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. 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.
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.
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.