The Four Branches of the Mabinogi: A Welsh Epic

For my senior capstone project, I analyzed an English translation of the medieval Welsh text The Four Branches of the Mabinogi. It’s a beautifully exquisite text with many weird happenings from a fat mouse that turns out to be a pregnant Lady turned into a mouse to a woman magically created from flowers.

The following text is taken from my final paper and explains what the Mabinogi is as a text: when it originated, who wrote it, and what it represents.

What is the Mabinogi?

A good place to start when describing the Mabinogi is describing what the Mabinogi is not. For instance, the Mabinogi is not the Mabinogion. Charlotte Guest, a British Lady, had the two manuscripts in which the Four Branches are contained—the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest—translated in the nineteenth century. She titled it Mabinogion, which “she understood to be the plural of mabinogi” (French 13). The term stuck, but it is used to describe the group of texts that she translated, which includes seven tales besides the Four Branches. The term Mabinogi is applied to the Four Branches only.

Even though it is prose, the Mabinogi also is not akin to a novel that was invented by and written down by an author in Wales. Instead, it can better be described as “tales that were transmitted orally for centuries before arriving at their present ‘final’ form” (Sioned Davies 10). In fact, W.J. Gruffydd, one of the first scholars to work with this text, argues that Irish, English, and even French influences were pulled together by the author and that “the material underlying the prose epic…is derived from the legendary traditions of two districts in Wales which at one time were Irish in population and speech—Dyved and Gwynedd” (Rhiannon 7; Math 328).

In addition, the author of the text is unknown, although it is generally accepted that it was written in its current form by a single person. As Gruffydd states, “The Mabinogi in spite of the almost unbelievable complexity of its material, is the product of one mind, the fruit of one integrated artistry” (Rhiannon 2).

Next, the Mabinogi is not Celtic religion, although it is believed to have its origins in Celtic mythology. Miranda Green is one scholar that argues that Pryderi could be “the Welsh god Mabon (Divine Youth)”, who is identified as the “son of his mother Modron” (73); Sharon Paice MacLeod says “the figure of Rhiannon (“Divine Queen”) is a manifestation of the Goddess of Sovereignty” (142); and Claire French believes that Rhiannon could represent the goddess Epona (38).

However, even if the characters were originally deities, “traditions and customs are remoulded along with changing ways of life” (Davidson 198), and “spoken tales of all periods are almost always presented ‘in modern dress’” (Gruffydd Rhiannon 3). Therefore, the text of the Mabinogi as it is written is a reflection of the author’s views within a specific culture, whether he wrote it down word for word from a storyteller or changed elements as he wrote.

Thinking about it as mythology, then, simply allows for another lens to analyze the text. The idea of myth that I will be using is from J.K. Bollard: “those tales and poems through which a society is able to examine the fundamental elements of its own structure” (The Role of Myth 277-278).

R. Ellis Davidson states that scholars tend to use one of a few theories to analyze myths: the jigsaw puzzle, which entitles “starting with a preconception of what the picture is going to be and selecting all the pieces which seem to support it,” and the fundamentalist approach, which accepts everything as reliable and smooths contradictions. However, “Such approaches arise from an assumption that the mythology was once complete and rational,” while instead “we are dealing here with many different levels of belief, and also with confused traditions” (197).

These ideas are important to keep in mind since the complexities within the Mabinogi are well known, so approaching it with an idea of what will be determined or with the intent of making each part fit together is problematic.

Finally, the Mabinogi cannot be considered reflective of Celtic society. This is because of two factors: the Mabinogi’s place in history and the definition of the term “Celtic.” According to John Davies, “it is accepted that Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi [The Four Branches of the Mabinogi] was composed about 1060” (100).  However, Patrick Ford states that the White Book of Rhydderch (Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch) was written between A.D. 1300 and 1325, while the Red Book of Hergest (Llyfr Coch Hergest) was between A.D. 1375 and 1425 (2). These books are the two surviving manuscripts featuring the Mabinogi.

This makes the suspected time frame of the text about 100 years between manuscripts and up to 400 years between John Davies’ estimate and the latest manuscript.

Ford also admits that “the tales are older than the manuscripts, but how much older we do not know” (2). Therefore, it is difficult to ascertain which medieval period the text was written down in and consequently, what audience it was written for. Even if we knew exactly when it was written down and who it was written down for, it is also true that “we are not yet sufficiently familiar with the structure of medieval prose—and certainly not medieval Welsh prose—to know how these tales were received by an audience in the eleventh, tenth, or earlier centuries” (Ford 13). We also do not know enough to know how the tales were received by audiences in later centuries.

For these reasons combined with the way the text combines tales from multiple traditions, the Mabinogi reflects the values important to a specific person in a specific time in Wales. The conclusions in this paper can only be understood more fully as a reflection of the Celts by comparing them with “related episodes elsewhere in Celtic and Indo-European [texts], and thus grasp their meaning more fully” (Ford 4).

The second factor regards what the term “Celtic” refers to. John Davies states that “in its essence, the term Celt refers to a group of languages,” while adding that the Greeks who first used the term were referring to “a people or peoples possessing a material and spiritual culture which, according to classical authors and to the archaeological record, dominated large areas of Iron Age Europe” (21).

Although such culture could be found on the island of Britain when it “first appeared upon the platform of history,” that was around 500 B. C., roughly 1500 years before the earliest estimate of the date the Mabinogi originated (John Davies 21). In that time, much of the “Celtic” world disappeared, and Britain by the time of the Mabinogi was split into the Welsh, the English, and the groups to the north.

The Welsh had been influenced by Christianity for hundreds of years at this point and were influenced more so as “the Welsh came face to face with the glories and the arrogance of the Latin Church” (John Davies 80). In addition, a “consolidation of states was a feature of the age throughout Europe,” and the Welsh were no different (John Davies 80).

Therefore, the Mabinogi and the oral tradition from which it was pulled came from a period of social, economic, and religious change, with conflicts between groups within Wales and between the Welsh and the English. For these reasons, any reference to the words “Celt” or “Celtic” in this paper will refer to a general cultural context that includes the Irish, the people in northern Britain, and the ancient Celts.


Works Cited

Bollard, J. K. “The Role of Myth and Tradition in The Four Branches of the Mabinogi.” Ed. C.W. Sullivan III. The Mabinogi: A Book of Essays. Garland Publishing, Inc.: New York, 1996. Print.

Davidson, H. R. Ellis. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe. Syracuse University Press: Syracuse, 1988. Print.

Davies, John. A History of Wales. Penguin Books: England, 1993. Print.

Davies, Sioned. The four branches of the Mabinogi: Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi. Gomer Press: Wales, 1993. Print.

Ford, Patrick K. Trans. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. University of California Press: California, 2008. Print.

French, Claire. The Celtic Goddess: Great Queen or Demon Witch? Floris Books: Edinburgh, 2001. Print.

Green, Miranda. The Gods of the Celts. Alan Sutton Publishing Limited: Gloucester, 1986. Print.

Gruffydd, W. J. Math vab Mathonwy. University of Wales Press: Cardiff, 1928. Print.

. Rhiannon. University of Wales Press: Cardiff, 1953. Print.

MacLeod, Sharon Paice. Celtic Myth and Religion. McFarland & Company, Inc.: Jefferson, 2012. Print.

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