The Mab, described by Michael Sheen as ‘a beautiful retelling of the Mabinogion for children’, is currently being promoted by Unbound, a phenomenally successful business model which publishes books off the back of crowdfunders. Here, Darren Chetty interviews Matt Brown and Eloise Williams, editors of The Mab, to find out more about the book.
The brainchild of children’s author Matt Brown, who attended school in Wales, and Eloise Williams, the inaugural Children’s Laureate Wales, The Mab is a brand-new project that brings together a diverse cast of Welsh writers to create a brand new retelling of the Mabinogi tales for children. Each story will be told in English and in Welsh and will be vividly illustrated by Max Low.
Contributing authors include Sophie Anderson (The Girl Who Speaks Bear), Catherine Johnson (Freedom), PG Bell (The Train to Impossible Places), Alex Wharton (Rising Star Wales winner 2020), Claire Fayers (Storm Hound), Hanan Issa (My Body Can House Two Hearts), Zillah Bethall (The Shark Caller) and Nicola Davies (The Day the War Came). To my delight and surprise, I was also invited to contribute. I jumped at the chance. Matt and Eloise are currently crowdfunding the book with Unbound, who published The Good Immigrant, to which I contributed. So seeing as I had questions anyway, I asked them if I could interview them about The Mab for Wales Arts Review.
Matt, Eloise, to begin, can you tell us how the idea for making The Mab came about?
Matt Brown: Last year, I wanted to buy a copy of the Mabinogion that I could read with my ten-year-old. I hadn’t read the stories since I was in Primary School but remember them being full of knights and dragons and magic, all the things I thought he’d love. To my great surprise there wasn’t a version for kids, in English, with all eleven stories. It suddenly seemed blindingly obvious that a new version of the Mabinogion was needed. Lockdown gave me the space to really focus on it and Eloise was one of the first people I spoke to. She had some amazing ideas for the project and, because of her work as Children’s Laureate for Wales, knew exactly who we should speak to. We also made each other laugh, which always helps.
Eloise Williams: Yes, Matt came to me with the idea and I thought it was genius. I was at a point where I wasn’t taking on any more projects due to a pretty full calendar as an author and as Children’s Laureate Wales, but I knew this was something we had to try to make happen. It seemed so awful that there wasn’t a bi-lingual collection of the Mabinogion stories written specifically for young people. The Mab is such an ambitious and hope filled project and will bring so much joy to readers – I’m very glad to be involved.
What was the thinking behind crowdfunding the book with Unbound?
Eloise Williams: It seems fitting that the stories belong to the people as that’s how they originated: stories passed from mouth to mouth, across the hills and valleys. They belong to all of us and it’s lovely that this version of The Mab will be such a collaborative effort. Fingers crossed this will help those stories to continue their journey through time carried on the voices of the young.
Matt Brown: The decision to crowdfund the book was really important. Eloise and I realised early on that, because of lockdown, traditional publishers were not in a good place to be able to greenlight something like this. Unbound immediately loved the idea of The Mab and have been incredibly supportive. They have allowed us to do things that ordinarily we wouldn’t have been able to do. For example, we can offer amazing opportunities to schools who can support the project and get author visits and teaching aids.
These are ancient stories, originally passed on by oral storytellers, that are part of our heritage and culture. One wonderful thing about crowdfunding is that everyone who supports us will get their name in the book. That way, people can support us and be part of a new chapter of the Mabinogion’s life.
What’s the appeal for both of you of these ancient tales?
Matt Brown: I know this sounds odd to say for stories that are nearly a thousand years old but they feel really modern. For example, one of my favourites is ‘The Lady of the Well’, which tells the story of a knight falling in love with a princess. Now, usually the story would end when the two lovers hook-up, but not in the Mabinogion. The story carries on and details the struggle of the relationship to survive as the knight goes back to his knightly duties (killing things, saving things etc.). It feels like it’s less a story about love and honour and more a story about getting a good work/life balance.
Eloise Williams: I’d say they are a glimpse into our culture, our heritage and the way people taught life lessons in the past. As well as it being really important that we preserve them as a historical record of huge value, they are also highly entertaining, hilarious and a more than a bit mad. As Matt said, they feel very modern. There are so many themes that young readers will identify with today. I suppose that’s the mark of a good story: that it transcends time.
Do you have a favourite character?
Eloise Williams: I love the character of Blodeuwydd, a woman who is conjured entirely of flowers and then, after a series of questionable actions, is cursed to live as an owl. The story is filled with magic and enchantments, deceit and darkness. It’s also funny and ridiculous. Blodeuwydd’s husband Llew can only be killed by a silver arrow and then he must have one foot on a goat and one in a trough. When I read it, I imagine the original storyteller making up the plot as he went along, using the landscape and animals as inspiration and trying to make it more and more exciting and wondrous to keep his audience. I love the spontaneity and wildness of these stories. The way they are knitted together by strange and inexplicable events. It’s ancient magic at work.
Matt Brown: One of my favourite characters is Rhiannon, who marries Pwyll. In one of the stories, she is accused of committing a terrible crime. She didn’t commit the crime but thinks that she did. Her punishment is two-fold. She has to wait at the town gates and tell any stranger she meets what she did, endlessly confessing to a crime that never happened AND she has to carry anyone who wants a lift on her back. I empathise with her because this is exactly what it’s like to be a dad.
What do you think a twenty-first century young reader will get out of these stories?
Matt Brown: The Mab will help new generations of kids fall in love with these stories. The thrill of the book is that we have some of the most incredible award-winning Welsh children’s authors, poets and writers working on the stories. They will breathe new life into this ancient world and really connect the stories with their readers. If you’ve never read these stories before then you’re in for a real treat. They are thrilling and magical and funny and weird and, I think, you’ll love them.
Eloise Williams: A really good read! The stories really are thrilling and very unpredictable. All sorts of downright odd things happen. You could challenge yourself to guess what happens next, but I doubt you’d get it right! Readers will also be able to trace lots of stories they already know – through reading or film – back to these ancient stories. They are a key to unravelling how stories grew and built upon each other over the years. Time has carried on, but the human issues are the same – love, war, friendship, jealousy, doing the right thing, or doing the wrong thing and suffering the consequences. So there’s a lot a young reader will be able to relate to and enjoy.
How did you assemble the team of writers?
Matt Brown: Getting the writers together was the really fun part! It was like assembling a dream team of our favourite authors and poets who we knew would make The Mab sing.
Eloise Williams: We needed to pull together writers who were experts in their field and also who had very different styles. Matt had already spoken to some authors by the time I came along, so I suggested some poets. It’ll be an interesting mix of talents and the stories will be told in different ways. We know that with this brilliant crew on board The Mab will be vibrant and funny, poetic and moving. It’s going to be a magical read!
To support The Mab and make a pledge, visit Unbound.