The Song of Rhiannon (1972), the third volume in Evangeline Walton’s MABINOGION TETRALOGY, begins with Manawyddan, son of the sea god, haunted by grief and feeling directionless after the events of The Children of Llyr. (I haven’t read The Children of Llyr, but I have read “Branwen Daughter of Llyr,” the medieval Welsh tale on which it is based. It features a Red Wedding’s worth of deaths.) His friend Pryderi, prince of Dyfed, gives him new purpose in life by offering him a home at his palace and the chance to court Pryderi’s widowed mother, Rhiannon.
The Song of Rhiannon is based on the third “branch” or story in the Mabinogion, “Manawyddan Son of Llyr.” Walton also interpolates some material from the Irish legends of Manannan mac Lir, who was likely descended from the same mythological figure, as well as a backstory about Pryderi’s conception that I believe is Walton’s invention.
The two main plot threads are Pryderi’s meeting with the new High King, Caswallon, who wants to move Stonehenge from Dyfed to its current location; and a faery curse that causes all of the people in Dyfed (with the exception of Manawyddan, Rhiannon, Pryderi, and Pryderi’s wife Kigva) to disappear overnight.
Walton delves into Manawyddan’s psyche, and renders both his pain and his heart-healing midlife romance in a touching way. Her prose is elegant, if old-fashioned:
So began for Manawyddan the happiness in Dyved, those long good days in that land that poets later were to call the Land of Magic and Illusion. He and Rhiannon rode with Pryderi and Kigva through those green fields, and thought that they never had seen crops richer than those crops, tasted honey sweeter than that honey … The glamour that was upon their young eyes gilded the eyes of the older couple also; they thought that they never before had realized the goodness and the magical simplicity of earth.
This is not really Walton’s fault; it’s more an issue with the source material. One kind of expects some randomness in an old folktale. But when it is expanded into a novel and its figures given full characterization, a modern reader expects events to make more sense and proceed logically from characters’ motivations. Walton’s desire to flesh out Manawydan’s personality and her commitment to retelling the tale faithfully, perhaps, are at cross purposes here.
There’s also an annoying subplot late in the novel that’s all about Kigva needing to learn to be a better housewife. Everyone seems to think Kigva is as dumb as a sack of rocks, and I just don’t see it. She seems like a normal person to me. Not all of us can be wizards, demigods, and fallen fae! This section feels dated, more at home in the mid-20th century than in ancient times or our own time.
The Song of Rhiannon is skillfully written, and I can see why it won the Mythopoeic Award in 1973. As a novel it was not as successful to me as Prince of Annwn, but Walton’s work in retelling the stories of the Mabinogion for modern audiences is admirable.
The Mabinogion Tetralogy — (1936-1974) Publisher: Evangeline Walton’s The Mabinogion Tetralogy is one of the remarkable achievements of twentieth-century fantasy literature: a powerful work of the imagination, ranking with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels. The author of the Mabinogion, the ancient tales based on medieval Welsh mythology and history, is unknown to us, but generations have thrilled to these magical adventures set at a time when men and gods mingled, and the gods had more than met their match. In the masterful hands of Evangeline Walton the twelve branches of the original legends were reworked into the four compelling narratives here. Walton’s triumph is to have constructed a vital and living world on the foundations of myth.