Ancient Mythology

The Mabinogion


Whilst engaged on the Translations contained in these volumes, and on the Notes appended to the various Tales, I have found myself led unavoidably into a much more extensive course of reading than I had originally contemplated, and one which in great measure bears directly upon the earlier Mediæval Romance.

Before commencing these labours, I was aware, generally, that there existed a connexion between the Welsh Mabinogion and the Romance of the Continent; but as I advanced, I became better acquainted with the closeness and extent of that connexion, its history, and the proofs by which it is supported.

At the same time, indeed, I became aware, and still strongly feel, that it is one thing to collect facts, and quite another to classify and draw from them their legitimate conclusions; and though I am loth that what has been collected with some pains, should be entirely thrown away, it is unwillingly, and with diffidence, that I trespass beyond the acknowledged province of a translator.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries there arose into general notoriety in Europe, a body of “Romance,” which in various forms retained its popularity till the Reformation.  In it the plot, the incidents, the characters, were almost wholly those of Chivalry, that bond which united the warriors of France, Spain, and Italy, with those of pure Teutonic descent, and embraced more or less firmly all the nations of Europe, excepting only the Slavonic races, not yet risen to power, and the Celts, who had fallen from it.  It is not difficult to account for this latter omission.  The Celts, driven from the plains into the mountains and islands, preserved their liberty, and hated their oppressors with fierce, and not causeless, hatred.  A proud and free people, isolated both in country and language, were not likely to adopt customs which implied brotherhood with their foes.

Such being the case, it is remarkable that when the chief romances are examined, the name of many of the heroes and their scenes of action are found to be Celtic, and those of persons and places famous in the traditions of Wales and Brittany.  Of this the romances of Ywaine and Gawaine, Sir Perceval de Galles, Eric and Enide, Mort d’Arthur, Sir Lancelot, Sir Tristan, the Graal, &c., may be cited as examples.  In some cases a tendency to triads, and other matters of internal evidence, point in the same direction.

It may seem difficult to account for this.  Although the ancient dominion of the Celts over Europe is not without enduring evidence in the names of the mountains and streams, the great features of a country, yet the loss of their prior language by the great mass of the Celtic nations in Southern Europe (if indeed their successors in territory be at all of their blood), prevents us from clearly seeing, and makes us wonder, how stories, originally embodied in the Celtic dialects of Great Britain and France, could so influence the literature of nations to whom the Celtic languages were utterly unknown.  Whence then came these internal marks, and these proper names of persons and places, the features of a story usually of earliest date and least likely to change?

These romances were found in England, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, and even Iceland, as early as the beginning of the thirteenth and end of the twelfth century.  The Germans, who propagated them through the nations of the North, derived them certainly from France.  Robert Wace published his Anglo-Norman Romance of the Brut d’Angleterre about 1155.  Sir Tristan was written in French prose in 1170; and The Chevalier au Lion, Chevalier de l’Epée, and Sir Lancelot du Lac, in metrical French, by Chrestien de Troyes, before 1200.

From these facts it is to be argued that the further back these romances are traced, the more clearly does it appear that they spread over the Continent from the North-west of France.  The older versions, it may be remarked, are far more simple than the later corruptions.  In them there is less allusion to the habits and usages of Chivalry, and the Welsh names and elements stand out in stronger relief.  It is a great step to be able to trace the stocks of these romances back to Wace, or to his country and age.  For Wace’s work was not original.  He himself, a native of Jersey, appears to have derived much of it from the “Historia Britonum” of Gruffydd ab Arthur, commonly known as “Geoffrey of Monmouth,” born 1128, who himself professes to have translated from a British original.  It is, however, very possible that Wace may have had access, like Geoffrey, to independent sources of information.

To the claims set up on behalf of Wace and Geoffrey, to be regarded as the channels by which the Cymric tales passed into the Continental Romance, may be added those of a third almost contemporary author.  Layamon, a Saxon priest, dwelling, about 1200, upon the banks of the upper Severn, acknowledges for the source of his British history, the English Bede, the Latin Albin, and the French Wace.  The last-named however is by very much his chief, and, for Welsh matters, his only avowed authority.  His book, nevertheless, contains a number of names and stories relating to Wales, of which no traces appear in Wace, or indeed in Geoffrey, but which he was certainly in a very favourable position to obtain for himself.  Layamon, therefore, not only confirms Geoffrey in some points, but it is clear, that, professing to follow Wace, he had independent access to the great body of Welsh literature then current.  Sir F. Madden has put this matter very clearly, in his recent edition of Layamon.  The Abbé de la Rue, also, was of opinion that Gaimar, an Anglo-Norman, in the reign of Stephen, usually regarded as a translator of Geoffrey of Monmouth, had access to a Welsh independent authority.

In addition to these, is to be mentioned the English version of Sir Tristrem, which Sir Walter Scott considered to be derived from a distinct Celtic source, and not, like the later Amadis, Palmerin, and Lord Berners’s Canon of Romance, imported into English literature by translation from the French.  For the Auntours of Arthur, recently published by the Camden Society, their Editor, Mr. Robson, seems to hint at a similar claim.

Here then are various known channels, by which portions of Welsh and Armoric fiction crossed the Celtic border, and gave rise to the more ornate, and widely-spread romance of the Age of Chivalry.  It is not improbable that there may have existed many others.  It appears then that a large portion of the stocks of Mediæval Romance proceeded from Wales.  We have next to see in what condition they are still found in that country.

That Wales possessed an ancient literature, containing various lyric compositions, and certain triads, in which are arranged historical facts or moral aphorisms, has been shown by Sharon Turner, who has established the high antiquity of many of these compositions.

The more strictly Romantic Literature of Wales has been less fortunate, though not less deserving of critical attention.  Small portions only of it have hitherto appeared in print, the remainder being still hidden in the obscurity of ancient Manuscripts: of these the chief is supposed to be the Red Book of Hergest, now in the Library of Jesus College, Oxford, and of the fourteenth century.  This contains, besides poems, the prose romances known as Mabinogion.  The Black Book of Caermarthen, preserved at Hengwrt, and considered not to be of later date than the twelfth century, is said to contain poems only. {1}

The Mabinogion, however, though thus early recorded in the Welsh tongue, are in their existing form by no means wholly Welsh.  They are of two tolerably distinct classes.  Of these, the older contains few allusions to Norman customs, manners, arts, arms, and luxuries.  The other, and less ancient, are full of such allusions, and of ecclesiastical terms.  Both classes, no doubt, are equally of Welsh root, but the former are not more overlaid or corrupted, than might have been expected, from the communication that so early took place between the Normans and the Welsh; whereas the latter probably migrated from Wales, and were brought back and re-translated after an absence of centuries, with a load of Norman additions.  Kilhwch and Olwen, and the dream of Rhonabwy, may be cited as examples of the older and purer class; the Lady of the Fountain, Peredur, and Geraint ab Erbin, of the later, or decorated.

Besides these, indeed, there are a few tales, as Amlyn and Amic, Sir Bevis of Hamtoun, the Seven Wise Masters, and the story of Charlemagne, so obviously of foreign extraction, and of late introduction into Wales, not presenting even a Welsh name, or allusion, and of such very slender intrinsic merit, that although comprised in the Llyvr Coch, they have not a shadow of claim to form part of the Canon of Welsh Romance.  Therefore, although I have translated and examined them, I have given them no place in these volumes.

There is one argument in favour of the high antiquity in Wales of many of the Mabinogion, which deserves to be mentioned here.  This argument is founded on the topography of the country.  It is found that Saxon names of places are very frequently definitions of the nature of the locality to which they are attached, as Clifton, Deepden, Bridge-ford, Thorpe, Ham, Wick, and the like; whereas those of Wales are more frequently commemorative of some event, real or supposed, said to have happened on or near the spot, or bearing allusion to some person renowned in the story of the country or district.  Such are “Llyn y Morwynion,” the Lake of the Maidens; “Rhyd y Bedd,” the Ford of the Grave; “Bryn Cyfergyr,” the Hill of Assault; and so on.  But as these names could not have preceded the events to which they refer, the events themselves must be not unfrequently as old as the early settlement in the country.  And as some of these events and fictions are the subjects of, and are explained by, existing Welsh legends, it follows that the legends must be, in some shape or other, of very remote antiquity.  It will be observed that this argument supports remote antiquity only for such legends as are connected with the greater topographical features, as mountains, lakes, rivers, seas, which must have been named at an early period in the inhabitation of the country by man.  But there exist, also, legends connected with the lesser features, as pools, hills, detached rocks, caves, fords, and the like, places not necessarily named by the earlier settlers, but the names of which are, nevertheless, probably very old, since the words of which they are composed are in many cases not retained in the colloquial tongue, in which they must once have been included, and are in some instances lost from the language altogether, so much so as to be only partially explicable even by scholars.  The argument applies likewise, in their degree, to camps, barrows, and other artificial earth-works.

Conclusions thus drawn, when established, rest upon a very firm basis.  They depend upon the number and appositeness of the facts, and it would be very interesting to pursue this branch of evidence in detail.  In following up this idea, the names to be sought for might thus be classed:—

I.  Names of the great features, involving proper names and actions.

Cadair Idris and Cadair Arthur both involve more than a mere name.  Idris and Arthur must have been invested with heroic qualifications to have been placed in such “seats.”

II.  Names of lesser features, as “Bryn y Saeth,” Hill of the Dart; “Llyn Llyngclys,” Lake of the Engulphed Court; “Ceven y Bedd,” the Ridge of the Grave; “Rhyd y Saeson,” the Saxons’ Ford.

III.  Names of mixed natural and artificial objects, as “Coeten Arthur,” Arthur’s Coit; “Cerrig y Drudion,” the Crag of the Heroes; which involve actions.  And such as embody proper names only, as “Cerrig Howell,” the Crag of Howell; “Caer Arianrod,” the Camp of Arianrod; “Bron Goronwy,” the Breast (of the Hill) of Goronwy; “Castell mab Wynion,” the Castle of the son of Wynion; “Nant Gwrtheyrn,” the Rill of Vortigern.

The selection of names would demand much care and discretion.  The translations should be indisputable, and, where known, the connexion of a name with a legend should be noted.  Such a name as “Mochdrev,” Swine-town, would be valueless unless accompanied by a legend.

It is always valuable to find a place or work called after an individual, because it may help to support some tradition of his existence or his actions.  But it is requisite that care be taken not to push the etymological dissection too far.  Thus, “Caer Arianrod” should be taken simply as the “Camp of Arianrod,” and not rendered the “Camp of the silver circle,” because the latter, though it might possibly have something to do with the reason for which the name was borne by Arianrod herself, had clearly no reference to its application to her camp.

It appears to me, then, looking back upon what has been advanced:-

I.  That we have throughout Europe, at an early period, a great body of literature, known as Mediæval Romance, which, amidst much that is wholly of Teutonic origin and character, includes certain well-marked traces of an older Celtic nucleus.

II.  Proceeding backwards in time, we find these romances, their ornaments falling away at each step, existing towards the twelfth century, of simpler structure, and with less encumbered Celtic features, in the works of Wace, and other Bards of the Langue d’Oil.

III.  We find that Geoffrey of Monmouth, Layamon, and other early British and Anglo-Saxon historians, and minstrels, on the one hand, transmitted to Europe the rudiments of its after romance, much of which, on the other hand, they drew from Wales.

IV.  Crossing into Wales we find, in the Mabinogion, the evident counterpart of the Celtic portion of the continental romance, mixed up, indeed, with various reflex additions from beyond the border, but still containing ample internal evidence of a Welsh original.

V.  Looking at the connexion between divers of the more ancient Mabinogion, and the topographical nomenclature of part of the country, we find evidence of the great, though indefinite, antiquity of these tales, and of an origin, which, if not indigenous, is certainly derived from no European nation.

It was with a general belief in some of these conclusions, that I commenced my labours, and I end them with my impressions strongly confirmed.  The subject is one not unworthy of the talents of a Llwyd or a Prichard.  It might, I think, be shown, by pursuing the inquiry, that the Cymric nation is not only, as Dr. Prichard has proved it to be, an early offshoot of the Indo-European family, and a people of unmixed descent, but that when driven out of their conquests by the later nations, the names and exploits of their heroes, and the compositions of their bards, spread far and wide among the invaders, and affected intimately their tastes and literature for many centuries, and that it has strong claims to be considered the cradle of European Romance.

C. E. G.
DOWLAIS, August 29th, 1848.


{1}  It is also stated, that there is in the Hengwrt Library, a MS. containing the Graal in Welsh, as early as the time of Henry I.  I had hoped to have added this to the present collection; but the death of Col. Vaughan, to whom I applied, and other subsequent circumstances, have prevented me from obtaining access to it.

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The Mabinogion. Translated by Lady Charlotte Guest

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