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January 17, 20185589Views

It Picks up Its Harp & Sings: A Review of The Mabinogi

Nigel Hillpaul reviews Matthew Francis' English retelling of The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, the cynosure of Middle Ages Welsh literature

'Here at the turn of a leaf a horseman is riding

Through the space between one world

And another.'


I struggle in Welsh and am (I am told) good with English. The two are like different sets of clothes. My Welsh is like a formal outfit: stiff with unuse, pinching slightly in places that used to be loose, but something you wear with an inordinate amount of pride. English? That's my day-to-day wear: boots, a pair of jeans and a brightly patterned imported shirt – good for for just about anything.

No story survives being kept in cotton wool, which is why this version feels vibrant with a spring-like growth; fresh, new and green. Like all good tellers of tales, Francis handles his source material with respect, but doesn't merely give a slavish recapitulation of it. He has reshaped, pruned and coppiced, as the early bards must have done, regarding their material as alive and seeing the shape of the tree they want rather than one of a row of identical trees in a dead forest.

I don't read much poetry; A-level English Literature and its emphasis on deconstruction put paid to that. The occasional bit from Poet's Corner in The Times or something on Twitter, that's about my limit. But being Welsh (we all pretend to have the souls of poets and the ability to channel generations of bards), a retelling of the core of The Four Branches of the Mabinogi piqued my interest. Mabinogi means very roughly ‘youthful exploits’, or the early achievements of a hero; however, rather than those youthful exploits of life, we get dreamlike stories that wouldn’t be misplaced in teen soap operas. Disguise, forbidden love, abuse, betrayal and characters disappearing and reappearing demonstrate that titillation and taboo-breaking are nothing new; these are story devices with long histories.

The lives of the small Welsh courts of the Dark Ages are exposed with their mundanity broken by moments of extreme violence, lyrical emotional language and (to modern eyes) impenetrable Celtic mythical themes, such as the glimpses of the enigmatic Rhiannon (‘She rides slower than daydreams’) – a pre-Roman horse goddess – who cannot be caught by any pursuer, however slowly she seems to be riding.

The books have much in common with a modern movie series, such as a fantasy cinematic universe; although each can be read as a stand-alone, they're also interlinked and move to a sequenced narrative while being completely compelling in their own right as stories. The detail is as bright as a red cloak, the dialogue as sharp as a winter apple bursting with zest and flavour. The poems are full of verbal twists that pique and repel. In the opening tale, Pwyll, the Prince of Dyfed, becomes the King of Annwfn, the Otherworld, a realm called Unland; a world on the fair side of a fallen leaf, called the land of:

‘Unrock, unwood, of sheepclouds

and their pasture of vagueness,

suzerain of shades.'


The second branch is the gruesome story of the King of Britain’s half-brother hamstringing the horses of the King of the Ireland:

‘He’s running through the town with a knife, from shriek to shriek.

The shrieks make him feel better. Most are not his.’


I won’t go into the description of a child being burned alive.

The sorcerer Gwydion steps forward in the last story to tell his tale, bringing the cycle full circle with a direct reference to the beginning, as Gwydion kills the son of the Prince of Dyfed whom we met on the first page, and takes us back to the opening exchange between world and Otherworld, land and Unland: ‘the forested border/of what can’t be true’, ‘where stories begin’. True it is, what he says in the Introduction, that ‘poetry has never had much of a problem with magic. Poets spend their lives transforming things into other things’. A Welsh Metamorphoses then, where necromancers' wives disguise themselves as mice, and horses made of mushrooms are an everyday occurrence, something you might well come across when walking in as magical and history-haunted a place as Wales.

I did have the feeling that there were some episodes missed from the prose version; Twrch y Trwyth seems to ring a bell (and a comb), not to mention the talking head of Bran, but these curtailments tighten it to an intense, disturbing experience. The shadow of Unland is there just under that turned leaf.

In fact, I can do no better than to echo Gillian Clarke's recommendation: ‘I have waited all my life for this book: our ancient British tales re-told, in English, by a poet, as they were in the original Welsh. This is more than translation. It picks up its harp and sings’.



Faber & Faber, 112pp, £14.99

Nigel Hillpaul

Byzantinist, varangian and rural antiquarian


Twitter: @TheHillpaul


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