On The Mabinogi and Being Welsh
To return to the Main Page, click here.
On St. David’s Day (1 March), the question arises once again, what does it mean to be Welsh? It can be hard to maintain a sense of Welshness living outside of Wales, especially from one generation to the next, yet thousands of Cymry ar wasgar, ‘the scattered Welsh,’ manage to do so across North America and around the world. Often this means keeping some of the visible and tangible markers of Welsh identity around the home. Many Welsh Americans and Welsh Canadians will fly Y Ddraig Goch, ‘the Red Dragon,’ on St. David’s Day and prepare a supply of Welsh cakes for visitors on this and other special occasions. Even if yr hen iaith ‘the old language’ may no longer be spoken around the home, some words and phrases are fondly remembered, not the least being hiraeth, that particularly Welsh sense of inexpressible longing for home and loved ones. The great Welsh hymns and songs, from Cwm Rhondda to Ar Hyd y Nos ‘All through the Night,’ and Sospan Fach, are sung with gusto whether or not the singer is otherwise fluent in the language.
All this is important, but at the same time these are merely the outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual Welshness. How can anyone remain Welsh being so long, even indeed for one’s entire life, away from Wales? And how can a sense of Welshness be passed on? Surely one important way to do this is through the literature of Wales, for it is in its literature that any culture most clearly and lastingly expresses itself. And at the very heart of Welsh literature is The Mabinogi. The Mabinogi is not simply one of the greatest works of Welsh literature; it is widely recognized as a European classic and one of the finest examples of polished and powerful storytelling ever produced.
But The Mabinogi is more than this to anyone Welsh. Written in the late 11th century, drawing from earlier Welsh and Celtic lore and myth, it incorporates within it much of what it means to be Welsh. It recognizes the unity of Welsh culture even in the face of political division within and threatening pressures from without. It conveys a view of the world that rises above our personal concerns and enmities and teaches how to live an honorable life, free from deceit, rancor, and violence. And it does this through fascinating and exciting tales of magic and mystery, heroism and heartbreak, love and disloyalty, reminding us not only how to behave, but also what it means to be Welsh in the deepest sense.