What is The Mabinogi? What is "The Mabinogion"?
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Except perhaps for the title itself, there is no single word that encapsulates or describes The Mabinogi from a modern perspective. It is neither mythology nor folktale, neither legend nor romance. It is neither four tales nor one tale. It is, indeed, unique in European literary history, and it does not fit neatly into any of the genres defined in recent centuries by custom or by literary analysis and criticism.
The Mabinogi is a set (for want of a better word) of tales (probably four, but even the number is not beyond question), each of which can stand on its own and be read or told independently. On the other hand, there is ample evidence that these tales are the work of a single author, and that they comprise a single, highly polished work. Indeed, without the other three, any one of the branches read on its own would seem to have various flaws and loose ends that are resolved within the context of the whole. The analogy of interlaced Celtic artwork perhaps helps us to understand The Mabinogi as four interrelated tales, compiled from the cultural inheritance of generations of traditional Welsh storytellers (cyfarwyddiaid, singular cyfarwydd), with both explicit structural links and implicit thematic links weaving them together into an elegant whole. As a carefully constructed literary work (and the surviving manuscripts all show signs of the writer, not just the storyteller), the interrelationships of the four branches, to use the word that appears at the end of each, form an elaborate, intricate, and artistically satisfying design.
Each tale ends with a variant of the statement "Thus ends this branch of The Mabinogi." The unique rubric at the head of the first branch in the Red Book of Hergest reads llyma dechreu mabinogi, literally 'Here begins (a) mabinogi,' with no definite article (and Welsh has no indefinite article). This has given rise to debate over whether this refers to all four branches, to just the first (i.e. 'Here begins a mabinogi'), or to a classification (i.e. 'Here begins one of the type of tale known as mabinogi'). But the preponderance of the remaining manuscript evidence points to The Mabinogi (with a definite article) as the contemporary title of the work. Hence, I have adopted the rather unusual italicization and capitalization of The in this context.
It is common practice to refer to The Mabinogi (or in Welsh, Y Mabinogi) as Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi or The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, as if this were the title. But it is important to recognize that this is a modern convention. It does not occur in the early manuscripts; rather it gained a firm foothold when adopted -- in medieval spelling -- as the title for Ifor Williams' magisterial edition of the tales, which is regularly referred to by those who read it as "PKM." But much earlier, around 1634, the Welsh scholar Dr. John Davies listed the contents of the White Book of Rhydderch, including "Y mabinogi. Mewn 28 o ddalenau, "The Mabinogi. On 28 leaves." It seems prudent to follow his example and to draw the title from the manuscripts themselves, rather than from our own perceptions.
But what does mabinogi mean?
There is no simple or definitive answer to that question. Consequently, the word has fascinated and puzzled scholars since the late 18th century. There is one fact that is agreed upon by all: it ultimately derives from the same root as mab 'boy, son, descendant', cognate in form and meaning with Old Cornish and Old Breton mab. These all derive from the Brythonic root *mapo-, which in turn goes back to the earlier Celtic root *maquo-. Thus these Brythonic forms are also cognate with the Old Irish macc, Modern Irish mac, familiar in English today as the patronymic Mac- or Mc- in many Irish surnames.
[The asterisks above indicate that the word or form does not occur in ancient writing but has been reconstructed by comparative philologists and historical linguists on the basis of the known facts of the relevant recorded languages.]
From this starting point various theories about the word mabinogi have diverged over the past 200 years. But rather than outlining them all, let us look at the early occurrences of the word in medieval Welsh. Not counting instances in or references to The Mabinogi itself, there are only three known examples of mabinogi in Middle Welsh.
The earliest occurrence, in the miscopied, or perhaps variant, form mamynogi, occurs in a series of englynion (short stanzas) by the early 13th-century court poet of Gwynedd, Llywarch ap Llywelyn (who was also known for some reason as Prydydd y Moch 'Poet of the Pigs') in reference to the youth of the prince Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, who had seized power in Gwynedd in the late twelfth century and who extended his rule over much of the rest of Wales before his death in 1240, earning him the title of Llywelyn the Great. In these stanzas, Llywarch plays with various compounds of mab (mabolaeth 'childhood', mabddysg 'childhood learning', mamynogi [=mabinogi], and mebyd 'childhood, youth') in praising Llywelyn's early career. Thus Llywarch's phrase mabinogi draig 'the mabinogi of a war leader [literally 'dragon']' can be understood as referring to Llywelyn's youth or perhaps to the story of his youth, if we can make such a distinction.
Such a reading seems to be borne out by another early occurrence in the rubric introducing a Welsh translation of the apocryphal account of the early life of Jesus, known in Latin as De Infantia Jesu Christi 'Concerning the Childhood of Jesus Christ.' Where the mid 14th-century White Book text refers to mabolyaeth an hargluyd ny Iessu Grist 'the childhood of our Lord Jesus Christ,' the copy in the early 14th-century Peniarth MS 14 reads llyma vabinogi Iesu Grist 'Here is the mabinogi of Jesus Christ.'
Similarly in the 15th century, Lewys Glyn Cothi wrote an elegy for his five-year-old son which includes the couplet Udo fyth yr ydwyf i / Am benaig mabinogi, which we might perhaps render somewhat literally as 'I am forever lamenting for a leader of childhood,' or less literally with Joseph Clancy's alliterative "Everlastingly I groan / For a baron of boyhood" (Medieval Welsh Poems, 2003). Alternatively, especially in the light of the poem's date, we might interpret mabinogi here as a reference to the tales themselves and understand the poet to be comparing his son to the remarkable young boys of myth and legend we read about there. This is the approach taken by Anthony Conran: "I mourn again and again / A Mabinogi chieftain" (The Penguin Book of Welsh Verse, 1967).
Many scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries interpreted mabinogi as "a tale of boyhood." However, Professor Eric P. Hamp has argued very cogently that we must take a closer and more critical look at the whole word mabinogi and account for all its elements. As one of the world's finest and most demanding comparative linguists, Hamp was particularly troubled by the -a- in mabinogi. By all rights, given the history of the Brythonic languages and the rules of phonetic development, the first vowel of mabinogi should be -e-. But there is an evocative context in which the -a- would remain unchanged. Having worked through the details of phonetic change in Brythonic and Welsh, Hamp states that mabinogi "has nothing to do with 'youth' or 'boy, son'. It is a collective of an adjective denoting what pertains to a stem *mapono-; in [this] context its relevance to Maponos is immediately clear. The derivative *mapon-āk-ijī meant 'the (collective) material pertaining to (those of ) Maponos'." Maponos 'the Divine Son', son of Matrona 'the Divine Mother' is represented in early Middle Welsh poetry and in the earliest Arthurian tale, How Culhwch Got Olwen, as Mabon son of Modron. Thus, The Mabinogi is so-called, Hamp concludes, because it deals with material derived from myths of the earlier Brythonic deities, who are also reflected in the names Rhiannon, 'the Divine Queen,' and Teyrnon, 'the Divine King.' And there are, of course, other characters of mythological origin in The Mabinogi. (The name Maponos/Mabon derives ultimately from the same root as that of mab; the -on indicates divinity in all these names.)
[For a later, slightly revised version of Professor Hamp's original paper in the Transactions of the Honourable Society of the Cymmrodorion (1974-75. 243-49), click here.]
This is not to say that The Mabinogi itself is a retelling of British pre-Christian mythology. The very idea would, in all likelihood, have been anathema to the Christian storytellers and scribes who preserved this material for us and to their readers and listeners in the Middle Ages. Just as words and names outgrow their etymologies, traditional tales too are adapted to new circumstances, while they simultaneously remain important within their culture because of the lessons they teach and the understanding of the world that is incorporated into them, not to mention their value as entertainment (in the very best sense).
What, if anything, is "The Mabinogion"?
In 1795 WIlliam Owen Pughe published "The Mabinogion, or Juvenile Amusements, being Ancient Welsh Romances" in the Cambrian Register, pp. 177-187, and in 1829 he published "The Mabinogi, or the Romance of Math ab Mathonwy" in the Cambrian Quarterly Magazine and Celtic Repository, pp. 170-179. Thus the credit for the title Mabinogion must be given to him, and he clearly understood mabinogi to mean 'a children's tale'. In 1838 Lady Charlotte Guest subsequently adopted The Mabinogion as the collective title for the twelve Welsh tales she printed and translated between then and 1849. Eleven of these tales were taken out of the massive Red Book of Hergest, a late 14th- or early 15th-century manuscript compilation of historical, poetic, and literary texts. The form mabynnogyon occurs in the colophon at the end of the first branch of The Mabinogi, but there is now general agreement that this form of the word is based on a scribal error of a common type. As noted above, each branch ends with a variant of the statement, "And thus ends this branch of The Mabinogi." But in the Red Book the end of the first branch reads, Ac uelly y teruyna y geing honn or mabynnogyon, "And thus ends this branch of the mabinogion." Lady Guest and the translators working with her understood the -yon as an example of the common plural ending -on, -ion and assumed it was the plural of a term referring to such tales. The reading of the earlier White Book of Rhydderch manuscript is identical in the point at issue here, and close study of these two manuscripts suggests (though doesn't prove) that they were both copied from the same original, now lost.
In any case, this is the only instance of such an ending to the word, and scholars for the past seventy years have been in general agreement that this is an example of the type of scribal error in which a drowsy or slightly inattentive scribe inadvertently repeats the ending of a similar word that has just been written. Indeed, just two short lines above mabynnogyon in the White Book and one line above in the Red Book we see the ending of the word dyledogyon, plural of dyledog, 'nobleman.' Thus, the original scribe, with dyledogyon still echoing in his (semi)conscious mind, wrote mabynnog... and then kept on going.
The end of the first branch of The Mabinogi in the White Book of Rhydderch, fol. 10r (left), and the Red Book of Hergest, fol. 179v (right).
Therefore, though it has gained international recognition since the nineteenth century, The Mabinogion as a title is a misnomer based on a mistake, and it has been retained primarily because of the familiarity it gained from the Guest translation.
But perhaps The Mabinogion as a title serves a useful function in identifying an important collection of early Welsh narratives. Again, this is a widespread misunderstanding. The Welsh narratives referred to as The Mabinogion do not appear in the manuscripts as a collection at all, though with the exception of The Dream of Rhonabwy, they are clustered together, in the company of some early poems, triads, genealogies, etc., relating to Welsh traditional history. In the two major manuscripts, the White Book and the Red, they are ordered as follows:
(A line indicates intervening materials, asterisks indicate gaps and lost pages, and ellipses indicate missing portions of the text itself.)
White Book of Rhydderch Red Book of Hergest
The Mabinogi Rhonabwy
Maxen Wledig Owain
Lludd and Llefelys... Peredur
* * * Maxen Wledig
...Owain... Lludd and Llefelys
* * * The Mabinogi
* * * Culhwch
Furthermore, each of these texts, except for Culhwch and The Dream of Rhonabwy, occurs individually in other manuscripts, some earlier, some later. In addition to these varied manuscript histories, each tale has a different authorial voice or style. Scholarly work on this aspect of these tales is still in the early stages. Much work remains to be done to determine how these tales were conceived and perceived in the Middle Ages and how they came to be gathered into these two major compilations of traditional and other material. Until more is known about these issues, it is premature, and even presumptuous, of us to designate them somewhat arbitrarily under one modern title, and it is perhaps best to study them, their similarities and differences, and their interrelations more deeply. I propose not only that is there no such thing as "The Mabinogion," but that -- until further notice -- there may not even be a "collection" of medieval Welsh tales, at least not from a medieval perspective.
© John K. Bollard, 2007