White Ravens (New Stories from the Mabinogion) by Owen Sheers
|White Ravens (New Stories from the Mabinogion) by Owen Sheers|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Jill Murphy|
|Summary: A reworking of Branwen, daughter of Llyr from the Mabinogion. It adds WWII, the ravens in the Tower of London and an unravelling of family tensions to the old manuscript, but it loses none of the drama and fireside feeling.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 192||Date: November 2009|
In the old tale, Branwen is the sister of Bendigeidfran - the giant King of Britain. She marries the King of Ireland, who doesn't treat her well. She manages to send Bendigeidfran a message via a tamed starling and war and killings ensue.
In this new tale, a young girl has just walked away from her brothers who, in the wake of the devastating foot and mouth outbreak, are despoiling their heritage by rustling and illegally slaughtering sheep. She meets an old man who tells her a story involving the superstitions about the ravens in the Tower of London, propaganda work during World War II, and an equally doomed love affair.
I'm completely in awe of the way Owen Sheers has drawn together multiple contemporary elements and linked back to the original to refresh this story from the Mabinogion. We begin in the Britain of today, but much of the story is set in the fairly recent past, just after World War II. It's understood that fighting in wars or witnessing catastrophically violent events - here, the slaughtering of a farm's sheep due to foot and mouth - has a profound effect on people. Their own subsequent actions can become disproportionate or even violent. This truth of the original story is brought very much to bear in White Ravens.
I like the way the legend of the Tower of London's ravens - if they leave, Britain falls - is incorporated into a story based on another legend. It creates mirrors of meanings that come very close but can never quite be caught. Parochialism is another theme - Their physical horizons were broad - on a clear day Matthew's father reckoned he could see Wales from the top of the Wicklow hills. But their personal horizons were narrow.
But most of all, it's a story of love and violence and the way passion connects them both, and it's a more than worthy continuation of an original that has survived for the best part of a thousand years.
My thanks to the nice people at Seren for sending the book.
We don't do enough re-working of the old myths and stories, you know, despite the fashion for all things ancient in fantasy. All the books that spring to mind are actually teen or young adult books. First and foremost, of course, is The Owl Service by Alan Garner, which makes use of another of the Mabigonion's stories. Also, and most shamefully unreviewed by Bookbag is the post-industrial setting of the Volsung Saga in Bloodtide by Melvin Burgess. But there's also Mal Peet putting Shakespearian tragedy into football in South America. Otherwise, if White Ravens appeals, I think you might also enjoy Flint by Margaret Redfern.
We've reviewed another book in the series, The Ninth Wave (New Stories from the Mabinogion) by Russell Celyn Jones and you really shouldn't miss it.
White Ravens (New Stories from the Mabinogion) by Owen Sheers is in the Bookbag's Christmas Gift Recommendations 2009.
You can read more book reviews or buy White Ravens (New Stories from the Mabinogion) by Owen Sheers at Amazon.co.uk.
You can read more book reviews or buy White Ravens (New Stories from the Mabinogion) by Owen Sheers at Amazon.com.
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