Welsh Mythology and Folklore in Popular Culture, edited by Audrey L. Becker and Kristin Noone, is, as one might expect, a scholarly anthology focusing on the influence and outright appropriation of Welsh mythology and legends in popular culture through the twentieth century. The editors make some large claims for the influence of Welsh mythology and legends on modern popular culture in their introduction, “Re-Imagining Wales,” which does make one important point: the Wales of the Mabinogi, the central body of Welsh myth, is not the “real” Wales. (This, of course, is true of any folklore, but I think the point bears repeating: it’s the flavor of those fantastic spaces, Wales no less than any other, that’s the important part.)
C. W. Sullivan III, in “Celtic Studies and Modern Fantasy Literature,” give a historical perspective on the rise of Celtic Studies as a discipline and relates it to the growth of Celtic, and particularly Welsh influences on fantasy literature, citing such authors as Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and Evangeline Walton.
With that background in place, the book begins with a complex of essays focusing first on Evangline Walton’s Mabinogion, a retelling of the Welsh cycle written in the 1930s as a cycle of novels. Kristin Noone’s “‘The Rough, Savage Strength of Earth’: Evangeline Walton’s Human Heroes and Mythic Spaces” is a lively and eminently readable essay giving an in-depth analysis of the themes in Walton’s classic. Nicole A. Thomas, in “Branwen’s Shame: Voicing the Silent Feminine in Evangeline Walton’s The Children of Llyr,” discusses that book of Walton’s tetralogy from the perspective of feminist criticism, focusing on Walton’s treatment of the essential “feminine” in the character of Branwen. In complete honesty, I find “schools” of criticism limited in their outlook, and wonder if that might be at least part of the cause of Thomas’ failure to point up possible (probable?) echoes of earlier Celtic societies, in which women had much more autonomy and power, in the admittedly Christianized version that has come down to us. Likewise, Deborah Hooker’s “Disavowing Maternity in Evangeline Walton’s The Virgin and the Swine: Fantasy Meets the Social Protest Fiction of the 1930s,” also from a feminist perspective, relates Walton’s work, somewhat tenuously, to my mind, to three other works written during the Depression by women, comparing treatment of the stereotypical “feminine.”
Geoffrey Reiter, in “‘An Age-Old Memory’: Arthur Machen’s Celtic Redaction of the Welsh Revival in The Great Return” attempts to relate Machen’s Great Return to both the Protestant Revival of the early twentieth century and the Four Branches.
Susana Brower’s “Magical Goods, ‘Orphaned’ Exchanges, Punishment and Power in the Fourth Branch of the ‘Mabinogi'” portrays the text of the Mabnogi as subversive of the exchange/gift economy of the early Celts and attempts to tie this to cultural exchange and transmission.
“The Hand at the Window: Twm Siôn Cati, the Welsh Colonial Trickster,” by Jonathan Evans and Stephen Knight, follows the creation of the “Welsh Robin Hood” through an examination of the conflict between “Welshness” and the imposed English-language culture.
Tyler D. Parry’s “An Irregular Union: Exploring the Welsh Connection to a Popular African-American Wedding Ritual” links a wedding tradition of African-American — jumping the broom — to an old Welsh custom through the agency of slave-owning Welsh immigrants to the New World.
Megan MacAlystre, in “Constructing Myth in Music: Heather Dale, King Arthur and ‘Culhwch and Olwen’,” explores the idea of the folksinger as heir to the bardic tradition, particularly as the modern repository of our unwritten traditional lore. This serves as something of a bridge to the latter portion of the collection, which moves into more recent times and other media.
Lynnette R. Porter’s “Torchwood‘s ‘Spooky-Do’s’: A Popular Culture Perspective on Celtic Mythology” is a rather sprawling essay that tries to link Cardiff as a nexus between Here and Other, drawing in science fiction and “mythic” elements (i.e., Capt. Jack Harkness as a mythic figure because of his near immortality and status as time traveler).
“Everyday Magic: Howl’s Moving Castle and Fantasy as Sociopolitical Commentary,” by Carolynn Wilcox, provides a comparative discussion of the methods used by Diana Wynne Jones in Howl’s Moving Castle, and by Hayao Miyazaki in his anime adaptation, to reinforce the “normalcy” of the fantasy milieu while at the same time engaging in social and political commentary. One basic idea that might have helped clarify Wilcox’ thesis is simply that speculative fiction, by its very nature, engages in social and political commentary as a matter of course.
Jeff Hicks, “Loosely Based: The Problems of Adaptation in Disney’s The Black Cauldron” is largely a critique of the Disney film adapted from the first two novels of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, itself derived from the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, based in a discussion of the difficulties of translating the violence and death of mythology to animation while trying to maintain a G rating.
Clay Kinchen Smith’s “We’re Not in Cymru Anymore: What’s Really Happening in the Online Mabinogi” is, in essence, a diatribe against consumerism and the political and social neomedievalism implicit in our ever-shrinking world. The connection is with Welsh mythology is simply that the game, although given the title Mabinogi, doesn’t draw on Welsh sources at all.
Audrey L. Becker, in “Temporality, Teleology and the Mabinogi in the Twenty-First Century,” considers three contemporary adaptations of the Mabinogi — film, video game, and novella. She notes particularly that these contemporary appropriations have been produced by Welsh creators and producers, in distinction to the Online Mabinogi, which utilizes characters but doesn’t connect to the meanings of the original.
The essays, as they begin to deal with more contemporary adaptations into different media, move farther and farther away from any real focus on Welsh mythology. This is not to say that the various writers’ offerings are not, in themselves, valid discussions, but that the very tenuousness of the connection calls into question the collection’s central thesis, as stated by Becker in her concluding essay: “We appear to be having a Mabinogi moment.”
One further note: as is fairly common in collections of this sort, there is a variety of critical approaches that are more or less dressed up in critical jargon. If you’re not up on “onomastic connections” or “teleological meanings,” be warned.