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February 2004
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Book of the Three Dragons, by Kenneth Morris (1930)

THE sourcebook of Welsh myth is the Mabinogion, a mass of Celtic fragments whose unpolished state fascinates authors. Evangeline Walton retold the stories; Lloyd Alexander's "Prydain" echoes them; Alan Garner brilliantly transmuted one episode as The Owl Service.

All these wrote in modern idiom. But Kenneth Morris embellished the tattered myths like a true Welsh bard, shaping an overarching Story whose characters always seem a little drunk with their own magniloquence.

Following the earlier The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed (1914), Book of the Three Dragons recaps the history of Prince Pwyll from the Mabinogion's first section or "branch," links to the second-branch legend of the Wonderful (disembodied) Head of Bran the Blessed, and boldly reincarnates Pwyll—now tested to destruction by Welsh gods—as third-branch hero Manawyddan.

Manawyddan's much-changed story has the new goal of recovering stolen treasures of Britain's Three Primitive Bards, who are also the Three Dragons. Such Celtic triad-patterns recur, and Mabinogion asides about earning a living by craftsmanship become an elaborately witty trio of apprenticeships as Manawyddan learns "Subtle Shoemaking, of the Esoteric Craft"…then shieldmaking, then swordmaking. Swords that "would think little of shaving the beard from the gnat in mid air."

Thus schooled, he tackles such silver-tongued villains as Gwiawn Llygad Cath the Sea-Thief ("Whether that be the famous breastplate or no, it would be imprudent to leave it unstolen.")—a pursuit which leads to the harrowing of a very Welsh hell.

Morris writes with all Lord Dunsany's richness, though his cadences are Celtic rather than biblical. This one should be read aloud.

—David Langford

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