Editor * Medievalist * Translator * Lexicographer
John Bollard's pioneering work in the field revolutionised the Mabinogi paradigm.
Until the 1970s the Mabinogi was seen as broken remains of ancient mythology which needed reconstruction to its original form.1)
Bollard opened up the Mabinogi as a 'unified' and 'intricate' literature.2)
'There is no incident or detail which remains isolated or superfluous in the Four Branches.'3)
'[T]he author has utilized his material to create a work that is both meaningful and artistically unified. The intricate structure which can be seen throughout the Mabinogi is very closely woven, yet the author has sufficient control over his materials and over his own artistry to prevent the tales from becoming too complex in their interrelationships.' 4)
He applied interweaving analysis to show the Mabinogi has structural patterns across its tales which emphasise its meanings.
The tales, Bollard proposed, cannot be understood only as simple linear sequences of events following each other. Items or events also have matching ones earlier in the tale, later on, or in other tales in the whole work. These close comparisons reinforce, and explain more of the meaning of the current item. Interweavings can also extend to other works the composer knew, such as the Trioedd, 'Triads'; or Culhwch ac Olwen.
For example the way Pwyll encounters Arawn has close resemblances to the interaction and wording in his first meeting with Rhiannon. Knowing the Mabinogi works with interweaving, we can quickly alert to the second scene presenting a similar relationship. Rhiannon's primary importance is accelerated to us, and the authority she holds in the relationship is made unmistakable as she is being aligned with a crowned king. The interweaving here, and elsewhere, also ties Pwyll's Annwfn episode into the rest of the Branch, as otherwise it can seem a disconnected and independent tale. Interweaving makes readers and listeners its active participants as we pick up on the connections the composer offers. Note the connections are limited to the likely knowledge of the composer; they do not spread across general international tale motifs.
Bollard’s innovative insight in 1974 brought Eugene Vinaver’s concept of interlacing from poetry to Mabinogi prose.5) Bollard also compared the patterns of interweaving to Celtic knotwork art as a cultural ancestor to Welsh mediaeval literature.
According to Bollard these Mabinogi interweavings constellate on three themes. 'The three major themes which the author develops in the Four Branches are three of the functions of society which bind together, or separate, various groups and elements of that society. These themes I have rather loosely termed Friendships, Marriages and Feuds.'6)
Bollard's 'Mabinogi as literature' approach was broadly prefigured by Anwyl and his protegee Elizabeth Lloyd,7) but the dominance of the mythological reconstruction approach, especially the work of William John Gruffydd, prevented its development for 60 years. 8) Although the perspective of the Mabinogi as a 'unified' and 'intricate' literature was introduced by Bollard in the 1970s, it took 20 years to establish, the usual inertia of paradigm shift. This pivotal period of 20 years has been neatly documented by the Sullivan anthology which collects most of the key articles including Bollard's 1974 foundation.9)
John Bollard graduated PhD. Abersytwyth, 1970. Besides his pioneering Mabinogi work in the 1970s he has published his own Mabinogi translation: The Mabinogi, Legend and Landscape of Wales (Llandysul, Wales: Gomer Press, 2006). It is one of the very best translations of all, very clear, with discreetly placed notes which do not intrude but are immediately at hand if desired. The book is illustrated by Anthony Griffiths' photographs of landscape sites in the stories.
Bollard has also published volumes of all the other mediaeval Welsh prose tales, and other associated works. See his homepage.