Grand quests, swords, sorcery, gods, mortals, love, war, and a healthy sense of mystery can all be found in The Mabinogion. These eleven ancient Welsh tales date back to somewhere around 1200 in written form and are classics of the folk tale genre. There are few places where you can find so many archetypal folk themes, presented within such a short space. Celtic lineage, culture, and heritage are presented with grace and passion within the framework of a group of stories. These tales are a must for anyone interested in Celtic folklore or in Arthurian legend, for Arthur plays a minor role in many of the tales.
The true history of the tales is unknown, having been lost along with the tellers. The fragments have been pieced together from two major sources: The Red Book of Hergest and The White Book of Rhydderch. It is clear from the way the various stories are presented that they came from different sources, not from one single author, and that they originated as oral tales, probably passed down for centuries before being written down for the first time. The versions we have are not even considered to be their first appearance in writing, but rather copied editions, probably with copyists’ errors. Add to this that the title is a mistake, both in its form and in its application to a group of stories much larger than would probably be appropriate.
The first four tales are probably the oldest, and were originally told as a quartet of tales, probably about the origins of a single character, Pryderi. It is from these four that the title of the group is lifted, for they are the four branches of the Mabinogi, as stated at the end of each tale. Through the natural metamorphosis of oral tradition, the story of Pryderi is somewhat masked and even lost in most of the tales, but it is theorized that they were told in four parts, to tell the story of his birth, his youthful exploits, his banishment, and his death. There are also fairly glaring inconsistencies within the stories which cause the reader to take pause. These imperfections do not diminish the importance of these tales in representing authentic folklore of the Celts. The four stories show recurrent folklore themes, such as amending a wrong, a falsely-accused wife, and the spiriting away of a character to another realm. The tales also include hand-to-hand combat, chivalry, true love, deception, honor, and the complete destruction of Britain except for seven survivors.
The further tales include a colorful and fascinating dream, a man’s enormous list of tasks he must complete in order to win the hand of the giant’s daughter, and a wife’s stubborn insistence on proving faithful to her husband. Three of the tales, “Owein,” “Peredur,” and “Gereint” are grouped together by scholars as a set due to their romantic nature (due to French influence), their more literary form, and the use of King Arthur’s court as a backdrop for the action. The other four seem to span the difference between the highly Celtic offerings of the branches of the Mabinogi and the three romances. These have more of a historical feel, but show more outside influences that is obvious in the first four tales.
Two of the tales follow similar themes, where the hero must balance his courtly duties with his devotion to his wife. This should sound familiar to Arthurian fans. The two tales show different offenses in the hero’s actions, however. In “The Countes of the Fountain” we find that after the hero Owein wins his lady, he deserts her to pay homage to Arthur, and fails to return in a timely manner. He must then battle to win her yet again.
The other story, “Gereint and Enid,” shows Gereint winning his lady, also through battle. He deserts the court to spend more time with her, and in a moment of concern, she lets him know that she fears he may be hurting the court in doing so. Immediately jumping to suspicion, he accuses her of wanting another lover, and keeps her with him at all times, treating her as a servant. When the truth of his unjust suspicion is finally revealed, he must win her back. These stories are representative of the overall theme of the eleven stories. As both these knights must work to reclaim what was once theirs already, there are numerous points throughout the tales that center on regeneration of some kind, from the mythical journey to the otherworld to the cauldron that will restore life. This feeling of regeneration is represented in some way throughout these tales.
Several of the later tales are beautifully told. The others have moments of greatness, obscured in the trappings of folktale motifs. These tales include side stories that tell why some geographic locations are named as they are, although much of that is lost to non-Welsh speakers without explanation. There are lists of genealogy that boggle the mind when it is considered that they were originally passed down orally. King Arthur appears with a greater role in these tales than in the first four, where he was mentioned in passing only. Arthurian fans will be fascinated by the differences between this Arthur and the Arthur better known from other legends. All in all, it is a rich assortment of folklore and history. Anyone with an interest in either history or folklore should have this book on their shelf.
That established, which edition should you choose? This proves difficult indeed, for although they both relate the same stories, their differences are profound and pronounced. The Everyman edition is more poetic, with flowery language and more ancient ways of speaking. The text is comparable to reading the King James version of the Bible, both in tone and in word choice. The Penguin edition is more modern, reading like contemporary stories. It is easier to follow for the modern ear, but loses some of the mystique lent by the older translation. Similarly, the notes provided by the two editions are significantly different. The Everyman version tends to praise more than criticize, while the Penguin tends to take a more critical approach. Both give good and thorough overviews of the history of the text, and both present useful aids to the reader.
Everyman provides a more complete overview at the beginning, while Penguin provides a short explanation of each story. Penguin provides a clearer pronunciation guide. Penguin also provides a map, which is missing from the other edition. Overall, though, it is the stories that make The Mabinogion, and the reader must decide which version better suits their ear. I would suggest visiting a store which carries both editions, and reading the first few paragraphs of the final tale, “Gereint and Enid” in the Penguin edition, and “Gereint Son of Erbin” in the Everyman edition. The style differences will become clear from this short reading, and you can then decide which better suits your taste when it comes to reading these classic folktales.
(Penguin Classics, 1976)