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Summary

The Mabinogion, the earliest literary jewel of Wales, is a collection of ancient tales and legends compiled around the 12th and 13th century deriving from storytelling and the songs of bards handed down over the ages. It is a remarkable document in many ways. From an historical perspective, it is the earliest prose literature of Britain. But it is in its drama that many surprises await, not least the central role of King Arthur, his wife, Gwenhwyvar, and his court at Caerlleon upon Usk.

There are tales of jousting, of quests, of damsels in distress, of abandoned wives, of monsters and dragons, of loyalty, deception and honour. Heroes and villains abound; there is courage and suffering in abundance. This is why The Mabinogion has a rightfully important position within the early literature of Europe.

There are 12 stories of varying lengths in the collection. Some, such as 'The Lady of the Fountain' and 'Geraint, the Son of Erbin', are centred on the Arthurian legend, and they display all the chivalric elements we expect from greater familiarity with later texts such as Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. However, here, in The Mabinogion, we inhabit an earthier world, before the Round Table and the Grail Legend, though hints of these exist.

Emotions, intentions and actions are real and direct! Nevertheless, The Mabinogion was drawn from a variety of sources, and there are tales of very different character, such as 'The Dream of Maxen Wledig', which harks back to the period of the Roman Empire, and 'The Story of Llud and Llevelys', which involves the Island of Britain and the Kingdom of France.

This recording presents the classic, groundbreaking translation by Charlotte Guest. It brought The Mabinogion to a wider audience for the first time, and we can enjoy the grandeur of her literary style - one that particularly suits the audiobook medium. This is especially so in this skillful performance by Richard Mitchley. Welsh was his first language, though he has for decades divided his time between English and Welsh audiobooks and radio plays; furthermore, he guides walking holidays in Wales and is thus personally familiar with areas mentioned in The Mabinogion.

Public Domain (P)2017 Ukemi Productions Ltd

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Get to the end and heaven reward thee!


Those who are familiar with the Welsh stories of the Mabinogian will relish this excellent narration of the tales with Richard Mitchley's subtle Welsh lilt and his skill at rolling off his tongue the multitude of mellifluous Welsh names. For those like me for whom The Mabinogian is merely a never-read name, as well as enjoying the narration, listening to the stories will be an absolute joy-fest.

The stories date from the 11th century, but the oral tradition on which most are based go back much further into a timeless Welsh Middle Ages where enchantment, myth, dream, quests, history - and hideous cruelty - meet. (Think vaguely King Arthur and the chivalric Romance of the Rose). The translations used here published in 1840 are by a most remarkable woman, Lady Charlotte Guest, the daughter of Earl Lindsey who, amongst her considerable other achievements, learned many languages including Persian and Welsh. The archaic language structure with its 'thee' and 'thou' and ballad-like repetitions recall both Malory's Morte d'Arthur and the Bible. In the stories themselves are universal themes such as redemption, punishment, loyalty and desire. Over-riding these is the code of honour and the severe punishment of what is perceived as dishonour - there are a great many heads severed and silver lances steeped in the blood of revenge - even the poor horses of the guilty have their eye-lids cut to the bone.

I loved the colour in all these tales - reds, golds, speckled yellow, azure; flame-coloured leopards, white-breasted greyhounds with collars of rubies and all the brilliance of robes and jewels. The stories teem with week-long feasts, gruelling quests on horseback into strange forests and mountains, and ladies of enchanting beauty who may be married to one not of her choosing, or be imprisoned, turned into a mouse or a boar or forbidden to speak. A magic wand will turn a man into a deer or a hog, or turn his green crops to dust. The punishments and violence are relentless: a severed head is carried around for 40 years, the heads of 200 men are squeezed until they are dead (quite a feat!); blood-laced lances are forever cleaving in twain some malefactor who has broken the social code. I liked the story of Branwen who saved his sister imprisoned in Ireland by teaching a starling to speak (and presumably to navigate!), and tucking a message into its feathers thereby arranging her rescue.

Download The Mabinogian and be transported into another world!




6 of 8 people found this review helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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Read well and entertaining

Is there anything you would change about this book?

nah.

What was one of the most memorable moments of The Mabinogion?

maybe the crow story or... badger in the bag.

What three words best describe Richard Mitchley’s voice?

welsh-ish, interested, engaging.

Was The Mabinogion worth the listening time?

yeah, it was great; everyone was such a dick back then though... maybe that hasn't changed much though... i dunno

Any additional comments?

nah.

3 of 7 people found this review helpful

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Something a bit different.

These tales have influenced many fantasy writers over the years. when you listen, it's easy to pick out those parts.

1 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • John
  • 28-07-17

A Wonder Whose Origin is Unknown

When we listen to a Bach violin concerto, we’re hearing the actual music people heard almost 300 years ago. If you’re one of those strange people (like me) who wonder “what was it like back then?” that idea can be thrilling. Things like a Bach concerto or, say, the Mabinogion, aren’t so much windows offering glimpses into the past as they are doors through which we can step and, for as long as the music or the story lasts, inhabit that country.

Granted, you don’t need to translate music, nor do you need to bridge centuries of archaic customs. But for me, at least, it’s a kick to experience, even at a distant second-hand, the tales our ancestors heard. No, I don’t understand it all; sometimes the action gets so fantastical that I need to Google synopses just to make sure I’m hearing what I’m hearing. But even if you and I don’t happen to be doctoral candidates in early Medieval studies, there’s plenty here for us to enjoy.

Things like bottomless bags. Shape shifting. Women made out of flowers. Men so large no house can contain them. And the all-important ill-considered boon. Guest’s 1877 translation orders the stories differently from my Everyman edition and includes one, Taliesen, that more recent scholarship has excluded. (I’m glad she retained it; a marvelous tale from which my title—Taliesen’s description of himself—is derived).

Guest puts the Arthurian Romances first, and it was a delight to hear the near-echoes of Chretien de Troye’s tales of Yvian, Percival, and Eric and Enid. Scholars are still arguing whether Chretien borrowed from the Welsh or the Welsh borrowed from him. No matter. They’re a delight in both versions.

The rest of the stories have the same immediacy and forward narrative momentum of the Norse sagas. As another reviewer has mentioned, just letting the personal and place names flow over you is a delight. Because they describe or sum up the person or place that bears them, those names are key. I found a printed version of the book, with every name translated in the footnotes, very helpful.

Like Bill Wallis (Gawain and the Green Knight, The Death of Arthur) Richard Mitchley brings the perfect tone and cadence to these stories. Also, like Wallis, he has a knack for sounding old and wise and, what’s even better, he can pronounce all those Welsh names effortlessly.

17 of 17 people found this review helpful

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  • Jefferson
  • 28-08-18

Rich Welsh Fantasy, Story, History, and Language

The first three tales of Charlotte Guest's translation of The Mabinogion, "The Lady of the Fountain," "Peredur the Son of Evrawc," and "Geraint the Son of Erbin," are rather standard Arthurian romances: plenty of superlatives (e.g., "she was the fairest woman he had ever seen"), courtly conversations (e.g., “By my faith, sister . . . thou art a beauteous and lovely maiden; and, were it pleasing to thee, I could love thee above all women"), and knights errant and grasping earls, hoary men and black men, giants and dwarves, maidens and sorceresses, serpents and lions, tournaments and combats, magic chessboards and rings, and more. There is also humor, as when Peredur (more than once) says, "I came not here to woo," or Kai (more than once) insults the wrong person. One thing mostly lacking from the three tales is suspense, because the hero knights of each story, Owain, Peredur, and Geraint are so puissant. I liked Geraint best because he becomes quite human when he loves his wife too much and then suspects her too much and twice even requires a month of healing.

The following older and more purely Welsh stories are stranger and more potent, unpredictable and funny, brutal and beautiful.

In "Kilhwch and Olwen" young Kilhwch asks Arthur's aid in marrying Olwen, the daughter of the giant Ysbaddaden Pencawr. Having done his homework, Kilhwch asks his boon in the names of all of Arthur's many heroes (and their mothers, wives, and daughters) in an exotic, intoxicating, 2,300 word list, a who's who of Welsh legend, spiced by mentions of unique abilities or feats, like ". . . and Morvran the son of Tegid (no one struck him in the battle of Camlan by reason of his ugliness; all thought he was an auxiliary devil. Hair had he upon him like the hair of a stag)." Ysbaddaden Pencawr, who knows that he'll die when his daughter weds, then recites an exotic, stunning 3000-word list of impossible marvels Kilhwch must accomplish to win Olwen. The "hero" calmly remarks after each one, "I'll compass that easily," sits back, and lets Arthur's men get to work.

In "The Dream of Rhonabwy," Rhonabwy, a retainer of Madog, stays the night in a filthy house with flea ridden beds and dreams of King Arthur and his chieftain Olwain playing gwyddbwyll (a chess-like game). Arthur scorns Rhonabwy and the men of his later era as puny, but though Arthur and Olwain may be giants in comparison, they sure don't behave well during the game!

"Pwyll Prince of Dyved" features a year-long identity and role swap between Pwyll (a good-natured simple guy) and Arawn (deep lord of magical Annwn), funny interplay between Pwyll and Rhiannon (who highlights Pwyll's lack of smarts in some snappy lines), appalling ladies in waiting (who frame a mother for cannibalizing her child), and the appearance of a mysterious baby boy.

"Branwen the Daughter of Llyr" relates the history of the Isle of the Mighty (Britain) and their Irish antagonists (who are depicted as duplicitous, pusillanimous, and incestuous), with cool fantastic elements, like a magical cauldron that restores dead warriors to mute life. If Branwen (British princess married to the Irish king) is not as impressive as Rhiannon, her half-brother Evnissyen is a fine anti-hero, thrusting a baby nephew into a fire one moment and sacrificing himself for his family the next.

In "Manawyddan the Son of Llyr" Manawydan marries Rhiannon, the widowed mother of Pryderi, and sets off with them and Pryderi's wife Cigfa to find a town where they may live after their home is cursed empty of all animals and people. Because Manawydan and Pryderi excel too well at whatever trade they take up, wherever they go the local craftsmen (even mild shoemakers!) are soon plotting to kill them. The story climaxes with the attempted hanging of a pregnant mouse thief.

"Math the Son of Mathonwy" is full of magical metamorphoses and illusions, deep loves, betrayals, and revenges, and neat origins. The trickster, storyteller, and mage Gwydion enables his brother to rape King Math's foot holder maiden (the king can only sleep with his feet in the lap of a virgin) by causing a devastating war by cheating Pryderi out of the first pigs in Wales. After three years punished as various animals, Gwydion helps Math get a new foot holder. No virgin, she immediately gives birth to twins she doesn't want. Gwydion spirits one away and later tricks the mother into naming him (Lleu). When she curses Lleu to never wed a human woman, Gwydion and Math fashion Blodeuedd from flowers to marry him, with unexpected results.

"The Dream of Maxen Wledig" interweaves history and fantasy via Macsen the Emperor of Rome's falling in love with Helen, a maiden of Britain, in a dream. The story expresses the beauty and puissance of Britons.

"The Story of Lludd and Llevelys" mixes history and fantasy as the brother of the king of Britain goes to France to marry an available queen, and the British king gets good advice from his brother on how to deal with three plagues in Britain (unstoppable invaders, miscarriage-inducing screeching, and vanishing food).

"Taleisin" begins by recounting how the famous bard was born three times and came by his prodigious foresight and omniscience and climaxes with the confident and wise kid participating in a bard contest for which he causes his rivals to blow raspberries at their king and then sings an impressive list of all he has experienced, from the Biblical to the British.

It's a pity that the Ukemi audiobook version of Guest's translation is missing her introduction and notes, but the reader, Richard Mitchley is excellent. He reads the many exotic Welsh names smoothly, consistently, and accurately (as far as my ignorant ears can tell). He reads "ur" as "ear," as in Arthear (Arthur) and Peredear (Peredur), and "ll" as a slight "th," as in Caertheon (Carelleon) and Theu (Lleu). And he enhances the tales with enthusiasm.

The strange and compelling stories of The Mabinogion are full of interesting historical and fantastic characters, developments, artifacts, and places, and demonstrate the richness of Welsh culture and language and the depths of the human heart. Fans of Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain will find here the sources of many of their names, characters, and artifacts.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful