Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Mabinogion

Recently, in compiling a Tour Guide to Arthurian Literature for Hanna at Book Geeks Anonymous, I found myself wishing to revisit all the books I was writing about--especially the Welsh Mabinogion. Here's what I wrote: 
The Welsh have always had a special claim on the Arthur legends, being the descendants of the Celtic peoples of whom he is said to be the champion. And he features prominently in their national cycle of legends, The Mabinogion. Compiled somewhere between the late 1300s and the early 1400s, the Mabinogion is a collection of stories ranging from the dreamlike Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed to the more chivalric-romance-style Peredur, Son of Efrawg. Again, in a good translation, the Mabinogion is highly accessible. In addition, reading this book feels very like getting in touch with the very earliest Arthurian traditions, possibly still with some shreds of paganism clinging to them.
So, I forgot about all the other books I had waiting to be read for the first time, and I went back and read this old favourite, in the Everyman translation by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones.

The first four stories are the Mabinogi properly so-called. The scholarly introduction by Jones maior and Jones minor informs us that the literary form known as mabinogi was probably a series of tales revolving around the conception, youthful exploits, captivity, and death of a heroic central figure. In the Four Branches of the Mabinogion, however, the central figure--most likely the hero Pryderi--has been largely pushed to the side so that the stories can focus on related characters.

Rhiannon, by Alan Lee
In Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, the First Branch, we are given the tale of a prince who changes place with the King of Annwn (an otherworld in Welsh myth), and later, by a series of exploits, wins the uncanny beauty Rhiannon to be his wife. When their son is born, he is stolen away by magic and Rhiannon is accused of murdering him. In Branwen, Daughter of Llyr, the marriage between a British princess and the King of Ireland results in a war in which the Irish are aided by the magic cauldron which brings the dead back to life. In Manawydan, Son of Llyr--my favourite of the Four Branches--the heroes Manawydan and Pryderi, together with their wives, are astonished one day when all the people vanish from their lands. When Pryderi and his mother Rhiannon also disappear, Manawydan must employ all his wit and cunning to discover the enemy and bring back the vanished people. Finally, in Math, Son of Mathonwy, we have a tale of multigenerational sordidity culminating in the hero Lleu Llaw Gyffes surviving both his birth-mother's malice and his wife's assassination attempts.

What is most unforgettable about this cycle of stories is the surreal fairy-tale-like imagery: the silver basin suspended by an endless chain running into the sky in Manawydan, the ride of Rhiannon in Pwyll. Characters such as Bendigeidfran in Branwen, as well as Rhiannon herself, were originally pagan Welsh deities, but in The Mabinogion they have, after the coming of Christianity, descended to a mortal level--more or less:
Messengers went to Branwen. "Lady," said they, "what thinkest thou that is?" "Though lady I am not," said she, "I know what that is: the men of the Island of the Mighty on their way over, having heard of my woes and my humiliation." "What is the forest that was seen upon the sea?" they asked. "The masts of ships and their yards," said she. "Alas," said they, "what was the mountain that could be seen alongside the ships?" "Bendigeidfran, my brother, that was," she said, "coming by wading. There was never a ship in which he might be contained." "What was the lofty ridge, and the lake on each side of the ridge?" "He," said she, "looking towards this island; he is angered. The two lakes on each side of the ridge are his two eyes, one on each side of his nose."
After the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, we have the "Four Independent Native Tales"--including The Dream of Macsen Wledig, telling how the Emperor of Rome travelled to Britain to find the bride he dreamed of; Lludd and Llefelys, telling how two brothers rid Britain of a series of plagues. The next story, Culhwch and Olwen, is the first of the tales that actually speaks of King Arthur. It is a fascinating cultural relic, possibly one of the earliest surviving tales of Arthur. The French chivalric tradition has not yet transformed the legend of Arthur into a series of chivalric romances. Instead, we find Arthur, his wife Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere) and his trusted warriors Cei (Kay), Bedwyr (Bedevere), and Gwalchmai (Gawain) in a more tribal setting, with war-bands rather than knights. Culhwch, a nephew of Arthur's, travels to his court to ask the king's aid in winning Olwen, the daughter of Yspaddaden Chief Giant. Yspaddaden, who will according to prophecy die at his daughter's marriage, sets Culhwch a long list of impossible tasks to fulfill, which Arthur and his warriors help him accomplish. Finally, in The Dream of Rhonabwy, a man long after the days of Arthur has a vision of the legendary king in a combined game of gwyddbwyll and oneupmanship with his nephew Owein (Ywain).

These stories, especially Culhwch and Olwen, give as a fascinating glimpse of just how the Arthur legends began as just one element of a well-known body of legends. Culhwch in fact comes with a dazzlingly huge supporting cast; were there stories and origins for all these oddly-named people that have since been lost?

The final segment of The Mabinogion are the "Three Romances". In The Lady of the Fountain, the knight Owein sets out on the adventure which he hears will come if he goes to a certain place and throws a bowlful of water on a stone slab. Peredur, Son of Efrawg is an early version of the tale of Sir Perceval, in which elements of the Grail legend appear in a disjointed form, and which culminates with Peredur conquering a castle of warrior-witches. Finally, Gereint, the Son of Erbin, tells the tale of the courtship and early marital difficulties endured by the knight Gereint and his long-suffering bride Enid.

Composed at a later date, showing some influence from the French chivalric tradition, these three romances are notable in that the French author Chretien de Troyes dealt with the same three stories in his own Arthurian romances. The Mabinogion's Lady of the Fountain, Peredur Son of Efrawg, and Gereint Son of Erbin correspond to de Troyes's Ywain, the Knight of the Lion, Perceval, the Story of the Grail, and Erec and Enid. The fascinating thing? No one knows anymore whether the Mabinogion drew on de Troyes, or whether de Troyes drew on The Mabinogion, or if the stories came about independently.

In any case The Mabinogion is good reading. Even in the later stories, which show more of a French influence, the tales retain a strong ethnic Welsh flavour which I've always found particularly charming. If you are looking for an accessible introduction to some medieval Arthurian literature, or if you've read some of the standard Arthurian works and would like to investigate further, I would happily recommend The Mabinogion.

Find The Mabinogion on Amazon, The Book Depository, Librivox or Project Gutenberg.

9 comments:

Jamie W. said...

I've been meaning to read The Mabinogion for a long time (I first found it, I think, when I had been reading Rosemary Sutcliff's The Shining Company, a beautiful book), but I wasn't sure what translation I should look into and didn't want to deal with a clunky translation. I'll keep my eye out now for the Jones edition, if that's the one you recommend!

Kim Marsh said...

Must confess I find the otherworldness too fey for my taste but the Welsh use of language is amazing. The Penguin collection "A Celtic Miscellany" is an old favourite of mine.
So nice to turn to this post after all the Election garbage.
Regards Kim

Hanna said...

Honestly, when I first read your Tour Guide to Arthurian Literature (thanks again for that, by the way :-) ), the Mabinogion was one of the books that interested me the least from that list. For whatever reason, I just didn't expect to find it that interesting. But in your review, you make it sound awesome! I think I might try it some time after all.

Suzannah said...

Jamie, yes, I'd recommend the Jones translation. Another quite well known translation is the one by Lady Charlotte Guest but I hear it isn't anywhere near as good.

Kim, I have to say I particularly like the elusive and slightly surreal quality of the Welsh legends. But the writing style is wonderful too.

Hanna, that's odd, because the Mabinogion is one of my favorites from that list! Let me know if you read it, what you think!

Anonymous said...

I think the Jones & Jones was the first translation of The Mabinogion I read and I certainly enjoyed it and would recommend it, but - I would make a plea for also reading, or reading around in, the Lady Charlotte Guest translation as well.

Why? Well, for one big thing, it has the story of Taliesin in it, too, which the Joneses omit. And, it was the readily available translation when people like the Inklings and John Masefield would have been (or in some cases might have been) reading The Mabinogion. So, you can share their experience (whatever may be said in favour of more recent scholarship and style).

The old 1906 Everyman edition of Guest is scanned at the Internet Archive, and the three-volume 1902 Fisher Unwin edition (with far fewer notes!) is transcribed at Project Gutenberg. There's even an audiobook version of the first volume ar LibriVox.org, by Martin Geeson, who seems, in the sample I've just taken, to pronounce the Welsh names well!

David Llewellyn Dodds

(Speaking of translations of the story of Taliesin, I also enjoyed Patrick K. Ford's The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977]. Translations of the story are surprisingly few, as far as I have ever discovered!)

Suzannah said...

Thanks David! Good points on the Guest translation. I didn't realise it had something on Taliesin. I was wondering where he'd got to this time through the Mabinogion, actually!

Janie said...

So I've blundered across your blog from time to time, and always enjoyed what I find here. But I just had to spring out of the woodwork and leave a comment on this post, because I greatly enjoy the Mabinogion and Welsh/Scots/Irish mythology in general. No one does imagery quite like the Celts did, and though it's been quite some time since I last did any major reading of the Mabinogion or any other mythology from the British isles, the brilliance of their descriptive powers will always have a tremendous influence on my own writing.

Suzannah said...

Glad to see you here, Janie, and so glad you've been enjoying the blog! The Mabinogion has some truly amazing imagery in it, doesn't it?

Janie said...

Indeed! I really appreciate your thoughtful reviews. You've definitely encouraged me to hunt down several books which I would not have been aware of, otherwise.

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