Mabinogion

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"Mabinogi" redirects here. For other uses, see Mabinogi (disambiguation).
The Two Kings (sculptor Ivor Robert-Jones, 1984) near Harlech Castle, Wales. Bendigeidfran carries the body of his nephew Gwern.

The Mabinogion (Welsh pronunciation: [mabɪˈnɔɡjɔn]) is the title given to a collection of eleven prose stories collated from medieval Welsh manuscripts. The tales draw on pre-Christian Celtic mythology, international folktale motifs, and early medieval historical traditions. While some details may hark back to older Iron Age traditions, each of these tales is the product of a highly developed medieval Welsh narrative tradition, both oral and written. Lady Charlotte Guest in the mid 19th century was the first to publish English translations of the collection, popularising the name "Mabinogion" at the same time.[1]

Etymology[edit]

The name first appears in 1795 in William Owen Pughe's Cambrian Register: "The Mabinogion, or Juvenile Amusements, being Ancient Welsh Romances." It was then adopted as the title by the first English translator of the complete tales, Lady Charlotte Guest. The form mabynnogyon does indeed occur at the end of the first of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, but it is now generally agreed that this is a scribal error that was assumed to be the plural of the Welsh word mabinogi, which occurs correctly at the end of the remaining three branches. The word mabinogi itself is something of a puzzle, although it is ultimately related to the Welsh mab, which means "son, boy". Professor Eric P. Hamp, however, suggests that mabinogi derives from the name of the Celtic deity Maponos ("the Divine Son"), and originally referred to materials pertaining to that god. Strictly speaking, "Mabinogi" applies only to the Four Branches (see below), which are speculated to have derived from older tradition. Each of these four tales ends with a colophon meaning "thus ends this branch of the Mabinogi" (in various spellings), hence the name.

Date of stories[edit]

The question of the dates of the tales in the Mabinogion is important, because if they can be shown to have been written before Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae and the romances of Chrétien de Troyes, then some of the tales, especially those dealing with Arthur, would provide important evidence for the development of Arthurian legend. Regardless, their importance as records of early myth, legend, folklore, culture, and language of Wales is immense.

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. Debate has 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, 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.

Stories[edit]

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[edit]

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.

  • Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed (Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed) tells of Pryderi's parents and his birth, loss and recovery.
  • Branwen ferch Llŷr (Branwen, daughter of Llŷr) is mostly about Branwen's marriage to the King of Ireland. Pryderi appears but does not play a major part.
  • Manawydan fab Llŷr (Manawydan, son of Llŷr) has Pryderi return home with Manawydan, brother of Branwen, and describes the misfortunes that follow them there.
  • Math fab Mathonwy (Math, son of Mathonwy) is mostly about Math and Gwydion, who come into conflict with Pryderi.

Native tales[edit]

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

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 fifth 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 Bath. 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.[2]

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.[3]

The tale The Dream of Macsen Wledig is a romanticized story about the Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus. Born in Spain, he became a legionary commander in Britain, assembled a Celtic army and assumed the title of Emperor of the Western Roman Empire in AD 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.

Romances[edit]

The three tales called The Three Romances (Y Tair Rhamant) are Welsh 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.

Adaptations[edit]

  • Evangeline Walton adapted the Mabinogion into the novels The Island of the Mighty (1936), The Children of Llyr (1971), The Song of Rhiannon (1972) and Prince of Annwn (1974), each one of which she based on one of the branches, although she began with the fourth and ended by telling the first. These were published together in chronological sequence as The Mabinogion Tetralogy in 2002.
  • 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.
  • The tale of Culhwch and Olwen was adapted by Derek Webb in Welsh and English as a dramatic recreation for the reopening of Narberth Castle in Pembrokeshire in 2005.
  • 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)

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Notes
  1. ^ "BBC – Wales History – The Mabinogion". www.bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 2008-07-11. 
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ 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.
Bibliography
Translations
  • 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 9-781489-515285. (Omits Taliesin. Has 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
  • Breuddwyd Maxen. Ed. Ifor Williams. Bangor: Jarvis & Foster, 1920.
  • Breudwyt Maxen Wledig. Ed. Brynley F. Roberts. Medieval and Modern Welsh Series Vol. XI. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 2005.
  • Breudwyt Ronabwy. Ed. Melville Richards. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1948.
  • 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.
  • Historia Peredur vab Efrawc. Ed. Glenys Witchard Goetinck. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. 1976.
  • Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch. Ed. J. Gwenogvryn Evans. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1973.
  • Math Uab Mathonwy. Ed. Ian Hughes. Aberystwyth: Prifysgol Cymru, 2000.
  • Owein or Chwedyl Iarlles y Ffynnawn. Ed. R.L. Thomson. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1986.
  • Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi. Ed. Ifor Williams. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1951. ISBN 0-7083-1407-4
  • Pwyll Pendeuic Dyuet. Ed. R. L. Thomson. Medieval and Modern Welsh Series Vol. I. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1986. ISBN 1-85500-051-2
  • Ystorya Gereint uab Erbin. Ed. R. L. Thomson. Medieval and Modern Welsh Series Vol. X. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1997.
  • Ystoria Taliesin. Ed. Patrick K. Ford. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1992. ISBN 0-7083-1092-3
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.
  • 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

External links[edit]

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:

The original Welsh texts can be found at:

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

A discussion of the words Mabinogi and Mabinogion can be found at

A theory on authorship can be found at