April 17, 2013
Mabinogion and Welsh Mythology
First published: 1410
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Mabinogion is a collection of several (13 in my edition) prose stories from different medieval Welsh manuscripts. It was first published in London in 1879 by Lady Charlotte Guest, and this translation, although censured, first sparkled public interest in Welsh mythology. I read a translation into Russian from medieval Welsh by Erlichman, with a lot of comments on translation, the origin of names and the roles of some characters in the oral tradition. I'm glad I chose this edition, because without the comments it would be rather difficult to understand several things and enjoy the book so much.
All the stories are divided into several sub-collections in accordance with their style. The first part, the "Four Branches of Mabinogi" itself, was the most exciting for me, as it comtains the oldest and the best preserved myths. They are concerned mainly with the sacred history and geography of Wales, as they tell how heroes/gods taught people different crafts, explain why some places are called as they are and so on. What is the most valuable about these stories is that somehow they nearly evaded monastic and Norman corrections and additions, and therefore show Welsh oral tradition in its purity.
Later collections demonstrate the origin of Arthirian legends. He appeared in the nation's fantasies as a protector from all the invaders from the continent. In the first tales he doesn't have his Camelot or the round table and is not called an emperor. He is just a traditional Welsh hero. But the further the story in the book, the more familiar traits we see. Some argue that the last tales were even borrowed from Chrétien de Troyes because of so much chivalry. Church's influence is also obvious, as proper weddings and Christian holidays appear in the stories. This process of adapting the old myths to the new "fashion" is very interesting to observe, but it is also a bit sad that such a vast narrative tradition was sacrificed to the new literary standards.
The book was also quite entertaining for me as a fantasy lover, as the names of the places and people were heavily borrowed by Tolkien and all the Arthurian writers. With such a vast influence on the literary tradition, Mabinogion is an important read for those who are always interested in the origins of things.