|The 'Owl Service' plate design, which can be flowers or owls|
Myth and legend are very important to me. They inhabit a special, deep place in my mind and often appear in my work in unexpected ways. The surface matter might seem unconnected but the myths contain abiding and archetypal truths about human relationships and the human condition that have nothing to do with trivial considerations, such as time and place. While I was writing "This Is Not Forgiveness", I was drawn to the story of Blodeuedd . My story would be a contemporary fiction, but this ancient story of two men who set out to create a woman from flowers, and two other young men who seek to possess her, seemed to contain the essence of my tale. While I was writing the book, I was drawn to the legend again and again.
‘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.
|'Blodeuedd' by Alan Lee, 1984|
(The Mabinogion trans. Sioned Davies)
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.
|Barn owl by Arthur Rackham (illlustration to 'Jorinda and Jorindel')|
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.
'This Is Not Forgiveness' by Celia Rees is published by Bloomsbury, £6.99