Hey, friends! As you are reading this, I am engaging in nuptial activities. Hooray! Today I leave you with Rachel, who’s going to tell us a little bit about a formative text that has inspired her work. Check out her bio at the end if you’d like to know more about her!
For some time popular fiction has brought us retellings of well-known fairy tales, legends, and even classic literary stories told through a feminist lens, or at least through the point of view of the women characters of the stories. From the raw reimaginings of Angela Carter (The Bloody Chamber, 1979) to the punk fairyland of Francesca Lia Block (The Rose and the Beast, 2000) to Virginia Hamilton’s reclaiming of African American folk tales for all ages (Her Stories, 1995), these retoolings imagine an archetypal realm where women and even nonbinary individuals reclaim the myths that underpin psyches and social hierarchies.
Reworking well-known tales was not foreign to me, growing up in a family steeped in the Appalachian storytelling tradition. Myths, especially Celtic myths, captivated me in grade school. My research led me to a medieval Welsh cycle of tales called The Mabinogi. This cycle is a treasure trove of fantastical, visceral, and rather fragmentary stories in which sorceresses and queens possess frightening powers and are thought to get away with everything from infanticide to adultery.
The Mabinogi has its roots in the ancient Welsh oral tradition. The original stories speak to ancient gods and goddesses, but the extant versions are courtesy of medieval priests. The stories were seemingly lost to the ages until Lady Charlotte Guest found them and translated them into English in 1849. Lady Guest presented them as children’s stories, and indeed the violence and ruthlessness in them is not unlike that presented in more well-known fairy tales. The Mabinogi fell back into relative obscurity outside academia until further translations and some retellings (most notably Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain series) occurred in the mid-twentieth century.
Some of the later translators laid not-so-subtle criticism at Lady Guest’s door for her “juvenile” and “sanitized” translation of The Mabinogi. Certainly Lady Guest was constrained by the Victorian values of her time, and much of her censoring of the texts speaks to this. It would be difficult for any reader not to be a little taken aback by the actions of the characters, regardless of gender, in these wild medieval tales. Lady Guest, however, should be recognized for her achievements as a woman and also as a pioneering scholar in bringing to the world stage a collection of unparalleled stories. I believe these stories have only begun to make an impact on scholarship and literature.
During the fall semester of my third year at Hollins University, I studied in Cork, Ireland. I enrolled in a course solely dedicated to The Mabinogi, thinking it would be a calm, steady review of what I already knew about that body of literature. It was instead an exhilarating experience. We spent the next three months conducting a deep study of the history, sociology, religion, oral literary traditions, and even the much-maligned notion of “Celtic shamanism” of the period of time that was the genesis of The Mabinogi as well as of the time when the stories were transcribed. Each class period was a revelation. Fortunately, my roommate and best friend was also enrolled in the class and equally as fascinated as I was, for I could talk and think of little else.
By the time I returned home in December, I had produced the first draft of a novella based on the Fourth Branch (story) of The Mabinogi. It is the tale of Arianrhod, her brother Gwydion, her daughter Blodeuwedd, and Blodeuwedd’s arranged marriage to one of the heroes of Welsh legend Lleu Llaw Gyffes. It is a story of assault upon the sovereign rights of royal women, adultery, and shapeshifting. It is one that I had tried, to limited success, to reweave in creative writing and even screenwriting workshops at Hollins. It took being in the Celtic Isles, and being the grateful recipient of the scholarship and passionate thinking of those who had lived with these stories for far longer than I had, to inspire me to create what is becoming a trilogy of novels based on the Four Branches of The Mabinogi.
Such work continues to this day. This trilogy, some of which has been written and rewritten over the course of almost fifteen years, and some of which has yet to be written, continues to happily consume me, even in the face of full-time work, family obligations, and the myriad distractions of daily life. It will be done, but the timeline is as ever unpredictable.
My trilogy is absolutely a feminist revision. I am a feminist, a scholar of gender, and an activist at my core, and my creative life is irrevocably intertwined with this. However you happen to come to the stories of The Mabinogi, I hope that you are captivated by a fresh body of literature, no matter how ancient, that has somehow remained relatively uncovered throughout the centuries. It is one that I anticipate being retold and rediscovered for centuries yet. I envy you the very first time that you sit down to read these wild, unfettered tales. If you are at all inclined to be a writer, I hope you will retell and reclaim them for yourself.
The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales, Patrick K. Ford.
The Mabinogion. Jeffrey Gantz.
The Mabinogion. Lady Charlotte E. Guest.
The Mabinogion. Thomas Jones and Gwyn Jones.
The Mabinogi: A book of essays. C.W. Sullivan, III.
Welsh Celtic Myth in Modern Fantasy. C.W. Sullivan, III.
Rachel C. Fletcher is fantasy writer working on a trilogy based on the medieval Welsh body of literature The Mabinogi. She has also published short stories and poems in online and university journals and researches and writes on the subject of astrology and mysticism (astrologydiaries.com). Rachel lives in Roanoke, Virginia and is a nonprofit fundraiser and event planner by day.