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

Ysbaddaden

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.

 

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The Fruit of Passion: Chapter 16 – Part III

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Sil eased onto the marble slab next to Olwen, taking further courage when she didn’t shy away from him or order him away. ‘’The lost lands of ages and ages I braved to fulfill my own yearnings. What are yours, Lady Olwen? And why did you choose me to fulfill them?’’

‘’Because I sensed your strength in the arts, and it called out to me from the moment you turned yourself a wanderer amongst the lost lands. I can count on my fingers all the otherwordly denizens whose awen has roused and fused with mine. That you, a mortal, stand on equal ground, if not higher, than them is a thing of wonder and delight for me.’’

Her words had an intoxicating effect on Sil who swelled with pride at his powers and sent his silent gratitude to his kinswomen, for without their guidance his gifts would be wasted on him. ‘’Many thanks, Lady Olwen. It is an honour to receive such heartfelt praise from a creature like you.’’

Olwen slightly lifted her feet off the ground for a moment, and a cluster of three white lilies sprung up at the spot. Her soul must be as pure as the fires that burn in a sacred temple, Sil thought, for his mother had told him tales of rare people who were so detached from

malice and perfect strangers to vice that every step of theirs was so fertile it brought life and breath to the world.

‘’Tell me more of your mother.’’ Olwen slid closer to him, their knees almost brushing against each other. ‘’You said she’s called Cordelia. She must be very potent in the arts.’’

‘’Of a truth,’’ replied Sil and related it to her all the troubles and sorrows his mother and aunt had suffered from the moment they fled their homeland in the east until they were shipwrecked and beached on Rumia. Then he lost himself in vivid narrations filled with tenderness about Rumia’s High Priestesses and their many teachings as he left his childhood behind and grew into manhood. Then concluded with the tynged they had placed upon him and later their aid in ushering him to the lost lands when he kept his word.

‘’So we’re both orphaned, it appears. Fated to live under the shadow of a parent’s absence. The paternal figure has remained a mystery to you, just like the maternal figure has forever eluded me.’’ Her eyes glazed as if she sought for her lost mother in faraway worlds hidden beyond veils of mist or others residing only in dreams.

Such was her concentration and so deep the longing etched on the countours of her face, Sil feared she might sprout wings and fly away in search of the woman who gave birth to her and then forsook her. Whatever emotions plagued her, Sil felt them burrow themselves within his own heart–as if an invisible string bound their ribs together.

For, even though, the path of his thoughts didn’t veer often to his father, when it did, Sil couldn’t easily shake off the restlessness that assailed him for days and made him roam as if a wild beast in the woods and streams and hills of Rumia.

Tentatively, Sil laced his fingers with Olwen’s. ‘’The past is often pregnant with unfortunate memories, and no good thing comes from dwelling on it. Though you may call me a liar, for that is a piece of advice I don’t always follow with success. Like you, I think of what could have been. But I’ve been taken care of and loved and taught precious lessons that have led me to be the man I am. And I believe you’ve wanted for nothing. Hasn’t King Pen raised you as if you were a child taken shape from his own seed?’’

An excerpt from my mythic fantasy novel currently titled The Fruit of Passion.

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