Back to Cardiff again – and a long train journey means lots of time to read another classic. Hmm – Wales, classic – it’s got to be the Mabinogion, a collection of about a dozen stories from the Welsh oral tradition, first written down in about the fourteenth century.
After about ten minutes of flipping from the text back to the section in the introduction about pronunciation, I decide to copy out the notes onto the piece of paper I’m using as a bookmark. Although the Welsh and Irish languages are closely related, you’d never guess it from the way they’re written. Maybe I should have got this as an audio book. Let’s see – ‘dd’ sounds like ‘th’, ‘w’ is ‘oo’, ‘f’ is ‘v’, but ‘ff’ is ‘f’…
That helps. Now that I know how to pronounce the names of characters, it’s easier to get into the story. It’s not very long, and it feels as though it was once a lot longer. It doesn’t really have one overall plot – rather overlapping stories of Welsh princes, with appearances by characters from Irish myth and legend, and also people from further afield – the Emperor of Rome, the Empress of Constantinople – not to mention King Arthur.
If you’re interested in Arthurian legends, you really ought to read this, as it has some of the oldest surviving Arthur stories, from before they had been adapted by French storytellers, then imported back into Britain. Unfortunately this means there are times when it reminds me of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which makes it hard to take seriously – particularly when someone has to fight a knight called the Black Oppressor!
Like most oral histories, there are bits which feel slightly repetitive. Ysbaddaden Chief Giant sets a load of impossible tasks for the man who wishes to marry his daughter, to each of which he answers “It is easy for me to get that, though thou think it is not easy” – at least thirty times! And at one point there are six pages listing about three hundred people at King Arthur’s court, many of which sound like something out of Tolkien – Nodawl Cut-beard, Osla Big-knife, Gwyn the Irascible…
Time flies in a blur of doubled consonants, and soon I’m in Cardiff. I’m staying at the Angel Hotel – once upon a time anyone who was anyone stayed here – Hollywood stars, prime ministers, the Beatles. Now it’s my turn. The hotel’s right opposite Cardiff Castle, so the apartments at the front must have great views of the clock tower. However, I’m not a celebrity. My room is tucked away at the back – but it’s comfy.
As it’s an overcast day, I decide to give the castle a miss for now, and stay under cover. Luckily Cardiff has several Victorian and Edwardian arcades. The forerunners of the modern shopping malls, these little covered streets of shops meant Victorian ladies could go shopping whatever the weather. Many of the shops still have their original shop fronts – I like the ones with ornamental stone (larvikite) bases, and curved glass windows. Lots of little boutiques, selling clothes, fancy dress, buttons – and lots of cafes.
After a pleasant browse, I go in to Seasons, a cafe and bar on the corner of Castle Arcade, because it serves traditional Welsh food (and, less traditionally, cocktails). I don’t have time for a meal right now, so I just have mini Welsh cakes. They’re a bit like a fruit scone, but slightly sweeter and spicier, and not as thick – served on a piece of slate with strawberries and cream. They are yummy. I think I’ll be back again to try out another national dish.
Walking back past Cardiff Castle I can see the wall – which has at least a dozen statues of life-sized animals crawling over it: pelican, anteater, panther, monkey, seal, to name just a few. Originally they were painted, to make them even more lifelike – and some of them have glass eyes, which glitter as cars go by. A brown-eyed bear is winking at me…
Now that I’m hearing Welsh accents (or possibly because I’m eating Welsh food?) the Mabinogion seems to be flowing more smoothly. Back I go, into a world where everyone wears brocaded silk, and all the women are beautiful – and there are several references to people with auburn/red hair being handsome, which proves that these stories were for a Celtic audience, rather than an English one. But it’s not all fair damsels in frocks. Some women do have a rough time of it (variously abducted, raped, falsely accused of child murder, forced to carry people on their back, turned into an owl).
But at least two rapists are subjected to an inventive punishment; they are transformed for a year into deer, then the following year into wild boar, then the next year into wolves. And each year they alternate genders, so that when they are finally allowed to return to human form, each has the shame of having borne the other man’s offspring!
Next day – a clear sunny morning means I’m off to Cardiff Castle. Parts of it go back to Roman times. The castle keep is Norman (12th century), the main part of the castle is 15th century, with additions in the 18th century. But what makes this castle really interesting is the fact that the whole place was overhauled in the 19th century when the incredibly rich 3rd Marquess of Bute teamed up with architect William Burges to redecorate most of the castle in the Victorian Gothic Revival style.
The fact that it was an authentic medieval castle wasn’t enough for them – it had to look like a child’s dream of Camelot. So everywhere is painted, decorated, tiled, gilded. It might be a bit much for some tastes, but it is stunning – like finding yourself inside a Pre-Raphaelite painting. It’s incredible, the amount of effort and expense, considering that the family had several other properties, and stayed here for just six weeks of the year.
The nursery has tiled walls, decorated with characters from fairy tales. The library looks like something out of Hogwarts. One of the bathrooms is tiled with samples of different types of marble, each with its name inscribed in gold. The fireplaces, the ceilings – anything that can be decorated, is. There’s even a Mediterranean villa on the roof, which is struggling to cope with the damp Welsh climate. But there is one room which is decorated in a more restrained style – apparently the wife of the marquess put her foot down and insisted on one fashionable room for entertaining her guests.
Given all its architectural diversity, it’s hardly surprising that Cardiff Castle has often made appearances on film and television, and I “Squeeee!” like a fan-girl when I go into the banqueting hall, as I suddenly recognise it from an episode of Doctor Who (Heaven Sent – that character behind bars is on the fireplace).
Next I explore the tunnels beneath the castle, which have displays showing how they were used as air-raid shelters during the Second World War – including lots of wartime posters (which seem to make English tourists nostalgic, and Chinese tourists baffled). Then it’s off to the keep.
The stone keep is the best preserved example of its kind in Wales, and it looks just like the ones I drew pictures of for history homework as a child. There are very steep steps to get up the mound on which the keep is built, and then more steep narrow steps to get up to the top of the tower. I decide not to go up the very last flight as, while I know I could get up there, I think my big clompy walking boots might give me trouble trying to get down again going backwards. Turns out to be the right decision, as once more it’s trying to rain. At least I’m able to take some interesting photos of the keep, reflected in puddles.
I’ve walked miles, so I think I’ve earned my lunch. Back to Seasons. I’m tempted by cawl (a lamb broth) but finally choose crempog – a sort of omlette/pancake, but denser – interesting texture, almost like a crumpet. This one’s filled with leek, mushroom and a local cheese, with pan-fried potatoes. Again, yummy.
After reading the Mabinogion, I now want to re-read The Dark Is Rising sequence, by Susan Cooper, which is inspired by Arthurian myth and features characters mentioned in the Mabinogion. But there’s something else I need to read first.
One section of the Mabinogion deals with Lleu Llaw Gyffes, who has a curse: he can never have a wife of any race now on earth. No problem – a wife is made for him out of flowers, called Blodeuwedd. But she falls in love with Gronw, and tells him how he can kill Lleu. This being a myth, Lleu doesn’t stay dead for long. He kills Gronw, and Blodeuwedd, as punishment, is turned into an owl.
This brings back vague memories of The Owl Service, by Alan Garner – a book I read when I was about eight, but haven’t read since. Childhood memory can only come up with “weird, but good”, so I buy a copy, hoping it won’t disappoint.
The version I originally read was published by Armada Lions, which usually published children’s stories such as Paddington Bear. Any child picking this up expecting cuddly bears would be very confused, as it deals with class struggle, adolescent awkwardness, sexual jealousy, national identity, the power and persistence of myth – this is not really a book for young kids! Eight year old me wouldn’t have understood half of what was going on in here.
A newly formed English family are on holiday in Wales. Alison has inherited a house there through a cousin (Bertram, who died mysteriously). Her mother Margaret (an off-stage character) has recently married Clive, who already has a son, Roger, from his first marriage.
The house has a handyman, the eccentric Huw Halfbacon, and a cook, Nancy. Nancy was in service in the house in her youth, but left to go to Aberystwyth (the nearest large town). She is persuaded to return for the summer, and brings her son Gwyn. He has never been in the valley, but feels as though he knows the place, as his mother has told him stories about the place and its people – all except Huw.
Alison finds an old service (set of dinner plates) up in the attic. They have a floral design around the rim, which Alison traces onto paper, then assembles to form little owls. But after she traces each design, it disappears from the plates. And then the paper owls disappear as well…
The story of Lleu, Gronw and Blodeuwedd keeps trying to replay itself through generations in the valley. It’s incredibly atmospheric – from the tensions within the families, to spooky nocturnal walks, and scratching sounds from the attic – yet somehow manages this without loads of descriptive writing. Like many modern YA books, a lot of the story is told through dialogue – the whole thing is just 150 pages.
“She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls”