The Mabinogion: The Big Book of Medieval Welsh Legends

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.

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