedd, Elphin, Tegid, etc.), whose names did not make it to Alexander’s Prydain mythology, appear in this tree in their correct position of kinship.

I found one [i.e. a family tree of mythical heroes] in a book, already done for me…

This last piece of information drove me crazy for a few weeks. I was determined to find out which of the books that Lloyd Alexander had read included such a family tree or genealogical chart of Mabinogion characters. I knew it wasn’t in one of the books Alexander had mentioned by name (of which there are very few – see my previous blog post on Lloyd Alexander) so discovering this book would add one more source of information on ‘Celtic’ myth that Alexander had consulted and which may have shaped his understanding of the Welsh material. I eventually found it (hooray!) among some of the usual suspects of early scholarship on Welsh and Irish medieval literature: T.W. Rolleston’s Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race (London: G.G. Harrap & Co, 1911; the book is out of copyright and available to browse in its entirety here).

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Rolleston’s book is typical of its period in that it begins with a history of the ‘Celts’, then moves on to an exposition of their religion, and then retells the Irish and Welsh mythological material with a fair amount of ‘intervention’ in order to construct a coherent, linear narrative from cosmology, to deities, all the way to heroes and their legends. To achieve this end, Rolleston mixes indiscriminately early texts (which are, conceivably, closer to pre-Christian, pagan beliefs) with very late ones (e.g. dates as late as the 16th and 17th centuries). He also regularizes stories in order to make them fit with each other and with classical models of mythological compendia. In the spirit of this pursuit for order and consistency, he includes three “genealogical tables” for the Welsh material: “Gods of the House of Dōn”, “Gods of the House of Llyr” and “Arthur and his Kin” (pp. 350-2) – clearly the ones Lloyd Alexander refers to.

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In addition, Rolleston’s book includes 64 illustrations and photographs of particular locations and scenes from Irish and Welsh legends and tales. One of them seems to have been influential for the scene in The Book of Three in which the Horned King‘s men burn humans alive in wicker baskets:

Before Gwydion could speak again, the Horned King, bearing a torch, rode to the wicker baskets
and thrust the fire into them. Flames seized the osier cages; billows of foul smoke rose skyward. The
warriors clashed their shields and shouted together with one voice. From the baskets rose the agonized screams of men. Taran gasped and turned away.

The illustration of “Human Sacrifices in Gaul” in Rolleston’s book provides a fitting visual companion for Alexander’s description and links the medieval Welsh legends with the ancient ‘Celts’ of the 1st century BC (though my book problematizes such linear understandings of ‘Celticity’).

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So here is my little puzzle solved – at least to my satisfaction! For more on Alexander’s engagement with Rolleston, you’ll have to wait for my book, due out early next year!

 

Links

Lloyd Alexander’s article “The Flat-Heeled Muse” has been made available by the Horn Book Magazine here.

The entire catalogue of Lloyd Alexander’s papers at the Children’s Literature Research Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia can be found here.

Rolleston’s Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race is out of copyright and available to read/browse here.

 

 

References

Alexander, Lloyd. “The Flat-Heeled Muse.” Horn Book Magazine 41 (1965), 141-146.

Guest, Lady Charlotte, trans. The Mabinogion. London: Bernard Quaritch, 1877.

Rolleston, T. W. Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race. London: G.G. Harrap & Co, 1911.

 

Henry Neff’s invented world: myth, legend and the boundaries of fantasy

Last week I blogged about Lloyd Alexander, the American fantasist who creatively reshaped elements from Welsh tradition to create an exciting fantasy world and a very successful, award-winning series of books. Alexander’s The Book of Three (1964) is the earliest text explored in my forthcoming monograph, Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy, due out soon by Palgrave Macmillan. Today, I continue a series of blogs related to my book, with another American fantasist who is on the opposite side of my chronology continuum, having produced the most recent text of Celtic-inspired fantasy I explored.

The name is Henry H. Neff and if you haven’t heard it yet, you’d better take a note of it as his reputation is quickly spreading beyond the USA! Neff’s The Tapestry series is a worthy addition to children’s/young-adult fantasy and his world-building is truly ambitious and original.

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The Tapestry series is made up of five books: The Hound of Rowan (2007), The Second Siege (2008), The Fiend and the Forge (2010), The Maelstrom (2012) and The Red Winter (2014). The pentalogy begins in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the style and structure of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series: a young boy suddenly finds out that he is one of a few people around the world who have inherited a ‘spark’ of magic from the ancient powers that once looked after the world. He is then whisked off to a secret school where he takes lessons in a rather eclectic mix of subjects designed to hone his special abilities. But the similarities stop more or less here. Max MacDaniels is only one of two special boys the series focuses on: where Max is unusually powerful and agile, his best friend and roommate, David Menlo, is the most talented “mystic” of his generation. Alongside the two boys we are also introduced to schoolmates, friends, enemies, and teachers (all staple characters of the ‘school story’ genre) but also magical creatures and motifs from myth and legend. In addition to that, already from the first book we have elements of a well-thought-through background cosmogony and cosmology, and from the second book and on the plot expands in space and time to a truly ambitious scope.

One of the most successful aspects of The Tapestry is its hybrid status in terms of genre. Although world-building is at the core of the series and fantasy is its main structural and narrative trope, there are also elements of the ‘school story’, science fiction, as well historical fiction. Myth and legend are also main ingredients in the ‘cauldron of story’ that Neff has created, blending a number of different mythological traditions including Irish, Greek and Roman, Egyptian, Hebrew, Finnish and Anglo-Saxon. The result is a rich mythopoeia which, for me, is mainly carried by the centrality of the Irish tradition in the series. While researching my book, it was so very exciting to see a new fantasist from outside Ireland being so powerfully inspired by the life and deeds of Cúchulain, the most celebrated hero of medieval Irish literature.

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Max in battle, brandishing the gae bolga, Cúchulain’s legendary weapon (copyright Henry H. Neffl; illustration reproduced by kind permission)

The figure of Cúchulain, the “Irish Achilles”, has been appropriated by different sides of the Irish political spectrum for centuries, often for diametrically opposed ideological causes. His status as a national hero is left aside in The Tapestry. Refreshingly, Henry Neff offers us a vision of Cúchulain as a teenager: just like his Irish inspiration, Max MacDaniels possesses supernatural strength, becomes the defender of his people, struggles with the heroic code and his own identity, and all of that at the threshold of manhood. A number of other figures from Irish medieval literature make an appearance, including Lugh, Scathach, and a Fomorian, while Neff’s cosmology involves the legendary race of the Tuatha de Danaan. More on Neff’s creative engagement with the Irish tradition in Chapter 3 of my book!

Henry Neff’s mythopoeia is supported by a creative element that is often seen as ‘para-textual’: Illustrations based on his own drawings. Tolkien famously visualised Middle-earth and provided his own illustrations for The Hobbit, but much of his art remained unpublished in his lifetime. Neff’s five books, on the contrary, engage in a sustained way with the visual side of his world: each chapter opens with a drawing and each volume also contains a handful of full page illustrations. We, therefore, get a very clear sense of how much successful fantasy relies on imagining a rich, alternative world which can be experienced visually.

The vision and scale of The Tapestry is difficult to encapsulate in a single blog post, but let me add a few more interesting elements:

  • Astaroth, the arch-villain of the series, is not the typical “Dark Lord” we expect from fantasy: he is seductive, relatable and unpredictable. As a reader one is never sure how he will react or behave.
  • The series does humour really well, and includes some memorable characters who may initially seem to be there only for comic relief, but end up showing a great degree of complexity.
  • There are some really strong female characters who do not conform to the tired gender stereotypes often reproduced in the genre
  • There are elements of an invented language used by the race of demons who become more central from the third book and on

The ending of the series is both innovative and memorable: I’ve often wondered aloud during my fantasy literature lectures about whether any new fantasy writer will ever challenge some of fantasy’s structural tropes, and Neff has a real good go at this! (I won’t say another word – no spoilers! Read it and find out!)

That Neff’s spin-off series, Impyrium, will be published by HarperCollins (the official publisher of J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin) is a clear indicator of Neff’s developing skill and creative vision. Impyrium is out on 6th October, but you can read the first 100 pages as a free sample via the HarperCollins website. I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens next!

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