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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Mabinogion
Critical Introduction by Ernest Rhys (1859–1946)
 
THE OLD delightful collection of Welsh romances,—“open-air tales,” the late Sidney Lanier happily termed them,—known all the world over as the ‘Mabinogion,’ is the work of various mediæval poets and romancers whose very names, like those of the border balladists, are lost to us. It is easy to speculate, as Stephens and other critics have done, about the authorship of one of two of the ‘Mabinogion,’ in scanning the list of poets in Wales during the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries; but the quest leads to nothing certain, and save to Welsh students is uninteresting. We may say, as the poet Shirley wrote in speaking of Beaumont and Fletcher, the one important thing about these authors is that “we have their precious remains.”  1
  As for the general title ‘Mabinogion,’ which Lady Charlotte Guest’s English version has made familiar, it is well perhaps at the outset to listen to the explanation given by the greatest Celtic scholar of our time,—the present principal of Jesus College, Oxford. From this it may be seen that these tales, too, are but another outgrowth of that wonderful bardic cult to which some reference is made elsewhere. 1 “An idea prevails,” says Principal John Rhys, “that any Welsh tale of respectable antiquity may be called a mabinogi; but there is no warrant for extending the use of the term to any but the ‘four branches of the Mabinogi,’ such as Pwyll, Branwen, Manawydthau, and Math. For, strictly speaking, the word mabinog is a technical term belonging to the bardic system, and it means a literary apprentice. In other words, a mabinog was a young man who had not yet acquired the art of making verse, but who received instruction from a qualified bard. The inference is that the ‘Mabinogion’ meant the collection of things which formed the mabinog’s literary training—his stock in trade, so to speak; for he was probably allowed to relate the tales forming the ‘four branches of the Mabinogion’ at a fixed price established by law or custom. If he aspired to a place in the hierarchy of letters, he must acquire the poetic art. The supposition that a mabinog was a child on his nurse’s lap would be as erroneous as the idea that the ‘Mabinogion’ are nursery tales,—a view which no one who has read them can reasonably take.”  2
  In Lady Charlotte Guest’s later edition in one volume (London, 1877),—the most convenient edition for reference,—twelve tales in all will be found. Of these, the most natively and characteristically Welsh in character are such tales as the vivid, thrice romantic ‘Dream of Rhonabwy,’ which owes little to outside sources. ‘The Lady of the Fountain,’ on the other hand, shows in a very striking way the influence of the French chivalric romances that Sir Thomas Malory drew upon so freely in his ‘Morte d’Arthur.’ In the admirably edited Oxford text of the Welsh originals, ‘The Lady of the Fountain’ appears under the title of ‘Owain and Lunet’; and Lunet’s name at once recalls Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King.’ Indeed, the king, King Arthur himself, is not long in making his entry upon the scene. We find him in this first romance, set forth with all that fondness for fine color which marks all Celtic romance:—
          “In the centre of the chamber King Arthur sat upon a seat of green rushes, over which was spread a covering of flame-colored satin, and a cushion of red satin was under his elbow.”
  3
  It is perhaps to be regretted that King Arthur should appear so indifferent to the delights of fiction as he does in the sequel; for in the interval before dinner he calmly proposes to go to sleep while they tell tales. He also suggests that they should get a flagon of mead and some meat, by way of encouragement to the comfortable exercise of romance. “So Kai went to the kitchen and to the mead cellar, and returned bearing a flagon of mead and a golden goblet, and a handful of skewers upon which were broiled collops of meat. Then they ate the collops, and began to drink the mead.”  4
  In the way of sheer romance, nothing could be better than the tale of his adventures that Kynon then recites: how, after journeying through deserts and distant regions, he came to the fairest valley in the world, and to a great castle with a torrent below it; how, being conducted into the castle, he found there four-and-twenty damsels of surpassing beauty, embroidering satin at a window, who rose at his coming, and divested him of his armor and attired him in fine linen, with mantle and surcoat of yellow satin; and how then they spread a feast before him, with tempting array of gold and silver; and how, when next day he sets forth refreshed in quest of further adventures, he is overthrown by the sable Knight of the Fountain. Owain, in his turn, essays to fight with this Knight of Darkness;—but here let me pause, in the remote hope of sending new readers to the tale itself. For those who think mere romance in itself to be wanting in philosophical interest, let it be added that Principal Rhys has in his Hibbert Lectures discovered all manner of mythological meaning in the tale. Thus Owain becomes the symbol of the Day, with its twelve hours of light, while the dark Knight of the Fountain represents Darkness and Destruction, and corresponds to our old enemy Arawn, the prince of Night and Hades.  5
  In quite another vein from ‘The Lady of the Fountain’ is the curious story of ‘Lludd and Llevelys,’ which begins in the Welsh original, “Yr beli mawr vab manogair y bu tri meib,”—that is, “Beli the Great, son of Manogar, had three sons.” These three were Lludd, Caswallawn, and Nynyaw. But there was also a fourth, called Llevelys. After the death of Beli, Lludd became King; and we add a passage to our selections that follow, describing the legendary origin of London, as founded by King Lludd, after whom Ludgate Hill is called. What could be more entertaining, as one contemplates the ramifications of that congeries of cities forming modern London, than to remember this old Welsh fable of its first beginnings? One need not trouble to distinguish how far King Lludd and his capital, Caer Lludd (the old Cymraec name for London), are historical or not. Here they concern us only as romance, as do the Three Great Plagues of the Isle of Britain, which King Lludd has to drive away. But romance or history, let us not forget that these Three Plagues lead, in the course of the Mabinogi, to the discovery that Oxford is the very center of the mystic Isle of Britain; which may very well account, in turn, for the modern taste of Oxford for Welsh texts!  6
  The tale that follows ‘Lludd and Llevelys’ in the English edition of the ‘Mabinogion,’—‘Taliesin,’ to wit,—is the only item in the list which is rather suspicious in its origin. In fact the tale as it stands is neither primitive nor mediæval, but is a fairly ingenious concoction of primitive and mediæval ingredients, probably made in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. It contains, inter alia, some striking versions of the old mystic poems attributed to Taliesin; for a further account of which we must refer the reader to the article in the LIBRARY upon that remarkable and thrice puzzling Cymraec poet. In the opening of the story of ‘Taliesin,’ as it stands, will be found the mention of a certain Tegid Voel; and this serves to remind us that it was a Welsh scholar, best known by his bardic use of the same name, “Tegid,” who was Lady Guest’s collaborator in translating the ‘Mabinogion.’  7
  It may be said in appraising the value of the contribution thus made to the open literature of the world, that if, necessarily, something is lost in the transference from an old to a newer tongue, yet the version we have is a really surprisingly good English equivalent, written with a great charm of style and a pervading sense of the spirit of all romance literature. Let us not forget, either, to note the services rendered to the book, by one so remarkable among the American poets as the late Sidney Lanier, from whom we quoted a phrase in our opening sentence. In his pleasant preamble to ‘The Boys’ Mabinogion,’ the account he gives of his subject forms so convincing a tribute to its delights that one is tempted to steal a sentence or two. After referring to the ‘Arabian Nights,’ Sidney Lanier goes on to say that the ‘Mabinogion’ fortunately “do not move in that close temperature which often renders the atmosphere of the Eastern tales so unwholesome.” Again he says (and how well the sentence touches on the imaginative spell that one finds in the more primitive, more peculiarly Celtic of those tales, such as the thrice wonderful ‘Dream of Rhonabwy!’): “There is a glamour and sleep-walking mystery which often incline a man to rub his eyes in the midst of a Mabinogi, and to think of previous states of existence.”  8
  It remains to be said, finally, that the old manuscript volume of the ‘Mabinogion,’ known as the ‘Llyfr Coch o Hergest,’—the ‘Red Book of Hergest,’—lies enshrined in the famous library of Jesus College, Oxford: the one college in the older English universities which has a time-honored connection with Welsh scholarship and Welsh literature.  9
 
Note 1. Vide article ‘Celtic Literature.’ [back]
 
 
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