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Mabinogion

From Academic Kids

The Mabinogion is a collection of prose stories from medieval Welsh manuscripts. They are partly based on early medieval historical events, but may hark back to older iron age traditions.

Contents

Name

Its name comes from a misunderstanding made by the Mabinogion's first English translator, Lady Charlotte Guest: she found in one story the Welsh word mabynogyon and assumed it was the plural form of the Welsh mabinogi. The word mabinogi itself is something of a puzzle, although it is clearly related to the Welsh mab or "son, boy". Professor Eric P. Hamp suggests that mabinogi derives from the name of the Celtic deity Maponos, and refers to the materials pertaining to the god Maponos.

Date

The stories of the Mabinogion appear in two Medieval Welsh manuscripts, the White book of Rhydderch (Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch) written ca.1350, and the Red Book of Hergest (Llyfr Coch Hergest) written about 1382-1410, although fragments of these tales have been preserved in earlier thirteenth century manuscripts. Scholars agree that the tales are older than the existing manuscripts, but disagree over just how much older. 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; T.M. Charles-Edwards, in a paper delivered to the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, discussed the strengths and weaknesses of both viewpoints, and while critical of the arguments of both scholars, notes that the language of the stories best fits the period between 1000 and 1100, although much more work is needed.

The question of the date of the Mabinogion is important because if it can be shown to have been written before Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britaniae, then the value of these stories as evidence for the early folklore and culture of Wales is that much stronger.

The stories

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi

The most mythological stories contained in the Mabinogion collection are collectively titled The Four Branches of the Mabinogi.

Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed

The first branch tells of how Pwyll, the prince of Dyfed, exchanges places for a year with Arawn, the ruler of Annwn (the underworld), defeats Arawn's enemy Hafgan, and on his return encounters Rhiannon, a beautiful maiden whose horse cannot be caught up with. He manages to win her hand at the expense of Gwawl, to whom she is betrothed, and she bears him a son, but the child disappears soon after his birth. Rhiannon is accused of killing him and forced to carry guests on her back as punishment. The child has been taken by a monster, and is rescued by Teyrnon and his wife, who bring him up as their own, calling him Gwri of the Golden hair, until his resemblance to Pwyll becomes apparent. They return him to his real parents, Rhiannon is released from her punishment, and the boy is renamed Pryderi.

Branwen, Daughter of Llyr

In the second branch, Branwen, sister of Bendigeidfran (aka Bran the Blessed), king of Britain, is given in marriage to Matholwch, king of Ireland. Branwen's half-brother Efnisien insults Matholwch by mutilating his horses, but Bendigeidfran gives him new horses and treasure, including a magical cauldron which can restore the dead to life, in compensation. Matholwch and Branwen have a son, Gwern, but Matholwch proceeds to mistreat Branwen, beating her and making her a drudge. Branwen trains a starling to take a message to Bendigeidfran, who goes to war against Matholwch. His army crosses the Irish Sea in ships, but Bendigeidfran is so huge he wades across. The Irish offer to make peace, and build a house big enough to entertain Benedigeidfran, but inside they hang a hundred bags, telling Efnisien they contain flour, when in fact they conceal armed warriors. Efnisien kills the warriors by squeezing the bags. Later, at the feast, Efnisien throws Gwern on the fire and fighting breaks out. Seeing that the Irish are using the cauldron to revive their dead, Efnisien hides among the corpses and destroys the cauldron, although the effort costs him his life. Only seven men, all Welsh, survive the battle, including Pryderi, Manawyddan and Bendigeidfran, who is mortally wounded by a poisoned spear. Bendigeidfran asks his companions to cut off his head and take it back to Britain. Branwen dies of grief on returning home. Five pregnant women survive to repopulate Ireland.

Manawyddan, son of Llyr

Pryderi and Manawyddan return to Dyfed, where Pryderi marries Cigfa and Manawyddan marries Rhiannon. However a mist decends on the land, leaving it empty and desolate. The four support themselves by hunting at first, then move to England where they make a living making saddles, shields and shoes of such quality that the local craftsmen cannot compete, and drive them from town to town. Eventually they return to Dyfed and become hunters again. While hunting, a white boar leads them to a mysterious castle. Pryderi, against Manawyddan's advice, goes inside, but does not return. Rhiannon goes to investigate and finds him clinging to a bowl, unable to speak. The same fate befalls her, and the castle disappears. Manawyddan and Cigfa return to England as shoemakers, but once again the locals drive them out and they return to Dyfed. They sow three fields of wheat, but the first field is destroyed before it can be harvested. The next night the second field is destroyed. Manawyddan keeps watch over the third field, and when he sees it destroyed by mice he catches their leader and decides to hang it. A scholar, a priest and a bishop in turn offer him gifts if he will spare the mouse, but he refuses. When asked what he wants in return for the mouse's life, he demands the release of Pryderi and Rhiannon and the lifting of the enchantment over Dyfed. The bishop agrees, because the mouse is in fact his wife. He has been waging magical war against Dyfed because he is a friend of Gwawl, whom Pwyll, Pryderi's father humiliated.

Math, son of Mathonwy

While Pryderi rules Dyfed in south Wales, Gwynedd in north Wales is ruled by Math, son of Mathonwy. His feet must be held by a virgin, except while he is at war. Math's nephew Gilfaethwy is in love with Goewin, his current footholder, and Gilfaethwy's brother Gwydion tricks Math into going to war against Pryderi so Gilfaethwy can have access to her. Gwydion kills Pryderi in single combat, and Gilfaethwy rapes Goewin. Math marries Goewin to save her from disgrace, and banishes Gwydion and Gilfaethwy, transforming them into a breeding pair of deer, then pigs, then wolves. After three years they are restored to human form and return.

Math needs a new foot-holder, and Gwydion suggests his sister, Arianrhod, but when Math magically tests her virginity, she gives birth to two sons. One, Dylan, immediately takes to the sea. The other child is raised by Gwydion, but Arianrhod tells him he will never have a name or arms unless she gives them to him, and refuses to do so. But Gwydion tricks her into naming him Llew Llaw Gyffes and giving him arms. She then tells him he will never have a wife of any race living on earth, so Gwydion and Math make him a wife from flowers, called Blodeuwedd. But Blodeuwedd falls in love with a hunter caled Gronw Pebyr, and they plot to kill Llew. Blodeuwedd tricks Llew into revealing the means by which he can be killed, but when Gronw attempts to do the deed, Llew escapes, transformed into an eagle.

Gwydion finds Llew and transforms him back into human form, and turns Blodeuwedd into an owl. Gronw offers to compensate Llew, but Llew insists on returning the blow that was struck against him. He kills Gronw with his spear, which is thrown so hard it pierces him through the stone he is hiding behind.

The Native Tales

Also included in Lady Guest's compilation are five stories from Welsh tradition and legend:

  • The Dream of Macsen Wledig
  • Lludd and Llefelys
  • Culhwch and Olwen
  • The Dream of Rhonabwy
  • Taliesin

The tales Culhwch and Olwen and The Dream of Rhonabwy have interested scholars because they preserve older traditions of King Arthur. The tale The Dream of Macsen Wledig is a romanticized story about the Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus. The story of Taliesin is a later piece, not included in the Red or White Books, which more recent translations omit.

The Romances

Three tales are Welsh versions of Arthurian Romances that also appear in the work of Chrétien de Troyes. While nineteenth century critics believed that these works were based on Chretien's own poems, some more recent critics have leaned towards believing that these two collections are based independently on a common ancestor.

  • The Lady of the Fountain
  • Peredur, son of Efrawg
  • Gereint, son of Erbin

Bibliography

Translations

  • Ford, Patrick K. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977. ISBN 0520034147 (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 0140443223. (Omits "Taliesin")
  • Guest, Lady Charlotte. The Mabinogion. Dover Publications, 1997. ISBN 0486295419 (Guest omits passages which only a Victorian would find at all risqué. This particular edition omits all Guest's notes.)
  • Jones, Gwyn and Thomas Jones. The Mabinogion. Everyman's Library, 1949; revised in 1989, 1991. ISBN 0460872974 (Omits "Taliesin")

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 1855000598
  • Culhwch and Olwen: An Edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale. Rachel, Bromwich and D. Simon Evans. Eds. and trans. Aberystwyth: University of Wales, 1988; Second edition, 1992.
  • Cyfranc Lludd a Llefelys. Ed. Brynley F. Roberts. Medieval and Modern Welsh Series Vol. VII. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1975.
  • Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch. Ed. J. Gwenogvryn Evans. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1973.
  • Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi. Ed. Ifor Williams. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1951. ISBN 0708314074
  • Pwyll Pendeuic Dyuet. Ed. R. L. Thomson. Medieval and Modern Welsh Series Vol. I. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1986. ISBN 1855000512

Secondary sources

  • Charles-Edwards, T.M. "The Date of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi" Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion (1970): 263-298.
  • Ford, Patrick K. "Prolegomena to a Reading of the Mabinogi: 'Pwyll' and 'Manawydan.'" Studia Celtica, 16/17 (1981-82): 110-25.
  • Ford, Patrick K. "Branwen: A Study of the Celtic Affinities," Studia Celtica 22/23 (1987/1988): 29-35.
  • Hamp, Eric P. "Mabinogi." Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion (1974-1975): 243-249.
  • Sullivan, C. W. III (editor). The Mabinogi, A Books of Essays. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1996. ISBN 0815314825

External links

There is a new, extensively annotated translation of the four branches of the Mabinogi proper by Will Parker at

The Guest translation can be found with all original notes and illustrations at:

Versions without the notes, presumably mostly from the Project Gutenberg edition, can be found on numerous sites, including:

de:Mabinogion lb:Mabinogion sv:Mabinogion

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