Today, I wanted to talk in more detail about something I tweeted last week:
Recently, I finished the first draft of new book. Provisionally titled The Animals We Became, it’s a literary fantasy retelling of Math fab Mathonwy, the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi — perhaps more familiar to most people as the story of Blodeuwedd.
My first exposure to this story was, not unusually, Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, which I read when I was probably eight or nine. I had a fever at the time and became utterly convinced that Blodeuwedd was inside my (flowery) curtains, since when the light shone through them — as it did during the day, something only somebody ill and home from school would have noticed — some of the flowers clustered to look like a person. This obviously had an irreversible effect on my psyche and I’ve had a particular affection for this story ever since.
Most of my engagement with the Fourth Branch has been creative rather than academic. In 2012, I was trying to write a steampunk retelling of it. In 2014, I had an owl carved into my harp and named the instrument Blodeuwedd. In 2019, I started exploring queer interpretations of certain elements and wrote a poem called “Gwydion” that first expressed some of the ideas I was working on this novel. I knew I wanted to write it as a novel (I still have all the messages I sent my friends yelling about it, and rereading them having written it was fascinating, because I absolutely did what 2019!me wanted me to do), but it wasn’t until recently that external factors prompted me to take the concepts I’d been playing with and get on with making a book out of them.
But although I have a non-academic love of this story, I’m always coming at it from the point of view of a medievalist and a Celticist who did study medieval Welsh at university and has written essays about the Four Branches. That background informs my writing — and my writing informs my academic approaches, and helps me better understand the source material.
I am not a medieval Welsh expert and would never claim to be. I have long joked that I write creatively about this story because I don’t feel qualified to express those same ideas in academic articles, and this is a different way of presenting my interpretations. But I have learned so much more about the Fourth Branch from writing Animals than I could have expected, and the conversations it has prompted with one of my closest friends (who is a medieval Welsh expert) have been incredibly rewarding.
This is not the first medieval retelling that I’ve written. Most similar to this one is my 2019 novel, The Wolf and His King, which has recently been languishing on submission: a queer literary fantasy retelling of Bisclavret, one of the lais of Marie de France. Before that, I drafted To Run With The Hound, a retelling of Táin Bó Cúailnge, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad from their training together until their final encounter. (This one has been waiting over four years for me to figure out how to edit it into something I like, and I think I’ve finally figured out a way of doing that, but lack the time to do so at present.)
These are all fairly ‘close’ retellings of their source material. They aren’t transplanting the story to a modern setting, but take place in a semi-fantastical pseudohistorical version of the real world (Ireland, Wales, Brittany), like the original tales. Generally speaking, I haven’t changed the plot. I have filled in gaps, expanded on details omitted or referenced only in passing, and dug deep into character emotions and motivations to change the emphasis placed on plot points, but I have kept the story itself almost the same as the original.*
I have written more creative retellings before — Bard, one of my YA projects that has been shelved and unshelved and re-shelved again multiple times,** is a sci-fi Arthurian retelling set in a former prison colony in space, and merges details from half a dozen different medieval stories rather than retelling any particular tale directly. I had fun planting Arthurian Easter eggs throughout it, some of which are reasonably obscure, but the plot is largely my own, albeit taking inspiration from broader Arthurian themes.
I really enjoy the creativity involved in transplanting those details in a ‘loose’ retelling like that. There’s something extremely rewarding about exploring how I can reference them within the setting and context so that they make sense but are identifiable for those who know the source material. But I don’t find it informs my academic interpretations in the same way, so I’m going to focus on the ‘close’ retellings today, and specifically, Animals and TRWTH.
(I think it’s funny how all of these retellings are very concerned with bodies and beasts, and their working titles give it away. It’s all just Creatures over here.)
I drafted TRWTH in late 2018, which meant it was only a few months after handing in my undergrad dissertation, which was on Táin Bó Cúailnge. As a result, I went into it fairly confident that I knew my source material about as well as I was ever going to know it, and certainly well enough to write the book.
But of course the book immediately starting asking me questions that I’d never had to worry about in my academic work. My academic focus wasn’t on dindshenchas (the lore of placenames), so I’d never had to worry too much about the geography; now I had to know where events took place, and how characters got from one to the other. I hadn’t been particularly concerned with the timeline of events, because I was looking at themes instead; now I needed to know how long everything lasted, and when it happened. I’d been looking at individuals; now I needed to know roughly how many people were in the armies, and that meant doing maths.
Practical questions, questions I’d never asked myself, but questions that taught me something about the scale of the story I was working with.
Then there were the character questions. I wanted Láeg to narrate most of the second half of the book, because he was the only viable candidate other than Cú Chulainn himself, and I wanted the slight distance from him. But I didn’t know anything about Láeg. I didn’t know where he was from. I didn’t know how he’d ended up being Cú Chulainn’s charioteer. I didn’t know how old he was, or whether he had any Otherworldly traits of his own, or what his relative status was…
As soon as I started writing Láeg, I needed to know those things about him. And once I started looking for answers, I realised they were a lot more complicated than I would have anticipated, and also that Láeg was a lot more fascinating than anybody seemed to have realised, given how little had been written about him. Which is how I ended up doing an MA about Láeg mac Riangabra, because, well, somebody had to do it.
With TRWTH, then, it was mostly a case of my needs as a writer requiring academic research to back them up. Yes, my writing certainly informed my academic work — I began to notice doubles and parallels I might not have paid attention to if I hadn’t been wondering how to make certain scenes less repetitive, and I had a much better sense of the text as a story rather than as disconnected parts to be used for analysis — but on the whole, the two threads remained reasonably separate.
The Animals We Became has been slightly different, but I’ve learned at least as much from it.
I knew a lot less about the Fourth Branch going in than I knew about Táin Bó Cúailnge (although there is also less to know, it being a much, much shorter text). I wanted to keep it that way to start with. One of the reasons I haven’t been able to edit TRWTH is because my academic feelings about the text have been interfering with my creative processes — I knew the pacing was wrong, but didn’t know how to fix it without deviating further from the source material than I wanted to; I knew certain interpretations were academically dubious, but I was resting a plot point on them and didn’t know how to change it, etc. So I decided to do things differently with Animals, and put my creative intentions first.
This meant that during all my planning, all the notes I was writing to myself about the themes I wanted to explore and the characters’ motivations and emotional arcs, I didn’t reread the story. And I didn’t read anything that any academics had said about it. I let my intentions guide me, and only when I knew what I wanted to achieve on a narrative level did I go back to the text itself, and start looking at the details.
But once I started looking at the details…
I mentioned above that I have a close friend who specialises in medieval Welsh. She’s also one of my beta readers, and generally gets live updates whenever I’m writing, well, anything, and this has meant I have been constantly in her DMs this past month Learning Things About The Fourth Branch. Fortunately for everybody involved, she has also been reading up on them recently for teaching purposes, and as such, we Learned Things simultaneously — and that turned out to be the best possible way of learning them.
For me, coming to the story from the point of view of somebody trying to write a book about it, my focus has been fairly broad, but often practical: how does this story work? Which aspects of its fundamental themes support the fundamental themes that I am exploring? How do I want to interpret [ambiguous element] in order for it to work, narratively, within this new context? The result is that I find myself paying attention to things that aren’t necessarily academically significant, and which I might not have noticed before, but which are going to be important to my retelling.
Some of these were on a macro level, looking at the structure of the story itself. My plans for this book developed in part out of an observation about the circularity of the story (Gwydion, a man who was punished by being turned into animals, is the one to punish Blodeuwedd with transformation into an owl) and from there I only noticed more circularity, more parallels, more events doubling back on themselves and repeating over and over again. It is a story where everything in it gives birth to everything else in it: consequences and doubles, all the way through.
Other observations were on a micro level, tiny details. The hair colour of a character, and what that implied about kinship. The fact that the only sentence in the entire story where we see what Lleu is thinking is when he is a small child, and we learn that he loves Gwydion, because he has nobody else. The importance of pigs. (Okay, honestly, this is a macro level thing, considering how pigs are one of the running themes in the Four Branches and they show up so much. I did not really notice the pigs before this. I now comprehend that the pigs are very important.)
And some were simply practical questions: what was the difference between two spellings of a character’s name? Where was a certain place? (This is where having a friend who knows the recent scholarship well is helpful — they can quickly tell you why some use Arianrhod and some Aranrhod, and what interpretations each of those spellings support, and then all I have to do is decide which one better suits my purposes.)
Breaking down a story into moving parts so that you can reconstruct it as a novel is a great way to notice what those moving parts are — details you might otherwise have dismissed, or ideas you hadn’t realised showed up more than once, or even new ways of interpreting plot points.
And when you know that your friend is building something academic out of those parts… well, many times this month I’ve brought a piece to my friend and said, “Hey, what would you do with this?” or “Would this support your argument that X is Y?” or “How does Z fit into everything?” and the resulting discussion has not only helped me decide how to write the book, but helped her with an article she’s planning, which has been awesome.
Because that’s the joy of working creatively with a text that you also know academically. The creative work prompts you to break it down in ways you wouldn’t when analysing it, and put emphasis on things you would otherwise overlook, and in doing so, offers a brand new way of looking at it — one that isn’t counter to academic readings, but which helps inform them.
And that’s also the joy of collaboration: creative questions prompting academic answers, academic questions prompting creative answers, different perspectives on the same story resulting in breakthroughs in both directions.
Academically, I suppose what I do with texts is ask questions of them, and look for the answers within the text. Creatively, what I do is create the answers, and I’m not necessarily asking the same questions. But it’s part of the same process: it’s about trying to understand the story on a deeper level.
After drafting this book, I understand the Fourth Branch and its themes in a way that I would never have done without writing this book. I even have opinions about academic discussions of it that I wouldn’t have had if I were purely engaging with it as an academic. And I’ve been able, because I’ve been thinking about it creatively and almost coming at it sideways as a result, to offer new insights to friends focusing on it academically, connections they might not have drawn.
I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like I know enough about medieval Welsh to write or collaborate on an article about it to present some of those insights academically, but I certainly feel like I understand it on the level of story in a way that I didn’t before. And the academic insights offered by friends have given depth to the book, too, allowing me to tease out connections and themes that would’ve been easily missed.
And that’s one of the reasons I love writing retellings: because it allows me to bring together my creative and academic identities, my medievalist interests and my writing experience, to enhance both. I don’t have to choose between them, because they are aspects of the same thing. They are both ways of understanding stories, of getting inside stories to figure out what makes them tick, of figuring out what makes them what they are. If there’s a difference, it’s that academic analysis goes from the outside in, and a retelling is more like working from the inside out.
Academic, creative, and transformative approaches: all of them are about breaking down a text into its moving parts, and then figuring out how to put them back together again.
And, yes, sometimes my creative work leaves me with deep-rooted though minimally supported textual interpretations that I will not budge on (for example: Gwydion is ginger). But frankly, I’ve read enough 19th century scholarship to know that people have made far wilder claims for far worse reasons, so I don’t intend to stop doing this any time soon, either.
I don’t know what the future holds for The Animals We Became — nor, indeed, for To Run With The Hound or The Wolf and His King — but I hope, one day, to share these stories with you, and in doing so, offer a new way of looking at these texts, this time from the inside out.
*One exception to this is that I chose to keep Gronw alive at the end of The Animals We Became, because it better served the themes of the story I was telling. This is the only actual plot change I made, although I made other additions, expanding on gaps in the narrative. [back]
**I haven’t decided if I’ll go back to this book. In some regards, it would make a good follow-up to TBA: it has its dark moments, but it’s a more hopeful book, and might provide a good bridge to lighter-hearted YA. But I don’t know if it’s where my passions lie these days, and it would require a LOT of editing. Only time will tell, on this front. [back]
You can find out more about my research on the ‘Research‘ page of my website, which includes links to any of my published articles that are available online. But if it’s my creative work you’re here for, you want the ‘Books‘ page. Neither The Butterfly Assassin nor The Hummingbird Killer have anything to do with medieval literature, but I still wrote them, so you might enjoy them.