Book Review: The Mabinogion


Fascinated with all things related to the Celtic tradition, I sought for any written sources associated with mythology and literature that would shed light on the wisdom and worldview of this culture. It wasn’t long before I stumbled upon the Mabinogion in an online research.

The Mabinogion are the earliest prose stories of the literature of Britain, namely Wales. The book is a collection comprised of twelve stories compiled in Middle Welsh during the 12th and 13th centuries from earlier oral traditions.

The stories are highly entertaining, providing a wide panorama of fantasy, romance, drama, philosophy, tragedy and humour. Beasts and giants, magic and illusions, kings and noble ladies, knights and fair maidens, quests and lasting friendships, battles and deceptions, mercy and valour are only a small sample of what one will encounter in the pages of this book.

Set in the dual worlds between the valleys and forests of Wales and the mysterious, shadowy realms of the Otherworld, many of the tales move within a dreamlike atmosphere that weaves a web of seduction all over the reader.

In The Lady of the Fountain, Owain, a knight from king Arthur’s court, goes on a quest and slays the black night that guards the magical fountain. He falls in love and marries the lady of the fountain, but loses her when he neglects her for more knightly exploits. With the help of a lion that he saves from a serpent, he manages to find a balance between his marital and social duties and reconciles with his wife.

In Peredur the Son of Evrawc, the titular character loses his father when young and his mother raises him in isolation in the woods. After meeting a group of knights, he travels to king Arthur’s court to become like them. There, ridiculed by Kai, he sets out on further adventures, promising to avenge Kai’s insults to himself and those who defended him. While travelling he meets two of his uncles, and proceeds to further adventures, an encounter with the nine witches of Gloucester and his lady love.

In Geraint the Son of Erbin, we’re exposed to the romance between the titular character and the beautiful Enid. After the marriage, rumours circulate that Geraint has grown soft, something which causes a grave misunderstanding between the spouses. They embark on a long and dangerous trip full of adventures where Enid’s love is proven as well as Geraint’s fighting skills. The couple reconciles and Geraint inherits his father’s kingdom.

In Kilhwch and Olwen, we’re told of the curse the titular character’s stepmother places upon him to fall in love with the daughter of the giant Yspaddaden, Olwen. As cousin of king Arthur, Kilhwch travels to the king’s court to ask for his help. Arthur agrees and offers him six of his best warriors. Though Olwen responds positively, her father demands the completion of forty difficult tasks. The king and his badass crew complete the tasks; the giant is killed and Kilhwch and Olwen are free to marry.

In The Dream of Rhonabwy, the frame story narrates that Madog sends Rhonabwy and two other companions to find the prince’s rebellious brother, Iorwerth. During the pursuit they seek shelter with Heilyn the Red, but his longhouse is filthy and his beds full of fleas. There, Rhonabwy experiences a dream of Arthur and his time that involves a parody of both the Arthurian and Rhonabwy’s era where an encounter with the Saxons and a game of chess feature.

In Pwyll Prince of Dyved we read about the dual alliance with the Otherworld that the titular character forms: the lasting friendship with Arawn, lord of Annwn, and his courting and marriage to the beautiful Rhiannon as well as the birth, disappearance and final recovery of their son, Pryderi.

In Branwen the Daughter of Llyr we’re exposed to the drama of the children of Llyr: Bendigeidfran (literally Bran the Blessed) and his siblings, Efnisien, Manawyddan and Branwen.  The story deals with Branwen’s marriage to Matholwch, king of Ireland. Matholwch’s violent and unjust treatment of the British princess leads to a mutually destructive war between the two islands, the deaths of most of the principal characters, and the ascension of Caswallon fab Beli to the British throne.

Manawyddan the Son of Llyr is a direct sequel to the second branch, Branwen the daughter of Llyr, and deals with the aftermath of Bran’s invasion of Ireland, the horrific enchantment that turns Dyved into a wasteland and the final lift of the foul magic. The chief characters are Manawyddan, Pryderi, and their respective wives Rhiannon and Kicva.

Math the Son of Mathonwy tells the story of  Math, a magician-king who needed to rest his legs upon the lap of a virgin maiden unless he went to war. The tale narrates the trickery of his two nephews, Gwydion and Gilfaethwy, so that the last could rape his uncle’s footholder, their subsequent punishment by the king,  the deceptive plan the first one of the brothers devised in order to trick the king into accepting his sister, Arianhod, as his new footholder, the raising by Gwydion of Arianhod’s son, Lleu Llaw Gyffes, the three curses Arianhod placed on her son, the woman Gwydion created from flowers to give to his nephew and her subsequent transformation into an owl by Gwydion’s hand.

The Dream of Maxen Wledig narrates the story of the titular character who’s Rome’s emperor. One night, he dreams of a lovely maiden in a wonderful, far-off land. Awakening, he sends his men all over the earth in search of her. They find her in a rich castle in Wales, and lead the emperor to her. Reality corresponds absolutely with his dream. The maiden, Helen, loves him and accepts his proposal. In Maxen’s absence, a new emperor seizes his power. With the help of Helen’s brothers, Maxen marches across Gaul and Italy and recaptures Rome. In gratitude to his British allies, Maxen rewards them with a portion of Gaul that later becomes known as Brittany.

In the story of Lludd and Llevelys we’re told of two beloved brothers and the advice the first receives from the second regarding his leadership. Lludd inherits the kingship of Britain from his father, Beli. Soon after, he helps his brother Llevelys marry the princess of France and become king of that country. Lludd’s reign starts off  well but soon three plagues disrupt the peace. The first plague are the Coraniaid, the second a horrid scream and the third disappearing provisions. Lludd sets out to France and, with his brother’s help, destroys the plagues.

In Taliesin we’re told of the birth of the titular prophet and bard. Ceridwen’s son, Morfran was hideously ugly, so Ceridwen, an enchantress, sought to give him wisdom. She made a potion in her magical cauldron to grant the gift of wisdom and poetic inspiration called Awen. By accident, the young boy, Gwion Bach, who stirred the concoction in the cauldron tasted three drops from it.  Realising that Ceridwen would be angry, Gwion fled, transforming himself into different animals. Ceridwen chased him, ultimately turning herself into a hen and swallowing Gwion who had turned himself into a grain. Thus, she bore him for nine months and gave birth to him. Moved by his beauty, she resolved not to kill him, but threw him in the ocean instead, sewing him inside a leather-skin bag. The child was rescued on a Welsh shore by a prince named Elffin ap Gwyddo who raised him. The reborn child became the legendary bard Taliesin, seeing into the future and foretelling of things to come.










One thought on “Book Review: The Mabinogion

  1. Pingback: Cernunnos: Myth and Religion in the Fantastic (Part II) – Lilaia Moreli – Words Are Sacred

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