The Mabinogion Paperback – Jan 1 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
While the Arthurian romances still inspire an endless stream of books and movies, this medieval Welsh classic is relatively unknown. Perhaps, as John Updike indicates in his preface, this is because reading the book feels "as if we are dancing with a partner who hears a distinctly different music." The work is divided into 11 disparate tales. Only the four of the first section are explicitly "branches of the Mabinogi," or stories of a youth. The youth in question, according to a tradition followed by Gwyn Jones in her introduction, is Pryderi, the son of a Welsh King, Pwyll. However, the cyfarwyddi, or Welsh bards who told the tales, added so many digressions to them that Pryderi became a secondary character in a sea of folktales. Particularly interesting is the motif of the chastised wife. Pryderi's mother, Rhiannon, is punished twice. In the first tale, she is falsely accused of eating her son (who has been spirited away) and must offer herself to be ridden like a horse at the court of Arbeth. In the third tale, she and Pryderi are both put under enchantment by Llwyd, a king of the Otherworld, and are only rescued by a ruse of Manawydan, the Briton who married Rhiannon after Pwyll died. Manawydan threatens to hang a mouse who has been eating his wheat, when Llwyd appears to him and confesses that the mouse is his wife. The other tales and romances allude both to the world of the Mabinogi and Arthur's Britain. Among the best is "Culhwch and Olwen," which contains a genealogical catalogue trumping anything in Genesis. With renewed interest in Celtic culture, there might be a popular audience for this new translation, but the book will sell best in academic communities.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From the Publisher
Founded in 1906 by J.M. Dent, the Everyman Library has always tried to make the best books ever written available to the greatest number of people at the lowest possible price. Unique editorial features that help Everyman Paperback Classics stand out from the crowd include: a leading scholar or literary critic's introduction to the text, a biography of the author, a chronology of her or his life and times, a historical selection of criticism, and a concise plot summary. All books published since 1993 have also been completely restyled: all type has been reset, to offer a clarity and ease of reading unique among editions of the classics; a vibrant, full-color cover design now complements these great texts with beautiful contemporary works of art. But the best feature must be Everyman's uniquely low price. Each Everyman title offers these extensive materials at a price that competes with the most inexpensive editions on the market-but Everyman Paperbacks have durable binding, quality paper, and the highest editorial and scholarly standards. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.See all Product Description
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Top Customer Reviews
Only the story of Taliesin is for some reason omitted from Gynn Jones and Thomas Jones' translation.
Chronologically, according to subject matter, the story of "Lludd and Llefelys" comes first, which explains in passing the dragons which were later to uncovered by Ambrosius in Nennius' _Historia Brittonum_ and by Merlin according to still later accounts.
But in order of presentation the book presents first the Mabinogi proper, _Mabinogi_ possible meaning 'Hero Tale'. The four tales of the Mabinogi supposedly take place in Britain just before the attempted invasion by Julius Caesar and Cassibelaunus who was historically Caesar's main opponent appears here as Caswallawn son of Beli. But we know from other sources that many of the characters presented here as great lords and chieftains and kings of that era were earlier gods worshipped in Gaul or Ireland or both.
Rhiannon (whom Pwyll gains as wife in the first branch) is the goddess known from Latin inscriptions in Gaul as Rigatona. Manawydan is the Irish god Manannan also known as the god of the Isle of Man. In the third branch the young and rather inactive prince Lleu is the Irish Lugh and Gaulish Lug, the most important god of the Celtic pantheon. What we are told of him here has very little relation to what is told of him in surviving Irish tales.
Who can know what these beings meant to the anynomous teller of these tales and how much is based on genuine pagan tradition and how much on inventive story telling based on stock motifs?Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
In 1948 the Golden Cockerel Press issued an "edition-de-luxe" of translations from Medieval Welsh prose tales, made by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, under the title of "The Mabinogion." This was the direct ancestor of the present Everyman volume. The translators, besides sharing a common Welsh name, were both distinguished academics: Thomas Jones was Professor of Welsh at Aberystwyth, and Gwyn Jones was Professor of English at Aberystwyth and Cardiff.
This title of the book was, as the translators pointed out, an erroneous form, a mere scribal error turned into a comprehensive title for stories with quite diverse histories. It was established in the public mind in the nineteenth century by Lady Charlotte Guest, who issued the first complete English translation of the stories, with Welsh texts, published in seven volumes, 1838-1845. The English text and notes of the shorter 1848 edition of her version had been included in the "Everyman's Library" series since 1906. This fat (432 pages) little volume furthered its position with the literary public interested in Welsh matters, general Celtic literature, or Arthurian stories, despite enormous advances in Welsh studies in the intervening century before the Jones and Jones translation. (I have separately reviewed some of its recent editions, with more on the translator's remarkable life.)
A more accurate translation by T.P. Ellis and J. Lloyd, "The Mabinogion: A New Translation," had been published by Oxford University Press in 1929, and seems to have made little impact. (One wonders: did the Depression play a role?) It had some useful annotations, and I have often wondered why it has never been reprinted, while Guest has gone into a variety of fuller or shorter versions (including the stories-only Dover Thrift edition, and one, apparently with the notes, illustrated by Alan Lee) of her bowdlerized and otherwise truncated rendering. Ellis and Lloyd continued to use Guest's title, and omitted one story, "Taliesin," a practice which Jones and Jones followed with no clear explanation. (I will offer one below.)
Otherwise, the narrative contents of all three of these translations are the same. They contain stories in four categories. (Note that preferred spellings of proper names vary, and I have not tried to be fully consistent.)
First, "The Four Branches of the Mabinogi," from which the collective title was derived, consisting of "Pwyll, Prince of Dyved," Branwen Daughter of Llyr," "Manawydan Son of Llyr," and "Math Son of Mathonwy." These begin with a story about the conception and birth of Pwyll's son, Pryderi, whose death is one of the early events in the "Fourth Branch," and concern a variety of heroes, and what are clearly rationalized gods. (Evangeline Walton turned each of the "Four Branches" into a novel; and other writers have done versions of one or another of them.)
Second, there are two "native tales," "The Dream of Maxen Wledig" and "The Story of Lludd and Llevelys," about Roman ("historical") and pre-Roman ("mythical") Britain as imagined by the medieval Welsh. The 'Lludd" text, as we have it, actually belongs to the "Chronicle" tradition launched by Geoffrey of Monmouth's supposed translation from an "ancient British book." (Which, if any part of it ever had any existence, was NOT the "Mabinogion.") "Maxen" seems to reflect an even more garbled version of a story known to Geoffrey, compounding several real people.
Third are two Arthurian stories in native Welsh mode. "Culhwch and Olwen," is an elaborate quest, dragging in, at least by name, most of the gods and heroes traceable in Welsh material, and some of their Irish cousins into the bargain, mostly as part of Arthur's court. "The Dream of Rhonabwy" is a visionary encounter with Arthur and his warriors (and anything else I could say would probably be controversial); a fascinating text, which almost boasts of its authentically dreamlike obscurity.
Fourth are three "Romances," "Owain" (otherwise known as "The Lady of the Fountain"), "Peredur son of Evrawc," and "Gereint the Son of Erbin," the first and last of which are clearly versions of Chretien de Troyes' Old French Arthurian Romances, "Yvain" and "Erec," while the second is related in a more complex manner to his unfinished and problematic "Perceval le Gallois." These seem to illustrate Celtic materials going out into wider European society, and then flowing back into Wales to enrich (and confuse) the native heroic and mythic tradition with ideas of chivalry.
The story missing from these two later translations, as well as a third version from 1976, was published by Charlotte Guest as "The Tale of Taliesin," although it is also found in some manuscripts as two separate tales. Although attested rather late, there are Irish parallels, and its tradition would seem to belong very much with the "native tales" like the "Four Branches of the Mabinogi" and "Culhwch." There seems to have been a real Taliesin, an early medieval poet, to whom much later poems were also attributed, but this story-complex has more to do with the myths about the nature of poetry. (It is also behind Thomas Love Peacock's comic novel, "The Misfortunes of Elphin," and quite a bit of modern fantasy literature.)
Fortunately for those of us who do not read medieval Welsh, Everyman's Library retired the lovely, but unreliable (and textually dubious) Guest translation, replacing it with Jones and Jones in 1949 (J.M. Dent and Sons, Ltd., London, and E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., New York). This was an inexpensive and readily-available edition, which included a set of textual notes. Confusingly, it kept the old series number (97), which can lead to problems when ordering used copies. It was frequently reprinted, sometimes with emendations including a reissue in 1974 with Supplementary Textual Notes. This preserved the old pagination, which was frequently cited in discussions of the stories, but made it necessary to check the Supplement to be sure of the translators' most recent conclusions. It appeared with more revisions, additions, and a welcome Index of Proper Names in 1989. There were paperback editions (No. 1097) with at least two different covers, one lovely, one, to my mind, merely garish.
Finally, in 1993, with Dent now part of the Orion Publishing Group, and Charles E. Tuttle as the American publisher, it was reset for the Everyman Paperback Classics, with the changes to the translation smoothly incorporated, and the Textual and Supplementary Textual Notes in what seem to be their final forms. Gwyn Jones was still alive to work on these revisions, now with the collaboration of his wife, Mair Jones. The new pagination makes it harder to locate older references to passages; I have held on to my copies of older printings for this reason. Why go flipping through pages when I can look up the reference directly, and then find the corresponding section in a few seconds?
There is also a hardcover edition with a Preface by John Updike, published under the Borzoi imprint in 2001 (not seen). However, as the 1993 / 2001 text is the translator's final, preferred, revision, it is important to know that there is a difference -- especially if you are ordering it used. The 1974 text still had, besides the 44-page introduction, 283 pages. The 1993 edition, and its reprintings, are in a slightly larger format, and have a 32-page introduction, and 240 pages of main text.
Jones-and-Jones is in almost every way superior to the Guest translation, and is readily available; the lack of the "Taliesin" material, and of comparable, but modern, annotations, are its only failings. It has two modern competitors. One is the Penguin Classics "Mabinogion," translated by Jeffrey Gantz. The English of this translation is more modern, and some prefer it. I find Gantz's decisions on spelling some of the Welsh names rather strange; and some students of Welsh think that some of them are hard to justify. Of more importance to most readers will be his decision to give many of the names, particularly in the long lists of champions, their wives, dogs, horses, and swords, in "Culhwch," in the original Welsh. That sounds normal enough, but they are often intended to be understood as nicknames, whose meaning should be transparent, not meaningless, and some are even funny ("Big-bone, daughter of Strength"). Gantz consistently translates them in footnotes, which is highly distracting. In many cases, putting the Welsh text there for those who need it would have kept the main text easier reading, and looking less like the "begats" in "Genesis" and "Numbers.".
The other alternative -- which I would suggest getting as a supplement to either, if not, indeed, as a first choice -- is Patrick K. Ford's "The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales." It drops the French-influence Romances, the enigmatic "Rhonabwy," and "The Dream of Maxen," but gives a clear and vigorous rendering of the Welsh material, with an excellent introduction and notes. Ford not only did away with the persistent "Mabinogion" mistake in the title, he also included "Taliesin," based on the text he had re-edited from manuscripts, and restored to its two-story version, as "The Tale of Gwion Bach" and "The Tale of Taliesin."
It seems that Ellis and Lloyd and Jones and Jones, knew that Charlotte Guest's text for the story (with poems) had passed through the hands of the notorious Iolo Morganwg. He was a pioneering scholar who didn't hesitate to *invent* the evidence to support his theories, and they had preferred not to plunge into that thicket. Nor had anyone else. Unfortunately, the Guest version had been worked over by Robert Graves for his brilliant, and absurd, "The White Goddess," and a reliable version for non-Celticists was more than overdue. Ford's text edition was of value for another reason; there are close parallels between the stories of Gwion and the boyhood of the Irish hero Fionn (Finn McCool), investigation of which certainly needed a proper edition of the Welsh version to work from.
As an added bonus, Ford included as an appendix a translation of the notoriously difficult "Cad Goddeu," or "Battle of the Trees," also found in Guest's notes. It too had been given a splendid, and absurd, interpretation in terms of the Irish Ogham script by Robert Graves, who demonstrated his profound lack of knowledge of Welsh, and equally deep understanding of Irish. (He actually "improved" and re-ordered the translation he was using, without reference to the original....) Ford doesn't claim to understand its "real meaning," if any, only what it actually says, and it is very nice to have it. (By the way, "The Battle of the Trees" seems likely to have been in Tolkien's mind, along with Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane, when writing of the Siege of Orthanc.)
There is a growing secondary literature about the "Mabinogion" stories, ranging from the excellent but technical, to the trivial, to the seriously erroneous (Graves is not alone!). Gwyn Jones himself contributed an excellent, and readable, analysis of "Culhwch and Olwen," in his book "Kings, Beasts, and Heroes" (1972), where it joins "Beowulf" and "Hrolf Kraki's Saga" (Jones having also translated the latter).
Others of these tales are much more interesting for their relatioships to other parts of the mythos of the British isles. 'Peredur son of Evrawg' is variant of the Parsival story, with close parallels in many of its particulars. The Mabingion also retells some of the earliest known tales in the Arthurian canon. 'Gerient and Enid,' for example, is founded in the Arthur mythology. It's founded on the notions of knightly honor and chivalry, but with a primitive and harsh interpretation of the ethos.
There are other glimpses of early Celtic times, as well. One that struck me, in two different passages, was a telling of some great feast, where the doors were closed to all comers once the feasting began. All comers, that is, except a "king of a lawful dominion or a craftsman who brings his craft." Later in that story (Culwch), the bouncer isn't told to let the kings in, only the craftsmen. This is a vivid display of their high regard for skilled work, something that sounds strange to a modern ear. I think less of the modern ear for thinking so little of such skills.
Not all translations of the Mabinogion are created equal. Reading another translation, I foundered on obsolete, Elizabethan language injected to make the stories seem archaic. This one uses contemporary language, as bards in a living oral tradition would have done, to create a smooth and readable collection.
The tales of the Mabinogion were paraphrased by T.W. Rolleston in his _Celtic Myths and Legends_, 1917 (still available from Dover,) so I was already somewhat familiar with them when I read them. The full versions are much better, and being already familiar with the plot did not diminish my enjoyment at all. The Mabinogion has many parallels with Irish myth and legend. It also contains some of the earliest versions of tales from the King Arthur mythos (even a primitive, very understated version of the Grail legend!) "The Dream of Rhonabwy" (placed by Gantz in the middle of the book to serve as a transition from the mythological tales to the Arthurian tales) contains one of the best contemporary descriptions of Medeival squalor I have ever read. You can almost smell the filth and feel the discomfort of Rhonabwy and his companions as you read the opening passages of this tale.
Gantz's introductory materials are brief and to the point. He provides a general introduction at the beginning which gives the historical background of the Mabinogion and puts it into its literary perspective alongside the French romances. There are a few paragraphs before each tale which provide background information pertinent to that particular story.