The Mabinogion and Welsh Cultural Identity

In his study of the historical development of Welsh identity – The Taliesin Tradition - Emyr Humphreys discusses Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain and makes the following comment:

"In the eyes of the Welsh, Geoffrey’s book overshadowed their native prose masterpieces for centuries. It is only since the nineteenth century that they came to recognise the prose tales of the Mabinogion collection amongst the finest sustained artistic creations in their language. This single fact is in itself a clear indication of the lasting relationship between the activity we now call ‘literary criticism’ and political awareness. For the Welsh to distinguish between myth and history has always been a difficult exercise. This may be inevitable among a gifted and sensitive people, apparently condemned by historical materialism to a permanently marginal existence. In order to be coaxed into action they need to be offered a world. Nothing less could persuade them to stir out of the cocoon of their comfortable illusions. It is for this very reason that they are obliged to develop and continually assert their critical faculty: in order to avoid the fate of the folk hero who falls into the dangerous slumber, or captivity in the house of crystal, or any of the many forms of Celtic fool’s paradise. Fiction can of course catch closer glimpses of ultimate truth than mere recorded fact, but it can only do so when both the maker and the society he serves are sufficiently wide awake to make the elementary distinction. In the case of the medieval and for that matter the modern Welsh, it was and is always exaggerated expectations that led and lead them down the broad avenues towards extinction or assimilation. In the Cymric world, from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century, this was the chief reason why the false history of Geoffrey took precedence over the truth-bearing fiction of the romances of the Mabinogion. "

In what way could the stories in the Mabinogion be seen as ‘truth-bearing’? The writer of the above passage is an accomplished novelist and therefore sees fiction as a way of exploring truth via constructed narratives. Interestingly, he sees Geoffrey – in a later chapter of his study – as “a proto-novelist posing as an historian” who plunders the myths, poetry and folklore of the Welsh for “decorative” adornments to his pseudo-historical narrative. The author of the Four Branches of Y Mabinogi, by contrast, focuses on “figures that are recognisably human and yet free from the constrictions of a specific historical process” and succeeds in “presenting a vision of the human condition which is valid for all time”. While he certainly does not see the tales simply as repositories of a lost mythology, nor does he see them as tales that only tell us about life in the 11th or 12th centuries. He continues by citing parallels between some of the content of the tales and incidents in early Welsh poems such as Preiddiau Annwn , to say that the audience of the tales were “well acquainted with the repertoire” and that they “must have been well aware of the symphonic correspondences both between incidents and between variant versions”. But if the poetry was conservative, backward-looking and aimed at reinforcing heroic virtues, the prose could test this, play with alternatives, question for example the legal system of galanas according to which Manawydan should not demean himself by seeking justice from anyone below his status (let alone a mouse!).

If we read the tales in this way as “truth-bearing fiction” containing insights into human strengths and weaknesses, but also as using well-understood themes from legendary and mythological history (“the repertoire”) and dramatising these in terms of contemporary issues, then we can read them inclusively. This means neither saying that they are just corrupted versions of earlier myths nor saying that these myths would have meant nothing to the audience of the tales. We need to read them with a good understanding of the medieval context in which they were written but also with some appreciation of what a Welsh-speaking audience would already know: the heroic ideals of ‘The Old North’ preserved in the work of early poets who looked back to the Gogynfeirdd (the even earlier poets) as a source of cultural identity. The prose, however, offers an alternative perspective, shifting the same themes to explore psychological – even magical – dimensions of experience and therefore reconnecting with those aspects of an older mythos rather than the realpolitik and turmoil that Manawydan – in the Third Branch – notably opts out of in favour of what he hopes (vainly) will be a pastoral retreat to Dyfed. So the political and military conflict shifts from the historical to the mythical plane: from cultural and political history and pseudo-history to the culture and politics of the Otherworld. Here Time, and therefore history (pseudo or otherwise) is suspended. But if cause and effect work to different rules, the process is no less relentless.

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