The Mabinogion is the title for a small collection of eleven or twelve tales which are the oldest prose stories of Britain. They were scribed in manuscript form in the 12th – 14thC, in Middle Welsh.
The Mabinogi is a quartet of tales typically published as part of The Mabinogion.
Obviously the two names can be confusing. The Mabinogi is the correct form for the four part work by one author, the Four Branches of the Mabinogi. The Mabinogion is a larger collection of stories which contains the Mabinogi; with other additional tales by various authors, in different styles, and with different themes, clearly composed at different times with different aims in mind. All that connects the tales of The Mabinogion is their prose form, their Middle Welsh language, and that they are in the same manuscripts which survived the centuries to modern times.
To keep the distinction clear between the Mabinogi, the Four Branches, which is the main focus of this site, and The Mabinogion, the latter is shown in italics as the modern title it is.
The Mabinogion is a title found in use in the 18thC among Welsh antiquarians. William Pughe published the first of its stories in modern print format in 1795, in his journal the Cambrian Register. This was the first episode of Pwyll, the First Branch. He titled the story “The Mabinogion, or Juvenile Amusements, being Ancient Welsh Romances.” So William Pughe holds the pioneering status of publishing the first item of both the Mabinogi and The Mabinogion in modern print format derived from manuscript text. However although Pughe did transcribe, prepare, organise, and translate all of the tales considered as The Mabinogion and he also raised finance to publish them, sadly he died in 1835, shortly before this was due to be carried out.
The honour of publishing the first complete version of The Mabinogion including The Mabinogi, went to Charlotte Guest. She first produced a bilingual series of seven volumes in Welsh and English, 1838 – 1845. (The Mabinogi was in the volumes of 1841 and 1845.) The next edition was three volumes in 1849. Finally a single volume appeared in 1877, minus the Welsh source text.
All were richly presented in gold tooled leather covers, lavishly illustrated, and with a total of 145 pages of scholarly notes. Guest’s wealth, elite social status, and her entrepreneurial skill, ensured The Mabinogion became known among the international literati of the day; inspiring for example Tennyson’s Enide. Yet the primary heritage position they occupy as the oldest prose stories of Britain is not generally recognised, because the sources of European literature were established as Greek, Roman, and Saxon by the imperial English domination narrative.
Guest is often assumed, wrongly, as the origin of the vexatious mistake which underpins the title of The Mabinogion. This name derives from a single instance of the term ‘mabynnogion’ in the source manuscripts, at the end of the First Branch. Everywhere else in the Mabinogi we only find ‘mabinogi.’ Pughe and his contemporaries assumed ‘mabinogion’ was the plural of ‘mabinogi’ but ‘mabinogi’ is already a plural.
Although Guest did not initiate the usage, she certainly contributed to its establishment, as her publications became the chief version used for a whole century. That entrepreneurial skill of hers spread the title internationally and won it a prestige niche.
By the time the confusion was cleared up in the 20thC the convention of the collection’s title was established, and this has been strongly reinforced by Sioned Davies’ decision to sustain it for her 21stC translation (2008) as she considered it to be convenient. John Bollard at about the same time in 2007, challenged this comfortable tradition by pointing out that The Mabinogion is an artificial construct. It throws together unconnected stories which happen to have survived in the same period of the Welsh language, in the same manuscripts, together with others.
Guest herself refers in her journal to discarding some of the tales in the manuscripts as too influenced by Anglo-French tradition or else boring! She also includes the Hanes Taliesin in her version of The Mabinogion, making it a nominal twelve tales compared to the later publications of eleven.
The list of tale titles in The Mabinogion is as follows:
~ Pwyll Pedeuig Dyfed, Prince of Dyfed. (Mabinogi, First Branch.)
~ Branwen ferch Llyr, Daughter of Llyr. (Mabinogi, Second Branch.)
~ Manawydan fab Llyr, Son of Llyr. (Mabinogi, Third Branch.)
~ Math fab Mathonwy, Son of Mathonwy. (Mabinogi, Fourth Branch.)
~ Culhwch ac Olwen. (Adventure tale involving Arthur.)
~ Lludd ac Llefelys. (Legendary ancient history of Britain.)
~ Breudwyt Rhonabwy, The Dream of Rhonabwy. (A soldier dreams of Arthur’s Court.)
~ Breudwyt Macsen, The Dream of Macsen. (A Roman emperor of legendary Welsh origin dreams of a maiden in Wales, Elen, who he then seeks to marry.)
~ Owein, or the Lady of the Fountain. (Anglo-Norman romance, with some correspondences with the tale of Pwyll in the Mabinogi.)
~ Peredur fab Efrawg, Peredur, son of Efrawg. (Anglo-Norman romance of the Grail quest.)
~ Gereint ap Erbin, or Geraint and Enid. (Anglo-Norman romance of a tourney obsessed knight and his abuse of his patient wife.)
~ Hanes Taliesin, Story of Taliesin. (An ancient mystical legend of bardic double birth which attached the 6thC bard Taliesin. This was only included in the Guest version of The Mabinogion. A recent version appears in Patrick Ford’s translation of the ‘native tales’ 1977.
The manuscripts which ensured the survival of the tales of The Mabinogion are mainly two, plus an early fragment.
~ Peniarth MS 6. Fragments with parts of the Second and Third Branches of the Mabinogi, and and Gereint ap Erbin. This is the oldest of the manuscript versions to survive. Conserved at the NLW (National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.
~ Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch; The White Book of Rhydderch. Also known as Llyfr Gwyn, the White Book, in Mabinogi studies. This is the earliest complete version of the the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, and it also holds the rest of The Mabinogion except for Breudwyt Rhonabwy; plus other prose tales, poetry, law, medicine and so on. Conserved at the NLW (National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.
~ Llyfr Coch Hergest; The Red Book of Hergest. Also known as Llyfr Coch, the Red Book, in Mabinogi studies. The complete set of The Mabinogion plus other prose tales, poetry, law, medicine and so on. Conserved at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, England.