The Assembly of the Severed Head
Mr B's review
Mr B’s Christmas Catalogue Review 2018
In the quiet of C13 Wales, severed heads roll in with the tide along the rural coast. The Bard’s College has been destroyed; headless corpses litter the floor leaving one survivor gravely injured. He is the greatest bard of the age, he alone holds all the branches of the Mabinogion in his head. As time runs out, he recounts these epic Welsh myths to be written down for the first time and save them from being lost forever. This amazing novel is a celebration of ancient mythology and the magic of storytelling and is an absolute joy to read.
A small monastic outpost in 13th Century Wales is rocked to its core when a gruesome discovery is made on the nearby shoreline: a severed human head. It’s the first of several to wash up along the surrounding coast, and not long after, the holy brothers stumble across the smouldering ruins of a bardic school with a pile of decapitated bodies inside. Only one survivor, barely alive, is found hiding nearby.
He is Cian Brydydd Mawr, the greatest bard of his age, who holds in his head the four `branches’ of an ancient, epic Welsh myth cycle: The Mabinogion. Physically weak but strong willed, he asks the monks to put aside their rigid Christian doctrine and commit his oral tales to parchment – before the stories of spirits and shape-shifters, giants and time-travellers, curses and spells, are lost forever…
The Assembly of The Severed Head makes demands,as well it might,of its readers.We must agree to fall into step with what is primarily an oral prose poem.We must tune in to its incantatory voice.We must accept that the colour of the novel lies essentially within the vivid action of the four caincs, for all the vivid and inventive envelopes of scene setting.But then, what extraordinary rewards! Here is a truly memorable novel, possibly a great one, standing at the intersection of the oral and the written.A monk in a Cistercian monastery painstakingly writes down on calfskin the stunning stories of the Mabinogion,the Matter of Wales,dictated to him by an old court bard,Cian Brydydd Mawr.Anxious that he may be forfeiting his place in heaven by doing do, he nevertheless also comes to see the remarkable parallels between Christianity and the old stories.This is the novel that Lupton was born to write and perhaps only he could have written.It’s underpinned by a long and wise understanding of the oral tradition and of the Mabinogion,and it is by turns spiritual,magical,passionate,tender,visceral and gory.It is beautifully crafted.And its backbone is a humane engagement with the power and function of story.Kevin Crossley-Holland.