Evangeline Walton’s books about the Isle of the Mighty are a magical read. She based her stories on the Mabinogi, a set of myths and legends written sometime in the twelfth century, and her language use fits with the timing of the original. She has a gift for word usage that makes her stories seem otherworldly — as, indeed, several of them are. I liked some better than others, but they are, in all, a good set of fantastical literature.
Prince of Annwn
Prince of Annwn is probably my favorite of the four books included in the tetralogy. In it, Pwyll, a rather boastful prince in the land of Dyved, sets out early for a hunt. He gets separated from his companions in a wood that seems to become thicker and thicker. All of a sudden, there’s a clearing, and Pwyll encourages his hounds to take some of the kill another man’s dogs are feeding on. They shy away from doing so, and here’s where Pwyll should have finally realized that maybe the clearing was more than just a normal clearing. But no. He forces his dogs to take some of the kill, and then death shows up.
Death, whose name is Arawn, calls Pwyll out on his bad behavior. He then admits that he set up Pwyll to arrive in the clearing without his companions, for only Pwyll can defeat Havgan, the death of the east. Pwyll and Arawn become as brothers, and Pwyll takes on the other’s likeness in order to hide and trick Havgan and his army. On his way he faces great obstacles, which make this story. Some of the things Pwyll experiences in the land of the dead seem like they could come out of Stephen King, and that’s great. There’s lots of gore and suspense, which I was surprised to find in a book with a rather flowery language. It’s just fantastic.
The Children of Llyr
The Children of Llyr, more than the other books, is a tale of warning about change from one culture to another. This really does weave amongst all four books, but it seems most prominent in this one. Llyr’s children number four sons: Bran, Manawyddan, Evnissyen, and Nissyen. He also had one daughter, Branwen. After Llyr’s death, Bran, well-known for his strength and wisdom, receives a request from the King of Ireland — the hand of his sister as his wife.
Bran’s people didn’t do the wife thing, and so this had to be mulled over. Unfortunately, Bran forgot to ask his brother Evnissyen to the council. Evnissyen spends the rest of the book trying to cause problems for everyone. For Branwen, however, her main problem was caused by her brother’s decision to let her go to Ireland. She was abandoned by her husband and mistreated as a slave; when she managed to get word back to her brother, it sparked war.
The main moral of this story is that marriage is dangerous. It puts women in a subordinate position to men and leaves them to their whims. I thought the story was interesting, but not as good as the first.
The Song of Rhiannon
Here, we meet up with Pryderi, the son of Pwyll. His true paternity is actually hidden from him, for it was Manawyddan who fathered him with Rhiannon, who was considered a hard-won consort for Pwyll. After the war in the second book, Manawyddan went with Pryderi to his home of Dyved and, with Pryderi and his wife Kigva, made a new life.
Unfortunately, some holy stones were taken out of the land of Dyved by a rival of Pryderi’s, which caused everyone save those four to disappear from the land. They had to leave Dyved and work to earn their keep. Also to their bad luck, they did finer work than the other craftsmen in town, and they were constantly being forced to leave a location. Through all this, Pryderi and Rhiannon disappear, leaving Manawyddan to wander and set up house with Kigva. Eventually, though, the story ends happily. I liked The Song of Rhiannon for its fairy tale leanings. I thought it very much in the style of Grimm’s fairy tales, and that pleased me.
The Island of the Mighty
This is truly the masterpiece of the four books. It centers upon Gwydion, the nephew of Mâth, the wisest of all druids. He causes some mischief when he steals pigs from Pryderi, eventually killing him for them. Mâth punishes him for it, forcing him to live as various beasts for three years. We then get to follow Gwydion in his struggles against his sister, Arianrrhod. He tricks her into proclaiming her virginity — which she lacks, and Mâth punishes her by causing the premature birth of two children from the seed of the man she had lain with.
While the story follows Gwydion and his rearing of his resulting nephew, Llew, it is really Arianrrhod who drives the story. She loathes the existence of her child and places serious obstacles in his way, which Gwydion gets around using guile. I think the moral here is that she’s a miserable woman because she took on the morals of the new way, and then when she was found out became bitter.
Overall, I really enjoyed all the books, but probably the first one the best. If you’re in the mood for some well-written, well-researched folklore, I highly recommend The Mabinogion Tetralogy.