The Mabinogion is a collection of prose stories from medieval Welsh manuscripts. They are partly based on early medieval historical events, but almost certainly hark back to older Iron Age traditions.
Its name comes from a misunderstanding made by the Mabinogion’s first English translator, Lady Charlotte Guest: she found at the end of the first tale the form mabynnogyon, a scribal error that was assumed to be the plural of the Welsh word mabinogi, which occurs correctly at the end of the remaining three of the Four Branches. The word mabinogi itself is something of a puzzle, although it is ultimately related to the Welsh mab, which means “son, boy”. Professor Eric P. Hamp, however, suggests that mabinogi derives from the name of the Celtic deity Maponos (“the Divine Son”), and originally referred to materials pertaining to that god. Strictly speaking, “Mabinogi” applies only to the Four Branches (see below), which are speculated to have derived from older tradition. Each of these four tales ends with a colophon meaning “thus ends this branch of the Mabinogi” (in various spellings), hence the name.
The stories of the Mabinogion appear in either or both of two Medieval Welsh manuscripts, the White Book of Rhydderch (Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch) written ca. 1350, and the Red Book of Hergest (Llyfr Coch Hergest) written about 1382–1410, although texts or fragments of some of the tales have been preserved in earlier 13th century and later manuscripts. Scholars agree that the tales are older than the existing manuscripts, but disagree over just how much older. It is clear that the different texts included in the Mabinogion originated at different times. Debate has focused on the dating of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi. Sir Ifor Williams offered a date prior to 1100, based on linguistic and historical arguments, while later Saunders Lewis set forth a number of arguments for a date between 1170 and 1190; T.M. Charles-Edwards, in a paper published in 1970, discussed the strengths and weaknesses of both viewpoints, and while critical of the arguments of both scholars, noted that the language of the stories best fits the period between 1000 and 1100, although much more work is needed. More recently, Patrick Sims-Williams argued for a plausible range of about 1060 to 1200, and this seems to be the current scholarly consensus.
The question of the date of the Mabinogion is important because if it can be shown to have been written before Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britaniae, then some of the tales, especially those dealing with Arthur, provide important evidence for the development of Arthurian legend. Their importance as records of early myth, legend, folklore, culture, and language of Wales is immense.
The Four Branches of the Mabinogi
The Four Branches of the Mabinogi (Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi) are the most mythological stories contained in the Mabinogion collection. Pryderi appears in all four, though not always as the central character.
- Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed (Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed) tells of Pryderi’s parents and his birth, loss and recovery.
- Branwen Ferch Llŷr (Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr) is mostly about Branwen’s marriage to the King of Ireland. Pryderi appears but does not play a major part.
- Manawydan Fab Llŷr (Manawyddan, son of Llŷr) has Pryderi return home with Manawydan, brother of Branwen. The misfortunes that follow them there.
- Math Fab Mathonwy (Math, son of Mathonwy) is mostly about Math and Gwydion, who come into conflict with Pryderi.
The native tales
Also included in Lady Guest’s compilation are five stories from Welsh tradition and legend:
- Breuddwyd Macsen Wledig (The Dream of Macsen Wledig)
- Lludd a Llefelys (Lludd and Llefelys)
- Culhwch ac Olwen (Culhwch and Olwen)
- Breuddwyd Rhonabwy (The Dream of Rhonabwy)
- Hanes Taliesin (The Tale of Taliesin)
The tales Culhwch and Olwen and The Dream of Rhonabwy have interested scholars because they preserve older traditions of King Arthur. The tale The Dream of Macsen Wledig is a romanticized story about the Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus. The story of Taliesin is a later piece, not included in the Red or White Books, which more recent translations omit.
The three tales called The Three Romances (Y Tair Rhamant) are Welsh versions of Arthurian tales that also appear in the work of Chrétien de Troyes. Critics have debated whether the Welsh Romances are based on Chrétien’s poems or if they derive from a shared original. Though it seems probable the surviving Romances derive, directly or indirectly, from Chrétien, it is probable he in turn based his tales on older, Celtic sources. The Welsh stories are not direct translations and include material not found in Chrétien’s work.