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The Mabinogion

Lady Charlotte Guest


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Description

The Mabinogion is a cycle of Welsh legends collected in the Red Book of Hergest, a manuscript which is in the library of Oxford University. They are the earliest prose stories of the literature of Britain and were compiled in Middle Welsh in the 12th–13th centuries from earlier oral traditions. The stories offer drama, philosophy, romance, tragedy, fantasy and humour, and were created by various narrators over time. Mabinogion means 'tales of youth'; Lady Guest appropriated it as the title of this book, and The Mabinogion is now used as the name of the entire collection. The stories are based on historical characters and incidents from the dark ages in Wales and environs, embellished with supernatural and folklore elements. Throughout there are echoes of primordial Celtic mythology and folklore, including the ancient gods and goddesses.

This book has 255 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1877.

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Excerpt from 'The Mabinogion'

That Wales possessed an ancient literature, containing various lyric compositions, and certain triads, in which are arranged historical facts or moral aphorisms, has been shown by Sharon Turner, who has established the high antiquity of many of these compositions.

The more strictly Romantic Literature of Wales has been less fortunate, though not less deserving of critical attention. Small portions only of it have hitherto appeared in print, the remainder being still hidden in the obscurity of ancient Manuscripts: of these the chief is supposed to be the Red Book of Hergest, now in the Library of Jesus College, Oxford, and of the fourteenth century. This contains, besides poems, the prose romances known as Mabinogion. The Black Book of Caermarthen, preserved at Hengwrt, and considered not to be of later date than the twelfth century, is said to contain poems only.

The Mabinogion, however, though thus early recorded in the Welsh tongue, are in their existing form by no means wholly Welsh. They are of two tolerably distinct classes. Of these, the older contains few allusions to Norman customs, manners, arts, arms, and luxuries. The other, and less ancient, are full of such allusions, and of ecclesiastical terms. Both classes, no doubt, are equally of Welsh root, but the former are not more overlaid or corrupted, than might have been expected, from the communication that so early took place between the Normans and the Welsh; whereas the latter probably migrated from Wales, and were brought back and re-translated after an absence of centuries, with a load of Norman additions. Kilhwch and Olwen, and the dream of Rhonabwy, may be cited as examples of the older and purer class; the Lady of the Fountain, Peredur, and Geraint ab Erbin, of the later, or decorated.

Besides these, indeed, there are a few tales, as Amlyn and Amic, Sir Bevis of Hamtoun, the Seven Wise Masters, and the story of Charlemagne, so obviously of foreign extraction, and of late introduction into Wales, not presenting even a Welsh name, or allusion, and of such very slender intrinsic merit, that although comprised in the Llyvr Coch, they have not a shadow of claim to form part of the Canon of Welsh Romance. Therefore, although I have translated and examined them, I have given them no place in these volumes.

There is one argument in favour of the high antiquity in Wales of many of the Mabinogion, which deserves to be mentioned here. This argument is founded on the topography of the country. It is found that Saxon names of places are very frequently definitions of the nature of the locality to which they are attached, as Clifton, Deepden, Bridge-ford, Thorpe, Ham, Wick, and the like; whereas those of Wales are more frequently commemorative of some event, real or supposed, said to have happened on or near the spot, or bearing allusion to some person renowned in the story of the country or district. Such are “Llyn y Morwynion,” the Lake of the Maidens; “Rhyd y Bedd,” the Ford of the Grave; “Bryn Cyfergyr,” the Hill of Assault; and so on. But as these names could not have preceded the events to which they refer, the events themselves must be not unfrequently as old as the early settlement in the country. And as some of these events and fictions are the subjects of, and are explained by, existing Welsh legends, it follows that the legends must be, in some shape or other, of very remote antiquity. It will be observed that this argument supports REMOTE antiquity only for such legends as are connected with the greater topographical features, as mountains, lakes, rivers, seas, which must have been named at an early period in the inhabitation of the country by man. But there exist, also, legends connected with the lesser features, as pools, hills, detached rocks, caves, fords, and the like, places not necessarily named by the earlier settlers, but the names of which are, nevertheless, probably very old, since the words of which they are composed are in many cases not retained in the colloquial tongue, in which they must once have been included, and are in some instances lost from the language altogether, so much so as to be only partially explicable even by scholars. The argument applies likewise, in their degree, to camps, barrows, and other artificial earth-works.

Conclusions thus drawn, when established, rest upon a very firm basis. They depend upon the number and appositeness of the facts, and it would be very interesting to pursue this branch of evidence in detail. In following up this idea, the names to be sought for might thus be classed:—

I. Names of the great features, involving proper names and actions.

Cadair Idris and Cadair Arthur both involve more than a mere name. Idris and Arthur must have been invested with heroic qualifications to have been placed in such “seats.”

II. Names of lesser features, as “Bryn y Saeth,” Hill of the Dart; “Llyn Llyngclys,” Lake of the Engulphed Court; “Ceven y Bedd,” the Ridge of the Grave; “Rhyd y Saeson,” the Saxons’ Ford.

III. Names of mixed natural and artificial objects, as “Coeten Arthur,” Arthur’s Coit; “Cerrig y Drudion,” the Crag of the Heroes; which involve actions. And such as embody proper names only, as “Cerrig Howell,” the Crag of Howell; “Caer Arianrod,” the Camp of Arianrod; “Bron Goronwy,” the Breast (of the Hill) of Goronwy; “Castell mab Wynion,” the Castle of the son of Wynion; “Nant Gwrtheyrn,” the Rill of Vortigern.

The selection of names would demand much care and discretion. The translations should be indisputable, and, where known, the connexion of a name with a legend should be noted. Such a name as “Mochdrev,” Swine-town, would be valueless unless accompanied by a legend.

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