A remarkable narrator


Andrew Breeze:
The Origins of the ‘Four Branches of the Mabinogi’
Gracewing Publishing 2009

Four medieval stories in Welsh — Pwyll Prince of Dyfed, Branwen Daughter of Llŷr, Manawydan Son of Llŷr and Math Son of Mathonwy — form a unique cycle of tales drawing in characters, motifs and tale-types from Celtic mythology and folktale, all set in the recognisable medieval landscape of Wales and adjacent parts of England. If they didn’t exist our understanding of Celtic myth and legend would be immeasurably the poorer, but our knowledge of the circumstances of this unique retelling and, very importantly, the author and their motivations for setting it all down are severely hampered by lacunae, scholarly suppositions and sometimes wild speculations.

The premise of this book is easily told.

The author argues from close analysis of the text, placenames and medieval history that the anonymous author of the Welsh tales collectively called The Mabinogi (that is, the ‘Four Branches’ of the collection popularly known as The Mabinogion) was a woman of high birth in the first third of the 12th century, and has even identified her as Gwenllian, daughter of a North Walian king and wife of a prince from South Wales. He has argued his case over the last decade or so in a series of papers (adapted here as separate chapters of his book) which were deemed controversial when they first appeared but which not only cumulatively make a strong case but which also don’t seem to have been convincingly demolished.

Kidwelly Castle 1805
Kidwelly Castle 1805

Among several points he makes regarding authorship are how the Four Branches show strong interest in the two Welsh polities of Gwynedd and Dyfed, both of which Gwenllian had political ties with; the familiarity with governance and diplomacy, only to be expected of someone with birth and matrimonial links to a ruling class; and of course the insight into, empathy with and detailed knowledge of matters such as childbirth, child rearing and that influence displayed by those commonly described as ‘the power behind the throne’. And not just behind the throne: Gwenllian herself tragically died while actively defending the castle of Kidwelly, one of those peerless warrior women who act outside the constraints that society usually sets for them.

Andrew Breeze, by his own account, appears to be a maverick thinker in this area, but he also presents opposing theories in a reasoned and fair way. That he also demolishes the arguments for male, particularly clerical, authorship, viewpoints biased solely in favour of a north-west Welsh kingdom, and imprecise or vague datings ranging over two centuries, are attractive features of this impassioned but rational study which I find more persuasive than many.

The small handful of typos and the lack of a map are the only failings I can point to in what is a short but stimulating and easily assimilated read. If, at the very least, you are encouraged to find out more about the remarkable Gwenllian then the read would have been worthwhile. And, of course, reading the original Four Branches in translation would be an added bonus, as they really are fascinating narratives.

Revised 2014 version of review first published July 5th 2012, republished to mark Dewithon19, the Wales Readathon for 2019

16 thoughts on “A remarkable narrator

      1. MrsB_inthehills

        I am – I also don’t turn down page corners, a habit that makes me shudder to the depths of my soul! Yes please, I’d love to borrow it sometime

        Liked by 2 people

  1. I love how history both real and fantastical bubble up with you. After reading up on some current nasty mob actions taken against up-and-coming YA authors on Twitter (which I hope to comment upon this month) it’s nice to return to the classic, the old-school, the fiercely beautiful. x

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Sorry to hear about whipped-up indignation and denigration online, there’s already far too much negativity in the world. As March is already Women’s History Month I thought it would be good to feature a presumed medieval female writer in amongst all my other posts for the Wales Readathon! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: Wales Readathon 2019 – Book Jotter

  3. This sounds like a really interesting book, Chris. As I’ve only recently become aware of the Mabinogion thanks to dewithon, this sounds like it would be a good book to continue learning more. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Commentators have always found the treatment of women in the Four Branches to be more sympathetic than might be expected from, say, a male author. It helped me see them in a new light.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That is very interesting Chris. I’m away from home atm so cannot double-check my copy, but I don’t recall Sioned Davies discussing who any of the early medieval scribes might have been, focusing instead on their earlier oral nature instead….and Charlotte Guest, the first English translator of the complete tales. I think Davies might have had a soft spot for her.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I think (I’d have to check my copy to confirm) she was more concerned to discuss the tradition the tales came from than to consider the contentious matter of who the anonymous author or authors might have been. And Lady C is an interesting character in her own right, and clearly a striking woman as I could see from her portrait in Cyfarthfa Castle, Merthyr Tydfil.

      Liked by 1 person

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