The Dreams of Max and Ronnie
"..both tales include passages of razor-sharp humour as well as great beauty and poignancy..." - New Welsh Review
Iraq-bound young squaddie Ronnie takes something dodgy and falls asleep for three nights in a filthy hovel where he has the strangest of dreams. He watches the tattoed tribes of modern Britain assemble to speak with a grinning man playing war games. Arthurian legend merges with its twenty-first century counterpart in a biting commentary on leadership, individualism and the divisions in British society. Meanwhile Cardiff gangsta Max is fed up with life in his favourite nightclub, Rome, and chases a vision of the perfect woman in far flung parts of his country.
Listen to Niall Griffiths read an extract from his novel, ‘The Dreams of Max and Ronnie’:
Review from The Guardian
You might not expect to find Niall Griffiths, a writer whose novels include Grits, Sheepshagger and Stump, poking around among obscure variants of Arthurian legend. Yet he states that however far he travels from Wales, "the Mabinogion follows me there like luggage". Griffiths points out that his ancient source material contains highly developed elements of satire: "Not until Monty Python and the Holy Grail would Arthurian myth and its notions of chivalry face such bombardment"; and his stories acquire a unique form of gritty Celtic realism, in which a young soldier bound for Iraq takes a potent tranquiliser and experiences a lurid dream in which a sinister, grinning overlord plays a barbaric game of chess with the infidel. The accompanying tale transforms Maxen Wledig, emperor of Rome, into Max, the big cheese of a nightclub called Rome, who unwisely falls for a seductive extra "in a film based on some old national poem or something". Griffiths also supplies the best sign-off of the series so far: "The story ends here. It's not over, it's not finished. But it ends here." Alfred Hickling The Guardian 25th September
Review from TLS
In 'The Dreams of Max and Ronnie', Niall Griffiths brings to his re-workings of the fifth and eighth Mabinogi the formal approaches of his tried and tested social realist critique. The impotent raging of the dispossessed, heard in his earlier works such as Stump, is in "Ronnie's Dream" expressed through three young Welsh soldiers about to embark for Iraq. Griffiths satirizes the social and economic structures of modern Wales, relating this to the subservient role of the United Kingdom. Clare Morgan, TLS, November 2010
Review from Rock's Back Pages blog
I’ve never been to Wales. Well, apart from once, when I was a schoolgirl and we went for a field trip, but we spent most of our time in muddy fields and at the centre studying biology rather than learning anything about Wales. I say this to explain that I probably know less than most people about the history or myths of Wales. Is that a good or a bad thing when reviewing a book based on ancient Welsh myths? Probably a bit of both – it wasn’t until I’d read the synopses of the myths at the end of the book, and Griffiths’s afterword, that I fully realised the tales the two stories in the book are based on. So as a starting point, I’d say having them at the beginning of the book, after the introduction by series editor Penny Thomas, might have been a better idea than having them at the back. For those who, like me, know little about Welsh myths, the Mabinogion (which means ‘story of youth’) comprises eleven tales from two medieval manuscripts. The stories were first translated into English in the 1800s, but by then they’d been told and retold for hundreds of years. The series consists of contemporary writers taking one or more of these stories and re-writing them into a modern setting. Niall Griffiths chose as his two stories to rework ‘Rhonabwy’s Dream’ and ‘The Dream of Maxen Wledig.’ Griffiths is better known for more gritty work set in the real world – a Welsh Alan Warner or Irvine Welsh, perhaps – so his interpretations of these ancient myths were bound to be interesting. They are here recast as ‘The Dreams of Max and Ronnie.’ In the first, and longer, story, Ronnie’s Dream, Ronnie is one of three young Welsh men conscripted into the army and about to be sent to Iraq. The tale flits between the reality of their last few days before leaving the country and the drug-addled dreams of Ronnie. The parts set in the real world, with the three men bantering and going to visit a drug dealer known as Red Helen, taking sedatives procured from Helen, and waking up, are wonderfully entertaining in the same way Irvine Welsh is. There’s no doubt about the sleekit oald Edinbra man’s influence on Griffiths: the speech is written phonetically, in the vernacular in which it is spoken, the content is often hilariously coarse, and there are no conventional speech marks – in this case, just the hyphen preceding speech favoured by the many writers who have made it their trademark, such as Welsh or Roddy Doyle. But Griffiths carries it off with anarchic joy and is gifted at capturing the grotesque with well-chosen words. Red Helen, for example, is ‘a woman made of dough and with hair the colour of a wound’ with raisins as eyes. And for all his bluff and raucous crudeness, he has a beady eye for more serious feeling, describing Ronnie’s fear of the impending war graphically: ‘Wants the shaking to go away; can’t wait for the shaking to go away. The fried eyes, the itching skin, the hurricane in the head, wants it all gone.’ Satire is so vehement in Griffiths’s head that the seething swell of anger is always pounding through Ronnie’s dream scene. Blair emerges as a grim cartoon with a fixed rictus grin on his face, spouting the same cliches and impervious to the loss of life around him. The image of Blair is potent -’a man grinning with lots of teeth below steely eyes’ – and the obsequious Blair goes on to genefluct and grovel before those whose favour he wishes to earn. A clever touch is that as with real dreams, Ronnie incorporates what is going on around him as he sleeps into his dream. Thus the background noise of the Jeremy Kyle show, a news item about video games and another about an attack on a Goth, are whisked into the substance of the dream, which grows from an attack on the Iraq war to a corruscating rant against consumerism, the worship of celebrities such as Robbie Williams and David Beckham, and the unthinking, sheep-like copying of everything these garish idols do, from their tattoos to their lifestyles. It’s cleverly done – the attack on Williams, for example, is scathing: ‘ -He once sang a song about angels. These people have been told over and over again that he’s brilliant so they believe that’s just what he is and they want to bask in the glow they think he gives off. The smug man trots around the thrashing crowd, not once looking at them but obviously relishing their desperation to be near him…gulping himself and finding every last morsel delicious.’ Williams morphs into Beckham, and the screaming adoration continues, with riots erupting. In this way Griffiths captures well the impotence that causes the powerless to idolise a few and turn their frustrations to attacking each other in petty jealousy. Griffiths is also deliciously funny on neds: ‘…beneath his shiny shell suit he is skinny with white training shoes below the elasticated leg cuffs of his trousers and a gold rope around his neck and a Burberry baseball cap on top of his shaven head. His face is pale and sports some pustules and on his top lip some thin, long hairs waft and wave like weed underwater.’ So there is no doubt about it, Griffiths writes very well. He’s also much brainier than his fiction might suggest - his afterword is starlingly eloquent, to the point where you wonder if he digested a dictionary along with his cornflakes. And the prose is certainly powerful. Boy, is it strong. In parts it conjures images that wouldn’t be out of place in Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights painting, with its slaughtered and mutilated hordes left bloody and defeated by war. My only problem with the book is that, like much polemic, its anger is so fierce and scalding and its satire so unsubtle that after a while it becomes a tirade, a rant; and its messages so shrill – be they the anti-war, anti-consumerism, or anti-celeb worship ones of Ronnie’s dream or the attention drawn to casual racism by Ronnie and his two pals’ use of derogatory terms for Iraqis - that I felt I was being bludgeoned over the head with a club by someone shouting ‘NO TO IRAQ/MATERIALISM/RACISM’ at me, and not giving me the chance to whisper ‘I agree with you.’ The second tale, The Dream of Max the Emperor, is less furious but less exhausting for that very reason. It’s ending is not as strong as that of the first story but it’s highly readable. In fact, for all the bubbling emotion in this book, it’s possible to read the whole thing in a few hours. For readers interested in the Welsh myths, the volume – and the whole series – will have obvious value, while for those to whom the Mabinogion holds less allure, the book is entertaining – or should I say interesting - in a disturbing way – imagine the Chapman Brothers’ sculpture of a massacre in MacDonalds crossed with Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. For me, the spluttering anger of Ronnie’s story was a hurdle, but Griffiths’s writing is certainly something I’m keen to explore further. Leyla Sanai, January 2011
Review from Medieval Bookworm Blog
The Mabinogion, a collection of medieval stories about Arthurian legend and a few other bits and pieces, is a landmark in Welsh literature. Most Welsh literature isn’t particularly well known, as the country has been dominated by English rule for centuries; as a result, these stories take on a special significance. In honor of them, the publisher Seren has commissioned new stories that weave the legend together with contemporary life. The Dreams of Max and Ronnie is the third novel in the series and, with its poetic prose and simultaneously gritty realism, is a fitting tribute to the original stories. The book is comprised of two novellas. We start off with Ronnie’s dream. Ronnie and two of his friends, we quickly learn, are about to set off for to fight for their country in Iraq. I say for their country, but the book is in reality a protest against the war as well as a statement against many of the things that have come to have a disproportionate amount of meaning in our lives. Ronnie and his friends visit a woman called Red Helen in search of a hit before their tour. Said hit is so powerful that it knocks Ronnie out for three days, during which he has a strange dream. That dream is the closest remnant of the original tale; it’s interspersed with reflections on the modern day situation. Griffiths protests the lack of meaning in modern day British life; chapels are turned into holiday homes, people fight in wars without knowing or caring about them, traditional community standbys are overwhelmed by consumerism and celebrity imitations. One of the parts I noted as particularly striking about this story was a section about tattoos. Essentially, whenever someone famous gets a tattoo that others think is cool or individual or unique, everyone else feels compelled to copy them – therefore making very little cool or individual or unique. I found this quite disturbing actually; it’s hard to express and develop your own identity when much about the world is the same. I’ve never understood the cult of celebrity, but people very close to me always seem interested in the goings-on of these people who have no real relevance to their lives. This is just one of the things about modern society that Griffiths appears to be against. I wouldn’t say my own views are quite so firm. As a result, this isn’t an easy novella to read. It not only illustrates how terrified and unwilling Ronnie and his friends are about the war, it also is a very powerful expression of one particular viewpoint. If you don’t agree with what Griffiths has to say, I’m not sure you’ll be able to get past that and enjoy the book because it’s simply so overpowering and angry. The second novella, comprising Max’s dream, was not nearly so clear in terms of theme for me. In this one, gangster Max has a dream about a beautiful woman, and decides he needs a companion. He proceeds to send out his cronies on a search for the perfect woman while he languishes in his dreams, becoming steadily more disgusting and less likely to be appealing to said dream woman. When they do find his ideal woman, she turns out to be completely different from his expectations, which naturally leads to issues. For me, it was difficult to tease out precisely what this story was about. It is definitely not as powerful as Ronnie’s dream, which in some ways makes it easier to read. It also means that it doesn’t work as well in the many ways that Ronnie’s dream does; I found it quite crude at times, although I was pleased with how the story ended. I think I would recommend The Dreams of Max and Ronnie as a whole, especially to British readers. Reading The Mabinogion and then branching out into these stories would be an excellent way to compare the Britain of the past with the Britain of today. I also think they won’t work as well for someone who isn’t as aware of British culture, current events, and celebrities in general. I suspect Griffiths’ views will also dovetail with general public opinion, so it’s well worth reading the book now while it’s all fresh in our minds and we can relate to it. Meghan, December 2010
Review from Planet
The Dreams of Max and Ronnie, two novellas in one volume, appears in Seren's New Stories ifrom the Mabinogion series. I must declare an interest in that I have recently completed my own commission. It is a thrill to be asked to address the ancient from the present: as poets say of the constraints of form, the near-timeless tales work like chains which set you free. Griffiths set free is quite a sight. 'Ronnie's Dream' is a furious, enraged novella. A squaddie on his way to Iraq falls asleep in a drug dealer's house and sees visions of Blair's Britain, a land enthralled by violence, emptiness, tattoos, celebrities, oil and vacuous 'status': 'A solider from some council estate and you're cannon fodder like people like you have always been... First face [that] the Republican guard of the mujahideen will blow off belongs to you. Understand?
Griffiths's anger is directed not merely at Blair ('the grinner') but at his historical and legendary forbears, right back to the Arthur of the Mabinogi. Dark even by the standards of satire, the story is told in a polyphony of voices set against a pageant of armies, banners and footballers, as soldiers try to get the attention of their maniac leader, who barely looks up from Killzone 2 - a reference to Arthur playing a board game in the original tale, 'Rhonabwy's Dream'. Reading the Griffiths version requires a strong stomach, and if you felt any anger at our adventure in 2003 you will feel it again now.
'The Dream of Max the Emperor', based on 'The Dream of Maxen Wledig' is a lighter piece, in which a gangster dispatches his cohorts to find the perfect woman who appeared to be in his dream. Our society may be in all sorts of spiritual trouble, but while we have a writer of Niall Griffiths's quality to excoriate it, all is far from lost.
Horatio Clare, Planet 202
Review from New Welsh Review
I was curious about Niall Griffiths' volume even before I opened its pages. Since it is part of Seren's undertaking to rewrite the familiar tales of the Mabinogion - a repository of traditional learning. Arthurian romance, mythology, and international folklore motifs - tantalizing questions arise about the relationship of the new English-language texts with the medieval Welsh-language originals. Do readers need to know the old in order to appreciate and enjoy the new? Then there are the possibilities of how the themes suggested by the original - Welsh and British identities, heroism, leadership and individuality - are inflected in a Wales which is conquered, multicultural, multilingual, partially urbanised and (almost) politically devolved. The burden of expectation on those retelling these tales is therefore great, not least because of the iconic status of the originals!
However, the project is entirely in keeping with creative ethos of the Mabinogion themselves, since individual professional storytellers personalised the traditional framework of each tale in the telling. The engaging nature of this border project is also represented in the shadowed images of its stylish generic covers.
The satiric core and military context of 'The Dream of Rhonabwy', along with its emphasis on heroes past and present, are transposed to the theater of the war in Iraq. The eponymous hero Ronnie, along with two other wired soldiers, is preparing for a tour of duty; they are 'a retinue on this quest to forget what had yet to happen'. Ronnie experiences a drug-induced vision of the political culture which took Britain to war - a vision in which his own fears, inarticulated in waking life, are framed in an unforgiving critique (both hilarious and chilling, in turns) of democracy, nationalism, heroism, leadership and popular culture. By playing with stylized language in the narrative parts (including a liking for threes!) Griffiths achieves a mythological atmosphere which is dramatically shattered in the outburst of a representative soldier:
And, as they'd been taught to, they also thought, Christ I'm in
the mood to kill some fucking ragheads...
This dissonance between the narrative voice and dialogue ensures that Griffiths avoids didacticism, one if the pitfalls of satire, and in later episodes it is seemingly inarticulate soldiers like this who reveal truth such as the now infamous WMD, dodgy dossier, and personal political ambitions of the nation's elite. Griffiths' satire is most haunting in the metamorphosis of the magical chess game of Killzone 2 played by Britain's leader ('a grinning man') and Ned, a representative of Britain's unthinking and unquestioning populace. Immured to the reality of war by killing avatars on a games console, the grinning man remains impassive when confronted by testimonies of opponents of war and heroes past and present who have experienced it directly. Rhonabwy's companions in the original are somewhat redundant, but Griffiths has woven Ronnie's into the fabric of the tale, adding bite to his satire: while Ronnie sleeps, Robert and Rhys stare blankly at the TV screen whose programmes project the violent scenes from both military and civilian life which animate their companion's dream. All told, reality is no less nightmarish than Ronnie's dreamworld.
'The Dream of Maxen conforms to the rubric of the international folklore motif in which a man falls in love with an otherwordly woman whom encounters in a dream. In 'Max's Dream', the 'otherworld' of the original becomes an 'underworld', and the Roman imperial inheritance of Ancient Britain is transmogrified into the drugs empire of the gangster, Max. By subtly highlighting the tensions between north/south, rural/urban, Welsh and non-Welsh speakers, Griffiths introduces some uncomfortable home truths; sub-text of both stories is that contemporary Wales accommodates gangsters and lowlife, and they are no less Welsh for it. Griffiths gives expression to his inner post-feminist by recasting Elen Luyddog, a princess from Caernarfon and the woman of Maxen's dream, as high-class prostitute Helen, whose profession alludes to the orice the original Maxen was required to pay Elen's father for her virginity. Sick of slappers, Max deludes himself that he us in love with the woman in his dream. Helen lacks individuality and is merely a composite of attractive celebrity women, 'She was the sexiest thing he'd ever seen. She was Beyoncé, Alesha Dixon, Lisa Mafia. She was the kind of woman he deserved to have in his arm... 'This tale also tackles dreams and aspirations in the conventional sense: gang culture, celebrity, materialism and sense of entitlement, as well as the tenuous nature of respect and the fickle one of loyalty.
While the violence, drugs and 'colourful' language took me outside my personal and literary comfort zones, both tales include passages of razor-sharp humour as well as great beauty and poignancy, even when describing the implosion of Welsh villages ('sodden atomisation of this ancient island').Having read the original Welsh-language texts as an undergraduate, I enjoyed the challenge of identifying and anticipating Griffiths.' transformations in the news texts and, for me, by mythologising the invasion of Iraq, and its significance for British identity, Niall Griffiths has in 'Ronnie's Dream' produced a modern classic from the ancient echoes of Rhonabwy's.
Cathryn Charnell-White, New Welsh Review Summer 2011