The Mabinogion, a collection of medieval stories about Arthurian legend and a few other bits and pieces, is a landmark in Welsh literature. Most Welsh literature isn’t particularly well known, as the country has been dominated by English rule for centuries; as a result, these stories take on a special significance. In honor of them, the publisher Seren has commissioned new stories that weave the legend together with contemporary life. The Dreams of Max and Ronnie is the third novel in the series and, with its poetic prose and simultaneously gritty realism, is a fitting tribute to the original stories.
The book is comprised of two novellas. We start off with Ronnie’s dream. Ronnie and two of his friends, we quickly learn, are about to set off for to fight for their country in Iraq. I say for their country, but the book is in reality a protest against the war as well as a statement against many of the things that have come to have a disproportionate amount of meaning in our lives. Ronnie and his friends visit a woman called Red Helen in search of a hit before their tour. Said hit is so powerful that it knocks Ronnie out for three days, during which he has a strange dream. That dream is the closest remnant of the original tale; it’s interspersed with reflections on the modern day situation. Griffiths protests the lack of meaning in modern day British life; chapels are turned into holiday homes, people fight in wars without knowing or caring about them, traditional community standbys are overwhelmed by consumerism and celebrity imitations.
One of the parts I noted as particularly striking about this story was a section about tattoos. Essentially, whenever someone famous gets a tattoo that others think is cool or individual or unique, everyone else feels compelled to copy them – therefore making very little cool or individual or unique. I found this quite disturbing actually; it’s hard to express and develop your own identity when much about the world is the same. I’ve never understood the cult of celebrity, but people very close to me always seem interested in the goings-on of these people who have no real relevance to their lives. This is just one of the things about modern society that Griffiths appears to be against. I wouldn’t say my own views are quite so firm.
As a result, this isn’t an easy novella to read. It not only illustrates how terrified and unwilling Ronnie and his friends are about the war, it also is a very powerful expression of one particular viewpoint. If you don’t agree with what Griffiths has to say, I’m not sure you’ll be able to get past that and enjoy the book because it’s simply so overpowering and angry.
The second novella, comprising Max’s dream, was not nearly so clear in terms of theme for me. In this one, gangster Max has a dream about a beautiful woman, and decides he needs a companion. He proceeds to send out his cronies on a search for the perfect woman while he languishes in his dreams, becoming steadily more disgusting and less likely to be appealing to said dream woman. When they do find his ideal woman, she turns out to be completely different from his expectations, which naturally leads to issues.
For me, it was difficult to tease out precisely what this story was about. It is definitely not as powerful as Ronnie’s dream, which in some ways makes it easier to read. It also means that it doesn’t work as well in the many ways that Ronnie’s dream does; I found it quite crude at times, although I was pleased with how the story ended.
I think I would recommend The Dreams of Max and Ronnie as a whole, especially to British readers. Reading The Mabinogion and then branching out into these stories would be an excellent way to compare the Britain of the past with the Britain of today. I also think they won’t work as well for someone who isn’t as aware of British culture, current events, and celebrities in general. I suspect Griffiths’ views will also dovetail with general public opinion, so it’s well worth reading the book now while it’s all fresh in our minds and we can relate to it.
I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free for review.