The Mabinogion (c.1200)
Anonymous (Everyman’s Library, 2000)
303 p. First reading.
The Mabinogion is a collection of medieval Welsh folk-tales and legends. It was compiled in the mid-fourteenth century, but most of the stories are thought to date from a few hundred years prior. They fall into three groups: The Mabinogi, a set of four tales from which the collection derives its name; a matching set of four stories on Welsh legends; and a group of three Arthurian romances. The translations, from the 1940s, superbly render these tales into gracefully archaic English.
The idiom is mostly rather close to Malory or Chrètien de Troyes, and scholars argue about the direction in which influence ran. The stories are populated by brave, handsomely armoured men, strong horses, beautiful maidens, and the tales turn on quests, prophecies, jousts, dreams, and magic. The story-teller is frequently at pains to articulate just who sat where at dinner, and what sort of silk draped the lovely form of the lady loved best by the hero (yellow brocaded appears to be the most illustrious variety). At times the narrative is absorbed by long passages detailing the members of hunting parties, and their lineages (particularly thorny-going with Welsh names), but for the most part they are very engaging stories. This is particularly true of the three Arthurian tales, which are among the best I have encountered in the genre; they are clearly the work of a master.
There is an art to reading such tales; they ask of the reader a certain inner disposition. The stories are dominated by plot, as is typical of medieval literature, and the hero sometimes moves from episode to episode, marvel to marvel, with amazing rapidity, and perplexingly little unity. Does one read these tales for self-understanding, as modern literature has taught us to do? Perhaps it is possible, but I think these stories want to give the reader something else. They ask us to simply enter the story, wide-eyed with wonder, willing to marvel at marvels and honour the nobility of true, pledged love. There is, it seems, more than one kind of kingdom which one must be a child to enter.