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More about the Mabinogi

Back to page 1 of this introduction.

WHEN? Earlier stories were told as poems, frequently about heroics and war. The Mabinogi prose tales, which decidedly do not glorify war, were coordinated into one work, c. 1100 in west Wales.1) That was the time when the Norman Conquest was beginning to push its influence at native British (Welsh) culture. Latin, Irish, Scots and British/ Welsh already flourished as a creative interplay.2) The Mabinogi stories themselves go back long before 1100 though, developed through oral storytelling.3) In the written versions we have (see note on Manuscripts below), later mediaeval attitudes and customs overlay the early ancestral level.

AS MYTHOLOGY There are traces of older goddesses and gods in the Mabinogi, with connections to Irish, Viking and other traditions. There is almost no sign of Christianity. For centuries it was assumed that the Mabinogi was ancient mythology alone, broken 'remains' of an ancestral Celtic religion, native to Britain. A case can certainly be made for some characters as deities such as Rhiannon, Bendigeidfran and others, often distinctively British. Enchantment such as shapeshifting is a powerful part of the Mabinogi world, adding to its fascination. Reconstructing the original mythology, smoothing its 'inconsistencies' was an understandable 20thC preoccupation.4)
AS LITERATURE In the 1970s a new understanding began, led by John K. Bollard, that the Mabinogi is not a broken, muddled mess, but a 'unified' and 'intricate' literature. More, Bollard showed there are a mass of 'interweavings'; where one item reflects another elsewhere in the tale or in another the composer knew. These patterns provide a deeper understanding of what the Mabinogi is saying to us. 5)
FEMINIST ANALYSIS Mabinogi characters are frequently complex and particularly human because of it, with few simple stereotypes. Mabinogi women are powerful, reflecting the greater status and authority mediaeval Welsh women had compared to non-Celtic cultures of Europe. However study of Mabinogi women lagged. (A leading book titled Rhiannon (1953) made this dominating heroine into a passive prize!)
Rob Valente challenged this lack (1986), particularly saying goddess mythology was blocking understanding of the women as human persons. Mabinogi and gender has since developed a strong analysis.6)
STORYTELLING, DRAMA, ARTS The Mabinogi has inspired many creative works in the modern period. There have been impressive theatrical productions such as Moving Being's outdoor performances in Welsh castles (1981, 1983), to Manon Eames bilingual magnificence (2006). The storytelling revival has included a steady flow of Mabinogi tales since the 1970s, with full Mabinogi storytelling conferences held Aberystwyth 2015, 2017. An array of artists have created Mabinogi imagery in all forms. There is also the cult classic S4C film, videos, recordings, and many interpretative websites.

From Mediaeval to Modern

Part of first page of the Mabinogi. The first word is 'Pwyll'.MANUSCRIPTS Once composed as one work, the Mabinogi was hand written in mediaeval manuscripts.
Three have survived, the earliest only a fragment.7) The manuscripts were scribed in mediaeval Welsh (Middle Welsh). The oldest complete version is Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch, the 'White Book', named after the white colour of its book cover (gwyn = white). It is kept at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, where it can be visited and seen today.8) A slightly later version, Llyfr Coch Hergest, the 'Red Book', is kept at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, in England, also available to view (coch = red).9)

MODERN PUBLICATION The Mabinogi stories began to be published in modern print form in 1795 by the eminent William Owen Pughe. 10) He published both the Welsh, and his English translations. He made a complete collection of mediaeval Welsh stories, The Mabinogion including the Mabinogi, and began a set of illustrations. Sadly he died just before he could publish it all (1835). The task was then carried out magnificently by the formidable Charlotte Guest, an Englishwoman. Her series of twelve tales also used the title The Mabinogion.11) The collection became well known, and has had more translations into English and many other world languages. Guest's version went online in 1999.12) The most recent translation to receive widespread recognition is by Sioned Davies (2007/2008).

Another prose story series also in mediaeval Welsh, dates to about the same time: Culhwch ac Olwen. This is a less sophisticated work, a series of adventures by Culhwch and a band of allies.
The idea of 'Britain' or 'British' meant the pre-Saxon culture sustained and developed in Wales. When Scotland and England unitedin the 17thC the name was coopted to mean the new combined state. The two ideas coexisted until the mid 19thC.
Sioned Davies is famous for her research into Mabinogi oral performance, and how this influenced the style of the tales.
Scholars e.g. John Rhys; Edward Anwyl; Ifor Williams; William John Gruffydd (WJG); Proinsias Mac Cana
John K. Bollard, ‘The Structure of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi’, Cymm., 1974, pp. 250–276. <> See also the important anthology Charles William Sullivan III, (ed.), The Mabinogi: A Book of Essays (NY: Garland Publications, 1996, repr. 2015) This collects most of the key articles of the period of paradigm shift 1974-96. Much of it can be read on google books. The article by R.M.Davies explains interweaving well.
Roberta Louisa Valente, ‘Merched y Mabinogi: Women and the Thematic Structure of the Four Branches’ (unpublished PhD, Cornell University, 1986)
MS. Peniarth 6, c. 1225.
Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch, the 'White Book', dates to c. 1350.
Llyfr Coch Hergest, the 'Red Book', dates to c. 1400.
William Owen [Pughe], ‘The Mabinogion, or Juvenile Amusements, Being Ancient Welsh Romances’, Cambrian Register, I (1795), pp. 177–87. Bilingual Welsh and English. He did not add the name 'Pughe' until 1806.
The original series of six volumes (1838-1849) was reprinted as 3 vols. 1849. The English translated text on its own was published 1877, and it is this version which then became well known. Guest included a Taliesin tale which other Mabinogion publications since, omit because it comes from a different, later manuscript. The Mabinogion as standard is eleven tales: The Four Branches of the Mabinogi; the native tales Culhwch ac Olwen; Lludd a Llefelys; two tales about Dreams, and three knightly Romances.
'Miss Gien', <> (1999) Arthurian website.
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