12 February 2008

On the Mabinogion

A post of Imani's reminded me of something else that I've been meaning to mention--Oxford University Press has published a new translation of The Mabinogion. Translator Sioned Davies explains:
Certainly, poets were acquainted with traditional stories, as reflected in the many allusions scattered throughout their work; yet it would seem from the surviving evidence that verse itself was not used for extended narrative in medieval Wales––the preferred medium, unlike most Indo-European countries, was prose. The situation, therefore, was not only a complex, but surely a dynamic one: despite the hierarchical legal structure, one could expect a certain degree of interaction between the various professional ‘performers’ as they entertained at feasts and gatherings. Moreover, there are examples within the Mabinogion themselves of personal narratives arising out of informal conversation at table, as in the Second Branch when Matholwch, king of Ireland, tells his table companion Bendigeidfran the history of the Cauldron of Rebirth. It would appear, therefore, that storytelling was the domain of both the professional and the amateur, while the numerous words for ‘story’, as reflected in the tales themselves, point to a wide range of forms within the narrative genre.

In order to fully appreciate the Mabinogion, we have to understand the effect that this oral milieu had on the written tales. Oral and performance features are an integral part of their fabric, partly because the authors inherited pre-literary modes of narrating, but also because the written tales were composed for oral delivery, so that their reception and dissemination continued to have an influence on both style and structure. Indeed, one of the overriding concerns of this new translation has been the attempt to communicate to readers the exhilarating power of performance.
I must also add that it was through reading The Mabinogion and work by Lloyd Alexander and Stephen Lawhead that gave me a deep affection for Welsh mythology that sometimes verges on prejudice when I think of the French and their silly love triangles.

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