Review: 'The White Trail'

The White Trail by Fflur Dafydd
- Gwales review by Caroline Clark
(A review from, with the permission of the Welsh Books Council).

The multi-talented Fflur Dafydd makes a touching and imaginative contribution to Seren’s New Stories from the Mabinogion series, particularly in her choice of material. The tale of Culhwch and Olwen is an elaborate, even baroque, quest story which piles task on impossible task and draws in a huge cast of minor characters. Dafydd abandons the boar hunt which forms the greater part of the original tale and focuses instead on the previous generation: on Culhwch’s father, Cilydd, and his grief for his dead wife and lost son. Taking the hint from the meaning of some of the original names, Dafydd binds her story together with differing qualities of light: ‘Daylight’ murdered in a dark sty, Arthur’s ‘illuminated corner’ in the midst of chaos, and Olwen’s ‘white dazzle’.

This is still a quest story but of a kind only too familiar today: a search for apparently ordinary people who inexplicably disappear, and a stolen child’s search for his true father. At first we are in the realm of realism – of supermarkets, CSI and an online missing-persons network. With the return of Culhwch, the magic comes back: we find the secret house in an impenetrable forest, the birds of Rhiannon who make men sleep and forget, and Olwen, the white girl at whose feet flowers spring up and whose light fights the darkness and evil of Ysbaddaden. The resolution of the mystery might not entirely succeed in binding these elements together (Ysbaddaden’s ‘castle’ feels more Torchwood than Bluebeard), but the first section’s study of grief and the magical atmosphere of the second are beautifully realised.

This series continues to demonstrate the living power of myth inspiring writers to create fresh new leaves on the Tree of Tales.

Caroline Clark