Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Making peace

Two linked stories form my blog this week. One concerns the ancient Welsh cycle of stories, the Mabinogi. The second was reported in the Guardian newspaper on 25th November. The theme of both is the redeeming of lives from the terrible destructions wrought by the human need to take revenge. The link is provided by a place in Pembrokeshire, my home county, which is commonly known as Narberth today. It’s Arberth in Welsh and in the Mabinogi. And the reason the link has come about is because of a very good book which I’d like to tell you about as an introduction.


The other day I was in the London Library checking the New Books shelves when, among the larger tomes, I spotted a slim, red-covered book with The Mabinogi on the spine. ‘What can this be?’ I wondered. ‘Too slim to be the stories or a commentary on them!’ Well, my goodness, the book turned out to be a fantastic new version of the Mabinogi in poetry written by a poet called Matthew Francis and recently published by Faber & Faber.

Concise, rugged, colourful, sharp: Matthew Francis’ poem makes a vivid new thing of that magical cycle of stories. Wholly written in the present tense and focusing on key moments and scenes, it gives the mind and imagination of the reader an entirely fresh perspective that at the same time pays great service to the marvellous old tales.

Story 1 – from the Mabinogi

In the first branch of the Mabinogi, the sacred hill of Arberth is where the magic woman, Rhiannon, first appears, wearing a golden gown and riding on a gleaming white horse. Who is she? Although she never quickens her speed, no-one can catch up with her until Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, follows her himself and calls out to her. Then she stops and, within minutes, they agree to be married. Soon, their marriage takes place, despite her having previously been promised to another man who, present at the wedding, is clearly angry.

Many years later in the third branch of the Mabinogi, Rhiannon has long been widowed and her son with Pwyll, Pryderi, has been away for years, fighting in wars in Ireland. For Rhiannon and Pryderi’s wife, Cigfa, they’ve been years of waiting. When Pryderi finally returns, he brings with him his friend Manawyddan, an older man who has no lands of his own. Everything now is joyous and, with remarkable speed, Rhiannon and Manawyddan agree to marry. And then new trouble begins.

The trouble is devastating. Shortly after their marriage, Manawyddan and Rhiannon are riding out with Pryderi and his wife Cigfa. As they ride up the sacred hill of Arberth. they find themselves suddenly shrouded by the deepest mist. When the mist lifts, all the life of Dyfed has vanished. Animal and human, it’s all gone. They are chillingly alone. For Manawyddan and Pryderi’s wife Cigfa, the loneliness and strangeness deepen when, later, Pryderi and his mother also vanish.

Time passes. Manawyddan catches one of the mice that have been devouring crops of wheat he has planted. The mouse is big-bellied and had been slow to run away. Manawyddan determines to hang it and to do so on the sacred hill of Arberth. While he’s preparing the gallows, three people come by, each of whom bargains for the life of the mouse. The third, Manawyddan realises, must be someone of wealth and power, he’s so clearly determined to rescue the mouse at all costs. Manawyddan bargains. He is clever. He bargains for the return of all life to Dyfed. He bargains for the return of Pryderi and Rhiannon. He bargains that there be no more magic set upon the land. He bargains that no magic will ever be set on the land again. And finally he bargains that no revenge will ever be taken in future for the promises being made today, right now, by the man of power with whom he’s making these bargains.

That’s it. All is magically restored. The mouse transforms into the woman she really is, namely wife to the very man of power who has been bargaining with Manawyddan. And he, it turns out, is the one who’d performed all the terrible magic of removing life from the land of Dyfed and subsequently making Rhiannon and Pryderi vanish. And why had he done those things? To exact revenge on behalf of a friend. And who is that friend? Why, the man whom Rhiannon had trounced all those years ago when she married Pwyll. So now we understand it all, including why the life of that mouse was so important to him: big-bellied because she was pregnant, she carries the future of his line within her.

Well, I absolutely love and admire that story. I’ve told it to audiences a number of times and I’ve written about it before in this blog. Always, to me, it’s a story that feels hugely relevant to these current times in which I see the desire for revenge as a major factor in the terrible wars that are devastating so many parts of the world. Dealing with revenge is complex. This story does it.

Story 2 – from the Guardian newspaper, 25th November.

The Batak family from Damascus in Syria became refugees, fleeing from the devastations of life and property that were happening in their country. Leaving with nothing but their clothes and after long years of hardship on the way, the family finally ended up in the UK as candidates in a resettlement scheme for Syrian refugees. Now this family of seven people are living in Narberth. The 14 year old boy is attending school for the first time in six years. The mother is loving a knitting group to which she’s been introduced. The father and his brother are hoping to open a café. One of them has started keeping chickens. All have been taken to the dentist. All are learning English and, in the case of the children, some Welsh.

All this has come about because of a community group in Narberth – which, by the way, is a thriving little market town which has shown great spirit and acumen in preserving and bringing new life to its shops and businesses, keeping out the big chain shops, providing cultural activities and generally lifting everyone’s spirits. As required by the resettlement scheme, the community group had sent in a detailed plan covering every aspect of how any refugee family that came to the town under the auspices of the scheme would be housed and equipped, given medical and dental care, helped to learn English and so on.

The Guardian article reports the family as having felt happy in Syria. Now they are feeling happy in Narberth. It’s a story to cheer the heart. Perhaps the spirit of renewal that ends the old story from the Mabinogi remains in the air of the place. It is to be celebrated.

Matthew Francis’s poem puts Manawyddan’s plea and the answer to it like this:

– One more thing. Protect this western land from enchantments
so no one can steal it. The war is over:
let this spell be the last. No revenge
on me, my friends or people.
–  All this you shall have.

PS: My photos this week are of three autumn leaves picked up from the pavement near my house. I know it’s a bit over the top but, following last week’s idea of words as leaves,  I thought this week’s blog  with its introductory story and the two stories that follow might be seen as three leaves from the tree of story.

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