Today we celebrate World Book Day and the launch of the campaign ‘Share a Story’. Wales has a long tradition of sharing stories, one of the most famous legacies of this being the collection of medieval Welsh prose known as the Mabinogi – and what better stories can there be to share?
These are a fascinating mix of dramatic and mysterious tales of magic, tragedy, romance, fantasy, humour, betrayal, conflict, justice, adventure, morality, human nature and the Otherworld, combining elements of folklore, mythology, pseudohistory, legend and philosophy, with occasional comments on mediaeval current affairs.
There are eleven stories in all, and they include the earliest prose stories found anywhere in Britain. The first four – ‘Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed’, ‘Branwen ferch Llŷr’, ‘Manawydan fab Llŷr’ and ‘Math fab Mathonwy’, known collectively as the Four Branches – are generally considered to be linked together, albeit very loosely to the modern eye. They were probably first written down between 1060 and 1200, neatly coinciding with attacks on Wales from England and the destruction of great native Welsh political hegemonies, but many of the stories themselves are much older, having been told, retold and adapted for centuries.
Another of the oldest stories is ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, which presents king Arthur in a very different light from the Anglo-French romances and pseudohistories made popular by Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chrétien de Troyes in the twelfth century, while ‘The dream of Macsen Wledig’ echoes Geoffrey’s work but contains many elements that are not found in it. Some of the other stories, however, were clearly influenced by Anglo-French romances, notably ‘The dream of Rhonabwy’, which appears to be an entirely literary creation. In some ways, the stories can be seen as a product of the post-colonial world in which they were first written down.
Yet the Mabinogi tales owe much more to the Welsh oral tradition in which they originated, as well as the narrative skill of the people who committed them to writing. The storytelling techniques employed in most of the stories – repetitive, and full of dialogue and distinct memorable episodes – suggest that they were composed to be performed and listened to, rather than read, but we know very little about who composed the stories or who would have performed them. The Welsh court poets knew many traditional stories and expected their audiences to understand references to them, and the stories themselves state that a chief poet was expected to tell a story when he received hospitality, and that other people told stories as well. Even today, it is common in traditional societies to share stories of all kinds at social gatherings. The Mabinogi, then, can be thought of as an expression of the collective memory of the society that produced it.
The earliest surviving manuscript fragments of the stories date from the thirteenth century, but the earliest major collection – and one of the great treasures of the Library – is the White Book of Rhydderch, which contains ten of the eleven tales and was written around 1350, probably by monks at Strata Florida; it was an error by a mediaeval scribe that led to the collection becoming known as the Mabinogion by the eighteenth century. The White Book was divided into two volumes (now Peniarth MSS 4 and 5) before 1658, with all of the Mabinogi stories in Peniarth MS 4, while the eleventh story, ‘The dream of Rhonabwy’, only appears in the later Red Book Hergest, which is now in Oxford (MS Jesus College 111).
Scholars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries made considerable use of the White Book, but knowledge of the stories seems to have been confined to manuscript studies. There is no evidence that famous storytellers like Thomas Edwards (Twm o’r Nant, 1739-1810), for example, ever told the Mabinogi tales. Things began to change, however, when William Owen Pughe published the ‘Mabinogion’ tales in English between 1795 and 1829, and they became internationally famous when Lady Charlotte Guest published the first full collection between 1838 and 1877, bilingually in Welsh and English. Academic interest revived, and by the twentieth century the Mabinogi was firmly embedded in the popular consciousness, inspiring many forms of creative work in both Welsh and English: novels, poetry, drama, visual art, storytelling, opera, pop and folk music, film, and children’s books, including the work of Saunders Lewis, Alan Garner, Anthony Conran, Gwyneth Lewis, Margaret Jones, Geraint Jarman, Robin Williamson, Michael Harvey and many others. The Library is home to all of this.
Like the Arthurian legends, the Mabinogi stories are mediaeval but at the same time timeless. They have been re-imagined by successive generations as they have tried to recover their own past, make sense of the world around them, and look forward into an uncertain future. They are as relevant now as ever.
So why not read some Mabinogi stories on World Book Day? Listen to them. Perform them. Share them. These stories were meant to be heard. And so ends this branch of the Library blog.
Dr David Moore (Archivist)
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