Review of 'Assembly of the Severed Head' by Hugh Lupton
There are several versions available of the Welsh epic mythological cycle The Mabinogion but Hugh Lupton’s is strikingly different and effective. For Mabinogion geeks like myself the texts as they have come down to us in modern Welsh and English translations are a mine of wonder and magic about the soul of the country where I live. However, for the less obsessive, the stories’ stubborn refusal to explain themselves and the lack of context given in the surviving manuscripts can make them hard to get into.
Hugh Lupton’s solution is neat and inspired. Instead of treating the material as existing in some nebulous, Celtic, distant past he places it in a very clear historic period. Llywelyn ab Iorwerth was prince of Gwynedd in north Wales and married to the illegitimate daughter of the English King John. At the time Wales had not been completely conquered by the descendants of the Norman invaders although King John planned to weaken his Welsh son-in-law’s political and military power. The story starts with military defeat for Llywelyn, occupation of much of his land and the massacre of the bards in a bardic school, leaving only one old bard who had all the old stories in his head and not long left to live.
This book weaves the final great storytelling performances of the old bard with the political machinations of the time, Llywelyn’s reassertion of his power against the invaders and a touching love story that combines both urgency and tenderness.
The precarious balance of the genders is a clear theme in this book. The old bard must have both male and female listeners present and the great characters of Blodeuwedd, Rhiannnon and Branwen have a clear and determined presence in this telling. As has Siwan, Llywelyn’s Norman-French wife, who has gone completely native and allies herself with her husband’s people against her brother John, the English king.
Unlike much of the rest of European courtly literature of the time there is almost no overt Christianity in the stories. The word ‘God’ exists primarily as part of a greeting or oath and there is no priestly caste in the stories - Christian, pagan or otherwise. It is possible that there was a Druidic content in the stories before they were committed to vellum but, personally, I find it a relief that these stories are a priest-free zone. However, the Wales of the Middle Ages was a deeply Catholic country and the tensions between the Catholic and Mabinogi world views are a central part of the weave of this retelling of these stories.
The use of the old stories by the characters to understand the world together and the regular reminders that this is public material that demands orality to function is another central theme, as is the intimate connection between the stories and the Welsh landscape and how the songlines of the Mabinogion are woven into the mountains, lakes and rivers of this land.
The Catholic and Mabinogion worlds live uneasily side by side in this book and the characters have to negotiate their way between them. The small group of listeners are provoked to comment on and discuss the stories and sometimes interject in the actual telling, just as contemporary storytelling audiences do. All are pulled into the stories the old bard tells, even the monk who, against his better judgement, is writing them down.
Although set in the distant, historic past the medieval characters in this novel have to navigate issues that contemporary readers will resonate with. Juggling competing and ultimately incompatible world views on a daily basis, war and dislocation, struggles for linguistic and political hegemony and pitting hope against fear.
The book is lively, readable and the author alternates from a clear, clipped style not that different from the way the surviving manuscripts tell the tales, to a more openend-out and fully detailed style that we expect from the novel form. The changing focus from the Mabinogion stories to the lives of those who are living their lives as they listen to them in this book helps to save the old material from languishing in the Literary Treasure cupboard and reinvigorates them as tools for living in difficult times and a reminder that we are living, in the words of the Welsh poet Waldo Williams, ‘mewn cwmwl tystion’/‘in a cloud of witnesses’.