Review – Matthew Francis, The Mabinogi

Matthew Francis, The Mabinogi, 112 pp, £14.99, Faber & Faber Ltd

A woman who rides slowly but can’t be caught by the fastest galloping horseman; a cauldron that simmers dead warriors to life; a giant king who wades through the sea to make war on Ireland, and whose severed head is buried alive to watch over Britain when his body is killed by a poisonous wound; all the buildings, people and animals of a country stolen in a magic fog; the threat to hang a mouse who’s really the pregnant wife of a powerful magician on a gallows made of two forks; a woman who’s magically created out of wild flowers, only to be transformed into an owl when she betrays and tries to murder her husband – few pieces of fantasy literature can be more peculiar or offer more haunting images than the four Medieval Welsh stories retold in Francis’s Mabinogi. Different writers have made memorable use of some of these elements. However, when I’ve tried to read earlier translations of the tales as wholes I’ve found them impossible to enjoy.

Those versions were in prose. I think what killed them for me was a clash between the medium and the material. Prose emphasises connexion, but the Mabinogi are full of disjunctions and startling metamorphoses. Writing in sonnet-like units of fourteen lines that themselves divide into stanzas of five, then four, then three, then two lines, Francis frees the tales’ essential poetry, giving breathing space for imaginative impressions to expand in the pauses between stanzas. There’s a distinctive rhythm in which longer stanzas push the narrative forward and shorter ones encourage a deeper absorption of what we’re being told. And secondly, Francis writes almost wholly in the present tense in the first three tales. The result is a sequence of impressions that are both vivid and evanescent: our attention focuses sharply on what is happening now, but what was the present stops existing imaginatively as our eye moves on. Brief marginal annotations allow us to keep a sense of the relation between events without an effort that would draw our imaginations away from the immediate impression. For me at least, the result is sheer delight.

Francis’s writing is buoyant, precise, swift-moving and easy to absorb, but full of unobtrusive subtlety, so that ease of reading is combined with richness of effect. We see this in a line like “Deer flicker in the forests. The days chase after them.” That’s alive with the elusive movement of the deer and the way light and shadow vibrate between trees as you move in front of them. Behind the immediate life, though, there are conflicting suggestions of peace and danger, timelessness and imminent change. They don’t hold us up but the ambiguity creates suspense. And indeed within a few lines the whole solid-seeming world of Pryderi’s princedom in west Wales will vanish, its domestic animals, its human constructions and all but four of its people wiped out or stolen by an enchanter who thinks them away. My point is not that this line is extraordinary; it’s typical of a style of writing that combines clarity and directness with a sense that all the impressions we receive have something intrinsically unstable about them, that they’re all at least potentially on the brink of being transformed or revealed as illusions.

Here’s a brief sample of the way Francis conjures up impressions that are at once vividly physical and evanescent. Choice must be nearly random among a wealth of possible illustrations. This one shows the Welsh giant Brân wading across the Irish sea:


Slithering on weedy rocks, he feels the sea’s cold weight
push against his armour. Fingers of water
slip into gaps no arrow has found:
a fat bladder of ocean,
he rusts as he walks.


I would like to thank Peter and Ann Sansom for their permission to repost this review from The North 59.

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