The Mabinogion (Welsh pronunciation: [mabɪˈnɔɡjɔn] (listen)) are the earliest prose stories of the literature of Britain. The stories were compiled in Middle Welsh in the 12th–13th centuries from earlier oral traditions. The two main source manuscripts were created c. 1350–1410, as well as a few earlier fragments. These stories offer drama, philosophy, romance, tragedy, fantasy and humour, and were created by various narrators over time.
The title covers a collection of eleven prose stories of widely different types. There is a classic hero quest, "Culhwch and Olwen"; historic legend in "Lludd and Llefelys," complete with glimpses of a far off age; and other tales portray a very different King Arthur from the later popular versions. The highly sophisticated complexity of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi defies categorisation. The stories are so diverse that it has been argued that they are not even a true collection.
Scholars from the 18th century to the 1970s predominantly viewed the tales as fragmentary pre-Christian Celtic mythology, or in terms of international folklore. There are certainly traces of mythology, and folklore components, but since the 1970s an understanding of the integrity of the tales has developed, with investigation of their plot structures, characterisation, and language styles. They are now seen as a sophisticated narrative tradition, both oral and written, with ancestral construction from oral storytelling, and overlay from Anglo-French influences.
The first modern publications were English translations by William Owen Pughe of several tales in journals in 1795, 1821, and 1829. However it was Lady Charlotte Guest in 1838–45 who first published the full collection, bilingually in Welsh and English. She is often assumed to be responsible for the name "Mabinogion", but this was already in standard use since the 18th century. Indeed, as early as 1632 the lexicographer John Davies quotes a sentence from Math fab Mathonwy with the notation "Mabin." in his Antiquae linguae Britannicae ... dictionarium duplex, article "Hob". The later Guest translation of 1877 in one volume has been widely influential and remains actively read today. The most recent translation is a compact version by Sioned Davies. John Bollard has published a series of volumes with his own translation, with copious photography of the sites in the stories. The tales continue to inspire new fiction, dramatic retellings, visual artwork, and research.
The Two Kings (sculptor Ivor Roberts-Jones, 1984) near Harlech Castle, Wales. Bendigeidfran carries the body of his nephew Gwern.
The name first appears in 1795 in William Owen Pughe's translation of Pwyll in the journal Cambrian Register under the title "The Mabinogion, or Juvenile Amusements, being Ancient Welsh Romances." The name appears to have been current among Welsh scholars of the London-Welsh Societies and the regional eisteddfodau in Wales. It was inherited as the title by the first publisher of the complete collection, Lady Charlotte Guest. The form mabynnogyon occurs once at the end of the first of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi in one manuscript. It is now generally agreed that this one instance was a mediaeval scribal error which assumed 'mabinogion' was the plural of 'mabinogi,' which is already a Welsh plural occurring correctly at the end of the remaining three branches.
The word mabinogi itself is something of a puzzle, although clearly derived from the Welsh mab, which means "son, boy, young person".Eric P. Hamp of the earlier school traditions in mythology, found a suggestive connection with Maponos "the Divine Son", a Gaulish deity. Mabinogi properly applies only to the Four Branches, which is a tightly organised quartet very likely by one author, where the other seven are so very diverse (see below). Each of these four tales ends with the colophon "thus ends this branch of the Mabinogi" (in various spellings), hence the name.
Lady Charlotte Guest's work was helped by the earlier research and translation work of William Owen Pughe. The first part of Charlotte Guest's translation of the Mabinogion appeared in 1838, and it was completed in seven parts in 1845. A three-volume edition followed in 1846, and a revised edition in 1877. Her version of the Mabinogion remained standard until the 1948 translation by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, which has been widely praised for its combination of literal accuracy and elegant literary style. Several more, listed below, have since appeared.
Date of stories
Dates for the tales in the Mabinogion have been much debated, a range from 1050 to 1225 being proposed, with the consensus being that they are to be dated to the late 11th and 12th centuries. The stories of the Mabinogion appear in either or both of two medieval Welsh manuscripts, the White Book of Rhydderch or Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch, written circa 1350, and the Red Book of Hergest or Llyfr Goch Hergest, written about 1382–1410, though texts or fragments of some of the tales have been preserved in earlier 13th century and later manuscripts. Scholars agree that the tales are older than the existing manuscripts, but disagree over just how much older. It is clear that the different texts included in the Mabinogion originated at different times (though regardless their importance as records of early myth, legend, folklore, culture, and language of Wales remains immense).
Thus the tale of Culhwch ac Olwen, with its primitive warlord Arthur and his court based at Celliwig, is generally accepted to precede the Arthurian romances which show the influence of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (1134-6) and the romances of Chrétien de Troyes.. Those following R. S. Loomis would date it before 1100, and see it as providing important evidence for the development of Arthurian legend, with links to Nennius and early Welsh poetry..
By contrast, The Dream of Rhonabwy is set in the reign of the historical Madog ap Maredudd (1130-60), and must therefore either be contemporary with or postdate his reign, being perhaps early 13thC.
Much debate has been focused on the dating of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi. Sir Ifor Williams offered a date prior to 1100, based on linguistic and historical arguments, while later Saunders Lewis set forth a number of arguments for a date between 1170 and 1190; Thomas Charles-Edwards, in a paper published in 1970, discussed the strengths and weaknesses of both viewpoints, and while critical of the arguments of both scholars, noted that the language of the stories best fits the 11th century, (specifically 1050-1120), although much more work is needed. More recently, Patrick Sims-Williams argued for a plausible range of about 1060 to 1200, which seems to be the current scholarly consensus.
The collection represents the vast majority of prose found in medieval Welsh manuscripts which is not translated from other languages. Notable exceptions are the Areithiau Pros. None of the titles are contemporary with the earliest extant versions of the stories, but are on the whole modern ascriptions. The eleven tales are not adjacent in either of the main early manuscript sources, the White Book of Rhydderch (c. 1375) and the Red Book of Hergest (c. 1400), and indeed Breuddwyd Rhonabwy is absent from the White Book.
Four Branches of the Mabinogi
The Four Branches of the Mabinogi (Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi) are the most clearly mythological stories contained in the Mabinogion collection. Pryderi appears in all four, though not always as the central character.
The tales Culhwch and Olwen and The Dream of Rhonabwy have interested scholars because they preserve older traditions of King Arthur. The subject matter and the characters described events that happened long before medieval times. After the departure of the Roman Legions, the later half of the 5th century was a difficult time in Britain. King Arthur's twelve battles and defeat of invaders and raiders are said to have culminated in the Battle of Badon.
There is no consensus about the ultimate meaning of The Dream of Rhonabwy. On one hand it derides Madoc's time, which is critically compared to the illustrious Arthurian age. However, Arthur's time is portrayed as illogical and silly, leading to suggestions that this is a satire on both contemporary times and the myth of a heroic age.
Rhonabwy is the most literary of the medieval Welsh prose tales. It may have also been the last written. A colophon at the end declares that no one is able to recite the work in full without a book, the level of detail being too much for the memory to handle. The comment suggests it was not popular with storytellers, though this was more likely due to its position as a literary tale rather than a traditional one.
The tale The Dream of Macsen Wledig is a romanticised story about the Roman emperor Magnus Maximus, called Macsen Wledig in Welsh. Born in Hispania, he became a legionary commander in Britain, assembled a Celtic army and assumed the title of Emperor of the Western Roman Empire in 383. He was defeated in battle in 385 and beheaded at the direction of the Eastern Roman emperor.
The story of Taliesin is a later survival, not present in the Red or White Books, and is omitted from many of the more recent translations.
The tales called the Three Welsh Romances (Y Tair Rhamant) are Welsh-language versions of Arthurian tales that also appear in the work of Chrétien de Troyes. Critics have debated whether the Welsh Romances are based on Chrétien's poems or if they derive from a shared original. Though it is arguable that the surviving Romances might derive, directly or indirectly, from Chrétien, it is probable that he in turn based his tales on older, Celtic sources. The Welsh stories are not direct translations and include material not found in Chrétien's work.
Owain, neu Iarlles y Ffynnon (Owain, or the Lady of the Fountain)
Y Mabinogi is a film version, produced in 2003. It starts with live action among Welsh people in the modern world. They then 'fall into' the legend, which is shown through animated characters. It conflates some elements of the myths and omits others.
Lloyd Alexander's award-winning The Chronicles of Prydain, which are fantasies for younger readers, are loosely based on Welsh legends found in the Mabinogion. Specific elements incorporated within Alexander's books include the Cauldron of the Undead, as well as adapted versions of important figures in the Mabinogion such as Prince Gwydion and Arawn, Lord of the Dead.
Alan Garner's novel The Owl Service (Collins, 1967; first US edition Henry Z. Walck, 1968) alludes to the mythical Blodeuwedd featured in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. In Garner's tale three teenagers find themselves re-enacting the story. They awaken the legend by finding a set of dinner plates (a "dinner service") with an owl pattern, which gives the novel its title.
J. R. R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion was influenced by the Mabinogion. Tom Shippey and David Day have pointed out similarities between Tolkien's story of Beren and Lúthien and tale of Culhwch and Olwen. In both The Silmarillion and the Mabinogion the male heroes make rash promises after having been stricken by the beauty of non-mortal maidens; both enlist the aid of great kings, Arthur and Finrod; both show rings that prove their identities; both are set impossible tasks that include, directly or indirectly, the hunting and killing of ferocious beasts (the wild boars, Twrch Trwyth and Ysgithrywyn, and the wolf Carcharoth) with the help of a supernatural hound (Cafall and Huan). Both maidens possess such beauty that flowers grow beneath their feet when they come to meet the heroes for the first time, as if they were living embodiments of spring. The Mabinogion itself was part of the Red Book of Hergest, which Tolkien's fictional Red Book of Westmarch imitates. The name Silmarillion is also meant to reflect the name Mabinogion.
J. R. R. Tolkien also worked on a translation of Pwyll Prince of Dyfed. His translation is held at the Bodleian Library.
^Davies, Sioned. 1998. "Written Text as Performance: The Implications for Middle Welsh Prose Narratives" in Literacy in Medieval Celtic Societies, 133–48
^Davies, Sioned. 2005. "'He Was the Best Teller of Tales in the World': Performing Medieval Welsh Narrative." In Performing Medieval Narrative, 15–26. Cambridge: Brewer.
^1. Pughe, William Owen. 1795. "The Mabinogion, or Juvenile Amusements, Being Ancient Welsh Romances." Cambrian Register, 177–87. 2. Pughe, William Owen. 1821. "The Tale of Pwyll." Cambro-Briton Journal 2 (18): 271–75. 3. Pughe, William Owen. 1829. "The Mabinogi: Or, the Romance of Math Ab Mathonwy." The Cambrian Quarterly Magazine and Celtic Repository 1: 170–79.
^Davies, Sioned. 2007. The Mabinogion. Oxford: OUP.
^1. Bollard, John Kenneth. 2006. Legend and Landscape of Wales: The Mabinogi. Llandysul, Wales: Gomer Press. 2. Bollard, John Kenneth. 2007. Companion Tales to The Mabinogi. Llandysul, Wales: Gomer Press. 3. Bollard, John Kenneth. 2010. Tales of Arthur: Legend and Landscape of Wales. Llandysul, Wales: Gomer Press. Photography by Anthony Griffiths.
^For example the Seren series 2009–2014; but the earliest reinterpretations were by Evangeline Walton starting in 1936.
^Stephens, Meic, ed. (1986). The Oxford Companion to the Literature of Wales. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 306, 326. ISBN 0-19-211586-3.
^A Breeze, The Origins of the Four Branches of the Mabinogion (Leominster 2009) p. 72 and p. 137
^I Ousby ed, The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English (Cambridge 1995) p. 579
^S Davies transl, The Mabinogion (Oxford 2007) p. xxiii and p. 279
^H Mustard trans. Parzival (New York 1961) p. xxxi and p. xlii
^S Davies transl, The Mabinogion (Oxford 2007) p. xxi
^A Breeze, The Origins of the Four Branches of the Mabinogion (Leominster 2009) p. 69
^A Breeze, The Origins of the Four Branches of the Mabinogion (Leominster 2009) p. 72
^Roberts, Brynley F. (1991). "The Dream of Rhonabwy." In Lacy, Norris J., The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, p. 120–121. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.
^Lloyd-Morgan, Ceridwen. (1991). "'Breuddwyd Rhonabwy' and Later Arthurian Literature." In Bromwich, Rachel, et al., "The Arthur of the Welsh", p. 183. Cardiff: University of Wales. ISBN 0-7083-1107-5.
^John Brebner describes The Mabinogion as "indispensable for understanding Powys's later novels", by which he means Owen Glendower and Porius (fn, p. 191).
^"John Cowper Powys: 'Figure of the Marches'", in his Imagining Wales (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2001), p. 106.
^John Cowper Powys, "The Characters of the Book", Porius, p. 18.
^Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle Earth, pp. 193–194: "The hunting of the great wolf recalls the chase of the boar Twrch Trwyth in the Welsh Mabinogion, while the motif of 'the hand in the wolf's mouth' is one of the most famous parts of the Prose Edda, told of Fenris Wolf and the god Tyr; Huan recalls several faithful hounds of legend, Garm, Gelert, Cafall."
^Day 2002, p. 82. "In the Celtic tradition, when these radiant beings – these 'ladies in white' – take on mortal heroes as lovers, there are always obstacles to overcome. These obstacles usually take the form of an almost impossible quest. This is most clearly comparable to Tolkien in the Welsh legend of the wooing of Olwyn. Olwyn was the most beautiful woman of her age; her eyes shone with light, and her skin was white as snow. Olwyn's name means 'she of the white track', so bestowed because four white trefoils sprang up with her every step on the forest floor, and the winning of her hand required the near-impossible gathering of the 'Treasures of Britain'".
"In Tolkien, we have two almost identical 'ladies in white': Lúthien in The Silmarillion, and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings".
^Day 2002, p. 79. "Besides those elements already mentioned, Celtic mythology has played a fundamental part in the shaping of Tolkien's world. When we learn that the most important source of Welsh Celtic lore was preserved in the fourteenth-century Red Book of Hergest, we realize that Tolkien is making a small scholarly joke in naming his 'source' of Elf-lore the Red Book of Westmarch"
^Hooker 2002, pp. 176–177, "The Feigned-manuscript Topos": "The 1849 translation of The Red Book of Hergest by Lady Charlotte Guest (1812–1895), which is more widely known as The Mabinogion, is likewise of undoubted authenticity (...) It is now housed in the library at Jesus College, Oxford. Tolkien's well-known love of Welsh suggests that he would have likewise been well-acquainted with the source of Lady Guest's translation. For the Tolkiennymist, the coincidence of the names of the sources of Lady Charlotte Guest's and Tolkien's translations is striking: The Red Book of Hergest and The Red Book of Westmarch. Tolkien wanted to write (translate) a mythology for England, and Lady Charlotte Guest's work can easily be said to be a 'mythology for Wales.' The implication of this coincidence is intriguing".
^Carl Phelpstead, Tolkien and Wales: Language, Literature and Identity, pp60
Translations and retellings
Bollard, John K. (translator), and Anthony Griffiths (photographer). Tales of Arthur: Legend and Landscape of Wales. Gomer Press, Llandysul, 2010. ISBN 978-1-84851-112-5. (Contains "The History of Peredur or The Fortress of Wonders", "The Tale of the Countess of the Spring", and "The History of Geraint son of Erbin", with textual notes.)
Bollard, John K. (translator), and Anthony Griffiths (photographer). Companion Tales to The Mabinogi: Legend and Landscape of Wales. Gomer Press, Llandysul, 2007. ISBN 1-84323-825-X. (Contains "How Culhwch Got Olwen", "The Dream of Maxen Wledig", "The Story of Lludd and Llefelys", and "The Dream of Rhonabwy", with textual notes.)
Bollard, John K. (translator), and Anthony Griffiths (photographer). The Mabinogi: Legend and Landscape of Wales. Gomer Press, Llandysul, 2006. ISBN 1-84323-348-7. (Contains the Four Branches, with textual notes.)
Davies, Sioned. The Mabinogion. Oxford World's Classics, 2007. ISBN 1-4068-0509-2. (Omits "Taliesin". Has extensive notes.)
Ellis, T. P., and John Lloyd. The Mabinogion: a New Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1929. (Omits "Taliesin"; only English translation to list manuscript variants.)
Ford, Patrick K. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977. ISBN 0-520-03414-7. (Includes "Taliesin" but omits "The Dream of Rhonabwy", "The Dream of Macsen Wledig" and the three Arthurian romances.)
Gantz, Jeffrey. Trans. The Mabinogion. London and New York: Penguin Books, 1976. ISBN 0-14-044322-3. (Omits "Taliesin".)
Guest, Lady Charlotte. The Mabinogion. Dover Publications, 1997. ISBN 0-486-29541-9. (Guest omits passages which only a Victorian would find at all risqué. This particular edition omits all Guest's notes.)
Jones, Gwyn and Jones, Thomas. The Mabinogion. Golden Cockerel Press, 1948. (Omits "Taliesin".)
Everyman's Library edition, 1949; revised in 1989, 1991.
Jones, George (Ed), 1993 edition, Everyman S, ISBN 0-460-87297-4.
2001 Edition, (Preface by John Updike), ISBN 0-375-41175-5.
Knill, Stanley. The Mabinogion Brought To Life. Capel-y-ffin Publishing, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4895-1528-5. (Omits Taliesin. A retelling with General Explanatory Notes.) Presented as prose but comprising 10,000+ lines of hidden decasyllabic verse.
Welsh text and editions
Branwen Uerch Lyr. Ed. Derick S. Thomson. Medieval and Modern Welsh Series Vol. II. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1976. ISBN 1-85500-059-8
Sims-Williams, Patrick. "The Submission of Irish Kings in Fact and Fiction: Henry II, Bendigeidfran, and the dating of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi", Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, 22 (Winter 1991): 31–61.
Sullivan, C. W. III (editor). The Mabinogi, A Books of Essays. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1996. ISBN 0-8153-1482-5
The Guest translation can be found with all original notes and illustrations at:
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