Did a Woman Write The Four Branches of the Mabinogi?
I am prompted to consider this question following an intervention on the Caerfeddwyd forum recently by Andrew Breeze to promote his view that the author of Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi was a woman and, in particular that the woman in question was Gwenllian (1090-1136). She is otherwise famous as a ‘warrior princess’ for leading an attack on Cydweli castle against the Normans, during which she was killed. Although I was familiar with this theory, I had not read Andrew Breeze’s book The Origins of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, so I located a copy and read the chapter in which the argument is set out.
The first part of the argument, that the views and the feelings expressed present a woman’s perspective on events, is quite persuasive as literary analysis and, in this respect, makes the case that a woman could have written the tales on the basis of characterization and the presentation of the sympathies of female characters - especially Rhiannon. Indeed I found myself quite won over to the view that female perspectives are strongly apparent here. This might have provided an interesting preamble to a discussion about the ways in which characters can inhabit stories or whether feminine perspectives can, necessarily, only be advanced by women.
But to move from this sort of reading of a text to the attempt to establish not only that the author definitely was a woman, but also to identify a specific character from the historical record, is, it seems to me, unjustified. The consensus view is that there is no way of knowing who the author was. There is no reason, of course, why this should not be challenged. But Andrew Breeze’s specific arguments for the authorship of Gwenllian seem to me to be rather forced and unconvincing. I don't, for instance, find the idea that the style of the poems of Hywel ap Owain Gwynedd has anything to say about the likelihood of his aunt Gwenllian displaying similarities in her prose style.
Other views could be advanced on stylistic grounds that, for example, the Fourth branch feels as if it were written by someone different from the First and Third branches and probably also the Second branch. That is a literary judgement which I might be inclined promote on the grounds of my own careful reading. But given the lack of firm evidence of authorship, there would be little point in doing more than recording it as an impression.
There has been a reaction against the tendency to see the tales as degraded pagan myths and the consequent attempts to reconstruct their mythical sources. Instead, it is argued, we should see the tales in the context of the historical period in which they were composed in their current forms. But if this leads, as it often does, to attempts to reconstruct political, historical or biographical facts that are not manifest in the texts, then arguably the same sort of errors of critical judgement may ensue. Where supposed mythical origins are based on thematic or philological identifications, these might be seen as a firmer base than speculations about political or historical significance.
I have argued in earlier posts that gods can inhabit folktales, stories and other cultural exchanges without it being necessary to prove an historical development from earlier myths, as enlightening as such proofs that are available may be to those who wish to read the tales in this way. Similarly, it is surely enough to find strongly feminine perspectives in the narrative or the characterization of the tales without this meaning that we have to identify a female author for them where no evidence of authorship exists.
Andrew Breeze indicates that he finds it difficult to live with the "nothing is concluded" of Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, so needs to arrive at a firm conclusion. I think here of the view of John Keats in what he called 'Negative Capability', that is the ability to respond creatively while also "being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”.
Personally I'm happy to live with 'negative capability' in this respect, and don't read the tales primarily as containing political or historical messages of the specificity assigned to them in the book. Rather they speak through their author of deeper things. Not just because of the supposed mythological origins but also because all literature has this as its primary function rather than being an adjunct to historical study.
It may be that it was Gwenllian who composed the Four Branches out of disparate elements from folklore and oral tales and made the literary creation that they are. Just as it may be that Shakespeare's plays were really written by Edward de Vere, The Earl of Oxford, as some choose to suppose and try to prove. But I find such speculations less interesting than the way we are spoken to directly from the text: 'The play's the thing ...'.