Authors: Niall Griffiths
Â© Niall Griffiths 2010
ISBN 978-1-85411-613-0 (EPUB edition)
The right ofÂ Niall GriffithsÂ to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.Â
A CIP record for this title is available from the British Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted at any time or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior permission of the copyright holder.
This book is a work of fiction. The characters and incidents portrayed are the work of the author's imagination. Any other resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Cover design by Mathew Bevan
Inner design and typesetting by [email protected]
Ebook conversion by Caleb Woodbridge
The publisher acknowledges the financial support of the Welsh Books Council.
Some stories, it seems, just keep on going. Whatever you do to them, the words are still whispered abroad, a whistle in the reeds, a bird's song in your ear.
Every culture has its myths; many share ingredients with each other. Stir the pot, retell the tale and you draw out something new, a new flavour, a new meaning maybe. There's no one right version. Perhaps it's because myths were a way of describing our place in the world, of putting people and their search for meaning in a bigger picture that they linger in our imagination.
The eleven stories of the
(âstory of youth') are diverse native Welsh tales taken from two medieval manuscripts. But their roots go back hundreds of years, through written fragments and the unwritten, storytelling tradition. They were first collected under this title, and translated into English, in the nineteenth century.
brings us Celtic mythology, Arthurian romance, and a history of the Island of Britain seen through the eyes of medieval Wales âbut tells tales that stretch way beyond the boundaries of contemporary Wales, just as the âWelsh' part of this island once did: Welsh was once spoken as far north as Edinburgh. In one tale, the gigantic Bendigeidfran wears the crown of London, and his severed head is buried there, facing France, to protect the land from invaders.
There is enchantment and shape-shifting, conflict, peacemaking, love, betrayal. A wife conjured out of flowers is punished for unfaithfulness by being turned into an owl, Arthur and his knights chase a magical wild boar and its piglets from Ireland across south Wales to Cornwall, a prince changes places with the king of the underworld for a yearâ¦
Many of these myths are familiar in Wales, and some have filtered through into the wider British tradition, but others are little known beyond the Welsh border. In this series of New Stories from the Mabinogion the old tales are at the heart of the new, to be enjoyed wherever they are read.
Each author has chosen a story to reinvent and retell for their own reasons and in their own way: creating fresh, contemporary tales that speak to us as much of the world we know now as of times long gone.
Penny Thomas, series editor
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.
There appeared a third warrior, too, ruler of an ancient empire in the east, who had been brother to the two other warriors for some time but had now turned against them. So the warrior of the vast land across the big water was launching his armies at him, followed by his partner warrior, ruler of an ancient island whose colours were once bright and which flew over much of the world but were now fading and becoming dimmer, like the colours of a flag left to flap for too long in the bleaching sun and running rain and whipping wind.
This man's standing was a low one in the world and he was saddened and dismayed to see the power enjoyed by his partner over the big water, so he sought out his advisors and warriors of high rank who told him to not follow his partner's armies into the east but he saw that if he listened to them his own standing would fall yet further. A mighty mur-mur rose amongst his people but he heeded them not and gave the orders for swords to be sharpened and armour buckled and steeds charged; he could not let his brother go alone, he thought, against the warlord in the east, who, the warrior of the ancient island knew, had many weapons in hiding. The brother warrior's country had come to the aid of the island warriors in times past and blood-clogged and he told his people of the âblood debt' they owed and they laughed at him but he believed his own words; not one of the thousand voices ranged against him could ever for one moment make him doubt his own words.
So his orders were passed and passed down through offices and via papers until they found footings in beating hearts and wheels began to roll and ships to sail and steeds to snort and the tips of lances caught the sun that, by his actions, the warrior hoped would cease to set on his ancient island and a great number of his troops were told to prepare themselves for war and this they did, some by nestling within their families, others by fulfilling desires, and others by abandoning themselves for what could be the last and final time to the joys of flesh and skin in celebrations that, this time, for them, were coloured more by desperation than previously.Â What will I see, each one wondered. What will I do? In a land of sand and searing sun what blood will I see spilled and when I bend to study its pools a-sizzling in the heat what face will I see redly reflected in the seething scarlet sheen. And, as they'd been taught to, they also thought: Christ I'm in the mood to kill some fucking ragheads. I can't
to slot some fucking ragheads.
One retinue on this quest to forget what had yet to happen was made up of soldier Ronnie, soldier Robert, and soldier Rhys, all from the middle part of the ancient country that juts out like a belly from the bigger island to which it is joined. In five days or so they will be on a ship sailing to attack that land in the east and flush out the warlord's weapons and destroy his armies, friend-that-was, and since receiving their date of departure they have been imbibing potions and powders of a kind which tease dreams out of the air and into their heads and which chirrup like birds and howl like wolves and clang like the meeting of shields. They have chased rainbows to slide down going whee and hunted bunkers in which to hide from their imminent mission in tavern and inn and flashing party and private house, their shoulders bowed under the great weight heaped on them; their country expects, they have been told, the millions of others of their blood and type are agog for them to prove that the heroic spirit of their ancient race is not dead and that their land can still spawn great emperors and kings and that the blood of knights and crusaders irrigates their limbs. They have not slept or eaten for some time and that is where they are now, hungry and tired, looking for food and somewhere to slumber in a small village familiar to them all. The time of the year is spring, typically wet and sodden. They are moving towards the house of Red Helen.
â Why's she called Red Helen?
â Cos she's got red hair, says Ronnie. â Bright red.Â Not joking, I mean she dyes it, like. Has done since she was a kid. Always bright red.
Neither Ronnie nor Robert nor Rhys look, at this moment, like the heroes they have been told that they are. The eyes of heroes are not sunk in haunted pits nor are their lips cracked like lake beds in drought nor do their limbs shake and spasm as if with a lethal fever. Nor do they bear pimples and cuts and bruises and nor do they whimper; especially nor do they whimper in unguarded moments, usually alone, at urinal or cashpoint or kebab counter or bar. No, heroes should never be heard to whimper. In the skin and eyes of heroes there shines a kind of tragic light; but here, in these three skins and six eyes, there crackles only the exhaustion that comes from excess and indulgence sought to stave off fear.
The village they are in consists of one short main road and a loose grouping of houses scattered across the hillside above, just below the tree line.Â That main road is now shop-less: the butcher, the baker, the grocer, all now private dwellings. Pub-less, too; the Stag's Head, which had been serving beer for five centuries but would never do so again since the conditions of selling, by the PubCo that has bought it, stipulate that it must never be re-opened as a hostelry, has boards on its windows like lifeless eyes, a For Sale sign in its empty car park and 2,000Â fag butts trodden into the filth outside its padlocked and grilled front door beneath the âNo Smoking'Â sign. And chapel-less, too, the village; the building that once performed that office now gutted of pew and font and renovated into a second home for someone involved in televisual media in the big city to the south.
Silent, the village, only the recent rain tinkling through the trees' leaves. This Saturday afternoon in the infant years of the second millennium and no person moves through it. Seated they are behind draped windows. No noises from the pub, no chatter from the gardens. Sodden atomisation of this ancient island.
The house of Red Helen stands in the middle of a stone terrace, over the road from the dead pub, its stone darkened by a century of passing traffic and acid erosion from the frequent rain. No smoke curls from its chimney but shapes, vaguely humanoid, can be discerned moving behind the grime of the windows. The door that Ronnie knocks on bears no number and has peeled down to the bare grey wood in parts and sports, in its lower left panel, a jagged indentation from a past kick.
A woman made of dough and with hair the colour of a wound opens the door. The raisins of her eyes roll over the three trembling beseechers on her step.
â Thought you were off to Afghanistan?
â Iraq, Ronnie says. â Next week. Gunner let us in?
Red Helen stands aside and they enter and she closes the door after them and shuts out the street and the village and the country and the world and the stink in the house is of cat piss and baby sick and cheap fried food gone rancid and fag smoke and sherry and sweat. The carpet in the front room is holed and uneven, swollen by damp and subsidence and hides in its nap some crude mould sprouted from vile spillage unknown and the houseplants on the windowsill and on top of the TV have long since perished to grey twigs. The TV shows some programme on which four middle-aged women cackle and parts of the carpet are clogged with cat shit and Red Helen squats to hold a match to a scorched gas fire. Our three heroes in this home fit for them watch Red Helen, see her t-shirt ride up over the elasticated waist of her grey jogging bottoms, see the yellow âM' of her thong bisect the antler-like tattoo in the small of her back before the threads lose themselves in the white ripples of fat at the hips.