The Mabinogion is the title given to a collection of eleven prose stories collated from medieval Welsh manuscripts. These are:
These folk tales first came to general literary prominence in the mid 19th century, when Lady Charlotte Guest published her translation under the title The Mabinogion. The word mabinogion, which she assumed was the plural form of mabinogi, appears only once in the manuscripts she translated and is commonly dismissed as a transcription error. The word mabinogi itself is something of a puzzle, although it is ultimately related to the Welsh mab, which means "son, boy". Over the year the term came to mean 'tale of a hero's boyhood' and eventually, simply, 'a tale'.
Strictly speaking, Mabinogi applies only to the Four Branches, which are speculated to have derived from older tradition and all end with a colophon meaning "thus ends this branch of the Mabinogi." Needless to say the stories are not well known in their original form but there will be few people who have never heard of King Arthur and Merlin and this is where they originated. In the earliest mentions of Arthur in these Welsh texts, he is never given the title of king. He is referred to as ameraudur (emperor or war leader) instead. The Arthur we all know is a product of romantic embellishments during the Renaissance and beyond.
Seren Books have commissioned a number of authors to update these eleven tales in much the same way as the BBC did with The Canterbury Tales a few years back. They have sent me two books so far and the first I’m going to review is The Dreams of Max and Ronnie by Niall Griffiths which comprises of a novella, Ronnie’s Dream (a reworking of The Dream of Rhonabwy) and a novelette, The Dream of Max the Emperor (based on The Dream of Macsen Wledig).
When I wrote my review of Bulgakov’s Diaboliad a few weeks back I included the following quote which I make no apologies for including again:
When George S. Kaufman proclaimed that "satire is what closes on Saturday night," he was referring to its ephemeral quality: satire dates quickly. I would add that political satire dates twice as quickly. Probably because the painful realities it mocks are all too immediate, political satire seems particularly funny while it is fresh. But the intensity of satiric humour is often inversely proportional to its durability. Try looking at the opening monologue from last year's Tonight Show. We don't even get the jokes. Or look at any reruns of Saturday Night Live that bash then-current presidents. For every political satire that remains funny, there are a dozen that could be called Saturday Night Dead. – Elisabeth Weis, ‘M*A*S*H Notes’, Play It Again, Sam: Retakes on Remakes, p.311
I found it hard to get worked up over Bulgakov’s Russia because so much time has passed and I have no doubt that in time people will look back on Ronnie’s Dream and think much the same. But not today. Today what Griffiths is satirising is the world I live in. Of course it’s already out of date – Tony Blair is no longer the Prime Minister – but we all remember who he was and what he did.
On March 20th 2003, following the United States’ lead, British troops invaded Iraq. It was to prove an unpopular war. At the time it sounded like a good idea I’m sure, however, on June 15th 2009 the Prime Minister, then Gordon Brown, announced that an Inquiry would be conducted to identify lessons that could be learned from the Iraq conflict. The cost in human lives was always an issue and in particular how many deaths which might be directly attributed to the lack of, or state of, the equipment being issued to our troops was a hot topic, but, especially following the banking crisis of 2007 and subsequent recession, the financial cost is now something everyone is aware of and people are wondering just when the fighting will end.
Ronnie’s Dream is clearly set sometime into the conflict. The initial excitement has died down and now people are more interested in the consequences as opposed to the ethics of the situation. Most people. Welsh squaddies, Ronnie, Robert and Rhys, who have been selected for active duty and are due to be posted overseas in five days or so are only interested in getting wasted. They’ve been doing a fairly decent job too, popping pills and downing drinks, anything to distract themselves from the inevitable. Of course they’re soldiers and they’re not going to admit that they’re scared. If you asked them their response would be unanimous:
Christ I’m in the mood to kill some fucking ragheads. I can’t wait to slot some fucking ragheads.
Slot: Verb. Hurt, injure, stab, shoot. E.g. "I slotted that bastard last year, and he spent 3 weeks in hospital." [Mainly Army use]
It’s all bravado, machismo, braggadocio. Hell, you’d think they were three mutant ninja turtles rather than three mabs from the valleys.
This night they are off to see Red Helen:
― Why’s she called Red Helen?
― Cos she’s got red hair, says Ronnie. ― Bright red. Not joking, I mean she dyes it, like. Has done since she was a kid. Always bright red.
None of them look “like the heroes they have been told that they are.”
In the skin and eyes of heroes there shines a kind of tragic light; but here, in these three skins, there crackles only the exhaustion that comes from excess and indulgence sought to stave off fear.
Red Helen’s terraced house is in a sad state of repair and much the same could be said for Helen herself. The house stinks of “cat piss and baby sick and cheap fried food gone rancid and fag smoke and sherry and sweat.” Helen is a “woman made of dough” packed into grey jogging bottoms and an ill-fitting t-shirt. All in all it’s a sad state of affairs. They’re there to take advantage of her pharmaceutical acumen not her skills as a housewife and mother.
― Where’s the baby, Hel?
― At her granny’s. What d’you want?
― Something to knock us out. Temazzies or something. Been on one for days and we’re fucking wired.
Robert examines his with a close and pink-rimmed eye. ― What is it?
― Powerful, Red Helen says.
Ronnie is the only one who actually swallows the pill and it knocks him out for six, seven and the rest. The others when they can’t wake him assume it’s a horse tranquiliser he’s taken and leave him to sleep while they drink themselves unconscious.
The bulk of the novella from here on comprises Ronnie’s dream and it’s a dream sequence that Bulgakov would have been proud of. The nice thing is that this book won’t be banned; worse has been said in the papers but not with such panache. In the original Rhonabwy decides to sleep on a yellow calfskin stretched out on the floor. In the modern version Ronnie nods off on a blanket with “a black-and-white moo-cow on a yellow field. Lucky blanket he thinks. Bring me luck. And there he sleeps.”
What follows, page after page of it, is a disturbing picture of modern Britain. But first Ronnie has to meet his guide. In the original this is one of Arthur's followers, Iddawg, the Churn of Britain, but in the update it’s a young horseman with a red beard, “a tangled yellow mop of hair” wearing a tunic with FCUK embroidered in it calling himself “the Beast of Britain.” (I wonder if this is a pun on ‘Best of British’?) As a warrior and messenger for King Arthur, Iddawg deliberately caused the Battle of Camlann when he delivered a peace message from Arthur to Mordred in rude and insulting tones. As far as I can see, and especially because he’s not named, the Beast of Britain is a composite character, the common man, the British common man, who goes on holiday to ‘Beefa [Ibiza] and generally runs riot, probably a man not too far removed from Ronnie himself.
There are real individuals though in this dream. When “the dream flips as dreams do” Ronnie sees “a sad fat man in a top hat and with a cigar the size of a baby’s arm between his teeth” regarding an assembled multitude; beside him is a man in a cassock and a third man wearing the insignia of the Desert Rats. The Beast addresses the fat man as “Winston” although it was pretty obvious who he was. When Blair arrives (in the role of Arthur) he’s simply referred to as “the grinner” which reminded me of how Blair was often caricatured in the press.
In the original Iddawg reveals that Arthur's men are assembled to meet the Saxons at the Battle of Mount Badon, however, Arthur is more concerned with a game of gwyddbwyll (a chess-like board game) he is playing against his follower Owain mab Urien (Ywain). Chess is a wargame and so what would the modern equivalent of that be? Killzone 2 obviously.
Not all of the criticism comes via the dream. A lot is said in between the lines in the real world. When Rhys and Robert wake they turn on the tele and see a news report showing tanks being stationed outside the UK’s major airports. Three times spokesmen question the Prime Minister’s leadership decisions – a Scot, a Welshman and someone with a southern English accent – but the only answer they get is:
We will not surrender to terrorism … The terrorists must not win.
In the dream, however, he is answered. A tank rider says to him:
― Aye, I know … The time has come for an end to talking, right? Hird it aw befaw, man. Meant fuck aw then and it means fuck aw noo. Thanks fir fuckin nuttin.
Ronnie asks who the men who rode the tanks were:
― Unhappy men, the Beast says. ― Men who are unhappy at the loss of their countries. Sons of those who were blown to atoms at Mametz Wood, Passchendaele, the Somme, Dunkirk, all over Europe, the world. … Sons of men who died too young and in terrible pain so that their offspring could live in a country which is free from signs everywhere telling them DON’T DON’T DON’T DON’T DON’T.
So the country’s leadership past and present is called into question but what about those being led?
― Don’t be fooled by them, the Beast says. ―They appear united, and calm in their unity, but they are attached to each other mainly by wires of mutual loathing. Few of them visibly declare their allegiances or their hatreds but I know who they are and I know of the abhorrences that burn within their breasts. Those with money hate those without, and vice versa. The Red Rose hates the White Rose. Both Roses hate the Dragons and the Thistles. The Bluebirds hate the Swans. The Magpies hate the Black Cats. The Liver Birds hate the Red Devils and the Toffees hate the Liver Birds. The Canaries hate the Tractor Boys. The Gunners hate the Spurs. I could go on. In some instances ‘hate’ might be too strong a word but ‘distrust’ or ‘dislike’ would do.
As the crowd passes Ronnie notices something:
[T]attoos, everywhere there are tattoos, although … only a few designs shared amongst the crowd; many thousands of arms bear tiger stripes with pointed ends; many shoulders bear figures that look vaguely Celtic or Maori in origin; many people have big crucifixes on their backs because they once saw David Beckham bearing that mark and thought it looked cool and original; many upper arms bear smaller crucifixes too because their owners saw Wayne Rooney wearing one and thought it looked cool and original; the insides of many arms bear Sanskrit lettering because their owners saw Craig Bellamy or any one of a hundred footballers bearing that mark and thought it looked cool and individual; many women, on the fleshy outsides of their palms, bear a little black squiggle because they once saw Cheryl Cole bearing that mark and thought it looked cool and individual… This must be the most tattooed nation on the planet, thinks Ronnie, with so few different designs; in any thousand people, 800 of them will be tattooed with any one of only five or so patterns. … The hive mind hums. The hive mind drones.
― These are your people, soldier boy, says the Beast. ― Defenders of freedom. Keepers of the values of democracy and fair play. Do you see yourself fighting for these people? Killing for them? Dying for them?
There is more – there is a lot more – but eventually Ronnie wakes and the three buddies head off to war. It was only a dream after all.
The Dream of Max the Emperor
Macsen Wledig appears to have been a real person, the legionary warlord Magnus Maximus, who was proclaimed Emperor by the army in Britain in 383 AD.
At some stage he seems to have become a well-established presence in Britain, and by 380 appears to have been in overall charge of the military operations of the island, probably holding one of the two key imperial positions of Dux Brittanniae or Comes Litoris Saxonici. In 381 he successfully held back a significant Pictish raid, and it was perhaps on the basis of this that he was ‘raised to the purple’ by his troops (and perhaps also the grateful citizens of the province).
He was not the first of the ‘Emperor Generals’, and certainly not the last. The province of Britannia produced three such figures in the first decade of the fifth century alone, no doubt contributing to the final decision on the part of Honorius to withdraw troops from the island altogether and leave the ‘breeding ground of tyrants’ to its own devices. – http://www.mabinogion
So he was a significant, though by no means an exceptional historical figure; a bit like Robin Hood, until the storytellers got their hands on him, although some of the blame of the inaccuracies can also be laid at the historians’ doors. Macsen is transformed into the heroic leader of British hosts against the might of Rome, consort of a British princess.
In this story the dream is only a small part of the story. In his dream Macsen travels to the fairest island in the world where he encounters a maiden so beautiful that he finds it hard to even look at her; she is like the sun. When he awakes he sends his messengers to track her down, which they do. He follows, conquering all that stands in his way, and marries her. Because he is absent from Rome for so long, after seven years his place as Emperor is forfeit and a new Emperor takes his place so he has to return and lay siege to the city before getting his throne back.
In The Dream of Max the Emperor, Max is a gangster:
Our man Max lives and works in the capital city which is to say that he sells illicit drugs and stolen goods to the section of the conurbation’s populace which is forever hungry for such things. He has a retinue of men who are willing, eager even, to use violence and intimidation in order to protect his business interests; sometimes, and out of Max’s hearing, they will refer to him as ‘the Emperor’, in reference half-fond, half-mocking to his aristocratic carriage and mien.
While out on “a pussy-hunt” (to use Max’s vernacular) he falls asleep in a nightclub called – you’ve guessed it – Rome. And there he has his dream and gets to meet the woman of his dreams:
And the dream-Max thought: Jesus fucking Christ. She … dazzled his eyes like the gold had done, like the sun would have done if he ever gazed directly at it. She was the sexiest thing he’d ever seen. She was Beyoncé, Alisha Dixon, Lisa Maffia. She was the kind of woman he deserved to have on his arm, the kind of woman whom the papers should carry photos of hanging off his arm and caught in a flash as they both exited a white limo.
Max knows the woman of his dreams doesn’t exist in the real world but he also comes to believe that he’d never be complete without a woman like her. And this makes him sad. And that is unusual because his sadness usually transmogrifies “into rage, or contempt, or a mixture of the two,” which he ends up taking out on someone’s face and body. But not this time. No. He just wants to go home.
For a week he remains isolate in his flat, visiting Rome with the boys at night, peddling his wares and scanning the strobed crowd for the face that was in his dream. … All is funless to Max. During [the] days, in fact, Max does little but sleep; he knocks himself out with temazepam and he lies in a still heap on the sofa as the sun sinks across the bay. … As he sleeps, the woman of his dreams re-visits him…
There is only one answer. He sends his men out to find her, first in the city and then northward. Eventually one is found and she wants to meet him but this is the real world, not a folktale, and that meeting does not go as well as planned. Put it this way, the last words in this story are not, “And they all lived happily ever after.”
I thought these were well done on the whole. The best, and my favourite, was Ronnie’s Dream. It’s the hardest read and depends on a fair understanding of recent British events. I watch the news and so I knew what Griffiths was on about most e but not all of the time. Even some of the names – David Beckham and Cheryl Cole I know but I had to look up the others. In that respect I wish, as with the Bulgakov, there were endnotes. Who was the man in the cassock for example? There’s an article in The Telegraph which says, “It would have been better if Tony Blair had been more straightforward about his Christian faith.” The reporter felt that:
…he was reinventing his past again, just as he did in the old days when he said that, as a boy, he watched Jackie Milburn play for Newcastle United, had stowed away on a flight to the West Indies and had been kidnapped by the Mysterons during the invasion of Iraq (I made one of those up; see if you can spot which one). – George Pitcher, ‘It's too late to reinvent yourself, Tony Blair’, The Telegraph, 14th December 2009
Is that the case or is Griffiths simply including him as a representative of religion in that unholy triumvirate made up of politics, religion and the military? I don’t know. Graham Dow was Tony Blair’s chaplain. In July 2007, following widespread storms over parts of England, Dow stated that he believed the resulting flooding (in which several people were killed) was the result of God's "strong and definite judgment" on the "moral degradation" of British society.
Skipping over one or two minor irritations like this all I can say is that this is one hell of a diatribe. He could have gone further but he wisely keeps to his central issue, the Iraq war and how it was handled. Because of where he stops, he has more questions than answers but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Who says your story needs to end with a neat moral?
The story begins with some affected narrative though:
In the first, infant years of the second millennium since the Saviour’s martyrdom there appeared two great warriors in two great lands, separated by a huge water.
And it continues like that for the next three pages building up to what is basically a very funny punch line but since he can’t keep it up for the whole story I would have rather he’d toned it down but that’s about the only real criticism I have and it’s not a big one because what he does he does well.
I was not so crazy about The Dream of Max the Emperor. It doesn’t feel contemporary. All the action in the real world in Ronnie’s Dream is believable (and in a dream you can get away with just about anything) but the second story has the feel of an adaptation. I just didn’t buy it. It’s also a little on the long side. That said I did like how he chose to end it.
At the end of the book there are synopses of both original stories, about three pages for each. Part of me wished that I’d read them beforehand, I have to say, but if you choose to wait you’ll certainly want to read the adaptations a second time to see how well Griffiths did.
As a complete body of work The Dreams of Max and Ronnie has probably one other flaw: its Britishness, but then I’m sure, for the Brits reading this, that will be a definite plus. But don’t wait too long. Satire goes cold quick.
These are the four books that are currently available:
Niall Griffiths was born in Liverpool in 1966, studied English, and now lives and works in Aberystwyth.
His first four novels are: Grits (2000); a tale of addicts and drifters in rural Wales; Sheepshagger (2001); which tells the story of Ianto, a feral mountain boy; Kelly & Victor (2002); and Stump (2003), which won two Book of the Year awards. Grits was made into a film for television, and Kelly & Victor and Stump are also being made into films. He has also written travel pieces, restaurant and book reviews, and radio plays. His last novel was Runt (2006). You can read a short profile by him on the BBC Wales site, here.