Reviews of
The Mabinogi
Legend and Landscape of Wales

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 A review from,
with the permission of the
Welsh Books Council.

The Mabinogi represents a substantial Welsh contribution to European literature. As such, it has appeared in a number of reprints and formats over the years; in 1881, for example, Sidney Lanier produced his Boys' Mabinogion.

This latest version takes the form of a large format coffee table volume and includes a number of wonderful colour photographs by Anthony Griffiths of locations and landscapes evoked in the stories.

John Bollard is one of the leading authorities on the Mabinogi and provides an extremely helpful introduction as well as an afterword. 'The continued popularity of the work since it was rediscovered, published and translated in the early nineteenth century testifies to its timeless relevance and artistic value,' he writes, 'earning it a respected place among the classics of European literature.'

I cannot think of a finer introduction to such an all important work of literature.

Dewi Roberts

A review by Elissa Henken, Newsletter of the Celtic Studies Association of North America, Beltaine (May) 2007.

The Mabinogi:  Legend and Landscape of Wales.  Translated by John K. Bollard.  Photography by Anthony Griffiths.  (Llandysul:  Gomer Press, 2006.  Pp. 128.  £19.99 cloth)

This is a stunning book.  It is beautifully and generously laid out, with careful attention to every detail of fonts and margins and, most strikingly, presentation of its photographs.  All that is clear before one even absorbs its contents--John K. Bollard's translation of The Four Branches of the Mabinogi interwoven with Anthony Griffiths' photographs taken of and from sites mentioned in the text.  Each Branch begins with a manuscript page and ends with a photographed sunset and, in between, is interspersed with shots of both general landscape and specific forts, streams, and stones.  This is the first time such a combination has been published, and, after saying thank you, I rather impatiently wish to know when Bollard and Griffiths will apply their skills to other medieval Welsh texts.  

This is not, however, just a pretty book.  It is of satisfyingly academic value:  trustworthy translations, useful notes, helpful map and genealogical chart, thoughtful comments on the Mabinogi, combined index/pronunciation guide, short bibliography, and photographs which help us imagine the landscape seen by the narrator.  Bollard has found just the right balance for a book that should suit many levels of readers.  Bollard's translation, in standard, modern English and following the Welsh text as closely as possible, is accurate and pleasurably readable.  In the Introduction, Bollard comments on this and a few of his other decisions as translator, including retention of the coordinating a(c) ("and") to keep the feel of an oral narrative and the use of inverted, more literary language ("said he," "said she") to indicate the slight stress of heb ynteu/heb hitheu.  His notes, elegantly placed in the margins along the centerfold, provide information about translation (uncertainties, connotations, the meanings of proper nouns), legal terms, related texts such as the Triads, location of sites, and the occasional manuscript variation.  The photographs, beautiful as they are, also represent solid research (The captions, when appropriate, give both medieval and modern place names and discuss location) and add to our understanding of the text.  (My only, and unfair, complaint is that Bollard and Griffiths do not provide GPS coordinates, but perhaps they feared endangering the sites with hordes of visitors.)  In the Introduction, Bollard muses on the Mabinogi's nature as fantasy grounded in human truths as well as in the land of Wales, but the Afterword especially demonstrates Bollard's careful balancing of material.  Anyone who knows his work knows that he could have (and has elsewhere) said a lot more, but he selects well in restrained but clear and useful comments on the context of the Mabinogi--on the cyfarwyddiaid ("storytellers"), the culture, the genre, and the times (of the story and of the narrator); on patterns twining through the Four Branches of friendship, counsel, and marriage; on the mythological background of characters and events; and, naturally, on the manuscripts and significance of the title word mabinogi.    

The Mabinogi:  Legend and Landscape of Wales realizes the goal of crossover publishing:  sound scholarship presented with a light hand and aesthetically suited for any coffee table.  Order it for the classroom; give it as a present.  Use it to lure a child into Celtic studies or to delight a scholar of many years experience.  Just be forewarned:  The photographs, which could raise hiraeth even in one who has never been in Wales, are likely to create an irresistible urge to start wandering the Welsh countryside immediately.


 A review by Jim Perrin, The Great Outdoors, August 2006.

Landscape & Story

“Whereness is crucial to human identity. Without whereness neither language, person nor thought could commence. All the fundamental imagery of the world would be impossible without landscape. The human journey, the search for meaning would be inconceivable. Landscape is then a condition of the possibility of everything. Without landscape there would be no where… Why then is landscape hardly noticed?”

John O’Donohue,  Stone as the Tabernacle of Memory

Opposite the room in which I work there is, in the stone wall of the old house on the corner of the square, the ghost of a doorway, different stone intruded into the patchwork of masonry, the former entrance blocked off. Beyond the roof-tree of this house the larches dance along the crest of the ridge and late may-blossom is puffed across the hills that rise from the farther bank of the river. There is something about this doorway through which people may no longer enter, and the alluring landscape that frames it, which teases at my imagination, sets me to viewing it in terms of symbol. And sets me also to wondering about the former ways in which human-kind has viewed the places through which it moved, and the fragmented legacy it has left behind here and there in out-of-the-way places - of a way of interpreting and explaining quite at odds with the supposedly more rational mind-set of the twenty-first century. I suppose that a good part of the reason why I live in Wales, and within that small and jewelled country have chosen even more specifically to come to rest in a quiet old rural place where the echo of old story is as insistent as the seasons, is for the sense of the magical that for me inhabits here more strongly than in any other place I know on this exquisite planet. A sense that somehow endures, and contrives to resist, for all the incursions upon its rooted place of Sky television and flags of St. George, night-long arc-lit hay-making and weekend invasions of Chelsea Tractors (I wonder if the inhabitants of England know that we have roads in Wales, and four-wheel-drive vehicles are not necessary to travel around our country?)

            When I first began, as a child of twelve, to wander through Wales – impecunious, erratic stravaigings far and wide to seek acquaintance with the country of my blood – it was story that held my attention and gave me a focus for the passionate interest the place itself aroused. I heard it everywhere, from old people, from the country people of nearly fifty years ago, from knowing reference to matter with which those I met were mysteriously acquainted, and from books eagerly acquired and read along the way. What I heard was not just gossip and genealogy but extant old lore, oral history, a remembered and filtered distant past that was new and alluring to the urban child I then was. Just this last week I was glancing through Kenneth Clark’s Landscape into Art and came across the following passage:

“We are surrounded by things we have not made and which have a life and structure different from our own: trees, flowers, grasses, rivers, hills, clouds. For centuries they have inspired us with curiosity and awe. They have been objects of delight. We have recreated them in our imaginations to reflect our moods. And we have come to think of them as contributing to an idea which we call nature. Landscape painting marks the stages in our conception of nature. Its rise and development since the middle ages is part of a cycle in which the human spirit attempted once more to create a harmony with its environment.”

The way in which story inhabits particular landscapes is another part of that cycle, another aspect of that attempt. It happens worldwide. Here are two comments from Colin G. Calloway’s magisterial One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark:

“Storied landscapes are surely not unique to the Native American West.  They are common, for instance, in the Celtic regions of the British Isles… Mythic tales linked to specific places contained morals and teachings that enabled people to live as true human beings.”

            …or in Clark’s terminology, “to create a harmony with [our] environment”. It seems to me that through attentive hearing of vernacular story we come more closely at the true sense of place which is surely a crucial, a valuable part of our being in the outdoors?  And which subverts the merely acquisitive, “peak-bagging” mentality which renders our activities there just another version of the moral vacuum which is the acquisitive, competitive and materialistic society that is, for the most part and for most of the time, the everyday context of our lives. And to which “storied landscapes” are an increasingly valuable antidote, and rather more than that, for as Calloway further notes, “Place is often more important than time in recalling history” – without the example of which, we are truly adrift.

            All this matter (the early Arthurian stories were referred to contemporaneously as “The Matter of Britain”, which gives a clue to the long provenance of story in our landscape) came home to me quite clearly recently when I went across to the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth for the launch of  The Mabinogi: Legend and Landscape of Wales. It is a new, lucid and admirable translation, by the American academic John Bollard, of the medieval Welsh text Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi, and the book is redolently and sumptuously illustrated by the Welsh photographer Anthony Griffiths. I should tell you something about The Mabinogi, because this text exemplifies my theme. It is a set of four linked stories (“Y Pedeir Keinc” – The Four Branches), first transcribed in the late eleventh or early twelfth century and surviving in thirteenth and fourteenth century manuscripts. Like the Irish Tain Bo Cuailnge, it  represents one of the high points of the Celtic story-tellers’ art. What is remarkable about The Mabinogi is the way it locates in an actual landscape, evokes that landscape, travels promiscuously through it, attempts at times to explain it in the terms available to the consciousness of a thousand years ago. Beyond all that, what I would want to stress in this present context is that it inhabits here still. Wherever I go in Wales, episodes and incidents from this story travel with me always, and express something of the essential and continuing nature of the place – and of our still-accessible primitive, awed and wondering response to the natural world we live in. The story-teller from a millennium ago informs me how the village in which I live came by its name – from the journey made by the enchanter Gwydion as he drove the pigs from Annwn of which he had duped the hero Pryderi back to the court of his lord Math at Caer Dathyl. Whether the explanation is accurate or not I can believe or disbelieve as I choose, without lessening the story’s spell. At the bottom of Cwm Pennant, where I lived and worked as a shepherd thirty years ago and where the oldest people then could speak no English and believed in the Tylwyth Teg - the fairies - there is the ancient castle mound of Dolbenmaen, and it was to here that Pryderi and his men of the south retreated after meeting Math in battle at Nant Cyll, where I remember one spring and moonlit night seeing hundreds of hares in a field below the mountain wall, racing round as though in battle, as though the souls of those slain here had transmigrated into these animals and were re-enacting old animosities among the enduring stones. And just beyond the ridge on to which the windows of my house in Cwm Pennant faced – the ridge of the red cairns, which gives one of the most beautiful hill-traverses in Britain - that next valley to the north was Nantlle. A story to the name? After Gwydion’s nephew Lleu had been cuckolded, deceived by his wife Blodeuedd (made for him from the flowers of the oak and the broom by his uncle to defeat one part of his mother’s triple curse),  and gravely wounded by her lover Gronw Pebyr, he had changed to an eagle, flown here, and here was found again by his uncle and nursed back to health until he was sufficiently recovered and could hunt down Blodeuedd and Gronw and gain his revenge. Where Lleu cast the deadly spear that pierced the stone behind which, as last request, he had allowed Gronw to hide, there is a field known to the farmer but to no map as Bedd Gronw – Gronw’s grave. Some years ago Anthony Griffiths and I came here to look for the pierced stone. What we found was the place of the scene from the story, resonating still, strange evidences all around; and a stone slab pierced through by a round hole, lying among the fallen leaves, the moss and wood anemones at the edge of a wood.

            I have lived with this texture of imagination-informed old landscape for most of my life, and the language of it, the concepts it employs, are the texts from which I most read. They have their own vibrant reality for me now, which is an expression of the atmosphere of these hills, a distillation of  all that long human history, a puzzling synthesis of and reflection upon archetypal human behavioural patterns. For me, the dimension of story with which the Welsh hills abound is a fundamental and a crucial part of their attraction. When, from high on Foel Penoleu in the northern Rhinogydd, roughest and most elemental of Welsh hills (“The landscape reinforced the continuity and accuracy of the narratives”, Calloway), I catch a glimpse of the castle to the west stark against the evening light, what comes to my mind instantly is “Bendigeidfran… sitting on the rock of Harddlech above the sea, and Manawydan son of Llyr with him, and two brothers of the same mother as he – Nisien and Efnisien”, which is the scene which opens the second branch of The Mabinogi; and I follow into the wonder-filled, remembered narrative that succeeds, and I know from it again something of the nature of essential truths, as relevant today (for Nisien and Efnisien and their foolish, tragic impetuosities, might we read Bush, Blair and Iraq?) as they were a thousand years ago; and the landscape is illuminated with the mystery and magic of them. Why, I wonder, would anyone want to deny themselves the chance to walk again through that door? Which the long connection of imagination with land can open still…