The Mabinogi: A guest post by Rachel Fletcher

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.

Further reading:

The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales, Patrick K. Ford.

The MabinogionJeffrey 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.

Upcoming movies and some guest posts

We are so close to Wedding Day! And given that, my general ability to think thoughts is pretty depleted. Please instead enjoy this pulpy post.

But first, some housekeeping for all you lovely readers. I’m featuring a few guest bloggers over the next few weeks while I’m away getting married and traveling and such. I’m super excited to introduce you to these lovely ladies, who are going to be talking about a wide range of fantasy/science fiction topics. Please check in over the next three weeks and check them out!

Now, on to the matter at hand. What movies am I looking forward to in 2017?

Annihilation – Released ???

For those who haven’t read Jeff VanderMeer’s book by the same name, you probably should. An eerie, atmospheric tale where the horror is mostly in the mind, but not entirely, this story tells the tale of a scientist (unnamed) who goes into Area X, equal parts Area 51 and alternate dimension, to search for answers regarding her husband’s disappearance and death. They’ve kept the release date and any set pictures mostly under wraps, though there have been some very restricted showings of a teaser trailer or other footage.

The director is the same guy who did Ex Machina. That actually gives me some pause. His aesthetics are solid, but VanderMeer’s book has zero men in it for the vast majority of the text, and I’ve seen the casting list. It is not lacking in men. I’m assuming they are expanding on the timeline prior to the scientist entering Area X, which could be good or bad, depending on whether it swamps her character. I’m a little worried about the adaptation for that reason. Check out the IMDB link for more information about the project.

Wonder Woman – Released June 2nd

wonder woman

So who hasn’t been waiting for Wonder Woman? This movie has been running trailers and promotional material for a while now, and you can tell that DC pulled out a lot of stops for it. They should. Wonder Woman is arguably their most iconic character after Superman and Batman, and before for many. In contrast to Marvel’s line-up, she is also a singularly iconic woman. This will be the first superhero movie to focus entirely on a female character, and DC beat Marvel to the punch (no surprise, since Marvel seems set on making mistake after mistake in this regard). Check out the IMDB link for more information.

I’ve been planning to rush the theater for this one, and I doubt I will be alone.

Atomic Blonde – Released July 28th

Holy shit, this move. Here’s the IMDB link if you haven’t heard of it. Take a minute to watch the trailer. I’ll wait.

atomic-blonde

Really, what is there not to love about this? It’s all of the action packed, grungy goodness of a hardcore spy movie, with the kickass feminine lead from Fury Road. You have my money, sirs and madames.

The Dark Tower – Released August 4th

So I honestly didn’t realize that this was coming so soon until this lovely trailer came out. Holy mess, it looks good. The Dark Tower series is a sort of hit-or-miss thing for me, actually – I thought it ended up getting wrapped around itself somehow, if that makes sense, and ending was not my favorite. But The Gunslinger was an amazing book, and I’m excited to see what they will do with the story, as it looks…very different from the one I remember.

Hitman’s Bodyguard – Released August 18th

I have to admit that this movie is not my usual cup of tea. I wasn’t a huge fan of Deadpool, actually. I thought it was fun, and the graphics were obviously spot on, but it just didn’t quite click with me. That said, Ryan Reynolds is a fun actor, and he definitely brought life to Deadpool’s character with some trademark witticism that seems evident in this move. Plus there are lots of guns. If the trailer doesn’t make you laugh, well, we have different senses of humor, probably. IMDB link on the click-through.

Blade Runner 2049 – Released October 6th

Holy shit, guys, there is a new Blade Runner movie and the trailer is out! Harrison Ford is always a good bet for these kinds of movies, but Ryan Gosling joins him, which I am way into. The director is also the guy who did Arrival which is one of my favorite movies cinematically of the past year.

blade runner

Basically if you are a fan of cerebral science fiction, this is the movie you are looking forward to this year (well, in addition to Annihilation, but it’s hard to look forward to something we don’t even have a trailer for, yet). Check out the IMDB page here for more info.

Thor: Ragnarok – Released November 3rd

thor-ragnarok-photo-chris-hemsworth

So Thor. Thor is the hottest Avenger, probably. And his hair is part of that for me. Now they have chopped all of his hair off. I find myself…not dismayed? He is still really sexy? Alright, then.

Other positives to this movie: Hulk cameo, gladiator fights, and CATE BLANCHETT. She is my favorite. IMDB link and video link for those who live in a hole and haven’t seen the trailer.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Released December 15th

You had to know this movie would be on the list. I am solidly in the Star Wars fandom, and I am so, absolutely ready for this movie. Rogue One was a great appetizer, of course. I had some problems with the Leia cameo, which was goofy and too on the nose. But overall, it was lovely. I hope that they will bring some of that creative energy into this new film.

I also have to pause here and note that The Last Jedi was Carrie Fisher’s last movie. I desperately want it to be good and tie up her character well. There are a lot of hopes riding on this film for me, and it almost feels scary leading up to it, but the teaser trailer looks pretty good so far.

sw-the-last-jedi-tall-B

That’s all for me! Let me know what movies you’re looking forward to. Next time I post, I’ll be married and talking all about marriage things!

 

A few recent reads

I’ve been reading a lot lately, because I’ve been super stressed, which means that I read every spare minute. Don’t ask me why this is. I can’t tell you. You would think that, being stressed, I would engage directly with my stressors and then take my time to enjoy books, but not. I’ve just been spamming everything and screaming internally.

The upside of this is that I have read a lot of good stuff recently. Most of my recent reads have been novellas, but I’ve also devoured some novel-length pieces (always more satisfying for me). So what have I been reading? So glad you asked.

Final Girls – I actually went on a binge of Seanan McGuire (aka Mira Grant) around the first of the month and read a bunch of stuff, including some of her free and Patreon-supported short stories in the Toby universe. That was after I read this novella, which was good in the way all ghost stories and haunted houses are good. I highly recommend.

Binti – I’m not sure what I was expecting from this novella, but it wasn’t exactly what I got. That’s not a bad thing. I can definitely see why it won so many awards, and I’m excited for the next one, though it’s not on my immediate to-read list. That said, I think that I will need to read the actual book next time, instead of listening to the audiobook. I love Robin Miles, but audiobook of a novella is a little too brief for me, I think. It was perfect for my drive back from a conference, though!

She Wolf and Cub – I’ve read a lot of Lilith Saintcrow, and I enjoy her stuff. Her worldbuilding is solid, as always, and her system of magic (or in this case, science) is inventive. Sandworms, dystopias, nanobots, and one really made lady – sign me up! I enjoyed this book, though it’s one of the more pulpy ones on this list.

One Fell Sweep – Speaking of pulpy, this is a new book by Ilona Andrews, who always fits that bill. Space vampires and lots of explosions lie within. Check it out if you need something light, but beware – it’s the third in a series.

A Closed and Common Orbit – Reading A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is not a prerequisite for this book in my opinion. That said, it does spoil a small part of the ending of the Hugo-nominee, so if you were planning to read that to see what the fuss was about you might want to get on it before you read this book. I liked this one loads better than Small, Angry Planet, which I honestly wasn’t a huge fan of, mostly because the pacing didn’t quite work for me. A solid book, with two powerfully complex and interesting characters narrating.

All Systems Red – This is a novella, and it is by Martha Wells, and if you know anything about my reading habits, you know I love Martha Wells. Admittedly, you may not realize because she puts out new stuff a little less frequently than, say, McGuire. Anyway, read her stuff, all of it is phenomenal and this novella is no exception. Hands down, Wells remains one of my favorite writers.

On my to read list for my honeymoon and the strenuous two weeks leading up to it, I have:

Saiunkoku Monogatari: a review

So I watch a lot of anime, I’ve mentioned, though not as much as some people. I found this anime, which originally aired through 2006 to 2008, while looking for something that would feed my insatiable hunger for more Akatsuki no Yona (which is still up there on my top three along with Ouran High School Host Club and Serei no Moribito). The anime ran for two separate seasons, each 39 episodes. It’s near impossible to find anywhere now except for online streaming sites. Trust me, I looked, mostly because the last ten episodes or so on the streaming site I use were incorrectly labeled and out of order. At least one or two were missing entirely. There is no frustration like watching 60+ episodes of anime only to have the ending rendered incomprehensible by disorder. I was going to buy the last few episodes if I could find them anywhere, but they are exorbitantly expensive.

Anyway there may be some mild spoilers but I am trying to keep this review short so hopefully nothing that will destroy your enjoyment.

Saiunkoku Monogatari translates as “Tales of Saiunkoku” loosely. In this case Saiunkoku is a country with a pseudo-Chinese/Japanese imperial regime. I won’t go too much into the world-building, except to say that you should remember that cultural rules apply: great families rule, supporting the emperor; the emperor himself is from one of those great families; a family can disown you if you have dishonored it in some fashion (or just pissed off the wrong person); women can also carry their family names, and do if their family is more powerful.

All of that cultural baggage is what is simultaneously greatly interesting about this anime, and also its Achilles heel.

Saiunkoku Monogatari is an example of an anime that is trying to do too many things at once. I enjoyed it immensely and still feel that the writing was not 100% solid. You can see this very clearly early on in the first season. The main character, Kou Shuurei, is from an impoverished noble family – or at least so it appears at first. She lives alone with her father in what is essentially a crumbling urban estate. The action begins when she is approached by a pair of upper echelon court officials with a proposition – they will pay her a huge sum of money if she becomes the consort of the emperor. She is made to understand that the emperor actually has no carnal interest in women, so she agrees to the exchange.

This looks like it is setting us up for a love comedy and I was okay with that. Indeed, the first several episodes take that track. At some point, however, the story transitions pretty drastically. Shuurei somehow leaves the emperor’s household (the how of this is not really explained, but the inference is that no one knew it was her??) and decides to become an imperial official. Problem is that women aren’t allowed to take the exams to become officials.

In an abrupt about-face, suddenly the story becomes about women shattering the glass ceiling while surrounded by numerous attractive men. Say what? I am here for this type of story, so I was excited! If this had been the story from the beginning I would have enjoyed it immensely more, actually. That said, the emperor is still in love with Shuurei, which at times gets annoying, honestly.

Through Shuurei’s dramas and efforts, we come to learn a lot about the political system of Saiunkoku. One thing becomes pretty clear in the first season: Shuurei’s political situation is a lot more complicated than it seemed at first. Though it’s variously acknowledged, it seems that Shuurei is the princess of the Kou family, a very prestigious family. Her father was dishonored (I won’t spoil why, or how complicated that dishonor was) but her uncles fully intend her to be married to the next heir of the Kou family (or to become that heir). The Kou family rivals the emperor in influence. So remember that cultural baggage I mentioned earlier? Kou Shuurei, princess of the Kou family, cannot marry the emperor – it would leave her family without issue. At no point does either Shuurei or the emperor she serves/maybe loves acknowledge this particular complication. One must assume one or both of them, being intelligent and powerful young things, would realize this is a problem, but it never comes up. Instead the barrier to their love is shown to be Shuurei’s career aspirations. In fact, those aspirations are several times framed as the barrier to Shuurei’s happiness, especially in the second season.

I am, of course, highly annoyed with this.

So to recap, we have: an anime that is set in a world whose rules are not consistently followed; a love comedy that turns into a political drama with almost no warning and not a lot of reason; and a story that should be about women breaking the glass ceiling, and is, except when it’s about shaming women for those same actions, over and over, and threatening them with sexual assault (which happens several times towards the end of both seasons). Shuurei is the cute little housewife who happens to have ambition, and she is punished for it as often as she is rewarded.

I loved Saiunkoku Monogatari‘s emphasis on a woman’s competency, on thoughtful and ethical governing, and the parts of the world-building that were solid. I disliked the pandering to male characters who were consistently jerks, the narrowly avoided sexual assaults, and the general emotional pounding that Shuurei receives for literally everything she does. So I guess the parts that paralleled real life. I would have enjoyed better world-building. My favorite parts were the interactions she had with other powerful women who were kicking ass and taking names, one way or another, and the lessons that Shuurei learned from them.

Would I watch this anime again? Probably. I know there were things I missed – a lot, as I mentioned, was going on with this story. I also recommend it. But do be conscious of its shortcomings.