I was not long back from the Mabinogion Festival weekend in Aberystwyth, banjaxed by the depth, richness, emotional power of this sequence of Welsh medieval tales, and knocked out by the courage, skill and brio of the six storytellers. It was an eight hour marathon, presented here in English and Welsh with evolving illustration provided by artists. This time I was particularly affected by the second tale, of royal siblings, Bran and Branwen, here transmitted with passion and precision by a team of three women, Christine Cooper, Cath Little and Fiona Collins. It is a story of about war and the horrors of war. It has all the features we see everyday in our news – revenge killings, valiant efforts at peace-making, the suffering of innocents, bloodbaths, torture and the devastating effects of post-traumatic stress on the survivors of these horrors. It features the giant-king, Bran, or Bendigedfran, who spawned the Welsh saying ‘he who would be king, let him be a bridge’ when he lay down over the river Shannon so that his men could cross it and rescue his sister. It is the head of Bran, cut off at his own instruction, which is buried under the White Tower in London to protect these islands from invasion. Those ravens are his birds.
I was so flaked out when I got home that I slumped on the settee and watched the end of series five of The Sopranos, which I just received from Lovefilm. No escape from being harrowed here!
There he was, Tony Soprano, played by the brilliant late James Gandolfini, stumbling down a story arc remarkably similar to that of Bran. Not only that, but Gandolfini was actually a giant of a man, big with the brooding power of a monster-giant drawn by a child, but also possessing rare sensitivity and subtlety as an actor, and thereby lending mob-boss Tony Soprano the stirrings of a moral sense. Unlike some of his more psychopathic followers.
In the Bran story, Bran’s half-brother, Efnisien, horribly mutilates the king of Ireland’s horses, in a vicious act of revenge. To keep the peace, Bran should kill him, but, because he is is a close relative, he does not, and Efinisien goes on to commit further horrors and destroy all chance of peace between the two countries – the Island of the Mighty and the Island of the Blessed. Meanwhile in the Sopranos, Tony makes the mistake of being soft on his cousin, also called Tony, who has a ‘rage problem’ and has killed outside the rules, including a woman and the son of a fellow mobster. Although Tony Soprano does the necessary in the end, it is not before relatively innocent people have suffered and seeds of future troubles sown.
In the Mabinogion story, Efnisien, having perpetrated heinous acts, is finally smitten by remorse and makes the redemptive act of jumping into the cauldron of regeneration and splitting it into smithereens – so that the Irish can no longer renew their fighting men. This allows seven British men to survive, including Bran. I haven’t seen the end of the Soprano series so I don’t know how Tony’s arc develops, but I do know that both the medieval tale and the contemporary TV drama have something extraordinary and special: an understanding of the grim realities of power. Although Bran is a good king, he cannot save his kingdom from defeat and ruin – though he can keep hope alive by the burying of his head. Tony Soprano struggles with his good and bad angels to make himself a soul but becomes irretrievably isolated by the responsibilities of his position as a mob leader and trapped in a world where no-one is to be trusted and there is no way to escape into a good and innocent life. He even has to order the death of his nephew’s pathetic girlfriend because she has been embroiled with the FBI. It’s going to haunt him, I know that, because he actually really liked her… I could hardly bear to watch the moment where she realises she is to die.
The two stories are still haunting me.