Thomas Bulfinch (17961867). Age of Fable: Vol. III: The Age of Chivalry. 1913.
IT has been well known to the literati and antiquarians of Europe that there exist in the great public libraries voluminous manuscripts of romances and tales once popular, but which on the invention of printing had already become antiquated, and fallen into neglect. They were therefore never printed, and seldom perused even by the learned, until about half a century ago, when attention was again directed to them, and they were found very curious monuments of ancient manners, habits, and modes of thinking. Several have since been edited, some by individuals, as Sir Walter Scott and the poet Southey, others by antiquarian societies. The class of readers which could be counted on for such publications was so small that no inducement of profit could be found to tempt editors and publishers to give them to the world. It was therefore only a few, and those the most accessible, which were put in print. There was a class of manuscripts of this kind which were known, or rather suspected, to be both curious and valuable, but which it seemed almost hopeless to expect ever to see in fair printed English. These were the Welsh popular tales called Mabinogeon, a plural word, the singular being Mabinogi, a tale. Manuscripts of these were contained in the Bodleian Library at Oxford and elsewhere, but the difficulty was to find translators and editors. The Welsh is a spoken language among the peasantry of Wales, but is entirely neglected by the learned, unless they are natives of the principality. Of the few Welsh scholars none were found who took sufficient interest in this branch of learning to give these productions to the English public. Southey and Scott, and others, who, like them, loved the old romantic legends of their country, often urged upon the Welsh literati the duty of reproducing the Mabinogeon. Southey, in the preface of his edition of Moted Arthur, says: The specimens which I have seen are exceedingly curious; nor is there a greater desideratum in British literature than an edition of these tales, with a literal version, and such comments as Mr. Davies of all men is best qualified to give. Certain it is that many of the round table fictions originated in Wales, or in Bretagne, and probably might still be traced there.
I begin almost to despair of ever seeing more of the Mabinogeon; and yet if some competent Welshman could be found to edit it carefully, with as literal a version as possible, I am sure it might be made worth his while by a subscription, printing a small edition at a high price, perhaps two hundred at five guineas. I myself would gladly subscribe at that price per volume for such an edition of the whole of your genuine remains in prose and verse. Till some such collection is made, the gentlemen of Wales ought to be prohibited from wearing a leek; ay, and interdicted from toasted cheese also. Your bards would have met with better usage if they had been Scotchmen.
Sharon Turner and Sir Walter Scott also expressed a similar wish for the publication of the Welsh manuscripts. The former took part in an attempt to effect it, through the instrumentality of a Mr. Owen, a Welshman, but, we judge, by what Southey says of him, imperfectly acquainted with English. Southeys language is William Owen lent me three parts of the Mabinogeon, delightfully translated into so Welsh an idiom and syntax that such a translation is as instructive as an original. In another letter he adds, Let Sharon make his language grammatical, but not alter their idiom in the slightest point.
It is probable Mr. Owen did not proceed far in an undertaking which, so executed, could expect but little popular patronage. It was not till an individual should appear possessed of the requisite knowledge of the two languages, of enthusiasm sufficient for the task, and of pecuniary resources sufficient to be independent of the booksellers and of the reading public, that such a work could be confidently expected. Such an individual has, since Southeys day and Scotts, appeared in the person of Lady Charlotte Guest, an English lady united to a gentleman of property in Wales, who, having acquired the language of the principality, and become enthusiastically fond of its literary treasures, has given them to the English reader, in a dress which the printers and the engravers arts have done their best to adorn. In four royal octavo volumes containing the Welsh originals, the translation, and ample illustrations from French, German, and other contemporary and affiliated literature, the Mabinogeon is spread before us. To the antiquarian and the student of language and ethnology an invaluable treasure, it yet can hardly in such a form win its way to popular acquaintance. We claim no other merit than that of bringing it to the knowledge of our readers, of abridging its details, of selecting its most attractive portions, and of faithfully preserving throughout the style in which Lady Guest has clothed her legends. For this service we hope that our readers will confess we have laid them under no light obligation.