Michael Harvey: Was the Mabinogi Written by an Octopus?

November 9, 2017 by

Dreaming the Night Field, a faithful retelling of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi (the one with Blodeuwedd and Gwydion) is about to start a second round of touring and will be coming to the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama on the 16th of November. We have been working on it, on and off, for about two years with the Derby based production company Adverse Camber productions.

You only have to hear or read a short section of the Mabinogi to know that you are entering somewhere weird. Shapeshifting, other worlds, gaping plot holes, an uncertain grasp of the linearity of narrative sequence and stories that just stop rather than properly ending, to name but a few of the challenges. This is bad enough for the listener or reader but how is the poor contemporary storyteller meant to present this in front of an audience in a way that is both comprehensible and enjoyable?

Octopuses, it transpires, may be able to help. In his book Other Minds the philosopher and diver Peter Godfrey-Smith delves deep into the murky world of creatures who have been on the planet way longer than us and have developed an intelligence, creativity and playfulness on a track completely different to ours but still very much of and in this world.

It turns out that octopuses know that they are being experimented on and wilfully and artfully disrupt the experimental process. They can easily recognise individual humans and, if they take a dislike to you, you can expect an occasional drenching from a perfectly aimed squirt from an octopus syphon. They raid the tanks of other octopuses to steal their food, plug outlet valves on tanks and flood the whole lab and they watch the experimenters at least as much as they are watched by them.

In our preparation for the show Dreaming the Night Field we have frequently encountered this same quality in the material of the Mabinogi. There is lots of shapeshifting, of course, but the stories are also intimately rooted in the landscape of Wales. Not in a particularly grand way but in the confluence of two rivers, or a hole in a rock or a mound like Tomen y Mur, near Trawsfynydd. The meeting of story and landscape seems both matter of fact and intimate and all the more convincing for that, and also disturbing if you are trying to tease out a linear narrative because, put together, the story and the place do not take you along in a forward direction but wide and deep so that the storytelling question is no longer ‘What happens next?’ But ‘What happens as well?’


According to Peter Godfrey-Smith, octopuses “…are curious, protean in behaviour as well as in body.” which is a perfect description of Gwydion, the great storyteller/magician of the Fourth Branch who is the closest thing to a Native American trickster in any Welsh story. He is mischievous and talented, has limited empathy, makes very bad decisions that impact on those around him and himself, he changes species and sex and gives birth to children and is an important culture hero (he brought treasures back from the Otherworld, amongst other feats). The stories, the environment, our telling and listening, parallel texts and who knows what else make a loopiness of relationships that defies linear logic and invites chaos and who more chaotic than Gwydion, the storyteller, magician, instigator of rape and war and dedicated father figure.


The story does not ‘mean’ anything but it shows us the world and how our actions can be both catastrophic as well as inspired and beautiful and then leaves the rest to us. In this material language is less about meaning and more about having an effect. It is always a way of intervening in the world and modern audiences have no difficulty in understanding that words can curse, heal or transform according to their intention.





So, in this story we have war, rape, bestial sex punishments and many other types of weirdness and then, strangely, people clap at the end and tell us they’ve really enjoyed it.  We love telling this story and there is something about the tenor and style of the narrative that has come down to us that means that we are not traumatised or find the whole thing utterly ridiculous but enter deeply into its weave because, ultimately, it is about us.


Dreaming the Night Field is an Adverse Camber Production with Michael Harvey (storyteller), Stacey Blythe (musician/composer) and Lynne Denman (singer) as well as Paula Crutchlow (Dramaturg) and Sophia Clist (designer) and will be on for one night only at the Richard Burton Theatre of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama on Thursday 16th of November

Tickets – https://www.rwcmd.ac.uk/whats_on/events/dreaming_the_night_field.aspx


Dreaming the Night Field http://www.adversecamber.org/shows/dreaming-night-field/

Adverse Camber: http://www.adversecamber.org/


Review by playwright Tony Jones






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