The Mabinogion: mythology? Heroic tales? Romance? Mess?

The Welsh collection of ancient tales called The Mabinogion is an intriguingly messy collection of tales that run the gamut from myth to romance with a disregard for continuity…

The Mabinogion (image courtesy Goodreads)

The last of the “folk literature” I’ve completed for this year’s reading list isn’t an epic at all.  The Mabinogion is a collection of Welsh tales that offer insights into Celtic mythology, Welsh national legend, and Arthurian romance. It’s the earliest prose collection in English literature. The tales themselves are somewhat older, several of them coming from the oral tradition. There’s some controversy about the collection. One leading medieval literature scholar even argues that The Mabinogion isn’t really meant to be a collection at all. Given what is known about the source works, he has a point. The Mabinogion links mythological tales with heroic tales with Arthurian romances without any other connection than that they’re all Welsh medieval works. That may be enough to satisfy scholarly readers, but it would make the work a challenge for others, even serious readers, without some guidance. So, as I have mentioned before, if you find this work intriguing and decide to read it, choose a good critical edition and read the scholarly information.

The tales divide into three groups. “The Mabinogi” is a set of four tales, one that offers a combination of mythology and folklore. There are two important characters to be noted: the witch Rhiannon (a name know to readers, perhaps, from the Fleetwood Mac song) and Pryderi, a sort of prototype for the important character who shows up in later tales, Arthur of Britain.

The second group is called  “Native Tales.” These are heroic tales and anticipate the last group which are more or less Arthurian romances. The heroes of these tales overcome magical plagues, giants, and beasts such as wild boars and, de rigeur, dragons. The most interesting of these is “Culhwch and Olwen,” the story of a young knight who finds himself maneuvered into attempting to win the hand of a giant’s daughter. The story is notable for two reasons: it is likely the oldest known story that features King Arthur as a character, and it echos Homer in providing catalogs (lists) of persons at Arthur’s court (similar to The Iliad‘s list of those who sailed with the Greek forces to Troy).

The final group of tales are Arthurian romances. The most completely Arthurian (and hence full of the sort of chivalric behaviors that make one occasionally cringe) of the tales is also the longest in this collection. “Geraint and Enid” concerns one of Arthur’s finest knights and how  his misunderstanding of something his wife says causes him to subject her to humiliation and himself to a series of dangerous and difficult challenges before he realizes that he’s been – well, a jackass to someone who has loved him faithfully and, by occasionally disobeying his somewhat preposterous command not to speak, has time and again saved him from disaster. As in much chivalric literature, the knight’s decidedly unchivalrous behavior to his loving, faithful wife is shrugged off as necessary proof of the knight’s maintenance of his honor. And her steadfastness in the face of his abuse is portrayed as her duty.  It’s uncomfortable reading in this sense: Geraint’s defense of his honor seems driven by pettiness, really childishness indulged because of his physical prowess. His mistreatment of Enid is uncomfortably reminiscent, for a perspicacious contemporary reader, of the behavior of certain other privileged warrior types who are well rewarded for their actions in arenas of physical struggle. As a friend of mine likes to say, “Plus ça change….”

*     *     *     *     *

I’ve dithered quite a bit here, trying to come to some overarching commentary, analysis, or insight of The Mabinogion for those kind enough to spend a few minutes reading this essay. Indeed, I was somewhat puzzled about my inability to do so, given that I write about what I read with a certain facility. But an ugly truth keeps whispering to me: “You should say it.”

I did not enjoy The Mabinogion. Not because I found it particularly difficult (a PhD in English helps in that area) but because it seemed to me, in the words of Dr. Johnson, “violently yoked together.”

It is certainly an important historical work – though, like scholar John Bollard, I think that the works might be better served if treated as separate groups of works – in other words, Welsh mythology, Welsh folk history/legends, and the Welsh versions of Arthurian romances should be separate volumes. This would allow perhaps the inclusion of works not chosen for The Mabinogion (whose primary criterion for inclusion seems to have been whether or not one of the works was in one of the two major source works, The White Book of Rhydderch or The Red Book of Hergest) and both allow scholars to offer more specific guidance (clearer critical explanations of the relationships between the Arthurian romances and the works of other writers such as Chrétien de Troyes or the relationship of the “Native Tales” to other quasi-historical works such as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regnum Britanniae) and readers to experience the works more fully as individual genres of folk literature (one especially wishes this for the Celtic mythology works since there are some interesting and significant variations between Welsh and Irish versions of the myths, for example).

Who, then, should read The Mabinogion? Those interested in Celtic culture, folklore, and mythology could read those pertinent sections. Those interested in Arthurian romances could read those. As for reading the entire work, however, one might be better served to look elsewhere for more cogent, coherent compilations of Celtic folklore or mythology or Arthurian literature. Save The Mabinogion for later reading once one has gained some background in the area one is interested in. Its peculiarities and problematic structure might then have a certain charm.


11 replies »

  1. I’ve read the Authurian stuff, in one form or another–mostly popular, and liked it, but now that you mention it, I can’t figure out why. Much of it is cringe worthy, not just because it’s ungenerous to women (they’re philanderers or schemers or helpless, etc.) but because the stories basically have people doing things no sane person would do for no sane reason, as you say, mostly for honor defined in a petty way. It makes the “respect” reasoning of the Blood and the Crips look sober and logical.

    At least the old Greek stuff made sense. The characters behaved in a way we recognize. The Arthurian stuff is so idealized, and idealized around a bizarre concept of honor–basically living up to promises made through ignorance–that it’s hard to see how we could even bother with it. Even worse, it’s put forth as desirable behavior. At least later English writers, e.g., Austen and even Kipling and that sort, had the decency to either gently mock foolish mores or acknowledge that they were observed more in the breech than the main.

    Still, this stuff has a life of its own. Perhaps it’s just character driven, perhaps it’s the time period, but it still survives both in more or less original form, e.g., the recent BBC series Merlin, or in derivatives such as Star Wars, etc. I’ve also argued, correctly I think, that every single hard boiled detective story every written is a questing tale. Probably I’m not the first to notice that.

    Why do we like this stuff? Hmmmmm. Something to ponder.

    (Also, don’t they have any names in Wales besides Jones?)

    • Otherwise,

      Wonderfully thoughtful comment – many thanks.

      As to why we like the stuff, it meets deep seated needs (I suspect Jung probably talks about this, among others) we have to feel that we could step up and act heroically if the need arose. And the idea of quest – one can look to any “explainer” from Sir James Fraser to Vladimir Propp to Joseph Campbell for fulsome, insightful rationales for why we are drawn to such stuff.

      The problem chivalry had – that it was meant to resolve and didn’t – seems to me to be that it was trying to reconcile the teachings of Christ with the values of heroic (and barbaric) culture. So what we get is some interestingly perverse amalgam – one might call them “highly lethal boy scouts” (emphasis on that word “boy”). There’s a Peter Pan element to knighthood that hasn’t been discussed nearly enough (although someone will now disabuse me of that belief, I’m sure and cite half dozen “brilliant” studies of the psychology of knighthood that got half-dozen people their PhD’s – so it goes, as a wise man I like to re-read occasionally noted).

      So we had about 500 years of men going around like little boys, sometimes playing nicely, sometimes creating mayhem. And since the church needed them for protection, instead of chastising their overall behavior and demanding that it stop, it offered piecemeal pardons for this and that and changed the rules to allowed “this or that in this or that situation” which was simply a way of saying shit like “on Monday you should not rape a pretty milk maid you’re riding by, but on Tuesday you may – unless it’s a saint’s day.”

      It was, as Johnny Clegg describes our own, a “cruel, crazy, beautiful world.”

      • Interesting argument. Ties to something I just came across. Rereading Distant Mirror by Tuchman. She says no one is quite sure why the Crusades started, but one possibility is there were too many knights in Europe and civilization needed to “vent” these violent killing machines. (According to Tuchman, they were pretty darn lethal. A big Duchy only kept 50 or so around–that was enough to protect the realm.)

        (Not that it matters, but I just realized that movie treatments of Arthur show him and his guys wearing 15th century armor, even though he supposedly lived 1000 years before that. It’s a telling anachronism)

        Also to your point on reconciling cognitive discontinuities between Christ and the business of wholesale slaughter, it seems to me that all the current nonsense about zombies, etc, is much of the same. We have a built-in taste for violence and gruesomeness, but no longer are comfortable with excessive violence against people, even enemy combatants, so we’ve created races of non-people to fantasize about slaughtering.

        Oh well, I’ll stop. This feels more like a conversation than a post.

        • Otherwise,

          If it’s a conversation, it’s one smart people would enjoy eavesdropping on. 🙂 Maybe they’ll join in. It’s fascinating stuff….

          Isn’t Tuchman wonderful? “A Distant Mirror” is about 4 decades old now. And historians have come to see her explanation that the Crusades began as a way of “venting” the culture from the pressures of having too many knights around (gotta do something with all these “wild boys”) – I highly recommend French historian Georges Duby’s “The Three Orders.” What Duby does is offer some of the hardcore scholarly background that supports what Tuchman writes in more “reader friendly” style. He also shows how the upper two orders (the church and the aristocracy, including knights, who were the “enforcers”) kept the “third order” (people who actually grew and/or made the stuff everyone needed) under their thumbs with the twin threats of violence and hell.

          The parallels to our own time will resonate, too.

  2. Do you teach any courses around this stuff that I can take, either in person or remotely?

  3. I do not, Otherwise. I teach and consult on writing courses. The lit stuff I rarely teach now – and usually not above the sophomore level these days. However, if you have some reading you want to do and need someone to bounce ideas off, you know how to reach me. 😉

  4. Hi –the Arthurian society tweeted a link to this earlier, and it includes texts I work on, so that’s how I ended up here. I think the biggest thing here (other than the ‘oldest literature in English’ part, when the texts are written in Welsh) is that the term ‘mabinogi’, and the publication of all of these tales together, is misleading. It’s a holdover from when Lady Charlotte Guest translated and published all of the tales together in the 19th century, but really, other than the Four Braches themselves, they aren’t meant to go together. Even the ‘romances’ (which really aren’t, but again it’s convenient shorthand) weren’t included together in manuscripts by the scribes, nor is there evidence they were ever meant to be part of a cohesive whole. So if one reads the Four Branches, all the native tales, and the rhamantau together, looking for some overarching narrative, of course they’ll come up short-they were all written at different times by different people in different genres and cultural contexts.

    This is similar to something you said above, of course, but I feel in the defense of Celticists everywhere that I should point out scholarship, for the last century or so we’ve been discussing these texts, does separate them. When you ask for ‘clearer critical explanations of the relationships between the Arthurian romances and the works of other writers such as Chrétien de Troyes,’ for instance–the transmission of these texts is so complicated that scholars have been debating it for decades, so there is only so clear we can be! It has its own term, ‘mabinogionfrage’, which has been the subject of academic civil wars.

    Not really caring for them is fair enough–I didn’t like Culhwch ac Olwen much when I first read it as a teenager, but now on closer acquaintance I think it is brilliant. Geraint, similary, which seems like a Patient Griselda sort of wretched tale on the surface but is full of very clever, subtle little subversions. But since that’s the subject of a paper I’m giving in Leeds this year, I won’t spoil anything. 😉

    • Thanks for the excellent comment, medievalisterrant.

      This sort of proves out my comment to Otherwise that I’d get my comeuppance from a true medieval scholar – so glad someone smart and kind gave it to me. 🙂

      I do have a question that I hope you’ll respond to. Since there seems to be some consensus that Lady Charlotte Guest’s organization of the works is sort of, to borrow from Dr. Johnson (my lit specialty is 18th century and Austen) “violent yoking together” of “The Mabinogi” with the other tales, is there movement afoot actually to separate the works? That would be a wonderful thing, I believe, for interested serious readers who aren’t necessarily medievalists or Celticists. I’d love, for instance, to have read “The Mabinogi” and some good critical guiding essays. And maybe would spark some work on digging into the relationship between the Welsh Arthurian works and Chretien, et. al.

      Oh. One other question – did Malory know about the Welsh material? I forget what sparked this curiosity, but it was something in one of the tales.

      Thanks again for the insights!

      PS – I realize I’m likely using the wrong terminology – by “Mabinogi” I am referring, of course, to the four branches.

  5. Hi again; sorry it took a few days to get back here. 🙂 That question is in two different parts, I think. There’s no movement that I know of to separate them in terms of English publishing–partly because they’ve been living together for a long time now, but partly because it’s a helpful collection of a large chunk of medieval Welsh prose literature all together. In the very practical interest of only having to buy one book, you can just read the ones that are relevant or interesting and leave the rest of the chapters. (I assume there are people who can do this and do not share my need to read the whole entire book regardless.) There are versions of each: the Four Branches, Culhwch, and the Arthurian romances at least, done separately, but I think they’re mostly in Welsh (other than some English-language children’s versions which are, shall we say, a bit watered down).

    There are editions of the individual tales, put out at various points by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. They are editions, and not translations, so although some of them have notes and apparatus in English, the texts themselves stay in Middle Welsh. This makes them very useful for academic purposes but not exactly what you curl up with by the fire to read! I do very much like your idea of having a book on one particular text at a time and rather wonder that it hasn’t been done, but I can’t think of one. (This is the cue for someone to appear out of the woodwork and point one out!) There is loads of scholarship on all of them, but it tends to be scattered through journals or other themed collections.

    Proinsais Mac Cana’s _The Mabinogi_ in the Writers of Wales series is a good starting point, and it’s a very small book. (Disclaimer that I don’t agree with all of what he says in it, but it’s still a good way to get acquainted with the discussions.) I also find Sioned Davies’ 2007 translation of the texts a bit livelier than Jones and Jones, though both are good; she also has a lot of useful notes in the back. For the Arthurian tales, the same series has a very good book called _Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature_ by Oliver Padel.

    The trouble with the Chretien dilemma is that it just runs up against lack of evidence. Because the surviving copies of the Welsh works are so late, it’s beyond difficult to do more than speculate on how much of a life they had beforehand. In a few cases, like ‘Owain’, we can see through early modern copies of missing texts that it had quite an impressive literary life, but we still don’t know its exact transmission. ‘Peredur’ is even weirder and more complicated, because where one version ends, another version goes on to tell more of what looks like Chretien’s story. I think on balance, though plenty of other people will have differing opinions, that Chretien got at least some of his ideas from Brittany (Erec et Enide especially), which makes some back-and-forth tale transmission between him and Welsh bards perfectly reasonable. He was also writing around the time of Lord Rhys’ great eisteddfod at Cardigan, so we know there were bards travelling and talking and doing their bardic thing at the right time. ‘Geraint’ is basically ‘Erec’ with the names changed (though there are some really interesting differences, or at least interesting to me, in how Geraint constructs the marriage itself, and Geraint’s kingship, that reflect different social ideals), but ‘Owain/Yvain’ uses a Brythonic hero in both cases, and Peredur/Perceval has no French antecedent. The stories as they have survived, though, are pretty clearly written post-Chretien, even if they were part of an earlier tradition. We can only guess.

    Should the Doctor ever turn up and invite me into the TARDIS, I will be the most boring companion ever, because I’ll want to spend all the time running around getting manuscripts and talking to bards.

    • Thanks so much for this superb info, Medievalisterrant. BTW, if you do see the Doctor, plase have him swing the Tardis by for me. There’s a conversation about “Mansfield Park” I want to have with Miss Austen about a couple of points – should be right on the way to medieval Wales…