Wednesday 1 March 2017

Why I'm Hesitant To Read Maggie Stiefvater's Raven Cycle

(Warning: this post contains a fast-moving gif which may cause problems to those with light-sensitive medical conditions such as migraine or epilepsy.)

It's St. David's Day - so what better time to finally give you all the low-down on why I'm hesitant, as a Welsh person, to read Maggie Stiefvater's Raven Cycle.

OK, before we get into the 'but you haven't read it so you can't judge it!' sh**, these are the reasons I'm hesitant to read it.

I may eventually read it. If I can bring myself to. One day.

(And if that day should ever come, I'll tell you what I think! But don't expect me to be overly happy with it - see my reasons below.)

And honestly, if you liked the books then that's fine - dudes, I have zero problem with you liking what you like.

This is just me explaining a few things that annoy me about this series.

crow with key image

OK, the number one problem is the name Owen Glendower. It should be Owain Glyndŵr.

What's the difference? Anglicisation my friends, which is offensive - especially when it comes to a real historical figure and freedom fighter like Glyndŵr. (More on the man himself later.)

I'm not as bothered by the changing of Owain to Owen - it should be Owain, but Owen and Owain are somewhat interchangeable. So I'm willing to give Stiefvater leeway on that point.

The Glyndŵr to Glendower though? *shudders*

I should explain that Maggie Stiefvater was asked this very question on Tumblr in 2015, and answered in a way that suggests to me that she doesn't understand the culture she was writing in this series.

Glyndŵr means (roughly) 'water banks.'

It's a common Welsh naming tradition (or was) to be given a name related to where you live.

Glendower is gibberish. It has no meaning in the language, it's just a corruption to make it more palatable to English people.

I know that not many of you have ever spoken Welsh or pronounced Welsh words, but trust me, Glyndŵr is a natural flow. 'Glendower' is a tainted jolt to the system.

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''Glendower' is a tainted jolt to the system...'  Click to Tweet

But what about what Stiefvater said on Tumblr about us not knowing Glyndŵr's 'true' name?

What Maggie said:

'Interestingly, Owain Glyndŵr wasn’t necessarily even the true name of our recumbent king. He’s also known as Owain ap Gruffydd or Owain Glyndyfrdwy, and centuries of historians have used all versions interchangeably, sometimes within the same document.'

In honesty, her response troubles me. Because she clearly has no understanding of Wales or Welsh history.

Until the 19th Century (1837, actually,) across the whole of the UK, there was no such thing as a legal name, because there were no birth certificates.

Glyndŵr lived in the 14th and 15th Centuries - which was before all that civil registration stuff.

Even after the 19th Century, the Welsh had legal names, and then, sometimes, other names - all of which are 'true' names.

picture of Cardiff castle keep with Welsh flag

The first name she mentioned, Owain ap Grufydd, is a patronymic.

For a start, it should be Gruffydd, not Grufydd - f and ff are different letters in Welsh.

Owain ap Gruffydd means Owain, son of Gruffydd. It literally means his father was Gruffydd.

It's perfectly acceptable to have this name and another name, and the patronymic system is still used by some today, with or without it being written on their birth certificate.

Owain Glyndyfrdwy is a more specific geographical name.

Afon Dyfyrdwy is the Welsh (and original) name of the now-Anglicised River Dee.

Remember how earlier I said his name meant 'water banks' - this version of the name is just being specific about what water. It means 'the banks of the River Dee.'

It may be difficult for non-Welsh people to understand, but the surname Glyndyfrdwy, in this instance, is the same as the surname Glyndŵr. Glyndŵr is just the short version.

But Stiefvater didn't use Glyndyfrdwy, or ap Gruffydd. She used Glendower.

So, apparently she knew there were three names, and added the fourth - offensive - name instead.

True, as she points out, she was by no means the first. But Shakespeare wasn't Welsh either. And that she should be so ignorant of what the Anglicisation means makes me worry for the actual books.

Oh and English-speaking Welsh people? We don't generally call him Glendower. Only English people, who haven't yet been slapped repeatedly with a slice of bara brith* been taught better, call him that.

*bara brith is kind of a fruit loaf... it's a special kind of bread, basically - it's really nice.

So, what's the problem with Anglicisation anyway?

Look, I get it - Welsh is difficult to pronounce.

We have funny extra letters like 'Ll' and 'Ng' which should not be attempted without instruction, but English is a freaking weird language too (and I'm saying this as a first-language-English person.)

The problem with Anglicisation is that we are not English.

And Anglicisation marks every moment we've had to change our own language, just to suit the English.

It's a reminder of our history - of every time a kid was caned in school for speaking Welsh, every time the language was claimed to be literally making us stupid, every time a Welsh name was changed because we're not in charge in our own country.

And yes, we've had to change our names. One of my ancestors was named Dafydd Sion. On every official document his name is David John. Welsh names often weren't acceptable to English officials.

Our language has been suppressed, changed, and ridiculed. Because the English invaded several centuries ago, and haven't let us forget it since.

(Every Welsh person ever, every time someone calls us English)

Look, like most in the South, I have more than a few drops of y Saeson running through my veins.

But I was born here. I am Cymry, not Saeson.

I have a fair amount of Cymry in my veins too, but I speak Saesneg, and only a little Cymraeg.

The reason? My grandmother's parents - both fluent Cymraeg speakers - made the decision that their children would never get on in life if they were first-language Welsh.

Welsh was seen as a language that literally made it's speakers stupid. Even now, if you want to sound 'posh' or 'professional,' what people mean is 'sound more English, sound less Welsh.'

And first language Welsh often leaves the odd cue in the accent to show that it's there - 'eu' pronounced as 'ew' etc.

Therefore, to bring a child up speaking Welsh could leave an inflection, even when speaking English, and it would be possible to be passed over for jobs, promotion, etc., just because of that.

Anglicisation is especially irritating and frustrating when it comes to Glyndŵr, who was fighting to free us from English rule.

Do you get that? He was a rebel, a self-declared prince. He wanted freedom from the English.

He called a parliament at Machynlleth (no, don't attempt to say it unless you've heard it said, you'll just hurt yourself! 😉) and wanted self-governance for the Welsh people.

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'He was a rebel, a self-declared prince...'  Click to Tweet

Owain was also NOT a king.

The closest there has been to a King of Wales was Hywel Dda in the 10th Century, but he did not rule Morgannwg.

What we had were princes - occasionally called kings of their individual territories.

The prince with the most land, and therefore the most ability to moderate between all the others, was the Prince of Wales.

The last True Prince of Wales was Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Tywysog Cymru.

Owain was a self-declared Prince of Wales - had his rebellion been successful, perhaps he would have been confirmed as prince in truth, but it wasn't to be.


But wait, isn't Prince Charles the Prince of Wales?

When Llywelyn was murdered by the English crown, the English king transferred the title to his own son. The heir to throne has held this stolen title since that time.

Prince Charles is not the True Prince of Wales.

OK, let's look briefly at my other problems with this series:

The Goodreads synopsis of The Raven Boys says:

'“There are only two reasons a non-seer would see a spirit on St. Mark’s Eve,” Neeve said. “Either you’re his true love . . . or you killed him.”

It is freezing in the churchyard, even before the dead arrive.

Every year, Blue Sargent stands next to her clairvoyant mother as the soon-to-be dead walk past. Blue herself never sees them—not until this year, when a boy emerges from the dark and speaks directly to her.'

I have no idea why the St. Mark's Eve stuff is there (what even is that?), but it's totally possible for 'non-seers' to see spectres.

OK, we're traditionally big on divination here. It looks like Stiefvater has smashed some of our divination rituals into a phantom funeral and hoped for the best. *face palms*

Also, Neeve, as a name, is a) Irish, not Welsh and b) spelt Niamh.

And none of the rest of the names that I've seen seem in any way Welsh or British - they're more something you'd find in America or Ireland.

Sorry. Nitpicking I know, but it's the kind of thing that would really bug me if I read the books.

Ooh! Someone online briefly mentions a Gwenllian? That is a Welsh name - a good, strong, girl's name, meaning (very roughly) 'sacred brook.'

Update: Apparently most of the book is set in Virginia, so I'm even less bothered about the other names now.

I don't know how Stiefvater uses ravens here... but I'm wary.

Birds, and the crow family in particular, play a large part in our folklore and mythology. They are the way between worlds, often magical, and should be respected.

Quite often, they're also people. Or warriors. Or Fair Folk. Or even (if you go back enough in our traditions) gods or goddesses.

I actually really liked the way Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children used birds, because it was respectful of our traditions, as well as putting Ransom Riggs' own spin on things - I loved the way he used shifters as guardians.

From what I've seen of the way Stiefvater understands, or doesn't, as the case may be, Welsh culture, I'm hesitant of how she'll handle brain (crows - of any and all types) in her books.

Maybe you think I'm making mountains out of mole-hills - but things being incorrect like this is likely to bug me the whole time I'm reading.

(Plus, could she not have added a historical note?! I mean, dude, really!)

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  1. This was such an interesting and informative post! I honestly had not known any of that, so I learned something new tonight thanks you to :-) And you're allowed to have whatever reasons you want for not reading a book/series, regardless of whether other people think they're just mole hills!

    1. Glad to be of use. :)

      Not many people know the history - which is what pains me the most, it being such a popular series. Glyndwr is held as an icon of Welsh nationalism - he's a hero here, and it feels like people don't understand the history. Our history is long, and full of blood and a struggle to keep our own identity. Some acknowledgement of that would be nice.

      All this makes me hesitant to read the series because it suggests to me that Stiefvater doesn't know what she's talking about. Everyone tells me it's a great series and I'm like, 'Yes... but you don't understand how frustrating the use of 'Glendower' is to a Welsh person!'

      Anyway, thanks for the great comment - I thank I've ranted enough for the time being! :)

  2. Very interesting post Cee! As a big-time fan of The Raven Cycle series, it was great learn something new and i'm glad that you were able to educate us on this. I think Maggie should have done more research. I think she picked Glendower specifically because it is easier to pronounce, but if she wanted to show Welsh culture than she should use the proper names. However the other characters in the book aren't meant to represent Welsh culture, so i think that's wht they don't have Welsh names. For example, one of the characters, Ronan is Irish, Persephone was African, Blue was bi-racial, so i think that's why Maggie didn't choose Welsh names for them :) Thank you for shedding light on this though! It's important to know!

    1. The other characters were more of a minor point to me - like I said, I was nitpicking there!

      Basically, I'm hesitant to read it because what I've seen suggests that she doesn't have the correct understanding of *what it means* to change Glyndwr's name - or even of Glyndwr's importance as a whole. That makes me worry for how she treated everything else, y'know?

      But no, I have nothing against the series. I just think if she was going to write it this way, there should've been full historical notes acknowledging a history and culture that we've had to defend for centuries.

  3. I feel like this is a case for me in which the author's actions have made me uninterested in reading the series.

    She doesn't seem to care at all about the Anglicisation of the name and is patronising on Tumblr. In my opinion, there could have been a pronounciation guide if she's worried that her readers cannot pronounce the name, and not phoenetic spelling of names in the book. She also seems to not have cared about the Welsh culture and history at all.

    It's totally understandable that you're uncertain about reading it. I will be looking to see if I can find reviews by Welsh bloggers, before reading the book.

    1. Your assessment pretty much matches mine.

      Glendower and Glyndwr are pronounced differently - Glendower is basically something English people say because they don't bother to learn how to say Glyndwr, so while Glendower is easier to pronounce (for a non-Welsh person,) it's not the same thing. As I said, Glendower is gibberish - a corruption of something which holds actual meaning here. And just having to read and write it this many times is irritating enough!

      I would be willing to forgive almost everything, if she put in historical notes. Most non-Welsh bookish folks I've spoken too weren't even aware that Glyndwr was a *real* person, whose disappearance lost us our strongest chance to break away from English rule.

      The only reviews I've found by Welsh bloggers have generally liked the book, but been irritated by the Glendower thing.

      Given that, sadly, a lot of people here don't know our own history and culture (English and/or British history and culture is often foregrounded,) I'm still concerned there might be a lot in there that other people haven't picked up on.

      I personally feel a connection with brain and adar (crows and birds) - my profile pic is an Adaryn Rhiannon, a mythical bird which can sing the living to sleep and wake the dead. Adar are a complex part of our folklore (like everything about Welsh and Celtic folklore, things are rarely just 'good' or 'bad',) and if Stiefvater plays so fast and loose with established fact... how will she treat the nuances of our mythology?

      Sorry, long rant! Thanks so much for your comment :)

    2. No problem with the long rant. I do that with topics that are near to me too. Is there a possibility to see a larger version of your profile picture. I would love to be able to see it properly.

      I'm so glad the comment got posted!!!

    3. Ha, it's probably best you don't see the pic up close - it's a sketch I did a while ago and I've never been able to get it to look quite how I want to!

      And yes! Now if the spam folder could get rid of actual drug-dealing spammers, instead of people with genuine comments, that'd be lovely :)

  4. I have to be honest that I haven't read The Raven Cycle and that even though I know it's very popular, I actually don't really know what it is about either :P I just know that a lot of people really love it. But if it is about your history and culture, and it isn't being portrayed right, I can understand why you wouldn't want to read it!

    1. I really don't mind people loving it... but I'm still hesitant to read it myself!

  5. I can completely see how the Anglicisation of the name would be upsetting to people in Wales. So sorry that it ruins the idea of the series for you!

    I don't know if this will set your mind at ease at all, but the books aren't actually set in Wales (as you indicated in my post). The series is set in the US (in a fictional town in Virginia) and none of the actual characters in the book are Welsh (including Neeve). Also the customs like St. Mark's Eve and people not being able to see spectres don't come from Welsh tradition since it's all American characters who have no ties to Wales. I don't know if any of that makes you less upset about the series, but I thought I'd let you know. I'm really grateful that you shared this piece of your history with us so that we can understand your perspective more fully!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

    1. The other character's names was always more of a nit-picking thing to me. Given the similarities between Blue's ritual and ours... I'll let people judge for themselves, but it still doesn't feel right.

      Glyndŵr is still (several centuries after he disappeared) a political rallying point here - especially for Welsh Nationalists (different to most Nationalists - they're more like Separatists) but there's a lot of messy politics there.

      We have long memories and the failure of his rebellion has always been one of our most painful losses, along with the murder of Prince Llywelyn. The use of 'Glendower' has always felt disrespectful from a Welsh standpoint, it's like a final insult from the English to a man who could have freed us from them.

      Thanks for reading! I always feel the urge to rant whenever someone mentions the series, because it's akin to someone calling George Washington something like Jorge Washisspun, and everyone just going along with it! Glyndŵr holds the same place for us as Washington does for Americans. (I'm getting better at holding myself back though! Lol.)

  6. This is such an important read. I had questions about the history going into the books that weren't answered at all and I'm struggling to write fic in ways that aren't like, continuations of issues presented by the author(#sweating).

    Honestly how she ended the thing with Glendŵr felt like a copout. I think I get what she was going for in a narrative sense, but it felt weird to me as a reader.

    Also I will say that most of the Glendŵr part of the series is a 17-year-old rich boy's obsession with him. (As much as we love Gansey...) But once again, you'd think, regardless of who you are or where you grew up that this level of obsession would at least show him to the proper name at some point.

    And idk if other people have commented on this -- but St. Mark's Eve is a bit of a thing for followers/readers of occult shit in America. So that's probably where she got that. But I think you're right, she was definitely reaching with the seer/spectre stuff. Especially since one of the main characters in the books is literally a ghost. I think she tried for some level of separation of those two concepts, but it didn't totally land.

    The raven thing --- honestly, I don't even know what to say about that. Considering what you wrote, I think there would have been a deeper story to tell with the actual history instead of just going with ravens (which, once again, have ties to American occult stuff).

    Anyway, thanks for the free education. Can't believe this isn't talked about more.

    1. Thanks for the awesome comment!

      Oh cool, see I literally had no clue what St. Mark's Eve is! Lol. I'm not pretending that I've read the books - this whole post is about why I'm hesitant to do so - so some details are less relevant than others.

      If someone's obsessed with Glyndŵr... even his Wikipedia page will give you his name. If someone's *that* obsessed with him... I'd expect that person to understand that he isn't just a mythical figure. He's a real person who has become a symbol of rebellion and Welsh sovereignty. Calling him 'Glendower' is a reminder that our history isn't considered important enough to give us the dignity of our own names.

      I'm aware that crows have significance in a lot of cultures - to be honest, if it wasn't for the Owain Glyndŵr issues, I wouldn't have worried. The fact that she uses Welsh culture, and they are so significant in ancient Welsh culture (especially before the imposition of Catholicism, and later Protestantism... we have a somewhat complex history!) makes me concerned that she would also handle that aspect insensitively.

      Thanks very much for taking the time to read this! It's hardly an expert's view, and we know pitifully little of our own history, due to the English-centric nature of UK attitudes, but I had to write it. We're a small but proud nation, and our history deserves respect. <3


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