Published: Thursday 14th May 2015
Written by: Ginnie James
My daughter and I were watching my DVD of Riverdance the other day and she wanted to know about the story they were telling through dance and song. This led on to a discussion about how, in ages past, there were no books and knowledge was passed on through the skill of storytellers over the generations. She is in the process of learning to read and was having great difficulty comprehending a world without writing and books! The Welsh culture is well-known for its tradition of myths and legends and one of the most famous collections of such tales is The Mabinogion.
Tradition of Celtic societies show Bards as professional poets who were usually associated with a particular noble who would pay him to compose poetry celebrating said nobles achievements and attributes. These trained men would also hold the history of their culture in their songs and would travel around settlements disseminating their knowledge and providing a good few evenings of entertainment! I am sure every child educated in Wales would have had this included in their curriculum at some point and school, regional and national Eisteddfods ensure the bardic tradition is alive and well.
There have been many studies made into the origins of these traditional tales but it is generally accepted that they came back into the public’s perception when a translation by Lady Charlotte E Guest of 12 stories was published around 1850. In her book, eleven come from the White Book of Rhydderch (1300-1325) and the Red Book of Hergest (1375-1425) and you can track the cultural shift from the ancient Celtic traditions to the increasing influence of Christianity.
The oldest four, Pwyll Prince of Dyved, Branwen the Daughter of Llyr, Manawyddan the Son of Llyr and Math the Son of Mathonwy are known as the Four Branches of the Mabinogi as the one character of Pryderi links them all. The Dream of Maxen Wledig (associated with the legend of Emporor Maximus) and Lludd and Llevelys move the stories into the time of the Roman Occupation of Britain. The last five titles Kilhwch and Olwen,The Dream of Rhonabwy, The Lady of the Fountain, Peredur the Son of Evrawc and Geraint the Son of Erbin take us into the realms of Arthurian romance and the Age of Chivalry. The links between King Arthur and Wales has a long history and a subject well worth coming back to at a later date!
The twelfth tale included in the book is a story that stands alone and is translated from a later written manuscript. The main character of the piece is Taliesin, a renowned bard and historically recorded figure from the C6th. I will go into more detail on the different stories in later blogs but I would love to know if anybody has any good or bad memories of studying The Mabinogion? Which is your favourite tale?