Thursday, March 10, 2022

The Children of Llyr

Evangeline Walton
Completed 3/9/2022, Reviewed 3/10/2022
4 stars

Interestingly, this second book (or branch) of the Mabinogion was published first.  The first book, The Prince of Annwn, was published third.  But I’m reading them in order of the branches, not published order.  This book was much more enjoyable than Annwn.  It’s a darker story, a tragedy that ends terribly.  It reminded me of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” for the heaviness of the tragedy.  It read better than Annwn as well.  My feeling is that it was told better and much more happens.  This book was nominated for the 1972 Mythopoeic Award.

The story once again takes place in Wales.  It begins with Llyr, married to the sister of the king.  He has two children.  The eldest, Bran, is destined to be king per the matrilineal order of selecting kings.  In a tragic beginning, Llyr is out collecting taxes for the king.  His kidnapped by a tribal leader.  The ransom is that the leader wants to have a night with Llyr’s wife.  She accedes.  Llyr is released and his wife bears twin sons.  Later, she bears a daughter by Llyr, Branwen.  When the children are adults and Bran is king, the king of Ireland arrives and wants to marry Branwen.  She falls in love with him and Bran, Manawyddan, and Nissyen agree to the bargain.  However, the evil twin, Evnissyen, is furious that he wasn’t consulted and that they would let her marry an outsider.  He kills a Irishman and mutilates two of the king’s horses.  Bran rectifies the situation by offering the Irish king a cauldron that brings back the dead.  He agrees, but the relationship between him and Branwen becomes tense.  She bears a child who will become king of Ireland and would also succeed Bran, unifying the countries.  However, the king’s closest men despise Branwen and convince him to make her a kitchen drudge, suffering abuse and despair.  This leads to terrible bitterness and eventual war.

That’s just the bare outline of the story.  There are so many more details in this terrible story of distrust and xenophobia.  And all this tragedy makes for really good characterization.  I felt much more attuned to who the characters were in this book.  I could empathize with Bran, who besides being a wise and gentle king, was also a giant.  I also felt the love and the despair of Branwen as she goes from Irish queen to an abused servant.  Even Evnissyen, the evil twin, has a background that makes his badness understandable.  

While this book is much more readable than its predecessor, it’s still kind of old in its storytelling style.  Walton’s goal was to flesh out the myth, but it reads much more like some of the stories from Tolkien’s Silmarillion than a contemporary fantasy novel.  It’s a little dry.  Still, there’s enough going on that it carries you through the dull parts.  I give this book four stars out of five.  

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