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Y Mabinogion (The Mabinogion)

A collection of Welsh prose tales, composed between the second half of the 11th century and the end of the 13th century, but based on older oral tradition. Most of the 11 anonymous tales incorporate Welsh mythology and folklore and deal with the Arthurian legend.

These stories are preserved in two manuscripts,

  • the White Book of Rhydderch (circa 1300-25)
  • and
  • the Red Book of Hergest (circa 1375-1425)

The first English translation was made from the latter in 1838-39 by Lady Charlotte Elizabeth Guest. The meaning of the name Mabinogion, which she adopted as the title, is the subject of debate. It is derived from the group of four related stories that begins the collection, "The Four Branches of the Mabinogi"; of 11th-century composition, they concern the life of Prince Gwri, or Pryderi.

This cycle is followed by four independent tales also based on native Welsh lore. The collection concludes with a group of three Arthurian romances, showing Norman-French influence and bearing some relation to the work of the 12th-century French poet Chrétien de Troyes, although originally of Welsh origin.

This collection of Welsh Myths has a similar history to the Irish myths, but is less ancient. The earliest stories were probably composed and passed on by druids in a complete and sensible fashion in the pagan iron age until the Roman conquest of Britain, after which the stories were passed on, lost and embellished by wandering story-tellers and old grannies until Christian monks wrote down what was left of them in the 13th-14th century, in documents such as the Peniarth manuscripts (written down about 1200), the White Book of Rhydderch (written down about 1300-1325) and the slightly later Red Book of Hergest (written down about 1375-1425). They were then re-written and transcribed several times, gathering dust in monastery attics (whilst simultaneously continuing to grow and mutate in the oral tradition amongst the illiterate medieval Welsh peasants) until being collected together at the end of the nineteenth century and published in English for the first time by Lady Charlotte Guest.

There are eleven stories.

The first four form a continuous narrative relating stories of British kings, warriors and wizards (meaning Welsh: England was not Britain then) and visitors from The Otherworld (the Welsh equivalent of the Irish Tir Nan Og or fairyland, sometimes called Annwn). These are the oldest of the tales, probably originating in the late iron age, and are often referred to as the proper mabinigion (plural of mabinogi, a dodgy translation of "fairy story"). Completely pagan. They are:

The second four are unrelated folk-tales, two featuring Arthur, and probably the last shreds of a much larger body of early Celtic Arthurian myth that was the inspiration for Mallory. The general feel is very pagan, and chivalry is not mentioned. They are:

The last three are later Arthurian romances, probably mostly Norman-French and reminiscent of Mallory, at best faint echoes of early pagan Celtic myth. They are the only ones to actually mention knights and a chivalric code, and each tale follows the adventures of one knight. They are:

One of these is clearly out of order. Arthur appears alive in books 7, 9, 10 and 11, but is dead and in the Otherworld after Camlan in book 8. In spite of this I have maintained the traditional order as defined by Lady Charlotte Guest at the end of the nineteenth century.

Arthur is never described as being a king. He is clearly a great nobleman with an impressive court and a huge warband, but only one tale defines his status; In "The Lady of the Fountain" he is introduced as emperor.


Full Text of the Mabinogion