236. The Mabinogion (11-13th century)

Source :  Penguin Black Classic translated by Jeffrey Gantz, published 1976.

Thoughts : Welsh stories of mystery and magic, not as bloodthirsty as the Irish Tain but not as courtly and chivalrous as the better-known Arthurian romances or the Lais of Marie.

Some characters reappear across the stories, but modern research seems convinced that the volume is a composite of many authors, and have been corrupted over centuries of storytelling. To give a taste of what they are like, I’ll describe the events of just one story: Math son of Mathonwy

Two brothers, Gwydyon and Gilvaethwy, attempt to deflower the virgin Goewin, whose virginity is essential to the life of their uncle King Math. They rape her, and are caught by Math, who turns them into a stag and a hind for a year. They produce an offspring fawn who is magicked into a human boy, then Math turns them into a boar and a sow. A year later, their second son is transformed into another boy, while they are changed into a wolf and she-wolf. Once their cub is born a year later, they are returned to the shape of men and pardoned.

Looking for another virgin to ensure Math’s life, Gwydyon uncovers the pregnancy of the maiden Aranrhod, and earns her bitter enmity. Gwydyon adopts one of her unwanted babies and despite her curses, he tricks her into providing the boy with a name (Lleu), armour and weapons. When Aranrhod’s last curse insists he will not have a wife, Math and Gwydyon create a woman from flowers (Blodeuedd) to be his bride.

Unfortunately, Blodeuedd falls in love with Goronwy the Staunch, and they plot to murder Lleu, who can only be killed by a spear made over a year of Sundays, and while he stands with one foot on the rim of a bath tub and the other on the back of a goat (Sounds pretty safe, right). Goronwy forges the spear while Blodeudd convinces Lleu to show her exactly how he must stand so they can avoid it happening in the future. Mortally wounded Lleu turns into an eagle, is nursed back to health and seeks his revenge. Blodeuedd is turned into an owl and Goronwy is killed in the same manner as Lleu was attacked.

The triple storyline seems typical of the other tales as well, with the span of a year before significant actions are allowed to happen being fairly standard. Giants, dragons, magicians, unicorns, magical fire trees and other supernatural stirrings make the stories somewhat memorable. And for those who like their folktales a bit more Pythonesque, we have the story of Arthur’s cousin, Culhwch who must meet all 39 challenges set by Chief Giant Ysbaddaden before he can marry the Giant’s daughter Olwen.

Ysbaddaden : “Though you get that,there are things you will not get ….

Culhwch : “It will be easy for me to get that, though you think otherwise…”

x 39 – you soon get the idea.

However Culwych is a great practitioner of “phoning a friend” and relies heavily on Arthur, his armies and his retinue of magically gifted knights to get the job done.

The last tales all include Arthur, Gwenhwyvar (Guinevere) and his knights, but no Merlin or Round Table; and Arthur is merely a figure in the background, with the tales focusing on the actions and quests of the knights Peredur, Owein and Garaint. In general, these adventures are strung together with little in the way of plot development, and are not very satisfying to read. Sir Kei (Kay) is an ignorant bully and Sir Gereint treats his long suffering wife Enid abysmally after misunderstanding a single phrase she said to praise him. Peredur seems to find the “lady he loves best” several times, forgetting the one(s) that came before. Not a very chivalrous bunch.

Personal rating:  Being of Welsh heritage myself, I was hoping to give this a higher score, but the stories simply did not grab my imagination like Beowulf or Roland. 5/10

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