Friday 17 December 2010

Fairytale Reflections (14) Celia Rees

Celia Rees, best known for her historical novels, is not commonly regarded as a fantasy writer.  And if what you mean by ‘fantasy’ is a medieval-style secondary world filled with wizardry, dark lords, elves and sorcery, then indeed, Celia doesn’t do that stuff.  But we all know the boundaries of fantasy are wider than that single stereotype.  The titles of Celia’s historical YA novels (such as ‘Witch Child’, ‘Sorceress’, ‘Pirates!’) betray her interest in writing what I would describe as strongly themed, folklore-inspired fiction.  Of ‘Witch Child’, for example, Celia says:

I studied American history at university and can remember thinking about those first settlers, surrounded by vast forests… an ocean from home.  Many years later I was reading about 17th century witch persecutions in England and I began to speculate.  What did that mean, to be a witch?  I thought of it as a kind of shamanism.  It occurred to me that Native Americans were a shamanistic people.  The beliefs and skills which would have condemned a girl in one community would have been revered in the other.  That got me thinking: ‘What if there was a girl who was a witch.  What if she went to America, thinking she would be safe there?’

‘Witch Child’ won the Di Cento prize in Italy in 2001 and the prestigious Prix Sorcières in France in 2003.  (And of course Sorcières means ‘witches’…)  Then came its sequel ‘Sorceress’; the colourful ‘Pirates!’ concerning two 18th century girls who take to the high seas; and ‘Sovay’, based on an old English ballad about a female highwayman who holds up her lover at pistol point.  In many of Celia’s novels there is a subtle touch of the supernatural.  She has even written stories about ghosts and vampires… and in the ‘The Stone Testament’, she combines in one intricate Chinese puzzle of a book, Victorian explorers, an ancient civilization, a worldwide modern suicide cult, the End of Days, a supernatural crystal skull, and the reappearance of the Beast Gods from the far past. 

So I do think she qualifies...

And all her books are so well written that really I want to quote from each one I pick up. You’ll have to make do with just two.  This is from the beginning of the ‘The Stone Testament’:

Mikel sang the Song of Leaving.  The land was doomed to die, along with all living plants and animals.  The only way to survive was to depart.

…He had been here for more than a day, sitting cross-legged and motionless, high on the cliff above the Cape of Souls, where three oceans met.  …The waves collapsed back into a furious chaos of white water which turned in wide spirals… moving always towards one central pool which lay directly below the face of the cliff.  Here the water was still and black, solid like glass. The Eye of the Sea.

There was something different about the bulging lens of water, something wrong.  The boy was disturbed in some deep way but knew better that to stare into the terrifying swirl of currents.  To look would mean to be sucked down… as surely as the spirits of the departing dead, who whispered past him on the final stage of their journey.  In a late stuttering rush the souls of men, women and children came skittering around him, like dead leaves blown on the wind. 

(Am I right to suspect a quiet echo of Milton's Paradise Lost there: where the fallen angels lie ‘thick as autumnal leaves that strew the brooks/In Vallombrosa…’ ?)  Anyway, here, in completely different mood, is a passage from ‘Pirates!’  The white girl Nancy and the black girl Minerva, both dressed as young men, stroll through the capital of a Caribbean island at dusk:

White stars blazed across the sky.  I looked up at them, reading the constellations, wanting to set a course that would take us far away from everyone and everything, to a place where we could live together without danger and free.

“What are you thinking?” Minerva asked.

“Oh, I don’t know.”  I thrust my hands in my pockets.  “I was thinking of a song.  About a magical ship with ropes of silk and sails of silver and mast made from the rowan tree.  I was thinking how good it would be to set sail in her and steer for the sun and the moon and stars.”

Minerva looked away from me.  To the harbour.  “Do you regret the turns your life has taken?”

I didn’t answer, because I didn’t know.

After studying History and Politics at the University of Warwick, Celia spent 17 years teaching English in city comprehensive schools.  She began writing in 1989, and has published over twenty books for older children and teenagers, which have been translated into 28 languages and shortlisted for many major awards.  Her most recently published book, ‘The Fool’s Girl’, draws its inspiration from Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’, and I reviewed it here.   And her Fairytale Reflection is the story of –


‘she wants to be flowers and you make her owls...’ (The Owl Service, Alan Garner)

Blodeuedd is a story from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion. I first came across it when I was eleven or twelve years old and reading my way through the Myths, Legends and Fairy Tales section of the school library. There, I discovered Lady Charlotte Guest’s translation of the Mabinogion, that great collection of Welsh stories. I was familiar with Greek myths and legends, stories of the Norse gods, but these tales were new to me and they were our stories, stories from the British Isles. There were familiar characters, I recognised King Arthur, but this was not the Arthur I knew. There was a strangeness here and a power. Many of the stories did not make sense on first reading; there was a denseness about them, a feeling that the tales contained many stories, concentrated and packed together. This did not detract from my enjoyment. It merely added to the mystery. Here were kings, queens, magicians and shape shifters, golden ships, magic cauldrons, giants and dragons but behind them it was possible to sense something far more ancient, darker: more dangerous and more powerful.

I have continued to be fascinated by the Mabinogion, by its elusiveness and by its hints at other meanings, the remnants of a much more ancient storytelling tradition reaching back into an otherwise unknowable pre-history. The Mabinogion has proved a rich source of raw material for many of our greatest fantasy writers: Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Susan Cooper and, of course, Alan Garner who used the story of Blodeuedd as the basis for his novel The Owl Service.

Then they took the flowers of the oak, and the flowers of the broom, and the flowers of the meadowsweet, and from these they conjured up the fairest and the most beautiful maiden that anyone had ever seen. And they baptised her in the way they had at that time, and named her Blodeuedd.

She is made from the sweet smelling flowers of summer, gold for beauty, white for purity. ‘They’ are Math, a powerful magician, and his nephew, Gwdyion, shape shifter and story teller. They are making a wife for Lleu Llaw Gyffes, miraculous child and now strapping young man. The boy’s mother, the great queen Aranrhod, will not own him and Math and Gwdyion resort to trickery to get her to grant him the trappings that will mark him as noble: a name, arms, a wife. They have already tricked her into naming and arming him but she has got wise to their wiles and places a bane upon the boy: ‘He will never have a wife from the race that is on this earth.’  Undeterred, Math and Gwydion make him a woman out of flowers but they cannot control her. They cannot make her love Lleu, or prevent her from falling in love with another: Gronw Pebr, lord of Penllyn, who is staying in her house. When Lleu is called away, she betrays him with his guest. Even though Lleu is protected and can only be killed in the most bizarre and unlikely set of circumstances, she manages to overcome protections to enable Gronw to kill him with a spear. Lleu is, of course, no ordinary mortal, so at the moment of his death he changes into an eagle. Gwydion finds him and restores his true self. Then Gwydion goes after Blodeuedd. In punishment for what she has done, he turns her into an owl.

‘I will not kill you. I will do worse. Namely, I release you in the form of a bird … you will never dare show your face in daylight for fear of all the birds … You shall not lose your name, however, but will always be called Blodeuwedd. Blodeuwedd is owl in today’s language and for that reason the birds hate the owl and the owl is called Blodeuwedd ’ 

Gronw Pebr, the adulterous guest, does not escape punishment. He is made to stand on the same spot where Lleu he was standing when he was killed. He is allowed to put a stone between himself and his attacker, but Lleu’s spear goes through the stone and kills him. So ends the story of Blodeuedd, and so ends the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion. 

I like magicians who make mistakes. Their mistake is to think that they can make a woman out of flowers, or anything else, and expect to control her, or crucially expect her to obey human rules. It is all bound to go hideously wrong. On the other hand, you cannot get away with breaking the universal, ancient and binding obligations of a wife to her husband, or a guest to his host. Those who do so will inevitably be punished.

The mistakes, the misplaced love, the infidelity, the punishment, all make the story very human. One of the most intriguing aspects to the story is its association with an identifiable place: Nantlleu – the  valley of Lleu. The Nantlle(u) Valley is located along the Llyfni river to the east of  Pen-y-groes and Tal-y-sarn in North Wales. Even more intriguingly, a stone pierced with a hole was found in a local river in 1934. This gives the story an unusual and powerful validity, a sense that these things really happened in this place, something not lost on Alan Garner, when he set his modern re-telling in this actual valley. Behind these characters, however, stand greater, more shadowy figures, hinted at by the powers, abilities, and often names associated with them. Lleu, for example, is set apart by the bane upon him, his special protection, his great strength and above all his name which associates him with Lugh, the Celtic god, who is, in turn, identified with Mercury.  

Then there is the enigma of Blodeuedd herself. Math and Gwdyion don’t destroy her. How can they? She is their creation. They make her into an owl. Somehow, in doing this, they exchange the grounded passivity of flowers for something far more potent. They give her wings and a whole new set of associations. She still has beauty. In my mind, she becomes a barn owl, one of our most beautiful native birds. In becoming an owl she takes on other meanings: fierce hunter, ghost-like harbinger of death, but also potent and universal signifier of knowledge and wisdom. These different aspects echo the dual and triple aspects of many goddesses. Blodeuedd uses her wings to fly back through time and across space, to perch on the shoulder of the Greek goddess Athene, and stand next to the great Babylonian goddess, Ishtar, who is often shown with the feet of a bird and flanked by owls.


NB: For those unfamiliar with Welsh pronunciation, 'Blodeuedd' is pronounced roughly: Blod-OY-eth


  1. I love this post! Thank you both. And I have always loved the Mabinogion and the Owl Service.

    And Blodeuedd is the Celtic Pandora, another woman made by the gods who did not do as she was told.

  2. Great post :) I came across it since I got a google update about Blodeuedd, yup been googling myself again.

  3. Purr! Must go and talk to my Owl...

  4. My favorite. So beautiful. No one asked her if she wanted to be human. She was happy being flowers. Ad I think she would also be happy being owl.

  5. Good to see Celia here - and good to see Ishtar getting a mention. Babylonian mythology has rich pickings for a fantasy author, and I found it fascinating while researching my Seven Wonders series.

    Blogger ate my comment yesterday, so hopefully this one will work...

  6. Yet another fabulous post. And more fabulous books to add to my book list.

  7. Celia comes up trumps as usual! Truly a fascinating post and Kath, your series is so exciting and interesting. I'm pleased to know more about this story...Adored the Owl Service but to my shame have never read the Mabinogion. Not too late. Am very partial to all owls, esp Pallas Athene's one. I have an white china owl on my desk....

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  9. I've always loved the story, I love flowers and owls, equally. Mary is right, she is a Welsh Pandora - let's hear it for unruly women and those who wrote about them. An added note of interest, I found an article that suggests that it was a woman, Gwenllian, daughter of the King of Gwwynedd, who first wrote down the stories that make up the Mabinogion in 1128. Of course, the person who translated the Mabinogion into English was Lady Charlotte Guest, so women have been involved all along the line. Perhaps that is why so many remarkable women are there in the stories.

  10. Wow - is that article online, Celia? It sounds fascinating and I'd love to read it.