on December 12, 2000
White, Donna. A Century of Welsh Myth in Children's Literature. Jefferson, N.C.: Greenwood, 1998. hardcover. pp. 162 ISBN: 0-313-30570-6.
In her book A Century of Welsh Myth in Children's Literature, Donna White contends, "Some of the best children's fantasy available is based on Welsh traditional literature" (142). Given the authors she chooses to examine, her argument is persuasive. Newbery Medal winners Lloyd Alexander and Susan Cooper, Guardian Award and Carnegie Medal recipient Alan Garner, and Tir na n-Og Award recipients Susan Cooper, Frances Thomas, and Jenny Nimmo all received recognition for their fiction based on Welsh legends.
"Although I am not the first person to have examined the influence of Welsh traditional literature on modern fantasy, I am the first to look at the material historically and chronologically as children's literature," says White. Her approach can be used as a companion piece to the best-known work on the subject, C. W. Sullivan's Welsh Celtic Myth in Modern Fantasy (1989) as well as to Kath Filmer-Davies's Fantasy Fiction and Welsh Myth: Tales of Belonging (1996). The studies by Sullivan, Filmer-Davies, and White overlap in coverage, but White's study of the techniques by which authors integrate the myths into audience-specific writings differs from Sullivan's research into the thematic influences on fantasy and Filmer-Davies's critique of themes within fantasy. White's approach is unique in both the scope of works covered and her focus on literature for children and young adults.
Noting the obstacles to incorporating myths originally intended for an adult audience into children's literature, White traces the evolution of the original Welsh tales, first into translations and re-tellings intended for a younger audience (1881 - 1988) and then into fiction drawing upon different elements of the original lore (1830 - 1990). She synopsizes each of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi in her Introduction, enabling the reader to derive meaning from references throughout the text without scurrying off to find the nearest translation of the myths. This section also introduces the seminal work by Lady Charlotte Guest. An Englishwoman who taught herself medieval Welsh, Lady Guest published the first complete English translation of the myths in a seven-volume set (1838 - 1845). Along with the Four Branches, Lady Guest included stories from the Red Book of Hergest and the Book of Taliesin. These tales together comprise The Mabinogion, while the Four Branches alone are known as The Mabinogi. Among the titles White discusses are Welsh author Kenneth Morris's Book of the Three Dragons (1930), the first attempt to fictionalize the Mabinogi in children's literature, Alan Garner's The Owl Service and Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, thoroughly examining the influence of the Mabinogi on these gifted writers and explaining their influence on later authors. A section on "The Mabinogi in Fiction, 1970-1992," discusses works by Susan Cooper, Nancy Bond, Madeleine L'Engle, Frances Thomas, Louise Lawrence, Clare Cooper, Joan Aiken, Grace Chetwin, and Jenny Nimmo. Several pages are devoted to Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising sequence (1966-1977). Close to half of this chapter is dedicated to the works of Jenny Nimmo, including The Snow Spider (1986), Emlyn's Moon (1987) and The Chestnut Soldier (1989).
White's writing has many strengths; particularly interesting is her explanation for the fits and starts by which Welsh myth has proven influential. While many other countries embraced their folklore, Welsh authors never seemed to celebrate the rich wonder inherent in their lore that would lend it so readily to stories for young people. White attributes this to Anglicization in Wales that suppressed the country's culture and language. With the popularity of Garner and Alexander, another hurdle appeared -- few writers dared comparison with these masters of YA fantasy. White's commentary investigates the very different approaches each took in incorporating Welsh myths into their stories.
Beyond her scholarship, what makes White's book so enjoyable are her willingness to challenge earlier scholars and her humorous, conversational style. Although it is not necessarily an integral element to successful criticism, I enjoyed her dry sense of humor. She often provides personal translations for Welsh phrases.
Overall, White is engaging and eminently readable. Due to the chronological nature of the text (and the early thumbnail sketches of the Mabinogi), the chapters may not be as effective when read independently, although readers familiar with the subject will certainly benefit. This excellent study belongs in public and college libraries and is recommended to scholars of both Welsh lore and children's literature.