Culhwch and Olwen Blog Tour

Catherine Fisher

Culhwch and Olwen, published on June 6, is a new retelling of one of the earliest and most captivating Arthurian stories from the medieval Welsh Mabinogion. Retold by the extraordinary talent Catherine Fisher, this familiar legend is reborn with vivid characters in a richly-imagined world. The cover and illustrations are by Efa Lois.

It’s worth noting at this point, particularly if you are a Cymrophile, that the book is the first published by Cadno, a new imprint from Graffeg. Graffeg are well-known for quality picturebooks and illustrated volumes, but Cadno promises to improve the availability of fiction for children and young people with a strong Welsh context. This is an important objective that is close to our hearts. Kicking off with a book that is so richly linked to the cultural heritage of Wales, and written by one of the most respected and masterful storytellers in the country must have been an obvious choice. It’s also a nice touch that it is illustrated by a young, up and coming artist.

Culhwch and Olwen is a timeless adventure which weaves together heroism, magic, and romance as young Culhwch, with the help of the legendary King Arthur and his brave knights, embarks on an extraordinary quest to win the hand of the beautiful Olwen. Faced with impossible challenges and mythical creatures, the epic narrative is moreish and compelling.

Author and critic Amanda Craig recently said that Catherine Fisher “should be world famous” and we certainly agree that her writing is worthy of much wider recognition. This is not a simple retelling; as in many of Catherine’s books, she makes a bridge between the ancient and the modern, illuminates the old but familiar tale and shows us the enduring power of myth to inspire, thrill and resonate. The story is brilliantly told and you won’t find a better version.

We are delighted that Catherine Fisher agreed to answer a few questions for us:

What drew you to tell the tale of Culhwch and Olwen?

Culhwch and Olwen is a tale I have long wanted to re-write. It’s the first Arthurian full narrative we have, and I love the complexity and interweaving of many different strands of story. It’s as if the Scribe – as I call whoever wrote it down – had a head full of stories and wanted to squeeze in as many as possible. Also I love the mystery of the Oldest Animals, and the crazy household of Arthur, with names dragged in from Irish mythology and lost Welsh legends down to dodgy puns. Whoever wrote this was having a great time!

What or who are your sources and inspiration for the telling?

I re-read the story in two English language versions- Jones and Jones (Everyman) which is beautifully archaic, and Sioned Davies wonderfully clear and elegant version for Oxford. I also re-visited Rachel Bromwich’s books for reference, especially Trioedd Ynys Prydein. They are all inspiring. But then I put them away and only used them to check things- I just wrote the story as I would have written a novel for this young age-group, as I felt it should flow, filling out some episodes and cutting out others. To make it my own version I had to step back from everyone else’s, though of course I always wanted to respect the original text.

What is it about the themes of Culhwch and Olwen that make it relevant to a new audience today?

It’s a classic quest story, about finding love and overcoming obstacles, being brave. These are timeless elements, as relevant today as in the past. Culhwch does not really have a huge part in fulfilling the tasks, but I wanted the reader to see through his eyes and feel his fear and bewilderment.

The book contains sections of poetry – sometimes the characters speak in verse, sometimes the chapters are interspersed with poetic interludes. Is this deliberate or was it more organic?

I wanted places where the story pauses and characters speak who don’t in the original, like the Twrch Trwyth. Also there are passages of very lyrical description which seem to me to maybe have been poems once, like the descriptions of Olwen, and Culhwch and Cai, and it was great to re-write them in a loose poetic form.

Do you think the story of Culhwch and Olwen is uniquely Welsh?

The outline structure of the story is not uniquely Welsh. It’s essentially the folktale motif of Six Go Through the World, where a hero recruits a band of helpers each with a special power. And there are other international folktale elements, like the ants. But there are other elements in the story which feel deeply Welsh, like the Oldest Animals, with the Salmon being the wisest of beasts. The really Welsh thing about it is an intangible sense of lyrical beauty and mystery and strangeness,and a sly humour. Also, the hunt for the Twrch Trwyth is mapped out across South Wales with great precision, so it really feels as if this part of the tale was written by someone who knew this landscape well.

This is not your first retelling of an Arthurian Legend. What keeps you returning to the particularly Arthurian parts of the Mabinogi?

The Arthurian legends are one of my earliest fascinations, especially the Welsh material. It has that sense of lost narratives and deep time. I find it amazing that a set of stories that grew to be a Europe-wide phenomenon started here, and then grew and grew into such a huge network of tales, and that they are so popular even today with new re-workings, in many media, all the time. I don’t think their magic will ever come to an end. I hope not.

Culwch and Olwen is the first book in a new imprint from Graffeg. Cadno promises to bring uniquely Welsh content to children and young people. A lot of your output is inspired by Welsh contexts. How important do you think this new imprint will be?

Wales is blessed with excellent publishing for children. I hope Cadno will add to the mix, and that new, exciting authors will be published, and that Wales will be seen as a place with an even more thriving literature for this age group. Whether the Welsh element reflects modern life or re-visits our heritage, it should help our children understand who they are, where they live, the landscape and history of this unique place.


Huge thanks to Catherine for answering our questions and to Bethan at Graffeg and Cadno for inviting us to be a part of the Blog Tour. You can order your copy of Culhwch and Olwen from the Graffeg website. Follow Catherine Fisher and Graffeg on Twitter.

#TheMab

Earlier this week, a crowdfunding campaign was launched to finance a new version of The Mabinogion for young people. These are the earliest prose stories of Britain and have been hugely influential on storytelling across Europe. With contributions from 11 acclaimed Welsh writers for children, the new book promises to be an epic retelling for a new generation. Each tale will be written in English then translated into Welsh by Bethan Gwanas and will feature glorious illustrations from the incredible Max Low.

The book is being put together and edited by Children’s Laureate Wales, Eloise Williams and Matt Brown who will also contribute a story each. Matt posted this video to explain more about The Mab.

The book, which is not yet a reality, is seeking publication through Unbound, a crowdfunding publisher. Readers choose a reward – everything from a signed copy of the book to author virtual visits – pledge their money, and wait for the project to be 100% funded.

At Family Bookworms we are giving this project our full support and backing and would encourage you all to visit the unbound website to donate if you can. As one of our worms says:

“The Mabinogion is part of our cultural heritage and to have these amazing contemporary authors, representative of the very best in children’s writing from Wales, is a real coup. It promises to be an essential and important volume for a new generation.” 

Simon Fisher, Family Bookworms

Eloise Williams, Children’s Laureate Wales and author of 4 novels set in Wales, told us, “As far as we know, there isn’t another collection like it! We have so many amazing people working on the project and we are so excited to bring the stories to everyone.”

So let’s take a look at the amazing cast of contributors and hear directly about their involvement, their excitement and their motivations…

I am overjoyed to be collaborating on this magical project with a group of writers that are inspirational, artful and delicate in their gathering of words. As a poet, this opportunity opens up the page and offers me space to dreaming, space to unravel, unfold and stretch my ideas – and I’ll be listening to the whispers, to the mutterings of the old tales.

Alex wharton

I am delighted to have been invited to contribute to this project, especially as I have moved to Pembrokeshire where so much of the action of the Mabinogion takes place. The stories are so strange, like something translated with a slightly dodgy Rosetta stone; but what I love about them is the echos they carry of a long lost world where wolves howled on the Welsh hills and the landscape was populated not with humans but with wild species in abundance. Immersing myself in that world with its priorities so very different from our own, is going to be a deep pleasure.

nicola davies

I remember my primary school teacher reading the Mabinogion to us in class. The Owl Service (inspired by the story of Gronw and Blodeuwedd) was one of my favourite books growing up. I rediscovered my love for these tireless tales in adulthood, so much so I gifted my son with the middle name Lleu. I am honoured and excited to work on this project and weave myself even more closely to the legacy of these fascinating stories.

Hanan issa

We dream in myths and they in us. They are a society’s safety valve. All our taboos, our deepest fears and desires are played out through the symbolic language of myth and thereby rendered to some extent harmless.

zillah bethell

I’m relishing the opportunity to work on these historic stories with such a fantastic group of writers. Eloise has been doing wonderful things as Children’s Laureate Wales – so I was delighted when she asked me to be part of this.

darren chetty

My mother used to tell my brothers and I all kinds of stories when we were young, but the stories from the Mabinogion always felt extra special, because we knew they were stories from Wales, our home. To be invited to be part of this wonderful project is honestly a dream come true. I believe it is hugely important to preserve the stories from the past, because they are full of wisdom and magic and adventures that speak to our souls. But to preserve these tales, we need to keep retelling them in ways that ignite the interest of readers today. The talent and passion of the creatives working on this project is going to make this a very special book that I know will be treasured by generations of readers to come.

sophie anderson

I didn’t discover the stories from the Mabinogion until embarrassingly late in life, despite having grown up a stone’s throw from Caerleon, where Arthur holds court in many of the tales. For whatever reason, the Mabinogion just didn’t seem to feature in my cultural landscape at the time. That’s why I’m so happy to be part of this fantastic group of artists that Eloise and Matt have assembled. I can’t wait to help share all the magic and strangeness, the adventure and humour with a new generation of readers across Wales and beyond.

P g bell

This is my copy of The Mab from around 1976, maybe earlier. It’s got Olwen on the cover and it’s so floppy and old (although not as much as me) it’s losing pages. I loved it: Welshness was an important part of my identity growing up in London and this book with its weird weighty words is hardwired into my heart. I always always wanted to write something that used the bones of these stories and this is a brilliant brilliant opportunity.

catherine johnson

I’ve spent the past year immersed in Welsh folklore for my own books, so I’m tremendously excited to be a part of this project. What I love most about these ancient tales are the gaps – events that are never properly explained, threads of stories that are left dangling. It’s like seeing a landscape through mist, and it gives tremendous scope to interpret and reimagine. The stories of the Mabinogi explore everything that’s human, from family and friendship to cruelty and murder. Best of all is the sense that the Otherworld of magic is never far away. I’m looking forward to seeing these stories brought to life in a new way for today’s readers.

claire fayers

These stories are part of our heritage and should be in every classroom and every home. By crowdfunding the book we’re making it part of everyone who helps get it made.

matt brown

The Mab is an amazing new book retelling all 11 stories for young people. They are the oldest British stories and #TheMab will help new generations of children fall in love with them. But we need your help – please visit the Unbound page to pledge your support.

eloise williams

The Mab will feature illustrations by Max Low.

I’m really chuffed to be illustrating this wicked update to the legendary Welsh tales from The Mabinogion.

max low

It’s been a real pleasure to be involved in #TheMab launch. Please head over to Unbound to donate if you can. We’ll be keeping a close eye on the funding target over the coming months.

Thanks to all the authors and illustrator for giving us some exclusive content. While we wait for The Mab, and if you have any money left after donating on Unbound, you can head over to your local bookshop and buy a book by one of the contributors. Here’s our recommendations*:

*Firefly Press will publish Daydreams and Jellybeans by Alex Wharton in Spring 2021.

**Images on this page (the author profiles) were made by EW Graphic Designs and are not to be reproduced without permission.