Way Beyond Retro – The Mabinogion

Welcome to the first outing of my semi-regular feature Way Beyond Retro. In this feature I’ll be reading the non-speculative books still in my TBR-pile. You can find more details on Way Beyond Retro in this introduction. This week’s book is a leftover from my university days. In my third year I took a course entitled Arthur of Britain. For this course I had to read the last tale of The Mabinogion, Gereint and Enid. Due to course load I never got around to reading the other tales.

‘On the bank of the river he saw a tall tree: from roots to crown one half was aflame and the other green with leaves.’

Nothing illustrates the strange nature of these Welsh stories better than this vertically halved tree. The combination of fact and fantasy, of myth, history and folklore in The Mabinogion conjures up a magical enchanted world, which is none the less firmly rooted in the forests, hills and valleys of ancient Wales. The eleven stories were composed orally over a span of centuries, before being written down in the thirteenth century. They make up, in their virtuosity and panache, one of the great Welsh epics. 

The Welsh tales in The Mabinogion have been preserved in two manuscripts; the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest. Set down around 1325 AD, the stories are transcriptions of originally orally composed tales. The tales themselves draw from Celtic myth, history and Arthurian legend. They derive their name from the first four tales which are called the Four Branches of the Mabinogi. These four can be considered a clear group of connected tales, just as the last three are grouped as the Welsh Romances, due to their connection to the Arthurian legend.

The Mabinigion is not the easiest read, mainly because of the oral origins I surmise. There are a lot of narrative jumps and formulaic phrases, similar to the kind found in Homer’s Illiad and Odysee. They also presume a familiarity with other stories, since there are fleeting references to these. There were two things that drove me absolutely crazy. One was the interminable ennumerations of things, with the listing of those of Arthur’s men who support Culhwch in his quest to win Olwen being the worst offender running up to eight pages! Eight pages, listing nothing but names. Granted there’s a lot of comedy there, as the storyteller has a lot of fun slipping in puns and weird names, but they just got lost in the mass of names. Add to this the constantly having to think about how to pronounce the Welsh names and these eight pages seemed like eighty to me. The second thing that drove me crazy was things just happening out of the blue and people accepting it without blinking. Take the following passage:

Manawydan and Rhiannon sat together and began to talk; gradually his thoughts and desires grew tender towards her, and it pleased him that he had never seen a lovelier or more beautiful woman. ‘Pryderi, I accept your offer,’ he said, whereupon Rhiannon asked, ‘What offer was that?’ Pryderi answered. ‘Lady, I have given you as wife to Manawydan son of Llyr.”I accept that gladly,’ she said. ‘So do I,’ said Manawydan, ‘and God reward the man who gives me such true friendship.’ Before the feast ended, then, the couple slept together. (Manawydan son of Llyr)

Now this most probably is a reflection of a woman’s life and position in medieval Wales, but it’s not just the wife-giving, there are other instances as well, where people blythely accept whatever their ruler ordains for them and my 21st century sensibilities had a hard time stepping past that. The pacing was also peculiar, again due to the oral origin of the stories I think. We’d have a bunch of scenes and then boom in one sentence a whole year had gone by. This makes sense if you’re telling a story, you don’t want to spend hours telling your audience what John and Jane Doe did, travelling the countryside for a year, but for an audience used to written storytelling “Return in a year and a day.’ At the end of the year…” is a bit of a leap.

What is interesting to see though, is how many classic story elements can already be found in these tales. The classic triangular relationship, in the vein of Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere (though surprisingly not that one), the Fisher King figures, the fact that everything happens in threes or multiples of three and the story told as a dream among them. These are truly as old as time, or at least as old as storytelling.

So where’s the speculative in all this? Well apart from the obvious (myth, magic and  Arthuriana etc.) I can’t really say. But then maybe in the case of the Mabinogion, it isn’t so much the text itself that’s important. What’s fantastical today, was normal in stories then. Maybe what makes these stories important to the speculative is the tradition they belong to and the influence this has had on the development of the fantasy genre.

The Mabinogion are part of the rich tapestry woven from Celtic myth and history and as such should be required reading for any student of early English literature or lover of Arthuriana. While not an easy read, it’s definitely well worth the effort.