Friday, June 25, 2010

ramble: the Mabinogi, or the beautiful maze of Welsh myth

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi (in Middle Welsh, Pedeir Keinc Y Mabinogi) are the four classic tales of medieval Welsh mythology, more commonly known as the Mabinogion (which is actually a scribal misspelling in one of the sources [image above], but has become basically accepted). They are recorded in two main manuscripts, the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest, both dating to mid/late-thirteenth-century Wales. However, the tales themselves are much older, having been preserved piecemeal in various other earlier manuscripts (and no doubt passed down orally long before even that).

The Mabinogi were first translated by Lady Charlotte Guest in the mid-nineteenth century. In her edition she included eight other related mythological tales from the manuscripts (Arthurian stories and romances whose plots also show up in the works of Chrétien de Troyes), but the Mabinogi proper are only the Four Branches. Lady Guest's translation leaves out all the good (naughty and gory) parts, so if you're inclined to read the tales for yourself, do choose another version. I highly recommend the online translation by Will Parker linked at the bottom of this post; it's the one we used for study in my (badass) Celtic literature class.

The Four Branches are an interconnected series of stories in which the pseudo-hero Pryderi is the recurring character (though not always the main character). I don't want to totally spoil the tales, but I will try to whet your appetite.

The First Branch: Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed

We meet Pryderi's parents (his father Pwyll, exchanges places with Arawn, the Lord of the Otherworld, for a year, then meets the mysterious Rhiannon on her unearthly-fast horse) and are given the story of his birth and baby-napping. Affairs include a magic bag, a monster, and a case of mistaken identity including the giving of the fabulous pseudonym Gwri Golden-Hair. [read the First Branch here]

The Second Branch: Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr

This story is barely Pryderi-related, but rather a story of British-Irish conflict. British Branwen is mistreated by her Irish husband Matholwch, partly because her brother Efnisien was a poor sport and took out his displeasure over the marriage on Matholwch's horses. The giant Bendigeidfrân, king of Britain, takes vengeance for Branwen. Pryderi fights with the British in the battle, which involves a revivifying cauldron and a lot of head-crushing. Bendigeidfrân's enormous head, however, lives on in Britain, which is gross and awesome. [read the Second Branch here]

The Third Branch: Manawydan, Son of Llŷr

Back in a curiously depopulated and mist-beset Dyfed, we follow Pryderi, his wife Cigfa, his mother Rhiannon, and his stepfather Manawydan on a quest to restore the realm. Pryderi and Rhiannon both act like fools and fall for a trap; Manawydan and Cigfa have to solve riddles to save them (which is a pretty sweet reversal, and also why it's hard to see Pryderi as a hero). [read the Third Branch here]

The Fourth Branch: Math, Son of Mathonwy

The fourth branch is my favourite, so I'll go into a little more detail. It takes place during Pryderi's reign in Dyfed (southern Wales) but is set in Gwynedd (northern Wales), where Math is king. Math has issues: he requires his feet to be held by a virgin at all times. His nephews, Gilfaethwy and Gwydion, rape the current footholder. Math is furious, marries the girl, and curses the brothers with the best punishment ever. They become a male/female pair of deer in the first year, a pair of pigs in the second, and a pair of wolves in the third--and they breed with each other. Twisted and fantastic! This branch is a long and convoluted one. After Gwydion and Gilfaethwy are thoroughly schooled, the story goes on to tell of the search for a new virgin footholder, the testing of the brothers' clever sister Aranrhod, the birth of a new hero called Lleu Llaw Gyffes, and the creation of Blodeuwedd, Lady of the Flowers. [read the Fourth Branch here]

As is no doubt obvious, there are fascinating things happening in the Mabinogi with regard to family dynamics, sexual relationships, and gender roles. The magic items and curses are woven seamlessly into the tales. This is a medieval Wales heaving with wonders so rich they're almost banal again; strange events are everyday, and the everyday, in our terms, is nonexistent. The characters are vivid and changeable, passing in and out of hero/villain status. The Mabinogi are incredibly rewarding to study, but they're also purely vibrant storytelling, beautiful in their labyrinthine twists, made to tell around a bright fire.

- The illustration at the beginning of the First Branch in the 1877 edition of Lady Guest's translation [via Sacred Texts at link]

- The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, trans. Will Parker [full text available at link]
- The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales, trans. Patrick K. Ford [Amazon link]
- The Mabinogion, trans. Lady Charlotte Guest [full text available at Sacred Texts: link]
- What is the Mabinogion? (an introduction plus recommended editions) [link]
- A brief introduction to medieval Welsh prose via UBC [link]
- [link]
- Wikipedia [link] and [link]

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