Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Sex Gilgamesh and Uther Pendragon part three; The Mabinogion.

 This is a slight digression before returning to the previous thread. I've been plodding my way through the Mabinogion. And there's a point to be made about relationships and expectations which seems relevant to Uther but a general note first.

Owein or Chwedyl Iarles y Ffynnawn

Jones and Jones translated this as 'The Lady of the Fountain', Sioned Davies as 'The Lady of the Well'. 

I've never enjoyed the 'Three Romances' in the Mabinogion. After the Four Branches and the Native Tales, there's a feeling of gears shifting, as though we've moved into a more nebulous, almost frivolous world where perpetually adolescent males run around bashing each other over the head with sharp bits of metal. 

Why translate when i do it so badly and there are excellent translations available? It's the closest of close readings.

First thought, the Welsh Story is much more enjoyable to read than the French of C de T. The anonymous teller skilfully demonstrates how to tell a tale that is formally structured by repetition without being repetitious. 

Like any genre, this one requires the reader’s co-operation. It’s not just the magic that you have to accept. Some questions, like ‘Does Luned share the bed she makes for Owain with Owain’, or ‘What kind of prison is Luned trapped in when Owain stumbles over her towards the end of the story’ are left to you to answer. Others, like ‘Why doesn’t one of Arthur’s 3,000 Knights, who are supposedly looking for Owain, ask the Black Knight if he’s seen him?’ belong in the category of questions you must not ask unless you wish to destroy the story.  Deciding which category a question fits into is an interesting exercise. (You can try it with your favourite fairytale. Ask the wrong question and the story falls apart. What does the Prince intend to do with Snow White's dead body in her glass coffin when he takes it home is a good example.)

The story is also a very good demonstration of how to make a totally improbable landscape real; while the Knights start from Arthur's court in Caerleon on Usk, the geography blurs almost as soon as they leave. But within this blur, of valleys, wastelands, forests, parks, mountains, rivers and castles, directions are always very specific and journeys equally detailed.

For a story about a Knight, the most dramatic and entertaining episodes involve women. As in many of the Mabinogion's stories, they have the best lines. The dialogues between Luned and her Mistress, the Lady of the Well, are probably the highlight of the story. And while it’s impossible to know, I suspect the story teller would have agreed.

Luned seems more interesting as a character than Owain, and generations of readers have realised that in modern terms she loves him and he'd be better off marrying her. The fact he doesn't points to the fact that while this is a Romance it isn't a love story (more on this later). 

'Love' as a modern concept is almost entirely absent. Owain's marriage to the Lady is, at least on her part, a clear sighted understanding of her position: her Kingdom can only be protected by a Knight who is willing to fight anyone who comes to the Well. Whoever defends the Well is her Husband. When no one in her kingdom offers to replace the man Owain has just killed, she knowingly marries her husband's killer.

Owain's Lion is the other star of the story. In whatever fantasy land Owain strays into out of Wales there are lions and serpents, as well as one eyed giants and cannibals. All the lion wants to do is repay Owain for saving him, and Owain's baffled and ultimately futile attempts to stop him intervening in every subsequent combat on his behalf border on the (perhaps unintentionally) comic.

Plodding through the original has not only confirmed my admiration for the story teller, but also increased my admiration for Sioned Davies' translation. 

 But 'A Romance isn't a love story' will take us back to Gilgamesh and Uther.

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