Thursday, 18 December 2014

Dr Aidan Byrne's masterclass on The Mabinogi, nation, and rewriting myth



Last week, it was a real pleasure to welcome a guest speaker to HM43021 Fundamentals: Myth and Drama. Dr Aidan Byrne, Senior Lecturer in English and Media at the University of Wolverhampton, held a session on rewriting The Mabinogi (read on), the cultural endurance of national myth, and how our need for mythic stories remains undiminished. Having read The Mabinogion for the previous week’s class (in English translation, of course) students considered Gwyneth Lewis’s contemporary version of the Fourth Branch, The Meat Tree (Seren, 2010), in which Lleu, Gronw and Bloddeuwedd play out their destinies as a virtual reality game. Campion, the wanderer, has to experience childbirth, and Nona, male sexual experience. Lewis’s version, like the medieval tales, experiments with shape-shifting, gender fluidity and power roles, and it’s as open-ended, though arguably more tragic.

 
Why does myth endure? Post-Enlightenment texts privilege the rational and the ‘real’ – the novel is an eighteenth-century product – pushing myth to the margins (folk tale, children’s stories, local legends). Resistant minorities, such as the Welsh, returned to myth as a form of resistance to the status quo; and resistant readings emerged both in high and low culture, from the literature of the Celtic revival (of which Lady Charlotte Guest’s translation of The Mabinogi is a prime example) to fantasy and horror genres. Postmodernity has eroded our belief in the real and our stable sense of self; binary oppositions have vanished; genre has collapsed and we are prepared to embrace the uncanny. We have never needed myth as much as we do now.



 
Dr Aidan Byrne in HM4301 Fundamentals: Myth and Drama on 11 December, lecturing without notes, to our amazement. More pictures here.

 
Welsh culture has often returned to The Mabinogi as a source of national identity and resistance to English dominance, but to some extent ‘Welshness’ is an English construct. Matthew Arnold theorised the ancient inhabitants of Britain and their descendants as ‘undisciplinable, anarchical, and turbulent by nature’, the opposite of the ‘steadily obedient’ but unimaginative Anglo-Saxon (‘On the Study of Celtic Literature’, 1867). Even the title The Mabinogion is an Anglicisation of the Welsh word for ‘brothers’.

 




Alan Garner’s fine novel The Owl Service (1967) revisits The Mabinogi’s world, and Aidan played a clip from the 1969 ITV production. He concluded his session by discussing recent publishing ventures by Cannongate and Seren. Cannongate commissioned writers such as Margaret Atwood, Jeannette Winterson, Philip Pullman and A.S Byatt to create short novels based on Bible stories, Greek and Norse myths. Seren launched New Stories from the Mabinogion with contributions from Welsh writers such as Gwyneth Lewis and the remarkable Niall Griffiths.

 
In her introduction to The Meat Tree, Penny Thomas wrote that ‘some stories [...] just keep on going. Stir the pot, retell the tale and you draw out something new – there’s no right version.’ On her decision to transform The Fourth Branch into science fiction, Gwyneth Lewis remarked ‘I didn’t want to make the tale a parable about the folly of man’s tampering with nature because the life of the whole myth seemed to me to lie elsewhere. [...] Myths find a natural place [in science fiction].'

 
Although the material was new to them, students listened thoughtfully and contributed some really good responses to our conversation. We had some seasonal cheer to help us along (and on the subject of how capitalism works by illusion and absence, why were there no green triangles or purple caramels in our tin of Quality Street?) Aidan thanked them for the session. We thank Aidan in return for a rich and inspiring masterclass. It was a fabulous way to close the ‘myth’ side of Myth and Drama, with ideas that we’ll return to throughout the second semester, particularly in our sessions on modern drama.

Aidan also kindly made time for a couple of video interviews on subjects from Dr Who, Star Trek, the Cold War and psychogeography. Check them out on our sister blog www.gloslitvids.wordpress.com.


 

 

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