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.
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