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


14 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…

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  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.

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  4. Dr. Gerard P Beggan

    It is to be noted that most of those who have written as experts about the origins of the Mabinogi seem to be linguists, philologist’s or literary persons of Welsh nationality. A very different approach has been taken by a little known Irish researcher who was recently drawn to these tales while investigating local history and landscape in a region spanning the upper River Suck in the Counties of Galway and Roscommon in Ireland. In this landscape the site of ruins of an enormous prehistoric moated circular fort exist and coincide well with the location of the royal seat Regia Altera shown in Ptolemy’s map of Hibernia, when that map is given the same orientation as a modern map of Ireland. Known to have been the royal site of a prehistoric group of allied tribes which gave prehistoric kings to the province of Connacht, it lies in a triangle defined by the Suck and two small tributaries thereof. Its structure is that of three concentric circles comprised of the 25ft wide circular fosse surrounding 25ft wide circular ramparts surrounding the circular area enclosed by these, all lying c250 metres south of a well shown on O.S maps. In brief, it is triple-wheel-like. Thus this fortress answers amazingly well to the descriptions of Caer Sidi as given in some Middle Welsh poems in the book of Taliesin (Song before the Sons of Llyr) – e.g. 1. “And around its borders are the streams of the ocean”, 2. “The abundant well is above it, sweeter than white wine is the drink in it”, 3. I have a golden chair in Caer Sidi in a hallowed wheel rotating as one of three circles” – (from the poem titled ‘Taliesin’s Golden Chair’ by Prof. Patrick Sims Williams.)

    Ireland abounds in placenames dating from medieval times or earlier. The people were then gaelic-speaking. Historical circumstances has caused these placenames to be put on written record in phonic form mostly by English conquerors, forming ‘anglicised’ names by fusing two or more gaelic words into one “English” word. In the environs of this prehistoric royal fort there existed until the 17th century placenames which included ‘Bran’s Wood’ and ‘Aughrane’ alias ‘Aghrane’, (i.e. Middle Welsh ‘Ochren’ alias ‘Achren’), these names evoking the main characters in the Middle Welsh poem “Cad Goddeu” alias “The Battle of the Trees”. (Aughrane is still mostly woodland.)

    At a nearby place now known as “The Rocky Place of the Magician” is a little artificial island formed by the diversion of a stream. Adjacent are two umbos. This evidently corresponds to Caer Dathyl where the magician Mat, son of Mathonwy, lived, Caer Dathyl being a Welsh phonetic rendering of Cathair Dá Tol (i.e. “the stone fort of the two umbos”) It will be remembered that Mat was drawn into war by Gwydion who stole pigs from Pryderi that had been gifted to him by Arawn, king of Annwfyn (Irish: Aedh Rán – i.e. ‘Noble Aedh’; many early Irish kings were called Aedh.) Mat and his war band awaited at twin forts for Pryderi and his ‘men of the south’. Battle ensued, followed by a truce. A skirmish recommenced as the men came up to uelen rhyd (‘the golden ford’). In an ensuing duel Pryderi was killed and is buried “above” this ford.

    In medieval times a militarily important ford known as “the ford of the golden weir” gave access to and from County Roscommon over the River Suck. Beside the river, a very short distance north of this ford, in land nowadays called Cloondara, there still exists the known site of twin forts, lying side by side. Furthermore, on high ground overlooking the ‘ford of the golden weir’ there exists a prehistoric umbo tomb, about 300 metres distant from the river Suck. Cloondara is Cluain Dá Rath – i.e. ‘the meadowlands of the twin fortresses’. These three entities (forts, ford and umbo tomb) correspond with the topography of the legend of Mat and Pryderi.

    Many names in the Mabinogi tales are evidently phonic versions of Irish words fused together. Lady Charlotte Guest marvelled at them, and was well aware that they were not of Welsh origin. In particular the Irish words An Ubh Éin (‘the bird-egg’) can be written phonetically as Annwfyn, Annwvyn, Annwfn etc. Arawn was king of ‘the land of Annwfyn’. It so happens that an enormous ancient egg-like granite stone, bearing La Tène ornamentation and dated by archaeologists to circa 200BC still exists in the environs on Regia Altera/Caer Sidi as above described. It is not now at its original historic site. However, until the 17th century a land denomination existed in Killeroran Parish having the name “The road to the tomb in the land of the egg”. Killeroran Parish then contained much of the environs of Regia Altera as above described.

    Two monasteries were built in the great enclosure which corresponds to Regia Altera/Caer Sidi as above described. The enclosure is now known as Abbeygrey. The earlier of these, seemingly Cistercian, was in ruin by 1340 AD. When the Middle Welsh poem Preiddeu Annwn is examined in the knowledge that it is about an attack led by “Arthur” on a monastery (in the poem called Caer Sidi, Caer Ochren – and several other names), and that manuscripts/texts were taken from Caer Sidi (the monastery) by these attackers and taken overseas (with the poet), then the poem can be associated with a real event when in very early 1177 the first Welsh Normans entered Connaught led by Milo De Cogan and, following a three night stay in Roscommon town, advanced through hostile territory as far as Tuam town, pillaging all the way. The poet indicated that (some) raiders revelled in “The Four Peaked Fortress” which made four revolutions. Every fixed object makes four revolutions in four days, as the world turns once per day. Moreover, on this excursion four days was the length of time spent by the Normans west of the River Suck (having been routed out of Tuam), the total expedition taking seven days. Rory O’Conor king of Ireland was king of ‘the land of Annwfyn’ at this stage, his disloyal son Murrough having aided “Arthur” (De Cogan) in his incursion and attack on the abbey. Clearly, from the poem, the poet had previously been at the abbey.

    Nothing in the structure of Preiddeu Annwn prevents it from being dated to c.1177, although some Welsh academics would seem to be at pains to date the Mabinogi to any period except that which might point to any connection with the Welsh Norman invasion of Ireland, begun in 1169 with the support of Rhys ap Gruffydd who titled himself ‘Prince of Wales’. [See Gerard Beggan, Reclaiming the Spoils of Annwfyn: Regia Altera and the landscape of the Mabinogi.]

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    1. Thank you, Dr Beggan. There’s a lot here to unpack which I will do over the next few days. I’ve also downloaded your ebook to read, and that’ll take some time to absorb, but it does intrigue. So, I’ll get back to you, and also think about reviewing your monograph if I feel able to say anything informed about it.

      A reminder that I’m not an academic historian, but I do try to keep an open mind – except when the theory outruns the evidence! I hope you understand.


    2. I should also draw attention to Andrew Breeze’s collected papers on the supposed author of the Mabinogi – Gwenllian – which I reviewed here: https://wp.me/p2oNj1-4K.

      Breeze points to Gwenllian’s roots in Gwynedd and that polity’s close links with Ireland, and he suggests that much of the material in the Mabinogi has its origin in traditional Irish mythology, with which she’d’ve been familiar.


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