A Wild and Crazy Book: ‘The Mabinogion’

What kind of kook comes up with a title like The Mabinogion? Well, strictly speaking, this book doesn’t have a title. It’s just some ancient stories that wound up in a collection in the Middle Ages, and later on the woman who translated them from Welsh into English decided to call it The Mabinogion because the first four stories end with lines like “With that this Branch of the Mabinogi ends.” Nobody knows what a Mabinogi is supposed to be. It may be a 19th-century editorial error.

Some of these stories were already terribly old when they were copied down 800 years ago. So old, in fact, that by the Middle Ages no one understood them anymore. We don’t know who first told these tales, or when, or whether anything in the stories is a reflection or a messed-up memory of something that really happened. All we know is that they’re really cool stories that people have been enjoying for a very long time.

My favorite is Math Son of Mathonwy, which is the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, whatever that means. It tells the story of Gwydion the Magician, who couldn’t find a wife for his son and so wound up making a flower-maiden–yes, that means a girl made out of flowers–to be the young man’s bride. Or is it Branwen Daughter of Llyr, in which the gigantic Bran the Blessed wades across the Irish Sea to rescue his sister Branwen from a cruel mis-marriage?

Back in the 20th century, Evangeline Walton rewrote the Four Branches of the Mabinogi into coherent fantasy novels, which were reprinted in paperback circa 1970, when the success of The Lord of the Rings created a nearly insatiable market for fantasy. Walton’s series, starting with The Island of the Mighty is really quite good. I enjoyed those books, and still have them.

But the original (if we may call any translation an original) is much wackier, and tantalizing. I keep asking myself, what are these stories really all about? I love to delve into the roots of things, but I don’t think anyone has yet dug all the way down to the roots of The Mabinogion.

These ancient tales, whose meaning has been dissolved by time, have provided much inspiration for my own Bell Mountain series. Not that I would dare rip off such startling scenes as “the cauldron of rebirth”–if one of your warriors is slain in battle, toss him into this big pot and he’ll come out a virtually indestructible monster–but I don’t mind borrowing a proper name or two.

Just dipping into The Mabinogion from time to time revs up my imagination. I think it might work some magic on you, too. Give it a chance.

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