June 14, 2021

Woman of Birds and Flowers

         It’s been quite a while since I properly shared a fantasy poem, so today I have a spring poem based on Welsh mythology.  It’s by Francis Edward Ledwidge (Ireland, 1887-1917).  As you can guess by his dates, he was killed during the First World War, and he is classified as one of the War Poets.  However, this poem comes from a book published in 1916 called Songs of the Fields, that is mostly pastoral.  It was published with the support of Ledwidge’s patron, fantasy writer Lord Dunsany.

     The Wife of Llew

And Gwydion said to Math, when it was Spring:

“Come now and let us make a wife for Llew.”

And so they broke broad boughs yet moist with dew,

And in a shadow made a magic ring:

They took the violet and the meadow-sweet

To form her pretty face, and for her feet

They built a mound of daisies on a wing,

And for her voice they made a linnet sing

In the wide poppy blowing for her mouth.

And over all they chanted twenty hours.

And Llew came singing from the azure south

And bore away his wife of birds and flowers.

        In the mythology about Lleu Llaw Gyffes, the young man has a curse placed on him that he shall never have a human wife.  His uncle and great-uncle make this flower wife for him, and name her Blodeuwedd, which means “flower-face.”  In the manner of mythologies, things don’t go well.  Blodeuwedd has an affair and plans with her lover to murder Lleu.  Delilah-like, she learns the special method for killing him, but he survives and is nursed back to health by Gwydion and Math.  Gwydion then turns Blodeuwedd into an owl and proclaims that she will be hated by all other birds.
        As a poem this captures some lovely images, especially the idea of having a linnet sing into the poppy to give the woman a voice in a mouth.  Ledwidge also embroiders on the details of the creation, adding more flowers and birds and details of how such a magical spell might work; the original merely briefly mentions flowers of oak, broom, and meadowsweet.  As a story it raises all sorts of interesting issues: the desire to create artificially the “perfect” woman to belong to a man, the prioritization of beauty in making the perfect wife, and what happens when the created being turns out to have a will of her own, and not to be satisfied with being taken for granted…
        I didn’t find many older illustrations of the mythology, and most of the newer ones come from modern paganism of various sorts, but I did find one relief block print, by John Petts (UK/Wales, 1914-1991), in which this flower woman looks quite villainous.  In the two modern illustrations here, the first gives her creepy eyes, but I like the idea of her being sort of surprised and confused upon being brought to life.  The second includes the owl as well as the flowers, which seems to be standard iconography these days, but is a little different in how it shows her transformations all at once, flowers to person to owl.
        My final illustration is not intended to be Blodeuwedd at all.  It’s the goddess Flora, by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (Italy, 1526-1593) in his signature odd style.  I chose it because I thought we needed to see what a woman made of flowers might really look like, especially right at first before she settled into being a living person.

[Pictures: Blodeuwedd, wood engraving by John Petts, 1956 (Image from Campbell Fine Art);

Blodeuwedd Flower Maiden, watercolor and gouache by Elisabeth Alba (Image from her Etsy shop albaillustration);

Blodeuwedd, watercolor by Jenny Dolfen, 2016 (Image from Jenny Dolfen Goldseven);

Flora, oil on panel by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1589 (Image from Obelisk Art History Project).]


Olga Godim said...

I love Jenny Dolfen's illustration. Very mysterious.

Pax said...

I like the questions: why is female beauty such a high priority above other virtues or characteristics? why is it assumed the woman belongs to a man (I know, the laws said so)? Why does it seem these stories are so surprised when the woman turns out to have a will of her own?