The Meat Tree
‘The successful recreation of myth requires a wiliness that exceeds that of the original myth makers, and Lewis patiently and skillfully demonstrates that wiliness’ – The TLS
A dangerous tale of desire, DNA, incest and flowers plays out within the wreckage of an ancient spaceship in The Meat Tree: an absorbing retelling of the Blodeuwedd Mabinogion myth by prizewinning writer and poet Gwyneth Lewis. An elderly investigator and his female apprentice hope to extract the fate of the ship’s crew from its antiquated virtual reality game system, but their empirical approach falters as the story tangles with their own imagination. By imposing a distance of another 200 years and millions of light years between the reader and the medieval myth, Gwyneth Lewis brings this tale of a woman made of flowers closer than ever before, perhaps uncomfortably so. After all, what man can imagine how sap burns in the veins of a woman?
Review from The Guardian
Seren's series of new stories inspired by the Mabinogion may be the greatest service to the Welsh national epic since Lady Charlotte Guest published her translation of the medieval folk tales in the mid-19th century, through Gwyneth Lewis proposes a date several millennia into the future, reconfiguring events into space quest in which an inspector of lunar wrecks and his young assistant investigate an ancient Earth vessel and find it to contain one of the virtual reality consoles popular "before you swallowed nano-synaptic dream tablets for recreation and training". It provides a satisfying bizarre context for a narrative about an unfaithful woman made of flowers who turns into an owl, while Lewis's inspector observes events from a hilariously jobs-worth perspective: "I'm an experienced enough traveller to know that you lose all dignity on a space trip. But that's usually to do with toilet matters, not being banished to a forest with your student, turned into an animal and forced to reproduce". Alfred Hickling, The Guardian 25th September 2010
Review from Book Reviews Online Blog
An unusual and intriguing story about identity, self-determination an survival.
Book Reviews Online Blog
Review from TLS
The tales should linger in imagination...a whistle in the reeds, a bird's song in your ear". The bar, then is set high, but 'The Meat Tree', Gwyneth Lewis's gripping and intelligent exploration of the fourth branch of the Mabinogi, Blodeuwedd's tale, does not disappoint. Somewhere in the far reaches of the universe on board a spaceship in the year 2210. Nona and Campion are investigating the fate of an old ship, apparently from Earth, in whose wreck there is no trace of the original crew. Using old-fashioned Virtual Reality software (which they find on board the old ship), they enter the labyrinthine territory of the Blodeuwedd myth. In the VR world of medieval shape-shifting, they can change gender, power roles and species. The successful recreation of myth requires a wiliness that exceeds that of the original; myth makers, and Lewis patiently and skillfully demonstrates that wiliness in presenting to her readers "the battle between meat and magic, between body and imagination". Clare Morgan, TLS, November 2010
Review from Medieval Bookworm Blog
Another retelling of a Mabinogion story, The Meat Tree starts off with two people in space, exploring an abandoned ship. There were meant to be three people on it, but none yet exist. Communicating entirely through their minds, the two navigators discover a virtual reality system with a place for three people – outdated technology to them, but worth exploring to see if they can find out what happened to the ship’s inhabitants. They find themselves transplanted back to medieval Wales, where they proceed to re-enact a tale of old and struggle to maintain themselves in the face of these new characters. This was such an interesting approach to a retelling of a medieval Welsh story! When the book opened with two people out in space, one teaching the other to use her mind to communicate, I had no idea how it was going to relate to the actual story the author was retelling. Using virtual reality to tell the tale was fascinating and a very clever approach. For a while there I had no idea how Lewis was going to work in an actual retelling. I love the idea of using predictions for the future to shed light on the past like this – and loved even more that the story still retained a very human feel. Despite living in the future, these are people like us, and the characters they play are also, surprisingly, people, despite the myths swelling up around them. Amusingly, the part I didn’t like about the story was the myth itself. I’ll confess to never having read the original, despite having heard it bandied about (it’s the one about Math with the quarrelling brothers). I was surprised, although I shouldn’t have been, at the bestiality of the tale, and I found the descriptions somewhat disturbing. While I can’t really hold this against the modern author, the fact remains that I didn’t really like it. Overall, though, this was quite an interesting retelling, done in an interesting way. It’s completely different from the last I read, The Dreams of Max and Ronnie, and so far I remain fascinated with these modern interpretations of centuries-old stories. I’m looking forward to reading more of them as they are published, and the ones before the two that I’ve read. Meghan, January 2011
Review from New Welsh Review
Fiction, red in tooth and claw; and where better to explore its perils than Math, the Forth Branch of the Mabinogi, the strangest of the lot? This latest plunge into medieval tale, by the poet Gwyneth Lewis, follows in a long line of works inspired by the disturbing images of transformation power and revenge in the twisted-together stories of Gwydion, the master story teller, and Blodeuwedd, the woman made of flowers.
The latest in Seren's series of contemporary retellings of the tales under the general editorship of Penny Thomas, The Meat Tree is a bold, fast-paced take on a complex and powerful text. The paradoxes and latent metaphors of the forth branch are very much Lewis territory. Plants become human, or something like it; humans become animals; male becomes female.
These boundary violations are prime material for a writer who has always thrived in areas of generic interface. It is not altogether a surprise to find her version of the tale set two hundred years in the future, as science fiction. The parallels between medieval romance and science fiction are well-known; at their simplest levels they work as folktales, relating encounters and episodes in quest-form, from court to court, planet to planet. But the Mabinogi tales, and Math most of all, do not follow the string-of-beads pattern.
The Meat Tree is by turns clever and cruel; lyrical and gruesome...[.]..Lewis's story boldly opens up, dare I say it, new interpretative frontiers, while more than pulling off the tricky authorial act of both 'escaping from' and 'preying on' its productivity enigmatic medieval forebear.
Mary-Ann Constantine, NWR, Spring 2011
Review from Planet
The Meat Tree, one of Seren's new stories from the Mabinogi, promises to be an absorbing retelling of Blodeuwedd, the fourth 'branch' of the medieval Welsh tales: a treacherous and tricksy fable full of sexual yearning, genetics, incest and magic. Blodeuwedd, the woman made of flowers, is probably the most well-known character from the stories, having inspired a 1960's young adult novel, The Owl Service, by Alan Garner. Yet her story is as convoluted as the rest, full if miracles and conjuring, which proves challenging in a contemporary retelling.
In short, there are absurdities: plants grow into humans; humans are reduced to beasts, and then sometimes rise to be human again; there are thaumaturgical births, and men become women. At the story's core is the punishment dished out by King Math to his brothers Gwydion and Gilfaethwy for the rape of Goewin, Math's foot-holder. He turns them into deer, boar and wolves, and forces them to breed. They are to experience what it is to be animal - and what it is to be female. But Lewis is a poet adept to smudging the boundaries between truth and fiction, reality and fabrication, and here she creates a peculiar framework, usually managing to turn the crumples and complications into timeless humour and concise prose.
Lewis has turned a medieval myth into science fiction, and this retelling, set two hundred years in the future, although occasionally daunting, parallel to the original. The entire novella is written in dialogue the 'synapse logs' and 'joint thought channel' of Campion and Nona.
As an English-speaking Welsh person with very little knowledge of the Mabinogi, I appreciated this retelling. Lewis's skill as a lyricist and the themes of inheritance and gender relations that she pulled out of the original story were enough to keep my mind off the absurdities of folklore and the science-fiction to which I am indifferent. The Meat Tree is above all a book about art and imagination, about characters and stories and how, as readers, we come to inhabit them. Under Lewis's watch this retelling transcends the limits of its genre.
Rachel Trezise, Planet 202