A skein of tales

Celtic head, Newport church, Pembrokeshire © C A Lovegrove

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi:
Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi
by Sioned Davies.
Gomer Press, 1993.

Four medieval native tales from Wales, known collectively as the Mabinogi, have rather remarkably survived for a millennium in two codices compiled somewhat later. Each tale in the quartet is known as a bough or branch (keinc, in Modern Welsh cainc) suggesting they derive from a common narrative tradition.

Sioned Davies, who was later to provide a readable  English translation of The Mabinogion, long established as the extended collection of medieval Welsh tales, offered us here a translation and adaptation of her 1989 Welsh essay on the Four Branches; it proves, for those whose familiarity with Welsh — such as myself — is as best very rusty, an extremely useful companion.

What are the tales about? Why should they still be read? And who wrote them? These and a few more exercise the minds of many, whether or not they are Welsh speakers, scholars, or merely lovers of story. Having long studied medieval narrative Dr Davies is in a good position to offer some solutions, but as any academic knows we can never give definitive answers, not while there is more research to do.

‘Landscape with Psyche Outside the Palace of Cupid, or The Enchanted Castle’ (1664) by Claude Lorrain

Davies’s extended essay is divided into chapters detailing the background to the Four Branches, their structure and narrative techniques, and goes on to discuss themes and characterisation. But first it’s worth knowing that this first appeared in 1989 as an award-winning study in Welsh, designed to introduce a medieval classic to a wider audience, and this englished version was intended to cast the net even further.

Davies emphasises that she applies the term mabinogi to these four branches only, reserving Mabinogion for collections that include other native tales from the Middle Ages. She then discusses the changing terminology used to distinguish poetry from storytelling before going into detail about how these tales (which will have first appeared in written form around the late 11th or early 12th century) owed much to but differed from oral storytelling.

That oral legacy is revealed in several ways, as Davies shows. Structurally the tales exhibit symmetry, just as a cyfarwydd or storyteller would give shape to their narrative to aid their memory and help their audience. Episodes also show tripartite arrangements and motifs — an aspect familiar from fairytales — and are presented in a chronological sequence.

The longest chapter is given over to narrative techniques, especially what Davies regards as linguistic and variable formula which she sees as literary adaptations of oral storytelling, along with the doublet — “a combination of two words which are to all intents synonymous and very often bound together by alliteration.” Then there’s the treatment in the mabinogi of dialogue or ymddiddan, conversation, as a way to establish characterisation, indicate relationships, recount anecdotes and introduce drama.

I’ve so far said little about the actual branches themselves but Davies has much to say about them and the characters — Pwyll, Branwen, Manawydan and Math — whose names are associated with the titles we now know them by. Though us moderns may read this skein of tales for particular reasons — as a guide to insular pagan mythology, for example, or as source material for new fiction, say — there’s no doubt that other aspects will have appealed to the medieval audience. Davies focuses on them as interrelated wonder tales dealing with the Otherworld and the supernatural, but also as pieces reflecting contemporary moral standards and codes of conduct, such as how to deal or not deal with the various forms of insult meted out that may impinge on personal and familial standing and honour.

I want to end with the question of who or what the original author of the Mabinogi may have been. As Davies points out, “writing in the Middle Ages was mainly restricted to a few scholars with a clerical education,” and apparently several groups of literati were in a position to compose the Four Branches, including court priests or scribes, and lawyers, or even a cyfarwydd or poet educated at a church school. Though not considered here, there’s another possibility, that the author may have been an educated woman: in 2009 Andrew Breeze, in The Origins of the ‘Four Branches of the Mabinogi’, suggested the Pedeir Keinc may have been composed by Gwenllian, daughter of a North Walian king and wife of a prince from South Wales, though this isn’t a concept that Davies considered in 1993.

In this detailed study Davies not only demonstrates a deep knowledge of the Four Branches but I think also reveals her essential love of the text. There are copious quotes from the tales to illustrate her points but, never fear, there are English translations (from the 1949 version by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones) for those, like me, whose Welsh is rudimentary or even non-existent; but a little familiarity with the language at least helps draw out the musicality and sonority of the Old Welsh. This adaptation also includes, we’re informed, a scholarly apparatus not present in the Welsh language edition, which here principally consists of references to other translations and related academic studies. It is a fascinating and informative adjunct to Davies’s own translation of The Mabinogion which was to finally appear in 2007.

Read for Reading Wales Month #dewithon22 and published at the vernal equinox. And although this review is late it’s also read for #ReadIndies: Gomer Press is an independent publisher from West Wales


11 thoughts on “A skein of tales

    1. Sioned Davies’s translation is, as well as being one of the most recent, quite readable, but you can get Lady Charlotte Guest’s rather more stilted and archaic 19th-century version free online. Or you could try more free adaptations and variations on motifs and names from the likes of Evangeline Walton, Lloyd Alexander, Alan Garner and Jenny Nimmo, most of whom wrote for a slightly younger readership.

      Sometime I’ll do a piece on the several translations I’ve got, comparing and contrasting their approach, but who knows when that’ll be! Maybe before you get round to the tales…

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Pingback: Reading Wales 2022 – Book Jotter

  2. All very interesting! I can see a lot of corollaries with The Cattle Raid of Cooley – an Irish epic about, ahem, a cattle raid – inasmuch as there were several different versions and they were all written down at a later stage. One problem is that you get a story filtered through the prejudices and the agenda of the person putting it down on paper (in the case of The Cattle Raid of Cooley, a monk, or number of monks) so a greedy and promiscuous woman was to blame for the whole thing. Well of course she was!

    I only ever read one version of The Mabinogion which – ironically – was written by an American who never set foot in Wales: Evangeline Walton. Even more ironically, I wasn’t aware the books were based on Welsh mythology at first. I was only in my early teens. I remember them as being pretty enjoyable, but have no idea how accurately they reflect the spirit of the original stories.


    1. I regret that, although I’ve long had the Kinsella translation of The Táin I’ve only dipped into it, relying more on retellings like that of Rosemary Sutcliff. But you’re right, the ‘Táin Bó Cúailnge’ is indeed a corollary of the ‘Mabinogi’, and not only because mitigated by clerical sensibilities but because both works involve raiding and the supernatural. Soon, I promise, Aonghus, I shall complete the Kinsella version!

      I’ve not ever tried the Walton (I remember seeing a Ballantyne copy in the 60s) but I have read books by her fellow American author Lloyd Alexander who used many motifs from the Mabinogion — inspired by a wartime spell in Wales — and several other mostly children’s writers. And of course many contemporary Welsh authors continue to recycle elements from the collection.


      1. Kinsella died last year (he was, in fairness, 93) and his version is very good, but it’s only partial. I’m not sure why. I remember reading the Sutcliffe version as a kid. It wasn’t bad, if not as good as Kinsella’s. Plus there’s a version by Lady Gregory, who was a close acquaintance of Yeats. Gregory’s version is a bit stiff and old-fashioned, but she does try to put some sort of narrative shape on a sequence that is pretty incoherent in its original form, so credit where credit is due.

        Liked by 1 person

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