A quest with twists

culhwch

Fflur Dafydd The White Trail
Seren 2011

The White Trail is one of Seren Books’ New Stories from the Mabinogion, a retelling of the medieval Welsh tale of Culhwch ac Olwen. This early Arthurian story described the quest of Culhwch (pronounced Kilhookh) for Olwen, a girl he had fallen violently in love with the moment he had heard about her. But to gain her hand he has to fulfill several impossible tasks set for him by Olwen’s father, tasks he is only able to complete with the help of Arthur and his knights.

It is the longest of the native tales contained in the collection known as the Mabinogion and is a rich and complex narrative, with elements of folklore, fairytale, placename onomastics, Rabelaisian lists, black humour, grotesquery, puns and ritual all thrown in. A modern retelling will have to work very hard to include even a handful of these elements whilst also making it relevant and comprehensible to the reader. Fflur Dafydd makes a fair stab at this, to the extent that she reinterprets the action in a way that throws new light on the Dark Age tale but sensibly excises details that anchor Culhwch only to pre-modern times; on the other hand there are aspects of her narrative that for me technically don’t work, whatever genre you choose to call it.


The closest genre that The White Trail approaches is magic realism. It makes sense to adopt this mode because its model can be similarly considered in its 11th-century context: at a time when Wales was nominally Christian Culhwch ac Olwen includes much primitive matter of a pagan nature involving ritual slaughter, magical beasts, giants and so on. To transform the fairytale feel into total realism would be to lose all sense of dream and wonder and magic, quite apart from rendering the story totally beyond credence.

The original was tripartite in structure: there was an introduction narrating the circumstances of Culhwch’s birth, upbringing and his seeking help from his cousin Arthur to woo Olwen; this is followed by Olwen’s father Ysbaddaden Pencawr (“Chief Giant”) setting tasks for Culhwch to achieve before the marriage can take place; finally, the tasks are accomplished with the help of Arthur and his men, the Giant overcome and killed and Olwen won at last. Dafydd retains a three-part structure for her version but refocuses the story by making Culhwch’s father Cilydd (pronounced something like Killith) the main protagonist and the only character whose point of view we are party to: thus Cilydd dominates the first section, then Culhwch enters Cilydd’s life, and finally Cilydd precipitates the climactic events that occur in Ysbaddaden’s mansion.

At this point I should point out the significance of some of the various names we encounter, as they are not only inherent in the medieval tale but are transferred unchanged to The White Trail. Culhwch literally means ‘narrow sow’ but the reason he’s given this name is because he’s born, unexpectedly, in a pig-run. Cilydd’s father takes his name simply from a traditional Welsh name for a fellow or companion. Cilydd’s first wife Goleuddydd means ‘light of day’ — so when she dies the light literally goes out of his life. Meanwhile, the white flowers that bloom in Olwen’s footsteps are supposed to explain the meaning of her name, ‘white trail’; but I suspect that there might be older pan-Celtic roots behind it and that she originally took the form of a white swan (as in all those fairytales). Olwen’s father Ysbaddaden (pronounced Usbah-thad-en) derives from Welsh ysbyddaden, which is the Welsh for ‘hawthorn’; the tree is known for its prickles of course, but the haw or fruit of the hawthorn is known to have sedative properties, a fact which Fflur Dafydd seems to have grasped and used to some effect in the final section.

That’s the background explanations done with, so now for some critique. Dafydd has successfully transplanted these principal characters to a modern-day Wales — though a Wales with unidentified topography — and has infused a degree of psychology into Cilydd’s character. He is tormented first by his wife’s disappearance, then by discovering she has died from some crude caesarian operation in a pigsty. His cousin Arthur, an unsuccessful private eye, promises to keep searching for the missing son. Cilydd, meanwhile, throws himself into supporting a missing-persons organisation but still finds himself in a downward spiral and so attempts suicide, with unforeseen repercussions. He now has guilt to add to his sense of deep loss.

The White Trail thus begins as a mystery story, but when we come to the sections with Culhwch and then Ysbaddaden it rapidly shifts into magic realism mode. Everything starts to blur into a dream-like state, with time becoming elastic, inexplicable phenomena manifesting themselves and a mysterious mansion in a forest taking on the semblance of a Celtic Otherworld, only with modern architecture. I didn’t mind the gradual shift towards unreality but for me much of the prose didn’t gel: the conversations were too static, I didn’t engage with many of the characters, and character motivations though explained didn’t seem credible. The outline of the 21st-century overlay sometimes disappeared into the fairytale narrative underlying it, meaning that I found this a less than convincing piece of fiction.

I felt that the author’s hope of a retelling “charging on ahead in bold realist strides with surreality [sic] trailing at its heels” was a brave attempt, but that it was actually reality that was trailing at the heels of that surrealism. I welcomed the spotlight on the figure of Cilydd but the view I had of the novella, sadly, was of staring down the wrong end of a telescope. But if it directs the reader — as it does me — back to its principal inspiration, Culhwch ac Olwen, then that I feel would be its main virtue.

hawthorn_fruit
Hawthorn fruit. Credit: Elstro (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
 

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14 thoughts on “A quest with twists

    1. This is of course only my opinion: it had a lot going for it but, I think, needed really tight editing to bring out her main points and metaphors while rendering conversations, for example, more plausible. A major clue for me was how often I checked to see how far it was till the end …

  1. Lynn Love

    What a shame – an opportunity missed, perhaps? And you’re right, never a good thing to be looking to see how far to the end.

    1. I agree, Lynn, an opportunity missed. Odd, too, that as an “award winning novelist, singer-songwriter and musician” I’d have thought this would be more accomplished. Her Wikipedia page doesn’t list this book, though it’s possible it hasn’t been updated for a while.

  2. Thank you Chris for this review. I am almost embarrassed to admit I’ve never heard of the original. I do love a good fairy-tale! I will skip the re-telling and look for the primary source. It sounds like the perfect read for a long winter night.

    1. Don’t be embarrassed, Sari, the original is little known outside an academic or Welsh readership! If you’re looking for a translation I’d go for the modern one by Sioned Davies, or possibly that of US academic Patrick K Ford. Freely available online, however, will be the mid-19C version by Lady Charlotte Guest.

  3. I’ve read the first four books in this series and loved them all, particularly Owen Sheers’ White Ravens and the first part of The Dreams of Max and Ronnie by Niall Griffiths – the rest, including this one are on my shelves. Must get around to reading them. I find the Mabinogion is a fantastic contrast to more conventional Arthurian tales.

    1. I already had the Sheers in my sights but thought I’d try this first. I may have come down a bit on parts of Fflur Dafydd’s novella but there were lots of imaginative touches — I’d really like to know your view when you get round to reading it.

      Yes, The Mabinogion is a fabulous literary legacy, I always find something new to enjoy when I return to them.

  4. Aww, a shame the book didn’t work out for you. I love stories which touch on (or take inspiration from) the Arthurian cycle; I particularly love how Robert Holdstock handled it in his Mythago Wood series, and am keen to read further into Welsh mythology and legend.

    1. I quite liked the one or two titles I read in the Mythago series though my main irritation was his very idiosyncratic spelling of Welsh names and Arthurian characters to the point of gibberish. This really got in the way of suspending my disbelief!

      Here’s a review of a Mythago Wood title — http://wp.me/s2oNj1-ivory — and here’s one of his novels inspired by, but not referencing, that series: http://wp.me/s2oNj1-fetch

      1. Thanks! I haven’t read much of Holdstock outside the Mythago Wood series or the Merlin Codex, so it’s an informative insight into his other work(s). Now that I have a Kindle App, I may check the latter story out. Apparently, I have some credit to spend!

        If only we could ask Holdstock his rationale behind his spellings. Maybe he wanted to put his own stamp on the legends, or thought the audience might relate more to his own way of spelling things? Alas, we’ll never know. 😦

        1. Sadly, no, we won’t now know. I saw him at a round table (very apt!) discussion at an Arthurian conference in Cardiff in the 1990s, just around the time the first in his Merlin Codex came out, but never got round to asking him why the weird spelling. Or maybe he said but I never picked up on it.

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