The Mabinogion, as we know it today, is something of a mess – so much so that even the term “Mabinogion” is suspect, a term coined in the midst of the 18th and 19th Century rekindling of interest in medieval Welsh literature but, aside from one instance generally regarded as a transcription error, not actually occurring in any Middle Welsh source. The term “Mabinogi” is used more often – but what it exactly means is something we’re fuzzy on today.
Matters were complicated further by Lady Charlotte Guest, when she used Mabinogion as the title for her collection of prose stories from the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest. The White Book and Red Book are medieval manuscripts in Middle Welsh and compile various different bits and pieces, the stories in the Mabinogion among them. (They’re also the inspirations for the Red Book of Westmarch in Tolkien, where Bilbo, Frodo, and others set down the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and translated some of the Silmarillion.) They were compiled in the 14th Century, and are our oldest sources for the tales in question beyond some scraps here and there, but given the grab-bag of material that’s in each of them it’s not necessarily clear that the prose stories extracted by Lady Guest were all meant to be taken as a unitary body of work. The Mabinogi concept only directly relates to the first four, each of which overtly declares itself a “Branch of the Mabinogi”; the latter tales include an increasingly high dose of King Arthur stuff, the earlier stories have no Arthur.
Still, using the term to denote this collection of stories is better than nothing. Though Lady Guest originally did her work in the 19th Century, the version I’ve read for this consideration of it is the Jeffrey Gantz translation from the 1970s. Gantz does a good job of not only rendering the text in a readable form but giving a rundown of the difficulties in pinpointing when these various stories were first set in writing (the smart money is on “mid-11th Century to 13th Century”, which isn’t that precise), and how many of them seem to be the result of an oral tradition twisted extensively out of shape due to the process of Christianisation (in particular, recasting deities as powerful kings or wizards). He also provides extensive footnotes to help out with linguistic puns that don’t land right in English, or to point out bits where the stories outright contradict themselves. As it turns out, this is rather necessary…
The Four Branches of the Mabinogi
The first Branch is Pwyll Lord of Dyved, which seems to mash together three different stories (Pwyll’s stint ruling the otherworld of Annwvyn, his courting of Rhiannon, and the birth, disappearance, and rediscovery of Pryderi) with some massaging to create the superfluous appearance of a continuous narrative. Each of the individual stories is quite vivid, but the whole feels like less than the sum of its parts – a compilation and attempt at continuity which the source material doesn’t necessarily lend itself to. Perhaps most interesting here is the agency given to Rhiannon in the middle section, who more or less selects Pwyll to marry and then engineers his victory over a rival suitor; this contrast starkly with the third section, in which she is simply a passive victim of circumstance who is eventually exonerated by the actions of others.
The next Branch, Branwen Daughter of Llŷr, tells one specific story – namely, the marriage of Branwen to the King of Ireland, and the strife between Ireland and Britain that results. It is even more blatantly a product of half-finished euhemerism than the previous story; in particular, it features Brân the Blessed in a central role, and it is only around halfway through the story that it is unambiguously mentioned to the audience that “King” Brân is in fact a vast giant, so big he can stroll across the Irish sea to cause a ruckus when his sister is mistreated. The telling seems to have assumed that the reader is already largely aware of this, because it just drops that point into the tale without any preceding setup to lead us to expect that Brân is anything other than an ordinary King, albeit a powerful one.
Manawydan Son of Llŷr is very, very obviously devised as a sequel to the previous two stories, because it follows directly on from the end of Branwen and makes references back to matters established in Pwyll. It’s also utterly nutty: Manawydan has ended up usurped somehow rather than inheriting Brân’s kingdom, but rather than doing anything about this he mopes, so Pryderi says “I have an idea, why don’t you come home to Dyved with me and marry my mum“, and Manawydan says “sure”. What ensues is a bizarre sequence of curses and tangents about surly tradesmen trying to keep Welsh exiles out of their lines of work and naughty mice and wizardly bishops and so on and so forth. Where Pwyll feels like three previously separate stories attached to each other fairly loosely but each individually being reasonably well-formed, this feels like several different stories ripped apart and then interwoven with each other in a bizarre fashion, with a really clunky linking device added to cover the gap between the end of Branwen and the start of this, and a clunky explanation from the wizard-bishop at the end that harks back to an incident in Pwyll. The imagery is undeniably vivid and amusing, but in terms of storytelling structure it is an utter mess.
The final branch, Math Son of Mathonwy, is the one which to my eyes seems to do the “several stories blended into one narrative thing” best – each story is told in sequence, one leading into the other, like in Pwyll, but the connections are somewhat more seamless. It’s also utterly bizarre – Math the wizard-lord has a weird condition where unless he’s at war he has to keep his feet in a virgin’s lap, his nephew Gilvaethwy falls in love with current foot-virgin Goewin, and Gilvaethwy’s brother Gwydyon (also a wizard) enacts a plan to win access to her by provoking a war with Dyved. It turns out Dyved has the only pigs in the mortal realm, since piggies are native to Annwvyn and Pryderi got a present of pigs from Arawn, ruler of that otherworld; one pig-theft later, and Math’s off to fight a war against Pryderi’s forces, who are grumpy about the bacon-raid, leaving the brothers free to rape Goewin, for which they are punished by Math by being turned into a sequence of paired animals, each taking a turn to bear a child fathered by the other. And that’s just the first major plot arc here…
Bizarrely, once the zoological incest angle wraps up, everything’s fine; though I guess spending three years being turned into a sequence of animals and made to go off and bang your sibling in the wild at least takes rape somewhat seriously and conveys the moral lesson, the narrative asks us to accept Gwydyon near-instantly as a benign trickster rather than a scheming rapist, because the last two stories in the sequence frame him as being very much the former: in the second arc he helps his nephew Lleu attain his birthright after his mother Arianrhod, shamed by his existence, curses him, and then in the final plot arc there’s a love triangle between Lleu, his wife Blodeuwedd, and her lover Goronwy, which leads to tragedy for Lleu until Gwydyon sorts it out.
I hesitate to use the term “logic” in relation to any of this, but everything follows on from each other in a fairly natural fashion and there is at least a stronger through-line here than in Pwyll or Manawydan, in that the narrative as a whole is about how Gwydyon is an amazingly skilled wizard who, after being initially punished by Math for being awful, is a nice uncle who does good by looking out for Lleu. (To be fair, Lleu needs looking out for: Blodeuwedd’s plot to kill him is so clumsy and blatant that one can only assume that Lleu is an absolute sucker for going along with it.)
Taken together, the Four Branches clearly are quite interconnected, between them giving an account of Pryderi from the circumstances leading to his birth and inheritance of Dyved in the First Branch to his death and its aftermath in the Fourth. At the same time, he’s never the main character of the story – he’s at most a supporting character, but in the Second Branch he’s basically a random soldier participating in the war with the Irish. The lack of cohesion is strong evidence for the idea that the material ended up in a badly mangled state by the time it was recorded in the White Book and Red Book, though it is of course difficult to pin down with certainty whether this garbling is down to poor transcription by scribes, or a disordered process of setting the material down in the first place, or the oral tradition itself became muddled and confused when it was euhemerised and otherwise adapted with the changing cultural values of its audience. It’s certainly good that we had at least this level of preservation of the material, but a crying shame we don’t have other major sources for earlier iterations.
The Miscellaneous Legends
The Dream of Maxen is a yarn about a Roman Emperor who falls in love with a Welsh princess in a dream, conquers Britain in order to find her, and then her brothers help him reconquer Rome following a coup and then go conquer Brittany for themselves with the Emperor Maxen’s blessing. Gantz makes a plausible argument that it seems to be riffing on a similar bit of history to an incident related by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain, but is even further from historical accuracy than Geoffrey’s, which would suggest that the version set down in writing was influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth – further evidence for the oral tradition still evolving and changing fairly late in the day before it was written down, or perhaps a clue that whoever wrote the material down was making some kind of attempt to reconcile it with other sources. (Geoffrey of Monmouth’s influence on the Mabinogion is also evident in Lludd and Llevelys, a telling of quasi-historical material which touches on Monmouth’s narrative – indeed, early versions of the same basic story got inserted into early 13th Century Welsh translations of Monmouth, despite not being in his Latin original.)
How Culhwch Won Olwen is the first appearance of King Arthur in the collection. It’s also the longest tale, but not because it tells the most detailed story: a fair chunk of its page count is taken up with the list of 39 tasks that Ysbaddaden the giant gives Culhwch (the ultimate “rules for dating my daughter” boomer meme), and the even more absurd list of some 200 or so men, women, horsies, and doggos of King Arthur’s court who are called on to help Culhwch’s quest. Next to this, the actual narrative is fairly thin, and somewhat muddled – as Gantz notes, we only get told how a fraction of the tasks are actually completed, and some of the missions undertaken aren’t actually on Ysbaddaden’s list, or directly violate the rules of the quest. One suspects the story is largely a delivery mechanism for the lists.
Another story heavy on lists of details – though it integrates them into its narrative much better – is The Dream of Rhonabwy. This must have been composed in the latter half of the 12th century at its absolute earliest (at least in the form found here), because of the contemporary figures it references; it’s an interesting one because at first it seems to be contrasting the drab circumstances of Wales at the time with the glories of King Arthur’s court, which Rhonabwy gets to visit in a dream, but then Arthur behaves like a foolish and ungrateful host by letting his men bully Owein’s magnificent ravens, who fuck their shit up when Owein gives them the order to unleash carnage (caw-nage?), slaying many of Arthur’s best men. Perhaps the implication is that the sad circumstances of today are in part the fault of the bad decisions of the past, so romanticising history isn’t the solution to a disappointing present day.
Another interesting thing about the story is that it explicitly declares itself not to be part of an oral tradition – at the end there’s a bit about how nobody can recite it without a book because of all the little details recounted in it. Of course, that might be a brag – a bit for a reteller to declare at the end of the tale, after they’ve recited it from memory, by means of showing off. (After all, if there is no book handy, who is going to check?)
The De Troyes Fanfic
The remaining three stories all tell Arthurian romances which we also know from Chrétien de Troyes’ work. The question is whether both de Troyes and the chroniclers who set down these tales in Welsh were drawing on a common tradition, or whether the Welsh scribes were simply riffing on de Troyes’ original.
In the case of Owein, Or the Countess of the Fountain, I am inclined to think the latter is much more likely. There’s some parts here that simply don’t make sense, but which are explained better in de Troyes’ original (The Knight With the Lion), and the manner in which they don’t make sense is more suggestive of the Welsh scribe copying an incident from de Troyes than they didn’t entirely understand than de Troyes coming up with an after the fact justification for an incident.
The most coherently-told of the romances here is Gereint and Enid, a fairly straight telling of more or less the same story as de Troyes’ Erec and Enide. It still feels like a rough edited highlights next to de Troyes, however. By far the most incoherent is Peredur Son of Evrawg – the Mabinogion’s take on the Percival legend. I use the word “incoherent” carefully: Grail literature includes texts as weird as Parzival, in which von Eschenbach goes off on bizarre tangents and makes weird little additions and changes frequently. However, Parzival at least has a structure to it, after a fashion, and properly develops its ideas, and vividly describes the important scenes. Peredur, even more than Owein, reads like a rapid-fire summary of the de Troyes original with some extra sprinkles added in to bring it more in line with the style of the other Mabinogion material.
The undoing of the story is in the way the scribe responsible is frequently more confident narrating the extra episodes – which read like self-contained little stories in themselves, perhaps those of some other folk hero being grafted onto the Percival legend here – than they are in handling the core of the story. Anything from de Troyes is rattled through at a fast pace, after a fashion, and whilst some attempt is made to add ongoing plot threads, they’re quite shaky. Frequently, major battles and deeds of Peredur’s are handled in an astonishingly abrupt fashion: the narration will say the minimum it needs to say to establish a challenge for Peredur, and then just declare that he overcomes the odds without saying how. Both de Troyes and especially von Eschenbach have this real knack for fight scenes; by comparison, the transcriber here seems outright disinterested in actually narrating a fight in any detail whatsoever.
An interesting feature of the story is that it includes a ceremonial feast clearly reminiscent of the Grail feast in de Troyes – complete with bleeding spear! – but the Grail itself is absent. This might be a clue to allow us to pinpoint when it was penned, since I think it means it must have been written soon-ish after de Troyes’ original. Sufficient time needed to pass for that story to percolate, but at the same time it must be before the Grail thing became so all-pervasive that doing the Fisher King sequence without the Grail would be unthinkable. You can imagine someone who read de Troyes when his material was fresh thinking that the spear was the more important thing in the Grail feast than the Grail itself; you can’t imagine someone growing up in a culture where Grail stories are widely famous overlooking that.
On the whole, then, the Mabinogion consists of some very hit-and-miss material. The Four Branches and the miscellanea are probably the most interesting parts, because they’re our best early sources for the tales in question, whereas the three romances were simply done better by other hands – hell, I’d even prefer de Troyes’ The Story of the Grail to Peredur here, and de Troyes didn’t even finish that. Unfortunately, it’s one of those texts where it has the prominence it has because it’s one of our few sources on the material in question, rather than because it has such timeless and enduring merit that it stands out; if you are interested in Welsh mythology of a particular vintage it’s one of the few windows onto that we have, and a fairly murky one at that, and some of the storytelling techniques and conceits it uses have fallen so far out of fashion that they’re likely to either irritate modern readers or seem silly, the absurdly long lists being a case in point. For many readers, retellings like Evangeline Walton’s may hold more interest than the thing itself unless you are specifically interested into digging into this sort of source text.
4 thoughts on “The Muddle of the Mabinogion”
My favourite version is Sioned Davies’s, though I have a soft spot for the Jones and Jones translation I read as a teenager. I’ve read an old Welsh version, but even then I wasn’t good enough to get as much out of it as the English. Something I think will interest you – the author Hal Duncan has done a modern Scots translation of Culhwch and Olwen. He’s been tweeting about it, but the prize goes to his additions to the Long List of Heroes – https://twitter.com/Hal_Duncan/status/1475848885365051396
I also have a book of poetry somewhere (I think it’s John Moat’s Firewater and the Miraculous Mandarin, but I can’t be certain because it’s still packed) which goes all in on incest, postulating that Dylan and Lleu are Gwydion’s own children, and that Gwydion orchestrated it all so that he could finally get a chance at his brother.
This series may interest you as well – their brand of… mythic realism? looks like your cup of tea to me.https://www.serenbooks.com/shop/new-stories-from-the-mabinogion
(No, I’m wrong about the book – it’s Gronw’s Stone by Ann Gray & Edmund Cusick.)
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