In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle enjoys Sioned Davies’ new translation of the Mabinogion, Wales’s book of myths
‘Brothers transformed into animals of both sexes who bring forth children; dead men thrown into a cauldron who rise the next day; a woman created out of flowers, transformed into an owl for infidelity; a king turned into a wild boar for his sins – these are just some of the magical stories that together make up the Mabinogion.’
These words, which open Sioned Davies’ introduction to her new translation of the Mabinogion, offer a delightful taste of the feast that follows, the collection of Welsh legends featuring magic, heroism, and transformation. Especially the latter. When the Roman poet Ovid sought a way to connect the Graeco-Roman myths, he seized upon metamorphosis – transformations, chiefly physical; though not exclusively so – and in doing so he highlighted the importance that changes of all sort, magical and corporeal, play in many myths around the world. The same can be said of the eleven medieval legends that make up the Mabinogion, which were probably first written down in around 1060-1120, although even that we cannot be certain about.
Even the title, Mabinogion, is something of a twisting or transforming of the book’s actual title. In 1849, a businesswoman and collector named Lady Charlotte Guest published her translation of the Welsh tales, often referred to as the Red Book of Hergest, under the Welsh title The Mabinogion. This title was the result of scribal error, from mabinogi, derived from the Welsh word mab meaning ‘son’ or ‘boy’. Guest’s was the first widely available English translation of Wales’s foremost collection of myths. Further translations have followed, along with various retellings such as Evangeline Walton’s tetralogy beginning The Virgin and the Swine in 1936 (Walton effectively did for the Mabinogion what T. H. White did for the Arthurian legends with his tetralogy, The Once and Future King). Sioned Davies’ marvellous new translation, available as The Mabinogion (Oxford World’s Classics), is the latest and perhaps greatest of these translations.
The Mabinogion contains some of Wales’s finest mythical heroes, such as Bran the Blessed, the giant-king who, one imagines, had a huge beard and a very loud voice and liked climbing mountains. There is also King Arthur, that legendary king who is more familiar to English readers through the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Thomas Malory, Tennyson, and, of course, Monty Python. The Arthur we glimpse in the Hergest book is usually a marginal figure – such as in the tale of Peredur, son of Efrog, the Welsh version of the story of the knight Percival – but in ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’, a decidedly odd tale in which the title character dreams he has travelled back to the time of King Arthur, we get a closer look at the warrior-king, as he sits playing gwyddbwyll (a Welsh board game vaguely resembling chess) with one of his followers shortly before the Battle of Badon. This curious story may not have originally been part of the Mabinogion, but when Guest added it to her translation of the Red Book of Hergest, it became a sort of orphan tale. Like the Arabian Nights, the Mabinogion grew up over time into the collection we now read.
There are plenty of other tales here, besides the ones in which Arthur features. One of my favourites is the third branch of the Mabinogi, which tells the story of Manawydan, the son of Llŷr, who ends up catching a mouse which has destroyed his wheat crops, and threatening to hang it for its ‘crime’. This quasi-comic moment comes at the end of a long tale involving enchantment and conflict, and there’s a delicious twist in the tale (or tail). Indeed, more than the mythical narratives of Homer or Ovid, what the Mabinogion reminds me of is the European tradition of the fairy tale: another genre in which enchantment, animals, and shape-changing tend to figure.
Guest’s translation was the first time the Mabinogion made into English. That it took seven or eight centuries for an English translation to appear speaks volumes about Anglo-Saxon attitudes to Welsh literature, and indeed, Guest’s motive in translating the tales – which she presented, after long research, in a scholarly bilingual edition – was partly political: she wanted to prove to the English the supremacy of the ‘ancient’ Celtic myths of the British Isles, as Davies points out in her introduction to this new edition, a beautiful new translation which is bound in red (of course) hardback.
The Mabinogion is worth reading for its tales of adventure and romance – not to mention its references to such fantastical things as invisibility cloaks, talking animals, giants, and shapeshifters. The stories in The Mabinogion (Oxford World’s Classics) were originally composed to be performed by bards and storytellers, and it shows. They’re larger than life, like all good myths.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.