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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.
7 of 7 people found this review helpful
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!
2 of 3 people found this review helpful
These tales have influenced many fantasy writers over the years. when you listen, it's easy to pick out those parts.