20 September 2016

Preiddeu Annwn: A Puzzling Poem Brought to (Second) Life

This blog post is much delayed, as the sim-sized installation Preiddeu Annwn ("The Spoils of Annwn") opened back in July. I had intended to blog it then, but never managed to. Perhaps that's just as well, however, for after a couple months, a fascinating and beautifully-wrought installation such as this merits a little boost.

Preiddeu Annwn, a collective creation by Prof. Sarah Higley (Hypatia Pickens in SL) and her students at the University of Rochester, visualizes a mysterious medieval Welsh poem of the same title. The poem draws upon a tale, now lost, of an ill-fated sea raid led by the fabled King Arthur upon the netherworld (or in any case, an otherworld). But beyond that, the poem has defied interpretation -- and for that matter translation, as debates continue over words with multiple meanings, possible textual corruptions, and other difficulties.

The installation isn't an altogether literal representation of the poem; given the uncertainties of the text itself, that would be impossible in any event. Rather, some objects in the build portray select images in the poem, other items are related to the poem more associatively, and still others seem to be framing devices to help evoke the poem's tone. So, for example, one verse reads "They do not know the brindled ox, thick his headband." The installation shows us the ox, bridled in thick bands, but in front of it are two huge hands cupping a glowing orb -- an image not to be found in the poem.

The installation is mainly underwater (catching the theme of a doomed sea expedition) and is largely organized as eight wedges around a central hub, one wedge for each of the poem's eight stanzas. Most of the individual pieces occupying each wedge were created by well-established Second Life creators, such as Haveit Neox, whose signature centaurs appear in various locations. A few items and the overall structural elements are by Hypatia. Dogs (and a few wolves) are recurring images. They line the pathway to a floating shipwreck where we find the entry to the main installation, and there, they also appear in a few places in small packs. They allude to a couple of lines in the poem which deride monks ("Monks howl like a choir of dogs" and "Monks pack together like young wolves"); thus monks, although scorn-worthy as dogs, become our guide dogs into parts of Preiddeu Annwn.

Bridled ox behind glowing orb

Centaurs (by Haveit Neox) and wolves
Click to enlarge

The wedges don't occupy the whole of the space: there are places beyond their perimeter, and -- importantly -- sections wholly outside the main area, which visitors should find and explore. For instance, in one spot, little "men of letters" surround a tree where books float about and a monk sits cross-legged; rings of mystical symbols encircle the ground below the tree. Books and related images can be found throughout the installation, starting with the librarian at the landing point -- fitting symbols of monastic book culture during the Middle Ages, but also the magic of books. One piece recites a short poem in open chat.

Dogs point the way to the most important external section, which lies beyond the Door to Hell. Although the Door is situated in the second section (I'm not sure why), I recommend leaving that exploration to last.


Click to enlarge

Be sure to have media playing so you can hear a rendition of the original Welsh in song, and a reading in English translation. Graphically, all shadows should be on as well.

Prof. Higley provides a helpful discussion of the text at http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/preiddeu-annwn

A couple of kvetches: The entry to the main installation involves sitting on a tiny island, which can take a few tries because sometimes the rain gets in the way. The installation includes a couple of puzzles which I couldn't figure out (or if I did figure them out, I didn't realize it) -- but I'm lousy at those things, so that may be more a comment about me. Since as far as I could tell all the objects were built either by long-time SL creators or Hypatia, it isn't clear what the students' contributions to the installation were (design ideas?); personally, I'd also prefer an explicit recognition of the creators (one can use Edit to identify them, but a less curious visitor may assume they're all by the students and professor).

Those comments aside, Preiddeu Annwn is a highly intriguing installation, and if you've already seen it, you might find it worthwhile to visit once again.

SLURL: http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Sunray/32/20/278

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