There are some basic similarities between The Four Branches of the Mabinogi and later Welsh folktales of the 19th century. Is this a sign of a Welsh wisdom tradition?
A few video highlights from a show I did earlier this year (2018) with my good friend Owen Shiers. Gadael Tir is a history of land-rights and protest in Wales, telling a thousand years of the common folks’ history through folk song, story and verse. We’re touring the Welsh language version this coming winter. See gadaeltir.cymru for more details. Mwynhewch:
I’ve been asked a few times in the last month or so about the recent turn (or revolution?) in the academic understanding of Celtic history. At the centre of this new perspective is Prof. Barry Cunliffe (with help from John Koch in Aberystwyth). This is the best (most thorough) video presentation I’ve found. Enjoy:
His recent book, Britain Begins, is also totally fascinating (although maybe go see if your local bookstore has it before opting for Amazon.)
Part of a talk I gave for an online conference called ‘A Year With Our Gods‘:
So absolutes can define a sacred direction in symbolic narrative, and those absolutes will vary depending on what myth the author wishes to evoke.
To consider this quality of myth in terms of The Land, one clear path to an absolute, sacred and transcendent value is found in the Earth. As the source and container of our lives and our deaths, the cradle and grave of our evolution as a species, the Earth is perhaps an Absolute amongst human absolutes.
In a very physical sense, all that we are as a species is derived from our interaction with the planet’s diverse environments. Even our culture, our non-physical realm of meaning, evolved in response to the same drives that shaped our bodies. To this day, dance is a frequent medium for courtship, art a re-visualising of the sensual world, story a person’s journey through time.
The implication is that the Earth is not only a basis for biological life but is one of the main roots from which human meaning grows. Human culture derives some of it’s core meanings directly from the Earth. How could it not? The fact that we are soil-coloured to the core, even in how we create meaning, reveals us to trully be another apple on the Great Tree of Nature.
Of course, the metaphor breaks down when we consider our very modern ability as a species to either totally invigorate or anihilate all life on Earth. Apples tend not to wield such vast powers of life and death. There is absolutely no humanity without Earth, but likewise humanity now has power over the absolute destruction or survival of life as we know it. At least, that’s what climate change suggests and all-out nuclear war promises.
And here the absolute value of the Earth is accompanied by two other dimond-hard absolutes, perhaps the most powerful concerns of the modern age, Survival and Destruction. Think of any of the doomsday movies that have been released in recent decades: they all play on the nature of this human power. This is the dark side of the myth of The Land, the essential fear of apocalypse, an old anxiety re-born in the Anthropocene.
But in the modern myth of The Land, Destruction takes on a whole new meaning. In older mythic contexts, Destruction was sometimes considered a transformer, a necessary part of the life-death cycle. But this new type of Destruction is not only the death of all life on Earth, but a total break in the cycle of transformation. Neither life, nor therefore Survival can be transformed out of such an event. Survival can be a reaction to this final Destruction as it looms over the horizon, but in every sense it will never be fed by it.
If ever a human condition needed sanctifying through myth and symbolic narrative, then it would be this one. It is a new Destruction that gives no quarter, that lets out no light. But even so, as a result Survival inherits the totality of meaning that is derived from the Earth. Where this new Destruction is entropic silence, Survival is filled with the essence of life and, yes, even death — an intrinsic part of the greater, transforming cycle of life on Earth. Once again, our old friend Death becomes a potential source of wisdom, as many have already concluded.
The myth of The Land requires us to invite this new Destruction in, to let it cause fault lines in the georgraphy of the tale, to let it shape the narrative as the total antithesis of Survival. How can we hold this directionless direction, grown from a centre that cannot hold? The Earth can no longer contain this type of death as a part of it’s evolutionary cycles. And so it is a solely human problem, requiring humanity to take responsible for its greater body, for the Tree of all Life. If the myth of The Land is to express hope, then it must be a tale about that moment of human maturing.
When seeking to evoke any type of myth, there is one very important aspect that should be borne in mind: myths tend to express absolute values. It’s the coherence of those values that can give myth its power, its ability to shape our world-view, at least in those moments when we’re immersed in a tale.
Two such absolute values in The Four Branches are honour and her reflection, shame: both motivate important events, ultimately shaping the actions of the characters. In the imagined world of the tales, such values are as hard and pervasive as any natural law.
Honour and shame compel different responses in The Four Branches: compassion in Rhiannon as she acknowledges her midwives’ shame; grief in Branwen for the tragic war that arose out of her shaming and subsequent attempts to restore her to honour. Likewise, over-sensitivity to honour and shame causes destructive fury in Efnysien, and a lack of sensitivity to the very same values causes a callous folly in Gwydion. These are all very varied responses to the constants of honour and shame.
If we take The Four Branches as our model, our tale should be founded upon similar absolute values. These absolutes will provide the true north of the mythic landscape, the direction by which all other directions are known. Absolutes point the way along the pilgrims path that characters either progress upon or are turned away from.
Fundamentally, these absolutes rest upon a sense of the sacred. They can only be absolute if they are treated as sacrosanct within the world-view of the tale. They can never truly be violated or undermined, only deferred or delayed. They exert a pull upon all who live in the tale’s imagined world, pervading the common understanding of the characters, their intuitions and behaviour.
Even though such absolutes are fundamentally impersonal in nature, they affect the personal lives of good and bad alike. Just as Lady Justice is blindfolded, these apparent ‘natural laws’ don’t see personal circumstance, they simply operate without discrimination. They are presented as perpetually imminent, woven into the fabric of a tale’s world, yet almost exclusively expressed through individual lives.
jDISCLAIMER: Before going any further, some of you may ask why I’m writing about authors, seeing as I’m not someone who writes novels. I’ve never attempted to write a novel or even a short story. Apart from a few articles in journals, I’ve never published a story in my life.
But there is at least one really good bunch of stories that I can talk about: The Four Branches of the Mabinogi. Amongst other things, these stories are unique for their particukar skill and craft; in them we can see the mechanics of symbolic narrative and how myth works. This series of posts is simply another way of talking about myths and how we use them. Please don’t read this as advice on how to write a novel. For that, please ask a novelist, someone who’s actually done it..
So, how does that happen exatly? How do you construct a narrative that has the potential to evoke a mythic response? Notice I’m only claiming potential here. There is no real certainty that you can evoke a mythic response in an audience, fundamentally because myth is something that happens within the audience’s experience, not within a text. The only thing an author can do is try their best to understand the audience they wish to create for, to uncover what gives their lives meaning.
An author could begin by asking what is their chosen audience’s general culture? What do they believe in? For this series of posts, lets assume the chosen audience is interested in what we might call deep ecology. On a mundane level they are environmentally aware, support sustainability and respect nature. On a deeper level they believe that human consciousness should, in a perfect world, be deeply embedded in nature. Within this particular culture, these values make up a myth often referred to simply as The Land.
The Land is a myth that draws on some very old cultural strands, often pagan in orientation, and mostly delivered to our age through 19th century Romanticism. Today, this myth expresses a yearning for connection with something felt to be lost in modern culture: a nativeness, a wildness, an honouring of an ancient human perspective that sees itself as part of Sublime Nature, not above or separate from it. The Land often has an Eden-like quality. It’s the Promised Land we modern humans have left behind, yet can perhaps still return to.
But to return implies some kind of redemption, and in the myth of The Land, that redemption begins with an acknowledgment of the problem: humanity has apparently divorced itself from natural consciousness. Our consumption-driven culture is self-destructive, creating a society that divorces us from our life-supporting environment, leaving our natural souls to wither in the glare of a dead, technological light. Modern, main-stream consumer culture (which has the same traits all over the planet, East and West) drives us to reject our original, natural humanity.
In that sense, The Land expresses an existential crisis, one reinforced by the environmental realities of the modern era. If climate change research shows us anything, we are fast approaching an ecological disaster that threatens life as we know it. In the myth of The Land, this ecological disaster is a symptom of our disconnection from the spiritual ground of our being, the Living Earth. It’s a myth that encompasses not only a crisis in individual, but also in collective existence.
So having defined it, how could an author evoke it?