Olwen: Myth and Religion in the Fantastic (Part I)


Culhwch at Ysbaddaden’s court. An illustration by E. Wallcousins in Celtic Myth and Legend, Charles Squire, 1920

In my mythic fantasy novel, currently titled The Fruit of Passion, I’ve drawn extensive inspiration from various sources of Celtic myth and legend and incorporated many events and episodes of fabulous origin into my main narrative.

However, Celtic tradition is divided into several branches. Of particular interest to me is the rich and wonderful material pertaining to the Welsh, namely the Mabinogion (the earliest prose stories of the literature of Britain, compiled in Middle Welsh in the 12th–13th centuries from earlier oral traditions) and The Spoils of Annwn (Preiddeu Annwfn), a cryptic poem of sixty lines in Middle Welsh, found in the Book of Taliesin and  recounting an expedition with King Arthur to Annwn, the Welsh name for the Celtic Otherworld.

The stories contained in the Mabinogion are highly entertaining, providing a wide panorama of fantasy, romance, drama, philosophy, tragedy and humour. Beasts and giants, magic and illusions, kings and noble ladies, knights and fair maidens, quests and lasting friendships, battles and deceptions, mercy and valour are only a small sample of what one will encounter in the pages of this book.

Set in the dual worlds between the valleys and forests of Wales and the mysterious, shadowy realms of the Otherworld, many of the tales move within a dreamlike atmosphere that weaves a web of seduction all over the reader.

And I was seduced in the twinkling of an eye. It was love at first sight for me. As soon as I finished reading the first page, I was bewitched. Deeply moved by the tales, I thought to transfer many of their motifs, themes, episodes, characters and general ambience into my own novel in an attempt to infuse my own work with the Celtic mentality and worldview, keeping as close to the original source but doing so in my own way so as to create a distinction between my narrative and the Mabinogion.

It’s my personal view that the creation of a new religion is one of the most intriguing and fascinating aspects of world-building in a work of fiction. Immediately, we writers are called to answer the question of how we can go about crafting a new system of divine faith. Do we rely upon preexisting religions? If yes, do we borrow elements and doctrines from one or are we to consider multiple at the same time? Do we blend facets of one familiar to us with made-up dogmas and creeds our imagination conjures? Or are we to give complete and free reign to our fancy and see where this path leads us?

I believe there’s no definite, clear-cut reply to that as the most important thing in fiction that eclipses all other ”rules” and ”regulations” is to write and incorporate that which best serves our narrative and story arc.

With that in mind, my own approach was to combine a few attitudes already found in a religion familiar to me with those found in paganism. So, I kept some Christian tenets like those of love, benevolence, truth and forgiveness and aimed for an amalgam with the concepts and tropes that abound in one of the stories in the Mabinogion, namely that of Culhwch and Olwen.

One of the most complex and celebrated stories in the collection, Culhwch and Olwen recounts the trials and tribulations the titular character face in order to enjoy their happily ever after.

After a difficult childbirth, King Cilydd, son of Celyddon, loses his wife, Goleuddydd. When he remarries, his son, the young Culhwch, rejects his stepmother’s attempt to pair him with his new stepsister. Offended, the new queen puts a curse on him so that he can marry no one besides the beautiful Olwen, the daughter of the giant Ysbaddaden Pencawr. Though he has never seen her, Culhwch becomes enamoured of her at the sound of her name, but his father warns him that he will never find her without the aid of his famous cousin, Arthur.

Culhwch sets off and finds him at his court in Celliwig in Cornwall. Arthur consents to aid him, and sends a number of his finest warriors to join Culhwch in his search for Olwen. The group meets some relatives of Culhwch’s that know Olwen and agree to arrange a meeting. Olwen is receptive to Culhwch’s attraction, but she cannot marry him unless her father agrees, and he, unable to survive past his daughter’s wedding, will not consent until Culhwch completes a series of about forty impossible-sounding tasks. The tasks completed, the giant is killed, and the lovers are free to marry.

Although the titular characters do not feature prominently in the tale, the challenges Culhwch undergoes in order to earn his happy end with his beloved are beyond fascinating. So Culhwch’s determination and Olwen’s limitless patience operated as a canvass for me in order to work on their personalities and make them both fully-fledged individuals.

My novel being highly character-driven, I couldn’t relegate these two into shadowy presences at the fringes of the narrative. I transformed them into characters of cunning and action and strength, motivated by their goals and desires. Populating my novel with a series of female characters of undeniable agency, I thought to add one more in the form of Olwen.

Assigning to her a much more active role than the one she enjoyed in the Mabinogion, I conceived her as an otherwordly maiden to be courted not by Culhwch this time, but by a strong warrior named Sil, the son of an eastern enchantress forced to flee her natal land and seek refuge in the isles of the North: thus bringing into the mix the legend of the ancient king Sil who is rumoured to be buried atop his horse with his golden armour in the mound of Silbury).

When Sil completes the tasks requested by Olwen’s father, King Pen, the couple marries and they flee with some of the maiden’s kin to the mortal realm, to the fictional island of Rumia where Sil and his kniswomen live. Now populated, the island begins to thrive and due to her innate kindness and her magical abilities associated with fertility, Olwen is venerated by the islanders and at her death, she acquires divine status and is worshipped as the goddess of the sun.

Etymologically speaking, Olwen means white footprint. In the Mabinogion, she was so gentle and fragile that white trefoils would grow beneath her feet. Something which I changed in my novel, opting for white lilies instead. Some authorities consider her to have been originally a solar goddess, based on the etymology of her name and light-related attributes. And that is the line I’ ve followed in my own novel.

Below follows an excerpt from the story of Culhwch and Olwen where the latter is described in exquisite, vivid detail.

The maiden was clothed in a robe of flame−coloured silk, and about her neck was a collar of ruddy gold, on which were precious emeralds and rubies. More yellow was her head than the flower of the broom, and her skin was whiter than the foam of the wave, and fairer were her hands and her fingers than the blossoms of the wood anemone amidst the spray of the meadow fountain. The eye of the trained hawk, the glance of the three−mewed falcon was not brighter than hers. Her bosom was more snowy than the breast of the white swan, her cheek was redder than the reddest roses. Whoso beheld her was filled with her love. Four white trefoils sprung up wherever she trod. And therefore was she called Olwen.


Book Review: Carmilla


At the sound of certain words and phrases, most of us are quick to make associations and respond in a certain way. When we speak of supernatural creatures of the fantastic, especially vampires, it’s Dracula, the patriarch of this blood-drinking species who immediately springs to mind, called to life by the imagination of Bram Stoker.

However, the Irish writer wasn’t the first to succumb to the fascination of these dark creatures going bump in the night. Published in 1897, Stoker’s magnus opus owes its existence to another literary ancestor, that of Carmilla Carnstein, conceived by another Irish pen, that of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.

Predating Dracula by 26 years, Carmilla first appeared as a serial in the Dark Blue in 1871-1872, a London-based literary magazine published monthly from 1871 to 1873 and sold for one shilling per issue.

Blending authentic Middle- and Eastern European folklore and Gothic literature, the novella takes place in the forests of Styria. In an isolated schloss, a widowed father has assigned the care of his daughter, Laura, to a handful of trusted servants. Motherless and secluded, Laura is suffering deeply from loneliness, though the family’s quiet is soon disturbed by the unexpected arrival of a guest, Carmilla.

The two young women become swiftly attached to each other as Laura finds in Carmilla the valued friend she had been missing her whole life. However, Carmilla, is far from ordinary and Laura often wonders at her companion’s bizarre habits and her unorthodox behaviour as well as her insistence to not disclose her idenity.

As the days go by, a curious disease sweeps the countryside, claiming the lives of many women. Laura, too, falls ill but is eventually saved due to the interference of a family friend who rushes in just in the nick of time to solve the horrifying mystery and reveal the cause behind all these weird occurences.

A millestone in vampire fiction, Carmilla features many of the themes, concepts and tropes we have come to associate with the genre: the haunted, isolated castle, the Überwald, the twin pinpricks on the victim’s skin, the beauty and irresistable charm of the vampire, animal shapesifting and the erotic implications that underlie the vampiric condition.

A modern reader,  familiar with the long literary tradition of the genre, most definitely won’t experience any surprise plotwise and most probably will figure out the tale’s direction from the early chapters. However, the true strength of the novella, that powerful asset which has made it stand the test of time and which still hasn’t faded, is the complexity of the titular character as well as the element of ambiguity which permeates the text, hindering the reader from reaching any definite conclusions.

Vampires have long been presented as savage, single-minded, bloodthirsty fiends only concerned with sating their dark appetite and devoid of profound emotion and morality. Carmilla, though, paints a different picture. Far from being a brainless, brutish monster, she possesses an intricate personality that both fascinates and repulses.

Polite, intelligent and educated, Carmilla tends to favour scientific explanations over superstious beliefs. She often appeals to nature and  attempts to justify her actions, even her own vampirism, by the claim that all things form part of the natural order. We read that, ””Creator! Nature!” said the young lady in answer to my gentle father. “And this disease that invades the country is natural. Nature. All things proceed from Nature—don’t they? All things in the heaven, in the earth, and under the earth, act and live as Nature ordains? I think so.””

Not strange to moral reflection, Carmilla forms a deep bond with her victims, feeling much affection for them. In fact, a large part of her sugar and ice personality and her mood swings can be viewed as her guilt manifesting due to the young women she has murdered. That sense of remorse, which is never directly stated or discussed in the novella but traced between the lines nonetheless, is essentially what sets Carmilla apart from others of her kind like Dracula.

Seductive, cunning and self-critical, Carmilla responds intesnsely, either in anger or passion. As she explains herself,  ”“You will think me cruel, very selfish, but love is always selfish; the more ardent the more selfish. How jealous I am you cannot know. You must come with me, loving me, to death; or else hate me, and still come with me, and hating me through death and after. There is no such word as indifference in my apathetic nature.””

However, Carmilla owes its popularity to the ambiguity running through its pages and the cloaked connotations that abound. Being the trope maker for the lesbian vampire, Carmilla’s vampirism functions as a metaphor for female homosexuality. A taboo issue that couldn’t be openly discussed in Victorian society, forbidden desire could only be touched upon through a subtext that could explore such a topic without the fear of naming it so.

Laura’s orgasmic description of her own blood-draining experience is highly indicative of what lies in the heart of the novella. We read that, ”After all these dreams there remained on waking a remembrance of having been in a place very nearly dark, and of having spoken to people whom I could not see; and especially of one clear voice, of a female’s, very deep, that spoke as if at a distance, slowly, and producing always the same sensation of indescribable solemnity and fear. Sometimes there came a sensation as if a hand was drawn softly along my cheek and neck. Sometimes it was as if warm lips kissed me, and longer and longer and more lovingly as they reached my throat, but there the caress fixed itself. My heart be at faster, my breathing rose and fell rapidly and full drawn; a sobbing, that rose into a sense of strangulation, supervened, and turned into a dreadful convulsion, in which my senses left me and I became unconscious.”

Many of Carmilla’s statements to Laura far surpass the way a friend would speak to another. Instead, they express the fiery emotions lovers harbour. We read,

“You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one for ever.”

“But to die as lovers may – to die together, so that they may live together.”

“I have been in love with no one, and never shall,” she whispered, “unless it should be with you.”
How beautiful she looked in the moonlight!
Shy and strange was the look with which she quickly hid her face in my neck and hair, with tumultuous sighs, that seemed almost to sob, and pressed in mine a hand that trembled.
Her soft cheek was glowing against mine. “Darling, darling,” she murmured, “I live in you; and you would die for me, I love you so.”
I started from her.
She was gazing on me with eyes from which all fire, all meaning had flown, and a face colorless and apathetic.
“Is there a chill in the air, dear?” she said drowsily. “I almost shiver; have I been dreaming? Let us come in. Come; come; come in.”

However, Le Fanu’s true mastery becomes evident when the reader cannot come up with a swift and easy answer when asked whether the relationship between Carmilla and Laura is that of profound love or whether Carmilla is merely a predator offering an illusion to her victim to lure her into a trap in order to satisfy her own unholy thirst.

Naive of the the ways of the world and lacking in experience, Laura is quick to embrace Carmilla as a friend. But when Carmilla is ushered into the schloss, it is a turning point for Laura. Is it friendship she’s looking after or this a moment of sexual awakening that takes place as soon as the right chance appears?

From a purely queer gender literary perspective, Carmilla is the conduit for a slew of  homoerotic anxieties. The deviant desire of Laura incorporates strong contradictory elements whose source is a supernatural creature that equally attracts and repulses her, a theme holding much significance in many tales of the fantastic and specifically the gothic genre.

This desire, which Laura cannot account for, blooms to the surface in a mixture of  arousal and terror as we read in this passage, ”From these foolish embraces, which were not of very frequent occurrence, I must allow, I used to wish to extricate myself; but my energies seemed to fail me. Her murmured words sounded like a lullaby in my ear, and
soothed my resistance into a trance, from which I only seemed to recover myself when she withdrew her arms. In these mysterious moods I did not like her. I experienced a strange tumultuous excitement that was pleasurable, ever and anon, mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust. I had no distinct thoughts about her while such scenes lasted, but I was conscious of a love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrence. This I know is paradox, but I can make no other attempt to explain the feeling.”

In this tale of marginalization and otherness, are we to believe Carmilla a conniving beast or a misunderstood woman whose goal is to ensure companionship and a meaningful bond with another person? Is it the nature of such a relationship to invite death and be so destructive or does society condemn it to such a pitiful end?

Whatever the case, Carmilla is not one to fall into oblivion, for Le Fanu astutely ensured her immortality. And if the way the novella wraps up is any indication, our vampiress keeps haunting our memory just as succesfully as she keeps haunting Laura’s, as is the case with all humans coming in contact with the supernatural, ”It was long before the terror of recent events subsided; and to this hour the image of Carmilla returns to memory with ambiguous alternations —sometimes the playful, languid, beautiful girl; sometimes the writhing fiend I saw in the ruined church; and often from a reverie I have started, fancying I heard the light step of Carmilla at the drawing room door.”