Sioned Davies is Chair of Welsh at Cardiff University. Her special interest is the interplay between literacy and the oral tradition, together with the performance aspects of medieval Welsh narrative. Her publications include Crefft y Cyfarwydd, a study of narrative techniques in the Mabinogion, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, and a co-edited volume, The Horse in Celtic Culture: Medieval Welsh Perspectives. Here she has written an article for us to introduce The Mabinogion.
I have always loved listening to stories, ever since the monthly family trips to West Wales to visit elderly aunts in my father’s beloved home village of Pennal. The journey would be punctuated by local tales as certain features in the landscape came into view – the hill of Moel Bentyrch whose dragon was tricked into falling on scythes, a red rag tied around each one; the mountains of Mawddwy, home of the Gwylliaid Cochion, the red-haired bandits who terrorised the local people and who murdered Baron Lewis ap Owen, the Sheriff of Meirionnydd. Even now I can’t pass these places without recalling the tales connected with them. And then, on ‘snow-days’, when very few teachers could make the icy journey to school, my headmaster father would keep 350 young children spellbound in the school hall, telling them tales of Bendigeidfran, Efnysien, Pwyll, Culhwch – tales of The Mabinogion. It was only later, in University, that I learned to appreciate these stories in their original medieval Welsh guise, and began to understand why they were pieces to be performed.
So what exactly is The Mabinogion? It’s a collective name given to eleven medieval Welsh tales found mainly in two manuscripts – the White Book of Rhydderch (dated c. 1350), and the Red Book of Hergest (dated sometime between 1382 and c.1410). The term is probably a scribal error for mabinogi, derived from the Welsh word mab meaning ‘son, boy’; the general consensus is that its original meaning was ‘youth’ or ‘story of youth’, and that finally it meant no more than ‘tale’ or ‘story’. The title was popularised in the nineteenth century when Lady Charlotte Guest translated the tales into English, so placing them on an European stage. Despite many common themes, the tales were never conceived as an organic group, and are certainly not the work of a single author. Moreover, unlike the poetry of the period, the ‘authors’ of our tales are anonymous, suggesting that there was no sense of ‘ownership’ and that the texts were viewed as part of the collective memory. Their roots lie in oral tradition, and as such they reflect a collaboration between the oral and literary cultures, giving us an intriguing insight into the world of the medieval storyteller, the cyfarwydd. Performance features such as episodic structure, repetition, verbal formulae,and dialogue are an integral part of their fabric, partly because the ‘authors’ inherited pre-literary modes of narrating, and partly because in a culture where very few could read and write, tales and poems would be performed before a listening audience; even when a text was committed to parchment, one can assume that the parchment would become ‘interactive’ as a general lack of literacy demanded public readings.
The dating and chronology of the tales are problematic – all we can tentatively say at present is that they were probably written down sometime during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, against a background which saw the Welsh struggling to retain their independence in the face of the Anglo-Norman conquest. Although Wales had not developed into a single kingship, it certainly was developing a shared sense of the past, and pride in a common descent from the Britons. The basic concept of medieval Welsh historiography was that the Welsh were the rightful heirs to the sovereignty of Britain, symbolised by the crown of London; despite invasions by the Romans and the Picts, and despite losing the crown to the Saxons, the Welsh would eventually overcome and a golden age of British rule would be restored.
This theme of the loss of Britain is attested in the tale of the two brothers Lludd and Llefelys which tells of the three gormes (‘plagues’) that threaten the Island of Britain. The Dream of Maxen, on the other hand, tells of the historical Magnus Maximus, proclaimed emperor by his troops in Britain in AD 383; he depletes Britain of her military resources, so leaving the Island at the mercy of foreign invaders and marking the beginning of Wales as a nation according to certain interpretations. Arthur, who came to play a leading role in the development of Welsh identity, is a central figure in five of the Mabinogion tales. The author of Rhonabwy’s Dream has a cynical view of national leaders and kingship as Arthur himself and all his trappings are mocked. The author of How Culhwch won Olwen, on the other hand, sees Arthur as the model of an over-king, holding court in Gelli Wig in Cornwall and heading a band of the strangest warriors ever – men such as Canhastyr Hundred-Hands and Gwiawn Cat-Eye – who, together with Arthur, ensure that Culhwch overcomes his stepmother’s curse and marries Olwen, daughter of Ysbaddaden Chief Giant. In the tales of Peredur son of Efrog, Geraint son of Erbin, and The Lady of the Well, Arthur’s court is relocated at Caerllion on Usk, and Arthur’s role is similar to that found in the continental romances – a shadowy, fairly passive figure, who leaves adventure and danger to his knights. There are no clear geographical or political boundaries to his kingdom, and the action takes place in a somewhat unreal, daydream-like world. These are three hybrid texts, typical of a post-colonial world.
With the Four Branches of the Mabinogi we are in a familiar geographical landscape and a society apparently pre-dating any Norman influence. Indeed, the action is located in a pre-Christian Wales, where the main protagonists are mythological figures. Even though it is doubtful whether their significance was understood by a medieval audience, the mythological themes make for fascinating stories: journeys to an otherworld paradise where time stands still and where mortals do not age; the cauldron of rebirth which revives dead warriors but takes away their speech; shape-shifting where an unfaithful wife is transformed into an owl. But these are more than mere tales of magic and suspense. All the tales of the Mabinogion provided their audience with ethical dilemmas concerning moral, political and legal issues. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Four Branches of the Mabinogi – it is they that convey most effectively the appropriate moral behaviour that is essential for a society to survive. In the first three branches, the nature of insult, compensation, and friendship are explored, and acts of revenge shown to be totally destructive – legal settlement and hard bargaining are to be preferred. In the Fourth Branch, however, further considerations are raised. Math, lord of Gwynedd, is not only insulted, but also dishonoured – his virgin foot-holder is raped, and his dignity as a person is attacked. The offenders, his own nephews Gwydion and Gilfaethwy, are transformed into animals – male and female – and are shamed by having offspring from one another. However, once their punishment is complete, Math forgives them in the spirit of reconciliation. Throughout the Four Branches, therefore, the author conveys a scale of values which he commends to contemporary society, doing so by implication rather than by any direct commentary. The listeners are left to draw their own conclusions, and to realise that the image of a man alone, at the end of the Fourth Branch, with no wife and no heirs, does not make for a promising future.
The Mabinogion is rightly regarded as a classic. It is particularly relevant that there is an increasing interest in the tales amid today’s storytelling community. We know very little as to how they would have been performed – whether there would have been musical accompaniment, for example. Adverse Camber’s fascinating interpretation of the Fourth Branch gives us an insight into that medieval world, and shows how the written text can come alive in a truly theatrical experience.
For an English translation of the tales together with an introduction and notes, see Sioned Davies, The Mabinogion (Oxford University Press, 2007).