What is the Mabinogion? (2024)

--Cunliffe Celts A Very Short Introduction--

Though we don’t have nearly as much medieval Welsh literature as we do Irish, we do have the eleven medieval Welsh tales collectively referred to as the Mabinogion. These eleven tales are principally preserved in two medieval Welsh manuscripts, The Red Book of Hergest, the Llyfr coch Hergest, and the White Book or Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch. Daniel Huws presents a strong case that Rhydderch “was all written about 1350” (Huws 1991, 2). Other manuscripts contain portions of the various tales, or isolated tales; Peniarth 6, now in the National Library of Wales, the oldest of the mss., dating probably from the thirteenth century, contains fragments from the second and third “branches” (Mac Cana 1992, 22).

The term mabinogion, strictly speaking, is incorrect; it should be mabinogi. The word mabinogi is a collective description of a group of four medieval Welsh tales that are also called the “four branches” in English or pedair cainc in Welsh. Lady Charlotte Guest, the first person to completely translate all of the tales into English, didn’t realize that mabinogion was a scribal error and so used mabinogion to refer to the entire collection of tales. Each of the four tales ends with a version of the colophon “Ac y uelly teruyna y geing hon yma Mabinogi” or “and thus ends this branch of the Mabinogi.” Each “branch” (cainc) then is a separate tale. Most scholars and translations, compelled by custom, use Mabinogion to refer to the eleven medieval Welsh texts. Personally, I prefer to use the word Mabinogi to refer to the four branches, and Mabinogion to refer to the complete collection of eleven tales.

The Eleven Tales Of the Medieval WelshMabinogion

The Mabinogi proper really consists only of the tales of the four branches:

  • Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed
  • Branwen, daughter of Llyr
  • Manawydan son of Llyr
  • Math son of Mathonwy

There are also four medieval tales, which, while not directly related to the four branches, are similar in their mythological tone. Since they are all “native” to Wales and using Welsh material, rather than inspired by literature from elsewhere in Europe, they are often called the “native” tales. These tales are:

  • The Dream of Rhonawby
  • Culwch and Olwen
  • The Dream of Macsen Wledig
  • Lludd and Lleuelys.

Rhonabwy and Culwch have Arthurian associations.

Finally, there are three romances, which we also have preserved in slightly different French versions by Chretien de Troyes:

  • The Lady of the Fountain
  • Peredur Son of Efrawg
  • Gereint son of Erbin

The original meaning of mabinogi is not absolutely clear; according to the Celticist and philologist Eric Hamp, mabinogi in its original context probably refers to “the (collective) material pertaining to the god Maponos” (Hamp, 1974-75). Ford suggests that “mabinogi was an extensive collection of more or less related adventures, related sufficiently for them to be metaphorically conceived as branches, rather than as independent tales” (Ford, 1977, 3).

The first complete English translation of the Mabinogion was that by Lady Charlotte Guest in 1838-49. This is the first version I ever read, and it is still dear to my heart, though I now realize that she excised passages that she felt were indelicate. Lady Guest also did not have access to the actual manuscripts, and unknowingly used materials “improved” by Iolo Morganwg/Edward Morgan. She includes in her original edition substantial textual notes for all eleven tales; the current reprint contains only the four tales of the Mabinogi proper. You can also find Guest’s translation on the web at TaffNet.

In 1948 (revised in 1989 by Gwyn Jones) Gwyn and Thomas Jones translated all eleven tales. This is the translation that you will most often see cited in scholarly musings about the tales. It’s a good one, and fairly literal, but the tone is overly archaic, with odd needlessly formal diction, and a good but outdated introduction and bibliography. They based their translation, like later translators, on the older of the two complete Mabinogion mss., The White Book of Rhydderch, but of course used the Red Book of Hergest for Rhonawby (preserved only there) and to supply other deficiencies of the White Book. Jones and Jones have a helpful but brief introduction, a super map, and a note on pronunciation, and a very brief, out of date bibliography.

Jeffrey Gantz in 1976 translated all eleven of the Mabinogion texts. His translation is in modern English, but does take liberties with the Welsh, skipping sentences here and there, and spelling some of the names in his own peculiar fashion. He includes a decent introduction, a woefully out dated bibliography, a list of pronunciations, a map, and a very useful index.

In 1977 Patrick Ford translated the four branches, the “native tales” Lludd and Lleuelys and Culwch and Olwen. He also translated The Tale of Gwion Bach and the Tale of Taliesin, and included Cad Goddeu (attributed to Taliesin) in an appendix. These last texts, though not part of the Mabinogion proper, are mythological in nature and of associative interest. Ford is the first to translate the Gwion Bach texts since Guest. I admit to being biased in favor of Ford’s translation; he is largely responsible for my participation in Celtic Studies. But Ford’s language is very close to the Welsh; he manages to capture the emotional tone of the speakers, and yet still write enjoyable English prose. His introductions and head notes are substantial, and his bibliography is far more helpful than those of his predecessors. He also includes a glossary, a pronunciation key, and an index of personal names. His map is not the best I’ve seen, but it is helpful.

If you ask me which translation to purchase, I’d say that depends on what you’re interested in. If it’s the four branches of the Mabinogi or Culwch and Olwen that you are interested in, then get Ford’s edition; it’s much the best. If you want all eleven tales, either Gantz or Jones will do, though personally I would still get the Ford edition as well; the introductions alone are worth it. If you’re interested in which translation is the best, I’d say the Jones and Jones version is preferred in the UK, but I favor Patrick Ford’s for readability, and for the way he captures the tone of the Welsh text.

Look at the first verbal exchange between Pwyll and Rhiannon.

First here’s the Welsh, from the DIA R. Thompson edition of Pwyll:

Yna y dywot Pwyll, “A uorwyn,” heb ef, “yr mwyn y gwr mwhaf a gery, arho ui!”

“Arhoaf yn llawen,” heb hi, “ac oed llessach y’r march pei ass archut yr meityn” (ll. 271-73).

This is very direct speech; terse, even, particularly Rhiannon’s wry response to Pwyll’s somewhat frustrated request.

Here’s Jones and Jones:

Then Pwyll spoke. “Maiden,” said he, for his sake whom thou lovest best, stay for me.” “I will, gladly,” said she, “and it had been better for the horse hadst thou asked this long since.” (Jones and Jones 3rd. ed. 1989, p. 11).

And here’s Ford:

“Maiden,” he said, “for the sake of the man you love most, wait for me!” “I will wait gladly,” she said, “and it had been better for the horse if you had asked it long ago” (Ford 1977, 44).

Pretty close both of them; what I object to in the Jones and Jones is use of “thee” and “thou” and the artificial suffixes on verbs, like “lovest” and “hadst,” (already beginning to be dialectical in English when the Red and White Book manuscripts were made) and the generally artificially archaic tone. The use of archaisms was a choice made by Jones and Jones that doesn’t really reflect the almost conversational directness of the Welsh, particularly Rhiannon’s brusqueness. It was, however, the way translations were “done” in the 1930s.

That said, Jones and Jones is still the standard translation in the UK, but I suspect that’s in part because until fairly recently, Ford’s translation wasn’t available, except by special order, in the UK. Ultimately, it’s going to come down to personal taste, and you won’t go wrong using Jones and Jones. I just happen to really like the way Ford has managed to capture the tone of the Welsh.

Works Cited

Ford, Patrick K. Trans. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977. ISBN 0520034147.
Amazon catalog page for The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh

Amazon UK catalog page for The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales

Gantz, Jeffrey. Trans. The Mabinogion. London and New York: Penguin Books, 1976. ISBN 0140443223.

Amazon catalog page for The Mabinogion

Amazon UK catalog page for The Mabinogion

Guest, Lady Charlotte. The Mabinogion. Dover Publications, 1997. ISBN: 0486295419.

Amazon catalog page for The Mabinogion

Amazon UK catalog page for The Mabinogion

Jones, Gwyn and Thomas Jones. The Mabinogion. Everyman’s Library 1949; revised in 1989, 1991. ISBN 0460872974.

Amazon catalog page for The Mabinogion

Amazon UK catalog page for The Mabinogion

Mabinogion Secondary Sources

Proinsias Mac Cana. The Mabinogi. University of Wales Press, Cardiff 1977; second edition 1992. ISBN .

Hamp, Eric P. “Mabinogi.” Transactions of the Honourable Society of the Cymmrodorion. 1974-75. 243-49.

Huws, Daniel. “”Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch.” Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 21 (Summer, 1991): 1–37.

See also theWelsh Literature bibliography for other secondary sources about the mabinogi.

What is the Mabinogion? (2024)
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