If you are Welsh, you can ignore this week’s recommendation because you already know how wonderful `The Mabinogion’ is. If you aren’t, and are wondering `what the heck is a mabinogion?’ , don’t worry, nobody is quite sure what the word means. `The Mabinogion’ was the name given to a collection of ancient Welsh stories by mother of ten, Lady Charlotte Guest, who published the first English translation in 1849. These eleven stories were found in two splendidly titled medieval manuscripts – The White Book of Rhydderch and The Red Book of Hergest. They consist of four interconnected tales known as `the Four Branches of the Mabinogi’ which feature characters from Celtic myth in a medieval setting, one long rumbustious  quest story in which King Arthur helps a young man to win a giant’s daughter, two short legends about early rulers, three adventures featuring heroes of Arthur’s court and their complicated love lives, and `The Dream of Rhonabwy’ an enigmatic vision of a colourful past contrasted with the miserable present.

The stories vary in date. Some  were probably recited by  generations of bards, changing along the way but the `Four Branches’ seem to be the work of a single author, who assembled half-understood fragments of myth  into a strange but compelling narrative.  As a student, I had to study the `Four Branches’ in the original Welsh. English-language versions can never match the mellifluous beauty of Welsh but they still have a lot to offer the lover of Fantasy. A scholarly translation of `The Mabinogion’ by Gwyn and Thomas Jones is still around but recent translations by Jeffrey Gantz (Penguin Classics) or Sioned Davies (Oxford World Classics) are more reader-friendly. All three are available as paperbacks or ebooks, as is Lady Guest’s edition, which contains an extra tale about a series of magical transformations which lead to the birth of the great poet Taliesin.

I know there are things which scare people off trying `The Mabinogion’.  It’s old and full of  hard to pronounce Welsh names, lengthy lists and obscure bits of poetry. The characters’ motives can be hard to understand and several of the heroes are unsympathetic by modern standards. There are unexplained incidents and baffling inconsistencies in some of the story-lines. Plus, if you start reading the scholarly footnotes you could lose your mind. But unless you bravely plunge in, you won’t discover how funny,  moving and magical these stories can be. Nor will you find out how to make a pair of fighting dragons drunk, what is inside `the hamper of Gwyddno Long Shanks’,  or  how the game of `Badger in the Bag’ was invented. Celtic bards like to group people, things and events into threes, such as `The Three Noble Youths Who Broke Their Hearts’, `The Three Evil Blows, `The Three Golden Shoe-makers’ and `The Three Happy Concealments’. So, here are `The Three Good Reasons For Reading The Mabinogion’.

One -`The Mabinogion’ is full of wonders

In `The Mabinogion’ the `Island of the Mighty’ is shown to be  a place where  anything might happen. A chieftain can meet the ruler of the underworld in a forest and change places with him, a baby can be stolen by a giant claw, a severed head can stay alive for 87 years, princes can be transformed into wild beasts, a woman can be made out of flowers to become a reluctant bride, court ladies can be turned into mice, a noble white lion can fight a cannibal, and a hideous giant’s daughter can be so beautiful that flowers spring up where she walks. Some of the wonders remain mysterious. We never do find out why the magician-king Math needs a virgin to hold his feet, why Dylan can swim like a fish, why the magical birds of Rhiannon sing to a group of fugitives, why the wise Eagle of Gwernabwy is the oldest creature in the world, or why two men fight every May Day until the end of time for `the most majestic girl in Britain’. The existing stories only give glimpses of a whole magical world of Welsh myth.

Two – `The Mabinogion’ has memorable characters

If you’re interested in King Arthur, you’ll find several versions of him in these stories. `The Tale of How Kilwch won Olwen’ is one of Arthur’s very first appearances in literature. In it, Arthur is the active leader of a band of ferocious warriors. He takes part in adventures and fights but he doesn’t always win when up against opponents like a magical boar. During the later stories,  Arthur is mainly a gracious king who stays at court while his knights go out and have the adventures, but in `The Dream of Rhonabwy’ he is shown callously  ignoring a bloody battle between ravens and men while he plays three games of chess. Take your choice. Few of Arthur’s knights are shown as perfect heroes – Kei can hold his breath for nine days and nights but his quick temper is always getting him into trouble, Owein is consistently out-fought by the white lion who insists on helping him and Gereint is ridiculously jealous and suspicious of his innocent wife. The most memorable of the villains faced by Arthur and his men is the loathsome but lively Chief Giant Ysbaddaden who needs forks to prop up his eye-lids and insists on a ridiculous list of wedding gifts, including the blood of the Black Hag to detangle his beard. In the `Four Branches’ you’ll meet the clever enchanter Gwydion who is a deceitful rapist but a devoted father, and a series of notable women, such as sharp-tongued Rhiannon who bears an unjust punishment with courage and dignity, gentle generous Branwen who dies of a broken heart and beautiful Blodeuwedd, the woman of flowers who refuses to accept her destiny.

`The Mabinogion’  has inspired modern Fantasy writers.

The loose ends and odd gaps in `The Mabingion’  have proved an invitation to modern authors to rewrite the tales.  Then there are  numerous briefly mentioned characters, objects and events to stimulate the imagination. For example, Giant Ysbaddaden sets Arthur and his men 39 extraordinary tasks, barely half of which are completed during the story and the list of heroes and heroines at Arthur’s court includes people with intriguing names like Cadellin Silver-Brow, Gwiawn Cat Eye, Essylt Slender-Neck  and Gilla Stag-shank, Chief Leaper of Ireland. Evangeline Walton, Alan Garner and Lloyd Alexander have each written several books based on stories or characters from `The Mabinogion’ and many other authors have woven elements of `The Mabinogion’ into their novels. Now there is a whole series of `New Stories from the Mabinogion’ (published by Seren)  – short novels that use the ancient plots in modern settings. Your appreciation of any of these works will be deepened by reading the original stories.

Actually there is a fourth good reason for reading `The Mabinogion’ – the pithy dialogue and picturesque turns of phrase – but I’ll leave you to discover those by yourselves. Until next week….

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

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