The Island of the Mighty (#SFWApro)

When I read Evangeline Walton’s Song of Rhiannon in the 1970s, it blew me away.
At that point I hadn’t run into much fantasy that retold myth or legend more or less straight, or much Celtic fantasy at all. A retelling of the third branch of the Welsh Mabinogion naturally fascinated me. More so because in contrast to the fantasies I usually read, this had less action and a lot more characterization. Needless to say, I eventually acquired her books of the other three branches (which form a linked tale separate from the rest of the book).
THE ISLAND OF THE MIGHTY, based on branch four, was Walton’s original entry in the series and the first Ballantine Fantasy Books published. It flopped when first released in 1936, possibly because the original title of The Virgin and the Swine sounded more like a Deep South drama about a farmer’s nubile daughter.
Gwydion, son of Don, is the central character, engaged in Part One in the theft of some pigs (Celtic fantasy is often very down-to-Earth) and helping his nephew seduce a young virgin. In Part Two, he gets his sister Arianrhod with child but her curses on the boy eventually bring doom and tragedy.
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(Cover by Bob Pepper, all rights with current holder)
Gwydion is a great anti-hero (or maybe a villain—read on), a clever man who believes cleverness is the only law: if he can find a trick or a scheme to get what you want, then the cleverness justifies the act. Most of the other characters are well executed too. For example, the treacherous Blodeuwedd, a woman created from flowers, comes off as someone who doesn’t have the life experience to deal with her first taste of true passion.
The writing is good, though Walton’s habit of treating this as though she were studying an ancient text (“The legends do not say what they did…”) annoys me. I presume it’s a way of distancing herself from the text and maybe making the fantasy digestible to mainstream readers of the 1930s.
The same may be true of her emphasis that the magic is just lost science. Given the wonders Math and Gwydion work, this isn’t very convincing, but that’s probably good: Walton makes no attempt to hold back or tone down the the Celtic wonder-working without which it would be a much duller book (which ties in with my recent post about magic vs. science).
The book’s mysticism is rather hit-and-miss, mostly miss—it didn’t bother me when I read it as a teen, but now I see how commonplace most of the mystical ideas tossed around are.
Rereading, I find the book disappoints me most on sex and gender. A running theme is that Gwydion’s people cling to the belief that women conceive children with no help from men. In their culture, there’s no marriage or permanent pair-bonding, but the customs are creeping in from other nearby tribes. Setting aside whether any of this makes sense as anthropology or history, it’s very unconvincing on its own terms. Marriage might not exist, but I find it hard to believe that love or long-term pair-bonding doesn’t happen.
Then there’s the rape. Gwydion’s nephew wants Math’s footholder, but because the post requires a virgin she turns him down. When Gwydion discovers that he’s facilitated a rape, his response is displeasure she didn’t just put out anyway (hence my thought he qualifies as a villain). Math punishes him and the nephew, but Walton also informs us that rape was nonexistent before the idea of virginity.
That makes no sense. I can’t believe for a minute that they’re so casual about sex nobody ever, ever says no. Or did the young Walton think that once you’d had sex, rape should be no big deal? Either way, creepy city.
And Arianrhod, the strongest woman in the book, is also the most negative. I was blown away by her Medea like malevolence when I first read it (and given how Gwydion treats her, some of it’s understandable) but this time it seemed over the top, particularly her treatment of her other son, Dylan (which Walton notes is not based on legend). More than anything else it feels like Walton goes out of her way to punish Arianrhod for being a bad mother.
That said, I still love the book. And I believe the later books don’t have the same problems. We’ll see.

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5 responses to “The Island of the Mighty (#SFWApro)

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