Meet the heroes and heroines of Welsh literature

If you are interested in Welsh history and mythology, then it’s possible you’ve found yourself directed to a collection of old Welsh stories known as The Mabinogion. But what is it, exactly and why do Welsh people treasure it so much?

What is it?

The Mabinogion is a collection of eleven tales from early Welsh literature that draw upon the mystical word of the Celtic people. The stories represent a golden age of narrative prose that flourished in Wales over the course of the Middle Ages and blend myth, folklore, tradition and history.

The central themes typically include fall and redemption, loyalty, marriage, love, fidelity and the wronged wife – all ingredients of a rollicking good story!

The setting is a strange, magical landscape which corresponds geographically to the western coast of Wales. Although the landscape is familiar, its inhabitants are perhaps less so; it is full of white horses that appear out of thin air, monsters, giants, mysterious magical women and superhero-like men.

Like many old stories, none are original compositions. They instead draw on existing material reworked to reflect contemporary concerns. As a result, The Mabinogion should be seen as both an interpretation of a mythological past and a commentary on the medieval present.

Where did it come from?

Exactly how the stories found their way into the written form is unclear but they are drawn from both Celtic mythology and the famous tales of King Arthur and his knights.

Preserved in written form in the White Book of Rhydderch (1300-1325) and the Red Book of Hergest (1375-1425), portions were written as early as the 1050s, but other sections predate this by decades, if not centuries. It’s accepted that the stories were passed down through the generations by word of mouth – bedtime stories if you will.

The stories travelled with the early Welsh bards who wandered Britain. They swapped their tales for board and lodging and were highly prized by the highest and lowest members of society for their fine storytelling skills.

In this pre-modern society, the Oral Tradition – the method of passing stories on before they were ever written down – was the medium of collective memory, and we cannot overstate its importance. The Oral Tradition includes genealogies, origin legends, proverbs and anecdotes. Early Welsh literature contains examples of all of these, and so today, we promote its significance in our culture wherever we can.

The Mabinogion was translated and edited under the direction of Lady Charlotte Guest and published in 1840. She was an enthusiastic supporter of the Welsh language and culture and was instrumental in the revival of the Eisteddfod arts festival.

The Mabinogion as a title is relatively modern, named mistakenly by Lady Charlotte Guest herself! She assumed that the word ‘mabinogion’ was the plural form of ‘mabinogi’, but it appears only once in the manuscripts she translated (and is commonly dismissed as a transcription error).

These stories sound really exciting – tell us more!

The tales, which are outwardly concerned with the lives of various Welsh royal families – figures who represent the gods of an older, pre-Christian mythological order – are themselves much older in origin.

The tales from The Mabinogion fall into three categories. The first four tales belonged to the Four Branches of the Mabinogi. The next four (or five, if including Taliesin) were the Independent Tales, two of which feature King Arthur. The last three tales fall into a category known as the Welsh Romances. Let’s take a closer look…

  • Four Branches of the Mabinogi

A single hero called Pryderi links all four branches. The first tale recounts his early life and ascent to the throne. In the second he barely warrants a mention, but in the third the focus returns to Pryderi when he’s imprisoned by an enchanter and later released. In the fourth, Pryderi falls in battle. Despite his recurring presence, he only plays a small role in each tale.

  1. 1. Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed describes Pwyll’s wooing of a fairy princess, Rhiannon, and Rhiannon’s loss and recovery of their child Pryderi, whom she is falsely accused of murdering after he is supernaturally abducted on the night of his birth.

2. Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr is about the marriage of Branwen to Matholwch, and treacherous acts which result in a devastating war between Ireland and Britain from which only Branwen, the wounded Brân, and seven other men escape alive back to Wales.

3. Manawydan, Son of Llŷr comprises the further adventures of two of the escapees, Manawydan and Pryderi, who with his wife, Cigfa, and mother, Rhiannon, combat an enchantment placed over Pryderi’s realm.

4. Math, Son of Mathonwy focusses on Math, a prince of northern Wales, his nephew Gwydion, and Gwydion’s nephew Lleu. Among many other events, Gwydion’s magic and duplicity lead to the death of Pryderi.

  • Independent Tales

The Dream of Maxen involves an emperor marrying a maiden he saw in his dream, while Lludd & Llevelys is about Britain suffering three strange plagues. Two other tales involved King Arthur and his companions and were called Culhwch & Olwen and the Dream of Rhonabwy.

  • Welsh Romances

The Welsh romances are similar to the popular French Arthurian romances written by Chrétien de Troyes in the twelfth century. Owain (or The Lady of the Fountain) corresponds to Chrétien’s Yvain, the Knight of the Lion. Geraint & Enid correspond to Chrétien’s Erec & Enide, and Peredur, Son of Efrawg corresponds to Chrétien’s Perceval, from the Story of the Grail.

Why are these stories so important?

Improving levels of literacy during the period The Mabinogion was popular led to the stories being put in print. Not only were these ancient tales were preserved for all time but they also provided a snapshot of life in the Middle Ages. As such, The Mabinogion gives readers a unique glimpse into both our cultural heritage and our medieval past – it’s a literary time-capsule.

The Mabinogion has been widely influential, giving rise to timeless literary figures such as Arthur and Merlin, and providing the basis of much European and world literature – the fantasy fiction genre, so popular today, was practically unknown before its publication.

The A to Z of North Wales – part one

North Wales has something for everyone. To show what we mean, we’ve picked out some of our highlights according to every letter of the English alphabet.

Here we go with our first 13, A to M. Click here for N to Z.

A is for Anglesey

Ynys Môn, Môn Mam Cymru (Mother of Wales) – whatever you call the biggest island in England and Wales, we can all agree it is beautiful, calming, yet alive with culture and history. We listed our favourite beach-and-pub walks here, because, well, why not combine a beach with a drink and a bite to eat afterwards?

B is for Beaches

Great beaches are not just reserved for Anglesey (even if the island has them in buckets-and-spades). Have you been to the Llyn Peninsula? Morfa Nefyn? Whistling Sands (Porth Oer)? There are lots of great beaches within an hour’s drive of our hotel, as we described here.

C is for Caernarfon

Conwy’s understated rival, though the word “understated” is hard to think of as appropriate when you gaze up at Caernarfon Castle’s walls from the Maes (town square). Wander the walled town, walk the coast, hear the Welsh language alive and well and explore these five hidden places.

D is for Dolbadarn

The castle on our doorstep, one of the finest surviving Welsh castles in Wales, and what a location! Lakes and mountains surround you as you explore Dolbadarn’s great tower. Come and explore this and other legends of nearby Llanberis.

E is for Escape

Sometimes, all you need is a short break from the day-to-day, a quick escape. This is when North Wales comes into its own. Easy to reach, lots to do while you’re here, and so much harder to leave. We described some perfect winter escapes in this blog.

F is for Food Festivals

Food festivals may be all the rage, but not all festivals can boast settings that include medieval walled towns, castles and seaside harbours. North Wales can, as our round-up of the best annual food-fests shows.

G is for Gwynedd

The ancient kingdom of Gwynedd is a treasure-trove of history. It’s very easy to learn more about this remote corner of Wales’s troubled and triumphant past by visiting the many attractions here, such as castles, museums and more.

H is for History

While we’re on the subject of history, you can get a double-dose of the prehistoric and the medieval varieties by visiting Caernarfon Castle and the Great Orme headland above Llandudno in just one weekend, as our suggested itinerary here explained.

I is for Llanddwyn Island

Ok, that’s a bit of a cheat, but we just had to include this stunning part of the world in our A-Z of North Wales somewhere! Llanddwyn Island off Newborough Beach on Anglesey is a magical place, bathed in warm natural light, bursting with nature and with many stories to tell. It all help make it one of the most romantic places in Wales.

J is for Journeys

Getting there is part of the adventure, and getting anywhere in North Wales is a beautiful journey to enjoy. Leave the car behind so you can all enjoy the view through the window and take a trip on the train. The Conwy Valley line is part of the main network – not a narrow-gauge – yet its journey from coast to mountains is one of the most spectacular in Britain.

K is for Kayaking

Watersports may not be for everyone, but kayaking is one of the easier sports to master and unlike some others doesn’t demand extensive and expensive kit. North Wales is a great place to come and try it, as our watersports round-up blog demonstrated.

L is for Llanberis

Dominated by Snowdon, Llanberis packs in an awful lot for a small village. Mountain walks? Obviously. A mountain railway? Of course. Lakeside walks? Yes. An underground power station? Really! Got its own castle? Yes, this is Wales. Oh, and a waterfall, an amazing slate landscape trail, and, well, read this blog to find out.

M is for Mynydd (Mountain!)

One thing we’ve got plenty of in Wales is mountains! They may not be the tallest, but they offer some of the best walking in the UK, and Crib Goch is renowned for it’s knife-edge ridge. Yet if you combine walking up our wonderful peaks, you can reach the combined height of the highest mountain in the world, as we explained here.

We’ve reached the end of Part 1 of our A to Z of North Wales. Click here for Part Two.