Just Like Magic
The Island of the Mighty (Mabinogion, volume 4)
By Evangeline Walton
1970’s The Island of the Mighty is either the first (by publication order) or the fourth (by internal chronology) of Evangeline Walton’s Mabinogion Tetralogy.
Gilfaethwy is obsessed with Goewin, who to Gilfaethwy’s astonishment has no interest in surrendering her position as Math’s (King of Gwynedd in north Wales) virginal foot holder1 for a dalliance with a man who has had and who expects to have as many lovers as a field has blades of grass. Tiring of Gilfaethwy’s gloom, Gilfaethwy’s brother Gwydion comes up with a plan both extremely cunning and extremely foolish.
Key to his plan: Pryderi’s pigs.
Pryderi, Prince of Dyfed, was gifted pigs by Arawn, king of otherworldy Annwn. Until now, pigs have been utterly unknown in ancient Britain and while nobody in Gwynedd ever seen a pig or eaten one, their natural instinct is to covet Dyfed’s pigs. Gwydion sets out to acquire pigs for Grynedd and in so doing acquire Goewin for his brother.
Dyfed’s people are generally seen as an invaders by Gwynedd’s inhabitants. It follows that any means, fair or foul, are excusable where Dyfed is concerned. Gwydion tricks Dyfed out of a breeding stock of pigs. Pryderi pursues his cunning neighbours. This gives Gwydion something else he can use: war between Dyfed and Gwynedd.
The war ends with Dyfed’s catastrophic defeat and Pryderi’s death. While the armies clash, Gilfaethwy accosts and rapes Goewin, left unguarded while Math is distracted by war. To Gilfaethwy’s astonishment, Goewin does not appreciate this at all. In his experience, reluctance is always a pose. He did not expect the real thing.
Infuriated at the insult dealt to Goewin, Math doles out a draconian punishment to the two brothers. The consequences of Gwydion’s grand scheme do not end there….
The Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, edited by Lin Carter, was launched in 1969. It reprinted works of fantasy literature that were at that time out of print or at least not easily available to American readers. Reprinted them in affordable mass market paperbacks. For a lot of readers my age, this series is how we first encountered James Branch Cabell, Lord Dunsany, Hope Mirrlees, and others. Like so many ambitious projects aimed at improving the genre, the series was brutally snuffed out by cruel bean-counters in 1974 once Ian and Betty Ballantine had left their namesake company and were no longer in a position to protect this project.
The Isle of the Mightywas first published under the title The Virgin and the Swine in 1936. It appears to have sunk without a trace. By the time Lin Carter began looking for works to reprint in Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy series, its author was obscure enough the company wasn’t sure how to contact her or even if she was still alive. Ballentine had thought that there was a chance that the book had fallen out of copyright and was in the public domain2. Then Walton’s address fell into Ballantine’s hands. They reprinted, she profited. Not only that; despite having little hope that the books would ever see print, she had written the rest of the series. These books were published too. The Island of the Mighty was followed by The Children of Llyr in 1971, The Song of Rhiannon in 1972, and Prince of Annwn in 1974.
Which is to say, the tetralogy was published in order 4, 2, 3, and then 1. As one does.
Walton drew on the Welsh Mabinogion for inspiration, which means her characters are constrained by the source material. By modern standards, many of her characters are cheerful cads astounded that anyone would criticize their actions, while others are rather prickly sorts under irresistible geases. Transgressions often bring with them extraordinary magical consequences. You might expect that people would moderate their behavior somewhat if they knew that punishment would follow. This is not the case. It is not the case at all.
Walton further underlines her debt to her sources by writing in a deliberately archaic language intended to evoke another time. It is unsurprising, therefore, that her work is one held up for praise in Le Guin’s “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” which in general thought very highly of the sort of work sought out for Ballantine Adult Fantasy series and very negatively about the sort of fantasy that came to dominate the market. Ah, well.
I wish I had liked The Island of the Mighty more than I actually did. Who wouldn’t like an extended examination of why one should never pick wisdom as one’s dump stat? But I was put off by Gilfaethwy’s rape of Goewin and my interest never recovered. But perhaps you might react differently. Also, this book is important for genre history and perhaps to be read for that reason.
The Island of the Mightyis available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo).
1: For various reasons, Math’s feet need to be held by a virgin when he is not at war.
2: At this time, it was legal for works to lapse into the public domain on time scales shorter than geological timespans.