Welsh Women are Punching Bags in This Book
What. The. Hell.
Soooo… Unlike many of those of the Pagan persuasion, I have no illusions of this great Northern European Matriarchal Paradise that once existed, where women governed and were revered as sacred vessels of the perpetual cycles of universal life blah blah blah. That never happened, and whenever I hear people spout this crap I want to smack the ever-loving Marion Zimmer-Bradley out of their heads with a history book. Were there possibly times in history where women had more power and status than others? Sure. But most of history looks a lot like The Mabinogion. I have to say, when I read the Eddas or even The Tain, it sounded like a fairly decent time in history to be a woman. Reading The Mabinogion is making me want to go all Valerie Solanas on some menfolk. From the very beginning, Peredur’s mother advises him “if you see a woman you want, take her, you’ll be a better man because of it.” Great advice, mom. Then we see Gwenhwyfar’s humiliation at the hands of the unknown knight. He douses her face and breasts with wine, cuffs her upside the head, and steals her chalice. None of this has anything to do with her or anything she herself has done, it’s all done to incite combat with Arthur’s knights. She is just one of the king’s possessions. Then we get into some serious dwarf abuse. What is it with these stories hating on dwarves? They get kicked into fire and beaten to death (is she dead? I’m not sure from the narrative). Again, she seems to just be a victim of Cai’s rather malicious nature. Then there is the countess whose brothers decide to give her against her will to Peredur to try and save their kingdom. In all these cases, these women have no character, they are not described beyond their physical appearance, and they seem completely incapable of defending themselves or standing up to their oppressors. Maybe I am just particularly sensitive to the subject because I have been working on gender roles for my research paper, but honestly, the atrocities committed against these woman makes me hate the male characters to the point where I no longer care what their mythical significance is. I have to admit, I just couldn’t finish Peredur’s story. Because I hate him. And stuff. But I did watch Excalibur this afternoon, so that counts as something, right? (Trivial side note: part of the reason I married my husband is because he can recite the Charm of Making from Excalibur. Such are the feats of strength nerds use in courting.) I did enjoy the very surreal quality of The Lady of the Well, but the story itself felt a bit rambling and confused. I know I keep criticizing these stories for their lack of character development or coherent plots, like I am supposed to be critiquing modern literature. I am actually rather disappointed with myself in my inability to wrap my mind around the Celtic and Welsh myths in a meaningful way. I have spent years studying the Norse and Germanic stories and history, but I have always dodged the Celtic stuff because I just didn’t feel the same internal pull towards them. I had hoped that this was just my own short-sightedness and that I would take to them once I delved in. I think one of the most important aspects of mythology is that people have to be able to feel it in order to truly understand it. This isn’t the academic subject it seems like on the surface, it isn’t just the study of history or literature, the meanings of these stories are important, and in the absence of being able to understand the meaning to the people who wrote them, we have to find what these stories mean to us.
If you teach this course again (and I really really hope you do, this has been fantastic and you have done an amazing job with some really difficult subject matter. I know I have groused a lot about the Celtic stuff, but the fact that you actually got me to finally read and contemplate these books speaks loudly) I think having a “cast sheet” of characters to watch for in a story before starting a story or book or encouraging students to keep their own would be great. I know it sounds simplistic, but in retrospect, this would have been a big help keeping things straight, especially during The Tain. I think I would have enjoyed the stories a bit more if I had thought of this earlier. Monkey learn!