earliest ancient literature of Britain
The Mabinogion is the earliest example of British prose stories. It heralded as the beginning of a new era in literature by being the foundation for the now widely popular fantasy fiction genre. Legendary characters like Merlin and Arthur were introduced by this ancient literature of Britain. But it also has social and political significances. Much of the stories were formed when the civilization was struggling with the Anglo-Saxon conflicts. Threatened by the possibility of absolute eradication of its culture, the stories signify the Celtic world’s plight to preserve its heritage and legends.
What is the Mabinogion?
The Mabinogion is the collective name given to eleven Welsh tales. Each story is known as a Mabinogi. The word ‘mab’ in Welsh means ‘boy’ or ‘son’. The nomenclature actually indicates ‘story of youth’. The book presents Welsh mythology, Arthurian romance, and glimpses of medieval Celtic history. It first gained significance when the eleven stories were translated into English by Lady Charlotte Guest in between 1838 and 1849. She has been given credit for not only popularizing the tales through the translation but also bringing prominence upon the term Mabinogion.
The tales have not been written by a single author. In fact, these stories, belonging to the period between 1382 and 1410 AD, do not have written origin but became popular orally by telling and retelling. They passed from one person and generation to the next in this way. Consequently, it is quite probable that what we are reading now might not be what was conceived originally.
The Four Branches of the Mabinogi
The eleven tales have been derived from two manuscripts. They are the White Book of Rhydderch, dated about 1350 AD, and the Red Book of Hergest, dated 1382-1410 AD. Of these eleven tales, it is clear that four belonged to a distinct group titled ‘The Four Branches of the Mabinogi’. The first story is called ‘The First Branch of the Mabinogi’, and so on. The idea of approaching the nomenclature as a branch is derived from the French style of referring to the central plot as the trunk and its episodes as their branches. The incorporation of such diverse styles indicates that the ancient literature of Britain was a product of intermingling of different cultures.
Such linkages between the literature of different cultures is also observed in the classics of other parts of the world. Influences from one culture produced masterpieces in other regions of the globe. For instance, Roman and Greek Milesian tales are the origin point of Middle Eastern adventure stories like the Arabian Nights.
The three romances
Scholars have traditionally classified the stories ‘The Lady of the Well’, ‘Peredur son of Efrog’, and ‘Geraint son of Erbin’ together as ‘the three romances’. This is because they are similar in terms of storytelling pattern and backdrop. The works correspond to the medieval romantic tales written by Chrétien de Troyes. Troyes was a French poet functional in around 1165-1180 and creator of five major Arthurian tales. He is also known to have created the character of Sir Lancelot. His approach towards romantic tales had influenced many French poets as the genre became popular with time.
Secondly, all three stories focus on Caerllion on River Usk, the home of Arthur, as their backdrops. In each tale, the hero leaves Caerllion to embark on a journey where they must protect beautiful widows from corrupt knights. However, the three works are also widely different and they are not from the same author. The emphasis of each is different and they also do not belong to the same manuscripts. Moreover, even though they characterize the romantic story structure they do not reside comfortably within that single genre.
Pseudo-history and folk tales
Of the remaining four tales, the two short tales ‘The Dream of the Emperor Maxen’ and ‘Lludd and Llefelys’ incorporate folk-tale motifs into pseudo-historical traditions, presenting different aspects of British history in an intriguing manner. The remaining two stories, ‘How Culhwch won Olwen’ and ‘Rhonabwy’s Dream’ have Arthurian content. Of these, ‘Rhonabwy’s Dream’ deserves a special mention. While the rest have the oral medium as their origins, this is the only tale that had a written prose. Also, the story is a parody open to multiple interpretations, which establishes its significance as a literary piece of work.
Foundation of London
To appreciate a book like this, the reader has to keep an open mind. The general narrative formats that we encounter in modern novels of the 20th and 21st centuries are highly different from the narrative structures found in such ancient literature of Britain.
The tales do not follow the regular modern genres. Instead, they have a form of their own, where the protagonist establishes his goal at the beginning and then undertake a journey to achieve this goal. The tale unfolds by narrating the experiences of each such journey.
For instance in ‘Lludd and Llefelys’ three plagues fall upon Britain. The goal of the brothers, Lludd and Llefelys, is to free the island from these plagues. Keeping this as the backdrop, the story evokes folktale motifs, blending these with traces of regional history. King Lludd established a fort with towers in which citizens started residing. The fort later came to be known as Caer Lludd, Caer in Welsh meaning ‘fort’. Then it was called Caer Lundein. Subsequently from Lundein, ‘London’ got derived. According to the story then, King Lludd founded London.
The Oral tradition
The book, however, is at places, not an easy read. The reason for this is that the tales were meant to be narrated not by the written medium but by telling and listening. A lot of sections containing repetitive dialogues are supposed to be voiced and presented orally. It throws light upon the popularity of the oral tradition during the medieval era. Myths and folktales were enjoyed through verbal reenactments rather than through reading. Performance features were an essential part of storytelling during that era. The structure of the book attempts at preserving this ancient tradition and so its style is considerably different from what one generally reads.
Such divergences from modern practices do not erode the cultural richness of the work. I strongly suggest that regular book readers make out time and have a go at it because this piece of ancient literature of Britain is a different experience altogether. I read the Oxford Worlds Classics edition, translated by Sioned Davies, which has an introduction that clearly explains the traditional roots behind each tale, their historical and mythological backdrops, and the overall significance of Welsh literature as an individual unique voice.