Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Mabinogion - Introduction

The Mabinogion is compilation of medieval British (specifically Welsh) stories of love, war, and magic. Although there are many references to Arthurian legends, this compilation includes a variety of other tales as well. Although probably not as well-known as Mallory’s Le Morte D’arthur, The Mabinogion nevertheless has had a lasting impact on literature. To reference some past blog posts where I discussed this influence, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion is one example, and Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain another.

To the contemporary audiences of the 12-13th centuries or even before, this was their form of entertainment. Like television today, these oral recitations (or, once the stories were finally written down, read-alouds) had to serve in many roles: Romance, action, mystery, fantasy, philosophy, history, and perhaps even a little theology.

It takes a shift in values to understand how original audiences received these stories. To the modern reader, many of these heroes come across as meatheads and braggarts. Take Sir Kynon:

“I was the only son of my mother and father, and I was exceedingly aspiring and my daring was very great. I thought there was no enterprise in the world too mighty for me…”

Wow. Humble much?


Warrior characters were expected to be skilled not only in fighting, but also in storytelling as they talked of their daring deeds. After all, how else were the listeners supposed to know what had happened to the knights, if they were humble and didn’t talk about them? And besides, within the world of The Mabinogion, what else did knights have to do when they weren’t randomly jousting, but to hang out and try to outdo the others with tales of their feats of chivalry?

As with all forms of entertainment, these stories had something for the whole family! For the men, there was plenty of gore:

“Then Owain struck the knight a blow through his helmet, headpiece and visor, and through the skin and the flesh, and the bone, until it wounded the very brain.”

Ouch. Now that’s something you don’t see reenacted at Renaissance fairs!

There were also the romances—which I suppose were for the ladies in the audience, although even then the stories often centered on the men proving their love than any actual development of relationships.

Then there were the fantastic elements, with fairies and enchantments, which are crowd-pleasers in general. But these were not simply adventure-fantasy stories. There’s quite a bit of pseudo-history and politics, especially in the later books once they drift from the more mainstream Camelot legends into tales that are more Welsh. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you will once you start hitting the long lists of characters:

“…Kai, and Bedwyr, and Greidawl Galldonyd, and Gwythyr the son of Greidawl, and Greid the son of Eri, and Kynddelig Kyvarwydd, and Tathal Twyll Goleu, and Maelwys the son of Baeedan….”

Not even joking, this list goes on for 211 names. And then it starts listing women!

That, my dear reader, is a lot of Welsh.

But, if you are patient, there are some “Easter eggs” to be found for Prydain fans. Fflewddur Fflam is there, and “Eiladyr of Pen-Llarcau,” as well as a Kaw, a Gwystyl and a Smoit and a Rhun. (One wonders if Lloyd Alexander didn’t have that bit of The Mabinogion bookmarked to reference whenever he needed a name for a character. But more on that in another entry, I think….)

Being a fan not only of The Chronicles of Prydain, but of the original medieval romance cycles, I enjoyed parts of this collection immensely. Particularly the part where they talk about how Sir Gawain was the best knight ever. (So there, Lancelot!) Granted, in Welsh he’s called “Gwalchmai,” but it’s the same person no matter how you spell it.


Sir Gawain is my favorite of King Arthur’s Knights of Camelot, and therefore it infuriates me when later interpretations of him (T.H. White being one culprit) relegated him to being a brutish temperamental oaf, often used by medieval French to emphasize the refinement of their Lancelot du Lac. This is a shame since Gawain is the main character of one of the more interesting (and thematically more complex) Arthurian stories, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He deserves better!

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