Kath Filmer-Davies’s Fantasy Fiction and Welsh Myth: Tales of Belonging

cover, Fantasy Fiction and Welsh Myth: Tales of Belonging Contemporary fantasy writers such as Susan Cooper and Jane Yolen are drawing more and more on ancient Welsh mythic tales and folklore as the basis of their stories. (See Grey Walker’s review of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series.) Australian resident Kath Filmer-Davies is a Celtic researcher and twice winner of the Mythopoeic Society’s Scholarship Award in Myth and Fantasy Studies. She has courses by mail in Celtic Studies and Arthuriana, and edits The Journal of Myth, Fantasy and Romanticism: Journal of the Mythopoeic Literature Society of Australia. In Fantasy Fiction and Welsh Myth she turns her keen eye on the matter of how Welsh myth is shaped by fantasy writers seeking to create something fresh.

Jo Morrison notes in her comparative review of two different translations of The Mabinogion that “grand quests, swords, sorcery, gods, mortals, love, war, and a healthy sense of mystery can all be found in The Mabinogion.” But the author of this book rejects the commonly held theory that the richly detailed epics are why fantasy writers turn to the Welsh myths for inspiration. Instead, she believes their popularity stems from a sense of belonging she sees as inherent in the Welsh people and their myths.

Kath Filmer-Davies is a proponent of what is termed mythopoeic writing. “Mythopoeic” means “making” (poien, from which the word “poet” is derived) “myth” (mythos). The mythopoeic advocates believe in what Robert Graves called The White Goddess, a literal channeling of the goddess as poetic muse. So the Welsh myths are not simply tales, but reflections of true tales from long ago. Indeed, Graves subtitled his book The White Goddess “A historical grammar of poetic myth,” his way of saying that myth is poetry and poetry when done right becomes myth. It’s important to remember, though, that The White Goddess is about the grammar of poetry and myth, not ancient history. Graves is exploring a pattern of thought, not describing ‘how it was’. And Kath Filmer-Davies is very much influenced by Robert Graves and his often overly complex ramblings.

Filmer-Davies in her foreword quotes C.S. Lewis on mythopoeic writing, saying it …:

… may even be one of the greatest arts; for it produces works which give us at the first meeting as much delight and (on prolonged acquaintance) as much wisdom and strength as the works of the greatest poets. It is in some ways more akin to music than to poetry – or at least to most poetry. It goes beyond the expression of things we have already felt. It arouses in us sensations we have never had before, never anticipated having, as though we had broken out of our normal mode of consciousness and ‘possessed joys not promised to our birth’. It gets under our skin, hits us at a level deeper than our thoughts or even our passions, troubles oldest certainties till all questions are reopened, and in general shocks us more fully awake than we are for most of our lives. (C.S. Lewis in the Preface to George MacDonald, An Anthology)

Our author believes that the core essence and therefore the strength of the Welsh myths is that they are intrinsically bound to a “sense of place.” (How this differs from any other people of a similar nature is not explained. The longing of such people as the Irish for home is well documented in both verse and prose.) She goes about proving this somewhat dubious thesis by discussing the works of such popular authors as Lloyd Alexander, Madeleine L’Engle, Alan Garner and Stephen Lawhead. She notes that historical romances also have fantasy elements; e.g., the works of Sharon Kay Penman, Edith Pargeter, and Barbara Erskine.

Arthurian literature and films are also touched upon in a discussion of the Celtic notion of the hero and its importance, on a mythopoeic level, for the individual. But she always comes back to her thesis that all humans need a sense of belonging to a physical place. She notes:

One of the greatest needs of individuals in the closing years of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first is the need to belong, to feel safe and secure in a place which is their spiritual if not their physical home. The cultural effects of the widespread physical displacement of populations across the world – people of European descent in the Americas, Australasia and southern Africa, Afro-Caribbeans and Asians in Britain and continental Europe, indigenous peoples in areas settled in recent history by Europeans – lead in many cases to an awareness of spiritual displacement which can drive individuals to seek ways of regaining their inheritance. If this cultural and spiritual recovery cannot be brought about by political means, it may well be achieved in part by the study of story and myth, traditional elements which can forge strong cultural links and create an enduring sense of belonging.

What she does not prove to my satisfaction is that “Welsh stories, used with skill by accomplished story-tellers, break down cultural barriers, establish humanity as one family, remove our deepest fears and fill us with assurance and hope.” It’s a pity that that was the thesis of Fantasy Fiction and Welsh Myth: Tales of Belonging, as it has some cracking good stuff in it that is not related to the thesis. For example, the chapter on pigs in Welsh mythology (“The Place of the Pig-Keeper: To Know Oneself”), while not justifying the fifty-dollar price of the book, is well worth reading, as is the chapter titled “Welsh Myth in Historical Novels.” It is obvious that she is trying far too hard to prove that there’s something unique about the Welsh that transcends their cultural borders. Unfortunately, I have seen the same argument made about the French, the Irish, the Scottish, and a dozen other cultures.

Is this book worth picking up? Only if you’re really interested in Welsh myth. Even than I’d suggest you go read a decent translation of The Mabinogion as it’s far more entertaining than this attempt to make Welsh myth relevant!

(St. Martin’s Press, 1996)

Cat Eldridge

I'm the publisher of Green Man Review. I do the Birthdays and Media Anniversary write-ups for Mike Glyer’s file770.com, the foremost SFF fandom site.

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