Monday, July 13, 2009

International Medieval Congress: Rhiannon

Here I am at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds. There are over one thousand medievalists packed in here on the complex surrounding Bodington Hall on the north side of the University of Leeds. The conference is dedicating to the theme of heresy and orthodoxy. So far there seems to be minimal causalities and no one has been burned at the stake or hacked to pieces in a religious crusade yet. While I wait for things to get interesting, I will be reporting on the sessions and the various presentations, including one given by me.

Sunday evening, after I had settled down in my room and before the conference began in earnest, I attended a telling of Rhiannon by Katy Cawkwell. Rhiannon is based on several stories from the Mabinogion, a collection Celtic myths. I am most familiar with the Mabinogion through the lens of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles, a wonderful series of children’s books, particularly useful for preparing children to read and appreciate Tolkien. The story of Rhiannon goes as follows:

Pwyll, king of Dyfed, stands upon a hill in his kingdom upon which it is said that such an action will bring either blessing or curse. Pwyll challenge to fate leads him to rescue Rhiannon, a beautiful woman from the other world, from having to marry the Grey Lord, a man of stone with no heart. As the two lovers leave, the Grey Lord curses them and promises to have his revenge. For many years Pwyll and Rhiannon do not have any children until, on the advice of a man named Manawydan, Pwyll catches a silver fish and gives it to his wife to eat. Rhiannon and Pwyll have a child, but this child is stolen from the sleeping arms of his mother right under the watchful eye of six midwives. In order to save themselves the midwives accuse Rhiannon of having eaten her own baby. To make this work they slaughter a puppy, smear the blood on Rhiannon's face and scatter the pieces of the body around the bed. (I do love it when fairy tales turn really gory.)As a punishment, Rhiannon is forced to wear a bridle and a saddle and wait at the city gate. She is to tell all strangers of her crime and offer to let them ride her. This goes on for some time until a farmer and his wife come, bringing a small child with them. The child was named Gwri and his parents told the remarkable story of how he had come to them on an arm shaped cloud. It is confirmed that the child was truly the one lost to Pwyll and Rhiannon, who is released from her torment. The family is thus reunited, but not for long.

Pwyll and Rhiannon call their son Pryderi and the lad grows. Unfortunately he is forced into manhood sooner than expected when his father is killed by a giant white boar with red tipped ears. Pryderi becomes king of Dyfed. He takes for himself a woman named Cigfa, but is called to war with the rest of the kings of Britain against Ireland. After many years Pryderi comes home with a companion, who had become like a father to him. Upon seeing him, Rhiannon realizes that this man is Manawydan. There is peace for a time until Pryderi resolves himself to imitate his father and go to the hill to risk either blessing or curse. Unable to stop him, Rhiannon, Cigfa and Manawydan join him on the hill. When they look out they see that the entire kingdom has been desolated. With Manawydan’s guidance they manage to survive, first in the woods and then by traveling from town to town. Their luck changes again for the worst when Pryderi chases a giant white boar with red tipped ears into a tower where he is magically ensnared. Rhiannon follows after her son to try to rescue him but is also caught. The tower disappears leaving Cigfa and Manawydan alone. In an attempt to free their companions, Cigfa and Manawydan resolve to replant the kingdom of Dyfed. If the land will grow again perhaps the king will spring up with it. They plant three fields but these fields are attacked by an army of white mice with red tipped ears. Manawydan catches one of the mice, who is pregnant. Resolved to do justice, Manawydan sets out to hang this mouse. A man approaches Manawydan and begs him not to kill the mouse, even offering him gold. When Manawydan refuses the man reveals himself as the Grey Lord and confesses all the harm that he has done to Rhiannon and those close to her ever since she left him, from kidnapping Pryderi as a baby to changing his people into mice to attack the fields. The pregnant mouse is the Grey Lord’s woman and she is carrying his child. Manawydan agrees to give up the mouse in exchange for Rhiannon and Pryderi.

Calling what Ms. Cawkwell does storytelling fails to do her justice. She offers a full play, of her creation, in which she performs the role of narrator and all characters. Ms. Cawkwell’s performance has a remarkable lyrical quality to it, at times one can almost think that she was singing. After the performance Ms. Cawkwell thanked the audience and remarked that this was the first time she ever performed at an academic setting in front of people, many of whom are familiar with the Mabinogion. The post modernist in me notes that the tone of her storytelling takes on the mode of modernist commentary and satire with its strong sense of tongue and cheek. All in all, a truly remarkable performance.


Miss S. said...

What a fascinating, and unpredictable story. Thanks for sharing.

As a punishment, Rhiannon is forced to wear a bridal and a saddle and wait at the city gate. She is to tell all strangers of her crime and offer to let them ride her.

Ah-ha; the proper spelling of the word as it is used here would be "bridle".

With Manawydan’s guidance they manage to survive, first in the words and then by traveling from town to town.


Izgad said...

Done. Thank you.