Next year (2016) will mark twenty years since the death of Evangeline Walton, and 2017 will see the 110th anniversary of her birth. Unlike the first three writers I’ve discussed in this column so far, Walton has not yet fallen completely off the radar within SF—she is still mentioned in at least some critical works, her agent continues to maintain an active website, and her fans include Christopher Paolini and Patricia McKillip. A novel and a short story collection have been published posthumously. In her lifetime—or at least the last quarter of it—she was well-reviewed and received, nominated for several awards (she won three), and given a lifetime achievement award by World Fantasy Convention in 1989. But for all that, I hear her name mentioned less and less often and awareness of her influence seems to be fading. In her case the reason seems not that she has been dismissed, nor that her work is largely considered to belong in other genres, but simply down to time.
She was not a prolific writer—or, more accurately, she did not publish prolifically and, like many women writers, seems to have had a rather diffident attitude to her work. She was a writer lifelong, beginning in childhood, and completed most of her novels long before they saw print. Her work included historical novels and stories of Gothic horror as well as fantasy, but all of her work contains hints of the supernatural and the numinous. Her one published historical novel, The Cross and the Sword (published in the UK as Son of Darkness) is perhaps her least accessible work to modern readers. This is no judgement on Walton’s writing: rather it reflects the substantial changes in the style of historical fiction since it was first published in 1956. Set against the background of the Viking invasions of Anglo-Saxon England in the later tenth and early eleventh centuries, the events it covers are lively, but our knowledge of the period has increased substantially since it was published, and the source books Walton used were dated even when she was working. To modern readers exposed to television documentaries on Viking and Saxon archaeology and history, it might seem rather stagey. But it does reflect one of Walton’s central concerns as a writer: the agency of women, the ways in which social pressures and structures constrain and sometimes harm them, and the connections between women and spirituality.
Her two Gothic novels, Witch House (1945) and She Walks in Darkness (published posthumously in 2013), share this concern: while both use the “woman in danger” trope common to the genre, they also contain positive images of female magical or divine power. Like The Cross and the Sword, both have dated in some ways—the heroines are rather too dependent on male help for modern tastes, and the attitudes to ethnicity can be uncomfortable to read in places. But the sense of creeping horror and of an alien and dangerous supernatural world alongside ours is powerful, and they are worthy companions to the horror novels of Fritz and the early novels of Mary Stewart, which also date around the same period. Even if her work was confined to these two books and her surviving short fiction (which is collected in Above Ker-Is and Other Stories [Nodens Books 2012]) she would deserve to be remembered within the SF canon. But it is her remaining novels which are her major contribution to our genre and which, indeed, place her amongst the first rank of fantasy writers and innovators.
In her lifetime, she published five fantasies, all based on mythological materials: The Sword Is Forged, the first volume in a trilogy about Theseus (she completed and revised volumes two and three also, but they have yet to be published) and the four books of her Mabinogi sequence. All five (with the two Theseus sequels) were written in the 1930s through 1950s, but only one—the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi—was published in that period, as The Virgin and the Swine in 1936. It was not a success, and while Walton went on writing, she seems not to have sought publication for the other volumes. It is interesting to speculate what shape fantasy—and historical fiction—might have taken if it had been a greater success and the other volumes had appeared in the 1930s and 1940s. The Mabinogi sequence had an electrifying effect on fantasy when it finally saw light in the 1970s: had they preceded Lord of the Rings, however, we may have seen far more women writing and publishing fantasy rather earlier under Walton’s influence.
I am not a Classicist, and I cannot speak to the accuracy of the atmosphere and additions Walton gave to Greek myth in The Sword Is Forged (though it is a very entertaining and absorbing read and gives a very different version of Theseus and his world to that given by the more famous works by Mary Renault). But I am a Celticist, and Evangeline Walton is part of the reason why. I read her retellings of the Mabinogi tales in my very early teens when they appeared from Ballantine Books in their Adult Fantasy series. The importance of this list for women fantasy writers has been mentioned in this column before in relation to Katherine Kurtz, whom Ian and Betty Ballantine discovered. They remembered The Virgin and the Swine and wanted to republish it alongside works by Dunsany, Eddison, Cabell, and others. It reappeared in 1971, retitled The Island of the Mighty, and was followed by the other three books in the sequence, which had been languishing amongst Walton’s papers since she wrote them. (She was the second woman they published in this series: the first was Hope Mirrlees, whose place in our canon is now firmly established.) This time, they were a success.
The four prose tales in middle Welsh that make up the Mabinogi are peculiar by modern standards formed on the structures and concerns of Greek and Roman myth. They are episodic, wandering, sometimes apparently unfocused or contradictory, and make assumptions we cannot easily follow. They are prone to wordplay that no longer makes immediate sense and to excursions into the etymology of place names. The gender roles are alarming, as are some of the assumptions about male behaviour. The characters are often ambiguous in terms of their morality and behaviour. And the ends of the tales are not always satisfactory to modern readers. They are, however, immensely powerful, complex, and liminal works, providing a genuine window into the psychology of a much earlier culture. In her retellings, Walton achieved something that very few writers have managed: to retain all the alienness and liminality and sense of deep archetype while weaving in her own motifs, themes, and expansions in such a way as to add to the impact of the original. The characters remain rooted in their medieval origins, and her additional plot elements expand on this without uncomfortable modernization or inappropriate adaptation. She confronts the most difficult elements of the original stories—and they are grim tales, particularly the second and fourth branches which include rape, infanticide, domestic abuse, and forced marriage—without softening them (she omits only one: Efnysian’s killing of the disguised Irish warriors in the house built for Bran). And she does not lose or damage the flavor of the tales: indeed, in some places she amplifies it. She is never sentimental, nor is she lazy in her characterization. She makes no concessions to modern desires for consolation, for heroes who are unequivocally good.
These are not simply great books: they are genre-defining. I am profoundly grateful that she wrote them before the works of Joseph Campbell came to dominate popular conceptions of myth: these stories do not conform to the “hero’s journey” theory, and it would damage them to try and force them into this shape. Certainly, she was influenced by the theories about prehistory and myth that were current when she wrote them: her retellings show the trace of ideas of sacred kings and early matrilines, of waves of settlers in Britain who practiced different forms of inheritance (old tribes in which property passes from uncles to their sisters’ sons; new tribes who have discovered patrilineal succession), and of goddess-worship preceding any cult of a male god. The original tales, in their current form, were recorded between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries and are set in a nebulous past before the Anglo-Saxon conquest of much of the island of Britain but which nevertheless has bishops and priests, some familiar territorial boundaries, and kings who swear by a Christian god. Walton sets her novels in a sort of Bronze Age, replacing priests with druids and Christianity with a rather nebulous paganism that never really names its gods. She introduces more magic—modeled on the magic already in the tales and the associated material in their source manuscripts and elsewhere in Welsh folklore. In several places she completes plot arcs that the originals leave unresolved (notably the fate of Arianrhod). Many of her additions are ahistorical—but it does not matter, because she does not present the novels as history, nor as “historically authentic fantasy,” but simply as retellings. I can think of almost no other examples of writers who can match her skill at weaving new elements into old, old stories in a way which feels not simply respectful but appropriate—perhaps T. H. White. And she did this as an outsider to Welsh culture.
The publication of her four Mabinogi novels marked the start of the so-called “Celtic” fantasy boom. A lot of good writers have subsequently written in that idiom. But very few have her lightness of touch with the material and her ability to retain and enhance its flavour without introducing inappropriate modernisms (such as liberated Celtic warrior women). She did not mix Welsh, Irish, and Breton materials willy-nilly and without care for their differences—which are many. She wrote female characters with depth and agency within their own contexts, which to my eyes is a more profoundly feminist act than inserting kick-ass heroines and Westernized ideas of female strength. She never patronized her source material nor allowed modern sentimentality to distort it. She inspired at least two generations of writers from the later 1970s. Her work has been in and out of print, but digital publishing has ensured that much of it is now available, and hopefully more of her unpublished work will also be published. She deserves to be on every list of fantasy masterworks and to be read as widely as possible, because she may well be one of the finest writers fantasy has ever possessed.