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White Ravens

Owen Sheers
ISBN-13: 
9781854115034
Format: 
Paperback
Publication Date: 
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
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"a gripping contemporary story… brilliantly absorbs the magical elements of the original” The Guardian

“Sheers makes his 20th-century setting sing but holds on to the otherworldliness of his source material… A spellbinding fable about male self-destructiveness and the effects of war on those who return home.” The Financial Times

Two stories, two different times, but the thread of an ancient tale runs through the lives of twenty-first century farmer’s daughter Rhian and the mysterious Branwen…

After being wounded in Italy, Matthew O’Connell is seeing out WWII in an obscure government department spreading rumours and myths to the enemy. But when he’s given the bizarre task of escorting a box containing six raven chicks from a remote hill farm to the Tower of London, he becomes part of a story over which he seems to have no control.

The eleven stories in the Mabinogion come from two medieval Welsh manuscripts, with roots dating back many centuries earlier. They bring us Celtic mythology, Arthurian romance, and their own view of the Island of Britain. There is enchantment and shapeshifting, conflict, peacemaking, love and betrayal.

In this series commissioned by Seren, the old tales are at the heart of the new. Each author reinvents a story in their own way: creating fresh, contemporary tales that speak to us as much of our own world as of events long gone. Based on ‘Branwen, Daughter of Llyr’, White Ravens is a haunting novella from an acclaimed writer.

REVIEWS

Review by Rachel Carney, Created to Read

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

White Ravens by Owen Sheers is very different to Fflur Dafydd’s re-creation (The White Trail), but just as fascinating. It is a re-imagining of the second branch of the Mabinogion, the tale of Branwen, daughter of Llyr. It starts with Rhiannon’s story – a tale of devastation on a Welsh sheep farm which leads Rhiannon and her brothers into a life of crime. Rhiannon abandons her brothers and walks off, alone, uncertain whether to escape from them and their new ‘business’ for good. Sitting on a bench outside the Tower of London, she meets an old man who tells her a story…

 

The old man’s story takes her back to the time of the Second World War. He tells her about a young, injured Irishman called Matthew O’Connell who is sent on a secret mission to rural Wales to bring back six raven chicks to the tower. Whilst there, he meets Branwen, falls in love and gets married.

Branwen’s brother (Evan) returns home from the trenches and reacts badly to the strange Irishman who has married his sister, taking out his frustration on the man’s horse. From this point onwards the story has a tragic edge to it, as Matthew takes Branwen to his native Ireland and they are ostracised by the local community, leading Matthew to drink and to blame his wife. Branwen, who now has a young child, eventually decides she’s had enough and contacts her brothers, who turn up to fetch her. The tale ends dramatically, with violence and death. Poor Matthew had the chance to read the Mabinogion years ago, and heed its warning. Now it is too late.

The story moves back to Rhiannon, sitting on the bench outside the Tower of London. After hearing the story, she now has a choice to make. Will she heed its warning or will she make the same mistake?

Lessons to Learn

I love the way Sheers focuses the message of the book around how we respond to old myths and tales, and whether we can learn from them in order to make decisions in the present. This story is far more realist than The White Trail, and the choice of period – during the Second World War is clever. It helps the reader to understand that behind Evan’s seemingly inexplicable and shocking actions might be an experience which has affected him deeply. It can also go some way to help us understand Matthew’s behaviour towards his wife, as he is unable to cope with the humiliation of returning to Ireland with a war injury. In the afterword, Sheers describes this as “the irrational violence of men suddenly returned from a world of conflict into a world of peace”.

Having read these two re-creations, I’m now hooked, and will be adding the rest of them to my ‘to read’ list. There is something addictive about old myths and legends. We don’t know where they came from, or how they started, or what their original meaning was intended to be, but they continue to live on, to change and develop through the telling…

REVIEW by Jill Murphy, The Bookbag

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

In the old tale, Branwen is the sister of Bendigeidfran - the giant King of Britain. She marries the King of Ireland, who doesn't treat her well. She manages to send Bendigeidfran a message via a tamed starling and war and killings ensue.

In this new tale, a young girl has just walked away from her brothers who, in the wake of the devastating foot and mouth outbreak, are despoiling their heritage by rustling and illegally slaughtering sheep. She meets an old man who tells her a story involving the superstitions about the ravens in the Tower of London, propaganda work during World War II, and an equally doomed love affair.

I'm completely in awe of the way Owen Sheers has drawn together multiple contemporary elements and linked back to the original to refresh this story from the Mabinogion. We begin in the Britain of today, but much of the story is set in the fairly recent past, just after World War II. It's understood that fighting in wars or witnessing catastrophically violent events - here, the slaughtering of a farm's sheep due to foot and mouth - has a profound effect on people. Their own subsequent actions can become disproportionate or even violent. This truth of the original story is brought very much to bear in White Ravens.

I like the way the legend of the Tower of London's ravens - if they leave, Britain falls - is incorporated into a story based on another legend. It creates mirrors of meanings that come very close but can never quite be caught. Parochialism is another theme - Their physical horizons were broad - on a clear day Matthew's father reckoned he could see Wales from the top of the Wicklow hills. But their personal horizons were narrow.

But most of all, it's a story of love and violence and the way passion connects them both, and it's a more than worthy continuation of an original that has survived for the best part of a thousand years.

REVIEW by Adam Thorpe, The Guardian

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Some very nasty things happen around the original Branwen, sister of the giant Bendigeidfran, king of Britain: mutilated horses, warriors head-squeezed to death, the wiping out of Ireland's entire population – all the result of jealousy on the part of Branwen's half-brother, Efnisien, after she marries Matholwch, king of Ireland. Efnisien even throws their baby son, Gwern, into the fire. In Sheers's broodingly poetic version, set in the 1940s, the warriors have become struggling hill-farmers, but war is still present, having damaged both Branwen's Irish love, Matthew, and her brother Evan, newly returned from Burma.

This core tale is framed by a gripping contemporary story: two brothers, reduced after the foot-and-mouth massacre to rustling sheep, are "counting out bad money in a blood-soaked lorry in a back alley" when their sister, Rhian, sickened by the violence, runs away and meets a mysterious old man by the Tower of London. He tells her Matthew's story: how he was given the top-secret task of travelling to Wales to replace the tower's ravens, killed in the blitz, for the sake of national morale.

This conceit brilliantly absorbs the magical elements of the original – particularly the burial of Bendigeidfran's head in the "White Mount" (the tower), staring out invasion. Sheers has Matthew meet Branwen on her giant brother's remote hill farm: it is Matthew's modest horse that suffers Evan's crazed reaction after their wedding. Branwen then settles with her husband in Ireland, where drink turns him abusive and she has to be rescued from the marriage by her brothers. Instead of the original's life-restoring cauldron, we have a bullet-stopping fob watch, and Gwern survives the flames to provide a satisfying blood-link between the two narratives. Myth strains to be heard just the far side of reality: proleptically, Ben makes Matthew read the Mabinogion story.

REVIEW by Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

Friday, October 30, 2009

Seren's new series invites writers to re-interpret the 11 stories of the Welsh epic, the Mabinogion.

Choosing the tale of Branwen, whose marriage to an Irish king triggers a cycle of reprisals, Sheers grafts this myth onto the story of the ravens in the Tower of London and the legend of their wartime fate.

Via the sheep-farming landscapes of today's Wales and the Blitz-hit London of the 1940s, his novella dwells on "the cyclical nature of atrocity" in swift prose that slips between its periods and levels with gravity and grace. Vengeance at last withers as the young learn "to be a bridge, not a barrier".

User Reviews

Anonymous's picture

Review from OUR BOOK REVIEW ONLINE

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Owen Sheers brings a contemporary twist to the ancient Welsh tale of Branwen, daughter of Llyr with two different, but entwined stories, one set in the present day, one during WW2. Rhian and her two brothers live on a remote Welsh hill farm, the family's home for generations, but following an outbreak of foot and mouth the brothers decide to set up in a different line of business - one they feel is less effort and more lucrative. This book is part of a series - New Stories from the Mabinogion - though there's no need of prior knowledge of Welsh myth to enjoy this story - it's gripping enough and perfectly capable of being read as a stand alone story. I was drawn in by Sheer's storytelling skills, his ability to tell apart of the tale from a woman's perspective, to give Rhian a voice and let her speak. White Ravens is very much a story set in the real, everyday world, not a magical, fantasy tale but, in the way of myth, the characters are drawn powerlessly along towards their inescapable fate. Although this is a story about men torn apart by violence and bloodshed, of men who release their torment and rage on the people and animals around them, it also offers the possibility ending the vicious circle they find themselves caught in. Maryom, Our Book Reviews Online Blog, October 2010

18/10/2010 - 11:16
Anonymous's picture

Review from the FINANCIAL TIMES

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“Sheers makes his 20th-century setting sing but holds on to the otherworldliness of his source material… A spellbinding fable about male self-destructiveness and the effects of war on those who return home.”

03/03/2010 - 13:33
Anonymous's picture

Review from the INDEPENDENT

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“Via the sheep-farming landscapes of today’s Wales and the Blitz-hit London of the 1940s, his novella dwells on “the cyclical nature of atrocity” in swift prose that slips between its periods and levels with gravity and grace.” Oct 09

03/03/2010 - 13:29
Anonymous's picture

Review from the GUARDIAN

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No votes yet

"a gripping contemporary story… brilliantly absorbs the magical elements of the original” Nov 09

03/03/2010 - 13:19
Anonymous's picture

Review from the SUNDAY TIMES

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No votes yet

“a gripping tale of the unexpected that fuses Welsh myth and modern macabre into a superb, bewitching whole” Nov 09

03/03/2010 - 13:17

Comments

Anonymous's picture

Review from the SUNDAY TIMES

0
No votes yet

“a gripping tale of the unexpected that fuses Welsh myth and modern macabre into a superb, bewitching whole” Nov 09

03/03/2010 - 13:17
Anonymous's picture

Review from the GUARDIAN

0
No votes yet

"a gripping contemporary story… brilliantly absorbs the magical elements of the original” Nov 09

03/03/2010 - 13:19
Anonymous's picture

Review from the INDEPENDENT

0
No votes yet

“Via the sheep-farming landscapes of today’s Wales and the Blitz-hit London of the 1940s, his novella dwells on “the cyclical nature of atrocity” in swift prose that slips between its periods and levels with gravity and grace.” Oct 09

03/03/2010 - 13:29
Anonymous's picture

Review from the FINANCIAL TIMES

0
No votes yet

“Sheers makes his 20th-century setting sing but holds on to the otherworldliness of his source material… A spellbinding fable about male self-destructiveness and the effects of war on those who return home.”

03/03/2010 - 13:33
Anonymous's picture

Review from OUR BOOK REVIEW ONLINE

0
No votes yet

Owen Sheers brings a contemporary twist to the ancient Welsh tale of Branwen, daughter of Llyr with two different, but entwined stories, one set in the present day, one during WW2. Rhian and her two brothers live on a remote Welsh hill farm, the family's home for generations, but following an outbreak of foot and mouth the brothers decide to set up in a different line of business - one they feel is less effort and more lucrative. This book is part of a series - New Stories from the Mabinogion - though there's no need of prior knowledge of Welsh myth to enjoy this story - it's gripping enough and perfectly capable of being read as a stand alone story. I was drawn in by Sheer's storytelling skills, his ability to tell apart of the tale from a woman's perspective, to give Rhian a voice and let her speak. White Ravens is very much a story set in the real, everyday world, not a magical, fantasy tale but, in the way of myth, the characters are drawn powerlessly along towards their inescapable fate. Although this is a story about men torn apart by violence and bloodshed, of men who release their torment and rage on the people and animals around them, it also offers the possibility ending the vicious circle they find themselves caught in. Maryom, Our Book Reviews Online Blog, October 2010

18/10/2010 - 11:16
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