Evangeline Walton's Mabinogion

If you're looking for a way to pin down the difference in style between fairy tales and modern fantasy, a good place to start would be comparing the Welsh Mabinogion with Evangeline Walton's tetralogy based on it. The series (which I've just finished reading for the second time) starts with Prince of Annwn, continues in the more tightly connected The Children of Llyr and The Song of Rhiannon, and ends in The Island of the Mighty. The books weren't written in the internal chronological order, but (perhaps because they're based on different parts of a pre-existing story) this doesn't much show. One can, perhaps, notice some improvement in Ms Walton's writing skills from her early The Island of the Mighty (first published in 1936) to the books written in the early '70s -- particularly in how the philosophy is combined a bit less skilfully with the storytelling in the earlier book. But on the whole, the series is remarkable for its consistency in quality.

The author takes the mythic adventures of the heroes of the Mabinogion and, while remaining almost perfectly faithful to the events related there (so far as I recall - it's been five or six years since I've read the original), adds so much of characterization and motivation that the import is completely different. It becomes a story about the painful changes in customs that followed when new peoples invaded the Island of the Mighty (Britain) and lived alongside the native people for many generations before they became one (just in time to be invaded again -- but that's another story). The parts about the slow spreading of the discovery that men are partly responsible for the coming of children are particularly fascinating. I recommend it highly, but I would suggest you try to find a translation of the original and read that first, so that the contrast will improve both versions.

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