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Post-Roman Britain

The Mabinogion

Compiled by Peter Kessler, 1 April 1999

The work known as the Mabinogion is one of the few coherent collections of Welsh mythology (from a northern British root) to come out of Wales.

Its stories were transmitted through the oral bardic tradition until Merfyn Vrych moved his court from the land of the northern Britons (the 'Gwyr y Gogledd', the 'Men of the North') to take up the vacant seat of the 'Gwyr y Des' (the 'People of the South') in the form of the principality of Gwynedd in or shortly after 816.

Many stories and ancestors were brought with him as his credentials, not least of which was his pedigree (as a direct descendent of Coel Hen, early fifth century military governor of northern Britain), and it was during the reign of his son, Rhodri Mawr ('the Great') that the large collection of northern British tales, some based on legends and half truths, came to be formalised and written down (although the earliest surviving copies date from the thirteenth century).

Since the death of the last prince to have any claim to the traditional title of high king, Cadwallon, in 634, Wales had virtually given up hope of regaining the lost lands of Britain, and had sunk into a kind of lethargy.

It was this formalising of mythology in the Mabinogion, as well as the new blood in Gwynedd, uniting the country without resorting to warfare, which brought fresh life to an insular Wales.

Eleven stories are generally comprised under the term Mabinogion since Lady Charlotte Guest used this title for her translations for The Red Book of Hergest (dating from circa 1400) and the Hanes Taliesin (circa 1275).

Of these, the first four, generally spoken of as the 'Four Branches', comprise Pwyll, Branwen, Manawydan, and Math. But there are also some short ones, The Dream of Macsen Wledig and Llys and Lefelys, the lengthy Kulhwch and Olwen, the briefer Dream of Rhonabwy, and the three later Arthurian romances of the Lady of the Fountain, Peredur, and Geraint ap Erbin.

The first four are regarded as the Mabinogion proper. They create a dreamlike atmosphere which preserves much of the primitive, fascinating world of Celtic myth.

They exemplify the heroic and idealistic world of Celtic literature. Due to the tendency to marginalise all things Celtic until the nineteenth century, the Mabinogion was not very well known until its translation into English in 1849 when Lady Charlotte Guest's version appeared.

The title was applied to the collected stories by Lady Charlotte, but was already appended to the first four stories.

The word 'mabinog' refers to 'a student of the bardic class', and mabinogi (plural mabinogion) means 'a tale belonging to the mabinog's repertoire', a bardic tale.

The three-volume edition of the Mabinogion with a translation into English by Lady Charlotte Guest was printed by Llandovery in 1849. The translated version appeared alone in an edition of 1879. The Welsh text has been printed in a diplomatic edition, The Red Book of Hergest, by J Rhys and J Gwenogfryn Evans (Oxford, 1887), and Lady Charlotte's translation was also re-edited with valuable notes being added by Alfred Nutt (London, 1902).



Text copyright © P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.