The Mabinogion (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) [NOOK Book]

Overview


The collection of medieval Welsh prose tales known as The Mabinogion tells of heroes on magical quests, knights-in-arms whose adventures take them to the far ends of the earth in pursuit of true love, and powerful women who sometimes betray and sometimes are betrayed.

The Mabinogion provides insight into Celtic mythology, Arthurian romance, and the performance techniques of the traditional storyteller. The Mabinogion is rightly regarded as a classic, translated by now into many...

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The Mabinogion (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview


The collection of medieval Welsh prose tales known as The Mabinogion tells of heroes on magical quests, knights-in-arms whose adventures take them to the far ends of the earth in pursuit of true love, and powerful women who sometimes betray and sometimes are betrayed.

The Mabinogion provides insight into Celtic mythology, Arthurian romance, and the performance techniques of the traditional storyteller. The Mabinogion is rightly regarded as a classic, translated by now into many languages, and adapted into children's books, opera, plays, and more recently into animation.

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Product Details

Meet the Author


Charlotte Guest, neé Bertie, was an extraordinary woman whose life practically spanned the nineteenth century, from 1812 to 1895. She grew up near Stamford, Lincolnshire, and was the daughter of the ninth earl of Lindsey. A gifted linguist, she married the widower Josiah John Guest, twenty-seven years her senior, owner of the Dowlais Iron Company in South Wales (one of the largest ironworks in the world), and Member of Parliament for Merthyr Tydfil. Having settled in her new home, she not only took an active part in running the iron works, but also promoted schools for the education of the working classes in the area, for both male and female pupils. But most importantly, she set about learning Welsh, and in so doing came into contact with Welsh literary figures of the period. Through them she obtained access to texts from the Red Book of Hergest, a medieval Welsh manuscript dated to c.1400, and on New Year’s Day, 1838, she set about translating a collection of tales that came to be known as the Mabinogion. She was fired by her love of the Middle Ages and of Arthurian Romance, but she also had another motive—she wanted to show to the English-speaking world, the “colonizers,” that the “colonized” were civilized and in possession of a noble literary heritage, of “venerable relics of ancient lore” as she claims in her dedication. Once the translation was finished, however, her interest in Welsh literature, too, came to an end. In 1855, three years after the death of her husband, she married her eldest son’s tutor, Charles Schreiber, who was fourteen years her junior. In his company she traveled on the Continent and embarked on a new project, collecting eighteenth-century ceramics, as witnessed today in the prestigious Schreiber Collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Charlotte Guest died in 1895, eleven years after the death of her second husband, and was buried in Canford, Dorset, where the family owned a large estate.

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Introduction

The collection of medieval Welsh prose tales known as the Mabinogion tells of heroes on magical quests, knights-in-arms whose adventures take them to the far ends of the earth in pursuit of true love, and young men who are stopped in their tracks and forced to confront their destiny. The tales also tell of powerful women who betray, who are wronged, and who die. Dated sometime between the end of the eleventh and the beginning of the fourteenth centuries, the Mabinogion provides insight into Celtic mythology, Arthurian romance, and the performance techniques of the traditional storyteller. They present an intriguing combination of themes and characters as two cultures collaborate-the oral and the literary. The Mabinogion is rightly regarded as a classic, translated by now into many languages, adapted into children's books, opera, plays, and more recently into animation. Although the authors of the individual tales are unknown, the collection has become synonymous with the name Charlotte Guest, ever since she introduced the texts to the English-speaking world through her translation, first published in instalments between 1838 and 1849. Her work, which must be read within the context of the Celtic revival of the nineteenth century, not only introduces us to the world of medieval, and Welsh, storytelling it also raises important issues related to both postcolonial and feminist theories of translation.

Charlotte Guest, neé Bertie, was an extraordinary woman whose life practically spanned the nineteenth century, from 1812 to 1895. She grew up near Stamford, Lincolnshire, and was the daughter of the ninth earl of Lindsey. A gifted linguist, she married the widowerJosiah John Guest, twenty-seven years her senior, owner of the Dowlais Iron Company in South Wales (one of the largest ironworks in the world), and Member of Parliament for Merthyr Tydfil. Having settled in her new home, she not only took an active part in running the iron works, but also promoted schools for the education of the working classes in the area, for both male and female pupils. But most importantly, she set about learning Welsh, and in so doing came into contact with Welsh literary figures of the period. Through them she obtained access to texts from the Red Book of Hergest, a medieval Welsh manuscript dated to c.1400, and on New Year's Day, 1838, she set about translating a collection of tales that came to be known as the Mabinogion. She was fired by her love of the Middle Ages and of Arthurian Romance, but she also had another motive-she wanted to show to the English-speaking world, the "colonizers," that the "colonized" were civilized and in possession of a noble literary heritage, of "venerable relics of ancient lore" as she claims in her dedication. Indeed, she even argues that the "the Cymric nation . . . has strong claims to be considered the cradle of European Romance." Once the translation was finished, however, her interest in Welsh literature, too, came to an end. In 1855, three years after the death of her husband, she married her eldest son's tutor, Charles Schreiber, who was fourteen years her junior. In his company she traveled on the Continent and embarked on a new project, collecting eighteenth-century ceramics, as witnessed today in the prestigious Schreiber Collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Charlotte Guest died in 1895, eleven years after the death of her second husband, and was buried in Canford, Dorset, where the family owned a large estate.

Although scholars prior to Lady Charlotte Guest had used the collective title Mabinogion, she, through her translation, was ultimately responsible for popularizing the term, which is a scribal error for the authentic mabinogi, and found in a single manuscript. However, since the suffix -(i)on is a very common plural ending in Welsh, mabinogion has become an extremely convenient label to describe this corpus of eleven tales, and is now well-established. The word itself contains the element mab, meaning "boy, son," and it was originally thought that the tales were meant for boys, or that they were tales for apprentice storytellers. But in a fourteenth-century gospel text, mabinogi translates the Latin infantia, hence the later notion that the tales told of the boyhood deeds of certain heroes. A more recent explanation, offered by Hamp, is that the word originally meant "the (collective) material pertaining to the god Maponos." Whatever the meaning, it must be emphasized that in Guest's nineteenth-century sense, Mabinogion refers to no more than a collection of material.

The tales themselves are found in two main manuscripts-the White Book of Rhydderch (c. 1350), and the Red Book of Hergest (c. 1400) on which Guest based her translation-with fragments occurring in manuscripts earlier by a hundred years or so. But the tales were not conceived as a single collection-they all vary in date, authorship, sources, context, and content. The Four Branches of the Mabinogi (Guest's Pwyll, Branwen, Manawyddan, and Math), the only tales to include the term mabinogi, contain resonances of Celtic mythology, as the otherworld and the supernatural encroach upon the everyday lives of the characters. Yet throughout, the author uses this material to convey a scale of values which he commends to contemporary society-he explores the nature of insult, compensation, friendship, and finally forgiveness. In the tale of Kilhwch and Olwen, Culhwch's jealous stepmother puts a curse on him that he is to marry no one save Olwen, daughter of Ysbaddaden Chief Giant. With the help of Arthur and his warriors, many possessing supernatural attributes, Culhwch succeeds in all the seemingly impossible tasks that the giant sets before him, and finally wins his bride. The Arthurian world is again the background to the post Geoffrey of Monmouth "romances" of The Lady of the Fountain (or Owain son of Urien), Peredur son of Evrawc, and Geraint son of Erbin, which correspond to three of the French metrical romances of Chrétien de Troyes. Here, Arthur's knights undertake adventures and learn that they must discover a delicate balance between love and military prowess. The Story of Lludd and Llevelys relates how the two brothers overcome three plagues that descend on the Island of Britain, and draws on the same pseudo-historical background as The Dream of Maxen Wledig, in which the Roman emperor Magnus Maximus dreams of a beautiful maiden whom he eventually discovers in North Wales, and marries. The Dream of Rhonabwy, on the other hand, presents a satirical view of the Arthurian past, and Arthur and his warriors are shown to be little better than Rhonabwy's contemporaries in twelfth-century Wales. In her translation, Charlotte Guest also included a twelfth tale, namely Taliesin, based on eighteenth-century Welsh manuscript sources. Taliesin, a Welsh founder poet of the sixth century, is here portrayed as a legendary figure-the young lad Gwion Bach swallows magical drops of poetic inspiration, is pursued by the witch Ceridwen, changes shape several times to avoid her but is eventually swallowed by her and is reborn as Taliesin. However, this tale is not included in the Mabinogion corpus by subsequent translators and editors since, unlike the other tales, it does not appear in any manuscript before the sixteenth century.

Lady Charlotte Guest's installments of 1838-49 were brought together in 1849 in three luxurious volumes. They included the texts and translations of the twelve tales, notes and variant versions in other languages of the three Arthurian romances, illustrations by Samuel Williams, and facsimiles from the Red Book and from manuscripts of other versions-this was, indeed, an impressive publication. The next edition of 1877, however, was aimed at a new and not so learned audience-the Welsh text was omitted, for example, and the notes condensed, in other words the text was appropriated by the culture of the target language. Even so, this version remained the standard translation of the Mabinogion until 1948, when Thomas Jones and Gwyn Jones, two university professors, produced their collaborative work. They describe Guest's translation as "a charming and felicitous piece of English prose" and "emphatically pay tribute to so splendid an achievement." However they criticise her for "the absence of strict scholarship," while others draw attention to the inaccuracies in her translation. Many critics have difficulty accepting that someone of Guest's background could have actually undertaken such an awesome task, and that she was heavily indebted to literary scholars of the time. She certainly received help and advice-she acknowledges the contribution of Tegid (Reverend John Jones) who transcribed the Red Book version of the tales on her behalf, and mentions in her diary the visits of the Reverend Thomas Price (Carnhuanawc) to Dowlais House, when he would discuss the translation with her. There is no reason to suppose that Guest could talk Welsh, nor is there reason to believe her written Welsh was fluent. However, such skills would not have been essential when her target language was English. As White notes, the problem seems to lie with the critics-male Welsh scholars found it difficult to believe that an English female, with no university training, could be capable of such a linguistic tour de force.

Many nineteenth-century translations are deliberately archaic and therefore are obscure and difficult to read. Guest's translation, on the other hand, is fluent and effortless, helped perhaps by years of journal writing. She would also read out the translation to her children-it thus fulfilled a similar function to that of her source language text, for most medieval manuscripts were written down with oral delivery in mind.

Indeed, the Welsh texts are full of techniques associated with orality, aurality, and performance-their structure is episodic and chronological, with much repetition (especially tripartite); memory-friendly features such as onomastic elements and formulae are common; prolonged dramatic scenes imply a voiced performance and a need for gestures while passages in Kilhwch and Olwen, for example, are highly rhetorical and alliterative.

Charlotte Guest's great accomplishment may be followed almost on a daily basis for she kept a detailed journal, from 1822 until 1881 (thirty-one volumes in all). Extracts have been edited by her grandson, the Earl of Bessborough, and by D. Rhys Phillips, while the authors of Lady Charlotte: A Biography of the Nineteenth Century draw extensively on her personal thoughts. The journal reflects her progress, her frustrations, and her continuous battle against time: She went on a European trip in 1838, translating in Milan and Lake Como, Florence, and Lausanne. But the greatest interruption to her work was the birth of her children as reflected, for example, in the journal entry for March 28, 1839: "To-day I worked hard at the translation of Peredur. I had the pleasure of giving birth to my fifth child and third boy to-day." Indeed, she gave birth to ten children in thirteen years. Her journal certainly shows the tension between her desire to be a dutiful wife and mother on the one hand, and yet to succeed as an independent creative individual on the other. Translation offered her a way into the traditionally male-dominated world, and a way of escape. Through translating, she may well have brought the female voice into the Mabinogion-for example, she chose to give the title Branwen the daughter of Llyr to the second branch, rather than adhere to Bendigeidfran son of Llyr, favored by male scholars of the time (there are no tale titles in the manuscripts).

Charlotte Guest's journal entry for 9 March 1843 reads as follows:
I have to-day completed all that is in my power to do towards the Mabinogion. It is a vast weight off my mind… And now that my dear seven babies are growing up and require so much of my time and attention, it is quite right that I should have done with authorship. I am quite content with what will have been done when the present work is concluded, and I am sure, if a woman is to do her duty as a wife and mother, that the less she meddles with pen and ink the better.

Had she surrendered to such thoughts five years earlier, then the history of Celtic scholarship would have been entirely different. Despite its lack of rigorous scholarship, there is no doubt that Guest's translation had far-reaching consequences. The work not only stimulated research on comparative and Celtic literature, as witnessed in the publications of scholars such as Matthew Arnold, but it also had a direct impact on the literature of the target language-Tennyson founded his poem "Geraint and Enid" in his Idylls of the King on her translation of Geraint son of Erbin. In short, through the endeavours of Charlotte Guest, the tales of the Mabinogion were given their rightful place on the European stage.

Sioned Davies, who is Professor and Head of the School of Welsh at Cardiff University, Wales, has published extensively on the relationship between orality, literacy, and performance in medieval Welsh storytelling. She is currently undertaking a new translation of the Mabinogion tales for Oxford University Press' World Classics series.
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