Companion Tales to
The Mabinogi
 

Legend and Landscape of Wales 


Four Medieval Welsh Tales
of Wonder and Mystery, History and Humour

 

      How Culhwch Got Olwen -- the oldest and most exuberant Arthurian tale

      The Dream of Maxen Wledig, Emperor of Rome -- love and war in Wales and Rome

      The Story of Lludd and Llefelys -- three mysterious plagues on the Island of Britain

      The Dream of Rhonabwy -- a hilarious satire on the 'real' world and Arthur's glory

Companion Tales to The Mabinogi

Companion Tales to The Mabinogi, like its predecessor, The Mabinogi, presents in a new English translation four gems of early Welsh literature, including the oldest known tale of Arthur.  Gathered into two of the most important Welsh manuscript anthologies along with the Four Branches of The Mabinogi, these tales preserve much lore about the emergence of Welsh identity and culture, especially after the withdrawal of the Roman presence from Britain.

Though there are references to Arthur in Welsh poems and Latin chronicles from previous centuries, How Culhwch Got Olwen, composed probably in the 11th century, is the earliest known tale of Arthur presiding over a gathering of remarkable warriors and women drawn to his court by his own fame and renown.  In this tale Arthur has already achieved mythical stature and many of those in his court have similarly remarkable traits, often described with greater specificity than those of Arthur himself.   Indeed, the storyteller lists 230 of the members of Arthur's court by name, drawing widely upon Welsh tradition, international lore, and his own incomparable imagination.  Throughout the tale there is a skilful blend of the elegant and courtly with a matter-of-fact, rough-hewn directness that looks death in the face without flinching and often with humour.

Cwm Cerwyn, where Twrch Trwyth twice stood at bay and killed eight of Arthur's warriors.
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The Dream of Maxen Wledig, Emperor of Rome has a similar, perhaps even more incongruous, mix of romance and the realities of war.  While it is based on the historical figure of Magnus Maximus, the Roman British leader who became Emperor in the West, this tale rearranges the facts (whether intentionally or according to earlier tradition we may never know) with an eye toward demonstrating not only that the Welsh are the inheritors of the mantle of Roman rule in Britain, but also that they long participated in and contributed to the formulation and the expression of European civilisation itself.

Eryri: “a rough, rugged land the like of which he had never seen.”
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The Story of Lludd and Llefelys is also mentioned in earlier Welsh poetry, but there is no way of knowing what version of the tale is meant by these brief references.  The surviving tale has clearly been influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth's early-12th-century Latin Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain).  Indeed the earliest texts of Lludd and Llefelys are embedded in medieval Welsh translations of Geoffrey's book, and even the copies in the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest open with a prelude adapted from Geoffrey's original. *  The story was undoubtedly incorporated into the Historia because it explains the burial of the red and white dragons whose exhumation occasions the first prophecies of the young Merlinus (Welsh Myrddin, English Merlin), which form an important later section of Geoffrey's work.  But in the Story of Lludd and Llefelys these dragons are only one of three oppressions over the Island of Britain, and the ways in which the brothers deal with these mysteries further elucidate the traditional history of Britain as it was understood by the Welsh in the later Middle Ages.

Partly because of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia, Arthurian literature became popular throughout Europe, and tales of Arthur and his court spread rapidly.  Especially influential were the Arthurian romances of Chretien de Troyes, though it is still an open question which came first, the Welsh versions of these tales or the French.  But one Welsh tale, not known in other traditions, stands out as unique not so much because it preserves Arthurian lore, but because it satirizes the very style in which such tales were told.  The Dream of Rhonabwy cannot be older than the mid 12th century, for its opening is set during the reign of Madog ap Maredudd, the last prince of a united Powys in mid-Wales, who died in 1160.  There is some debate as to whether it might have been written before the death of Madog or after.  This tale draws material directly from How Culhwch Got Olwen and perhaps from the story of Geraint, the Welsh analogue to Chretien's Erec, but its primary intent seems to be to parody the digressive and descriptive styles of the newly popular narrative genres and the proliferating histories of Arthur, and perhaps also to raise questions about the heroic and romantic ideals exemplified in them.  It is a remarkably skilful parody that captures the nature of dreams more realistically perhaps than do other medieval dream visions, not excepting even Geoffrey Chaucer's highly polished Parliament of the Birds or The Dream of the Duchess.

Each of these tales is rooted in the landscape of Wales and in the medieval conception of the origins of Wales and the claim of the Welsh to be the rightful inheritors of British rule.  In Companion Tales to The Mabinogi: Legend and Landscape of Wales, the specifics of that narrative landscape are captured once again in sixty photographs by Anthony Griffiths, who endured cold and heat, rain and snow, to capture the light of dawn and dusk when Wales appears at its magical best.

(c) John K. Bollard, 2007

*For more on the White Book and the Red, and on the tales gathered in them, click here.

Now available in Britain and Europe from Gomer Press at
www.gomer.co.uk
and in North America at
www.hiraethcelticgoods.com
Signed and inscribed copies may be ordered directly from the author.

 Also Available:

The Mabinogi:
Legend and Landscape of Wales

 

Click here to read a translation of the amusing
Araith Iolo Goch,
by an early reader of these tales
.