Saturday, November 23, 2013

Pwyll Prince of Dyfed – Celtic Archetypes in the Mabinogi

Every so often I like to take a break from reading fiction to enjoy some primary sources. This isn’t just for research. I like the primary sources, especially those in the Celtic and Arthurian realm.

Some of my favourite sources are the medieval Welsh tales assembled in what is known as the Mabinogi, translated by Lady Charlotte Guest in the mid-19th century.

Lady Charlotte Guest
Some of the stories in the Mabinogi are retellings of the later medieval romances. However, some of the earlier tales, those known as the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, are believed to be more ancient tales from the days of the Celtic heroic age.

These Four Branches are the most interesting to me and are a true escape into a world of magical beasts and enchanted realms. They are also believed to have been teaching texts for young Welsh princes of the day, intended to show them the characteristics of good kingly rule and behaviour.

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, which are tied together by the character of Pryderi, include the following tales:

Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed

Branwen, Daughter of Llyr

Manawydan, Son of Llyr

Math, Son of Mathonwy

Pwyll - by Alan Lee
Of the four branches, Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed is my absolute favourite. I have never tired of reading it since I first studied it in university. Not only is it full of magic, love, battles, monsters, and tales of honour and betrayal, but it is also a perfect illustration of Celtic archetypes. We’ll go over a few of these but first, here is the story in brief:

Pwyll, a mortal man, is a Prince of Dyfed who comes into contact with Arawn, King of Annwn, the Celtic Otheworld. The two become friends and switch places for a year so that Pwyll can help Arawn defeat a foe in his own world. Pwyll succeeds and becomes ‘Head of Annwn’. While he was away, Arawn ruled justly and fairly in his place, and Pwyll’s subjects ask him to continue the good rule, which he does.

Then, one day when Pwyll is out with his men, he is sitting on a magical hill when he sees a woman on a magical horse that cannot be caught up to. This is Rhiannon, a maiden from the Otherworld. On a third attempt to catch up to her, she stops for Pwyll whom she has been seeking. They are to marry but their marriage is delayed by another suitor to Rhiannon, Gwawl, who tricks Pwyll into giving Rhiannon to him. But Rhiannon saves Pwyll from himself by giving him a magic bag which he uses to capture Gwawl.

Arawn's Hounds
Pwyll and Rhiannon are married and after a while, they finally have a son. But on the night of his birth, the boy is taken from them. The frightened servants conspire to blame Rhiannon, and accuse her of eating her child. Pwyll, as a ruler, must assign a punishment to his wife for this, and orders her to carry visitors to the castle upon her back while telling them what she did. The land suffers after this.

Luckily, Teirnon, a man loyal to Pwyll, finds the child when the monstrous hand that is taking his horses also leaves a baby. Teirnon slays the hand and saves the baby whom he and his wife foster. After some years, Teirnon realizes that the child resembles his lord, Pwyll, and so he and his wife take the child back to his parents, thus redeeming Rhiannon, giving Pwyll back his heir and restoring the land once more.

This is a highly abbreviated version of the story and if it does spark some interest, you should definitely read it. Pwyll makes a good holiday read while curled up next to your hearth fire.

Of all the tales in the Mabinogi, this one feels like the neatest, if that makes sense. It has three sections – Pwyll in Annwn; Pwyll and Rhiannon; and the disappearance of Pwyll and Rhiannon’s son, Pryderi.
The number three and the occurrence of things in threes is a strong archetype in Celtic tradition.

Patterns of the number three occur in the number of Arawn’s dogs, and the number of times Rhiannon appears to Pwyll before she stops, for instance.

Magical animals are also common in Celtic tales; Arawn has three white hounds with red-tipped ears, and Rhiannon rides a magical white horse that cannot be caught. She is also followed by magical birds wherever she goes.

Rhiannon - by Alan Lee
The character of Rhiannon is one of my favourite things in Pwyll: her magic, her beauty, her strength. I also love her portrayal as the goddess Epona who also rode a white horse, was accompanied by birds, or foals, and carried a magical bag that symbolized her role as a fertility goddess.

The theme of contact between the natural world and the Celtic Otherworld is also strong. Pwyll meets Arawn in the forest, meets with Rhiannon who is from the Otherworld, and then there is the otherworldly monster that steals their child. There is a constant fluidity between the two worlds in the Four Branches of the Mabinogi.

The archetype of the magical hill is one that is strong in Celtic myth. Pwyll is sitting on a magical hill when Rhiannon appears to him. Hills were said to be gateways to the Otherworld. This reminds me of Glastonbury Tor which, in some traditions, is believed to be a gateway to Annwn.

In the second part of Pwyll, we see the themes of the feast and the rival suitor where Pwyll’s judgement is tested. With the help of Rhiannon and her magical bag, another archetype, the marriage of the mortal and otherworld being comes to fruition. This too is a common theme.

But there are more trials in the form of the demonization of Rhiannon which symbolizes the loss of the goddess’ power and the subsequent weakening of the land as Pwyll remains powerless to do anything but punish his wife in the face of the loss of their son.

Teirnon slays the Monster -
by Alan Lee
The finding and fostering of the lost child is also common to Celtic literature, and when Teirnon returns the child to Pwyll, Rhiannon is released from her bondage and the land blossoms once again.

Those of you with an Arthurian bent will spot the similarities right away in the fostering of Arthur with Sir Ector, and his teaching by Merlin. And when Guinevere is demonized in Arthurian tradition, Arthur falls into despair and the land suffers.

What is interesting in this tale is that Pwyll’s deficiencies are repaired by his contact with, and subsequent learning from, stronger figures than himself, namely Arawn, Rhiannon, and his loyal subject Teirnon. As the story progresses, we are witness to Pwyll’s growth in wisdom, courtesy and generosity – the things that make a king truly great.

The Celtic archetypes in this tale and others help to bridge the gap between the natural world and Otherworld, to educate the hero, and light the hero’s way to effective sovereignty.

If you have never done so, I recommend that you read the tales contained in the Mabinogi, especially the Four Branches, and especially Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed. Let them envelop and transport you to that time long ago when goddesses emerged from the woods and Fairy lords befriended their mortal counterparts.

I hope you find these tales as entertaining and educational as I have.

Thank you for reading.

You can download a FREE electronic version (all formats) of the Mabinogi at the Project Gutenberg website by clicking HERE.

You can also read a bit more about the Mabinogi on the Camelot Project web pages.

Friday, November 15, 2013

In Insula Avalonia - Wearyall Hill and the Holy Thorn

Last time in this short series of posts, we looked at Glastonbury Tor.

Today, we’ll wander up the slopes of another prominent feature of the landscape that you pass as you approach Glastonbury from neighbouring village of Street: Wearyall Hill.

Wearyall Hill is, of course, home to one of Glastonbury’s most ancient treasures – the Holy Thorn.

Across the street from the Safeway, you can climb up Wearyall’s gentle slope to see a hawthorn tree known as the Glastonbury Thorn, or ‘Holy Thorn’. One popular legend associated with Wearyall Hill and the Holy Thorn is that in the years after Christ’s death, his uncle Joseph of Arimathea came with twelve followers by boat to Glastonbury. When they set foot on the hill, tired from their journey, Joseph plunged his staff into the ground and it took root.

There is actually some archaeological evidence for a dock or wharf on the slopes of Wearyall Hill that date from the period. Did Joseph of Arimathea actually arrive in Britain with the Holy Grail?

Joseph of Arimathea
Well, that depends on what you believe. And Glastonbury is just that, an amalgam of beliefs that live, for the most part, in harmony - Perhaps just as the Celts and early Christians did here around two thousand years ago?

Cuttings of the Thorn grow in three places in Glastonbury. What is interesting is that this variety of hawthorn is not native to Britain, but is a Syrian variety. Curiously, it flowers at Christmas and Easter, both sacred festivals for Pagans and Christians. Every holiday season, the Royal family is sent a clipping of this very special tree that hails from the earliest days of Christianity in Britain.

The current Thorn is not the original, but rather a descendant of the original which was burned down by Cromwell’s Puritans in the seventeenth century as a ‘relic of superstition’. How much destruction has been wrought on the ancient sites of Britain during the wars waged by Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell? It’s horrifying to think about.

As with all other things in Glastonbury, Wearyall Hill and the Holy Thorn do not belong solely to the Christian past.

Thorn in Blossom - Glastonbury Abbey
The hawthorn tree was one of the most sacred trees to the Celts and is the sixth tree on the Druid tree calendar and alphabet. It is also known as the ‘May Tree’ because of when it blossoms most. May was sacred to the ancient Celts as the time of the festival of Beltane, a time for Spring ritual and worship of the Goddess.

In the Middle Ages, the practice of picking hawthorn boughs evolved to include dancing with them around a May Pole.

In Arthurian tradition, Wearyall Hill is associated with the castle of the ‘King Fisherman’ whom the select Grail knights meet. To reach the castle, those on the quest were said to have to cross the ‘perilous bridge’ over the river of Death. To pass through the castle was to go from this world to the next.

Interesting the think that the gates to the otherworld of Annwn were believed to be just on the next hill, Glastonbury Tor.

Whatever legend or myth you believe, or don’t believe, about Wearyall Hill is up to you. The stories are many and convoluted, but such is the fate of great and sacred places of the past.

I always looked forward to my walks up the gentle slope of Wearyall Hill with the Holy Thorn drawing me up like a beacon, a friend even. Locals, Christian and Pagan believers, hold it close to their hearts.

Holy Thorn with wishes tied to it
and Glastonbury Tor in background
Once at the top of the hill, I would circle the Thorn, reach out to touch its limbs, and read some of the wishes or prayers on ribbons tied to it – ‘Don’t let me lose my family,’ or ‘Thank you for making my mummy better.’ The wishes wrenched your heart, and the thanks made you smile.

When I would sit on the nearby bench at the top of the hill, I never felt alone. I would look out at the Tor and the surrounding landscape and feel tremendous gratitude. I would always leave with a sense of hope for the future, and a tie to the past.

I remember the last time I drove away from the Thorn back in 2002, the sigh that heaved out of my chest as I made my way back down the hill to the parking lot across the street. I looked up to see that lovely wind-blown silhouette and was somehow reassured by its presence.

Since my own days In Insula Avalonia, it seems that tragedy has struck Wearyall Hill.

In writing this piece, I thought I would check the internet for any new discoveries or theories about the hill and its archaeology.

After the vandalization of the Thorn
Instead, I found an article relating how in 2010, vandals took a chainsaw to the Holy Thorn in the middle of the night. In the morning, residents found their beloved tree of hope hacked to bits. A sapling was planted again in the Spring of 2013, but again, that was knocked down in the night.

I’m still in shock over this, having just found out. I’d been in ignorant bliss, lost in my remembrances of Glastonbury’s Thorn in full bloom on a sunlit hilltop.

I don’t know what would drive people to such destruction other than pure ignorance or malice. Part of me wants to devise ways in which the perpetrators could be made to pay, but then that would go against everything the Holy Thorn stands for.

Either way, if you mess with god, goddesses, fairies or Gwynn ap Nudd himself, you’re likely to get your comeuppance no matter what your beliefs.

But the Thorn has survived the centuries and there has been talk that new shoots have been coming up. The Royal Botanical Gardens is on the case, and so are the citizens of Glastonbury.

The Thorn and Wearyall Hill itself are not purely Christian or Pagan. They are symbols of unity, and of a common past. We should indeed cherish sites that are so revered, whether we believe in them or not.

In a way, the Thorn’s sacrifice is bringing people together. Glastonbury is still a town where Pagan and Christian live side by side.

I have every hope that the Thorn will blossom once again on the crest of Wearyall Hill, and that one day I’ll make the climb to say hello to a very old friend.

Thank you for reading.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Blog Tour – My Writing Process

Today is blog tour day! I’m pretty excited as I haven’t participated in a blog tour before. It’s a lot of fun and a great way to get to know other writers and their work. I always enjoy reading about other people’s creative process, so I was keen to take part when asked.

Last week, my fellow scribe of ancient stories, Luciana Cavallaro, posted on her website Eternal Atlantis. Be sure to check it out. If you like retellings of ancient myths, you’ll love her Accursed Women series of short stories.

Now for the tour questions and a peek into the Labyrinth of my mind. Be sure to bring your sword and hold on to the end of that string…

What am I working on?

Sometimes I feel like that question should be ‘What am I NOT working on?’ I always thought that I was a writer who would tackle one project at a time. That’s how I read, after all.

But no. There are just too many stories I want to tell, and because I mostly write series, I have a hard time leaving those stories be for extended periods of time. It’s almost as if the characters are all staring at me from across a dark river, pleading with me to help them continue their journeys and not leave them in limbo.

At the moment, my biggest project is putting the finishing touches on Killing the Hydra, the second book in my Eagles and Dragons series. I hope to have that out for the holidays. Eagles and Dragons is my main series and I’m already writing and researching book three, Warriors of Epona.

I’m also writing the second part of my Carpathian Interlude series of novellas which takes place on the Danube frontier during the reign of Augustus. The first part of that was Immortui which was Romans vs. Zombies. The second part, Lykoi, is Romans vs. Werewolves. It’s a lot of fun to write the more fantastical stuff in an historical context.

Other projects that are begging my attention in the wings of my life right now are the second draft of the first part of my Alexander the Great trilogy, and the second draft of a short story I’ve written. The latter is a retelling of the ancient Greek Phaethon myth. I can’t wait to share that with everyone.

Needless to say, time is precious and in short supply.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

There are a couple of ways in which my work differs from others. I don’t believe, and I’ve been told this by others, that my books slot into one particular genre. A lot of historical fiction, where the protagonists are in the Roman army, deal purely with the military aspects of campaigning, battle and blood. Such books are geared mainly to male adventure readers. In my work I always incorporate some ‘softer’ elements, romance, and strong female characters to balance out the brutality of war in the ancient world. I think that is why at least half of my readers are female. I like to immerse my readers in the serene beauty of a place and then throw them headlong into battle. I like to have something for everyone in my stories.

The second thing that makes my books quite different is the incorporation of ancient religion. I’ve had some wonderful reader comments and e-mails saying that they loved Children of Apollo because no other books they have read made ancient religion and the Gods so great a part of the story. I’m also an historian, and as I see it, if I’m going to give people an accurate a feel for the ancient world, I can’t ignore something that was so integral to that world and its way of thinking. In ancient Greece and Rome, the Gods played an important role in every aspect of life and as such deserve much more than a passing nod. Religion just makes the story that much richer, and accurate.

Why do I write what I do?

I just love history and mythology. I also love storytelling and believe that historical fiction is one of the best ways to learn about the past, to be immersed in it. I first fell in love with history through storytelling and my studies grew out of that.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized that I fell in love with history and writing at the exact same time. 

As soon as I got the history bug after a trip to England, I immediately started writing about the places I’d been to, and the history I had learned -  Poems, short stories, even sketches (though I’m rubbish at drawing!).

Basically, I want to share my love of ancient and medieval history with others in an interesting and entertaining way.

How does your writing process work?

I write in the cracks of my life.

Ideally, I would write all morning and then do editing and marketing in the afternoons. I’d have some good coffee flowing and some nice treats to go along with it.

Then I wake up and realize that’s not going to happen, not with a day job.

I usually carry a notebook for the current project I’m working on and write whenever I can. I do most of my writing on my lunch breaks and can get about 4-5 pages out of that. My first draft is always done long hand in notebooks and then I work on the second draft as I’m typing it out.

A project usually starts like this:

I get a very powerful, personal image that won’t leave me alone. That’s the spark that ignites it all. For Children of Apollo, I just kept seeing a column of dirty, tired legionaries marching over desert dunes. I could taste the sand in my mouth and the sweat running down my cheeks.

Then I jump into research, which is what sets historical fiction apart. It requires tonnes of research if you want to do it well and transport your readers. I try to immerse myself in the period. I travel when I can to the places I’m writing about, I look at colour reference books, maps and photos. I listen to period music (when possible), watch movies and documentaries, and eat and drink things that might have been consumed. Ancient Rome is great because I like wine, but I’m not a fan of stuffed kidneys, sheep’s brains or milk-fed snails. I didn’t go that far for my craft!

Part of my research is also creating an approximate timeline so that my fictional story is in sync with the history. I am a ‘pantser’ when I write, but for historical fiction a timeline can provide a sort of outline.

When I write, I like to listen to movie soundtrack music because it is so emotive. When I get to a major action sequence or battle scene, I’ll stop to sketch out the stages of the combat so I don’t get lost in the chaos.

Then I start writing, and I don’t stop until the story is done. The best advice I ever got was from my late mentor, the poet Leila Pepper, who learned from W.O. Mitchell. Leila said that the most important thing was to “just get the story down on paper…no matter what…just get it down.” That’s great advice, and very liberating. 

I find there is never a perfect time to write. You have to do it whenever you can, and because you love it. For me family always comes first; art supports life, not the other way around. But it’s in those spare moments, however few they might be, that I love to jump into the past and join the characters I’ve created, whether it’s marching through the Sahara, attending an imperial banquet or hunting zombies north of the Danube. There is no better feeling than when the story just comes together unexpectedly, with the exception of hearing the words “Daddy’s home!” at the end of a long day.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my writing process. As ever, I look forward to your comments. Also, be sure to check out the posts from my two friends below. They will be posting their blogs for the tour on their own websites on November 18th. They have interesting stories to tell and I for one cannot wait to hear how they go about their writing lives.

Here they are:

RobertoCalas is an author and lover of history. His serial trilogy (The Scourge) is about a 14th century knight fighting his way through a zombie-infested England to reunite with the woman he loves. And every bit of it is true except for the made up parts. In addition to The Scourge series, Roberto has written The Beast of Maug Maurai (fantasy), and Kingdom of Glass (historical fiction in the Foreworld universe). He lives in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, with his two children, and visits the United Kingdom on a monthly basis to be with his fiancée, Annabelle. Sometimes he fights zombies to get to her.

You can learn more about Roberto on his website: He’d be most appreciative if you liked his facebook page, too: And if you feel you can only take 140 characters worth of him at a time, his twitter handle is, @robertocalas.

Lindsay Townsend is fascinated by ancient world and medieval history and writes historical romance covering these periods. She also enjoys thrillers and writes both historical and contemporary romantic suspense. When not writing, Lindsay enjoys spending time with her husband, gardening, reading and taking long, languid baths - possibly with chocolate.