Mabon and the Guardians of Celtic Britain
Hero Myths in the Mabinogion
The Realm of the Mabinogion
For the Welsh to distinguish between myth and history has always been a difficult exercise.
Still lives on the ancient speech,
Still the ancient songs endure.
John Ceiriog Hughes
The Welsh Storytelling Tradition
It is summer 1983, Caernarvon Castle, North Wales. Within the castle grounds the timeless stories which form the Four Branches of the Mabinogion are being presented by a bilingual team of actors, musicians, and storytellers. They are but the most recent in a long line of storytellers who have helped transmit the Mabinogion from oral and written tradition to the imagination of new generations. The audience goes home in possession of a few fragments of a once mighty mystery tradition in which men and women encounter the gods, animals talk, leaves become gold, and the dead revive. A few may try to read the Mabinogion for themselves, puzzled, intrigued, and excited by the elusive hints which seem to dodge behind the main story just when revelation seems near. Many readers experience the same mixed emotions.
In order to untangle the complexity of the Mabinogion, it is necessary to understand that its stories arise directly from a lively oral tradition which, though it has parallels with the European chivalric cycles, ultimately derives from the folk traditions and mystery lore of Britain. It is the descendant of a venerable bardic tradition in which stories, poems, history, and ancestral lore were preserved in a professional though unwritten manner. We know from classical and Celtic sources that druids, poets, and storytellers taught their skills orally: They were never written down, although different forms of writing were in fact available.71
Why trouble to memorize the equivalent of a small library at all, it may be asked? To understand this we must realize that in the time of this tradition, one’s word was one’s honor; it still had the currency of authority, and learned and unlearned alike were equal under its wisdom. The oral education of Celtic society included all levels of learning: legal, genealogical, historical, prophetic, and religious—facets which are reflected in the Mabinogion itself and which put it outside modern categories of literature. But where once the druidic class had preserved the spiritual mysteries, in Christian times the ancient lore became the purview of the poet and storyteller. While this tradition was preserved freshly in many memories, as time wore on it began to lose touch with its roots. This is how we can distinguish traces of older belief within the stories which have come down to us.
The poet and the storyteller, who once shared professional status with the druid-kind (a class itself deriving from ancient shamanic tradition71) and preserved the old stories, slipped ever farther apart. The poet, or pencerdd, is represented in “The Dream of Rhonabwy” as chanting a eulogy which only another poet could understand; poetry had become technically arduous, its subtleties lost on the listener. Noblemen in Wales retained such poets in their households well into late medieval times in order to eulogize their family and achievements and relate the complex genealogies by which the poet’s lord might trace his bloodline to legendary kings. A pencerdd might not sing for common men; his fee was a high one, entitling him to honor and position. It is bards such as these--with an eye to the moneybags rather than their craft--that Taliesin satirizes so cruelly: “They sing vain and evanescent song.”2
For ordinary mortals, a teuluwr, or household poet, might suffice, a bard who would sing in the lower hall while his superior, the pencerdd, sang to his lord and lady in the upper hall. Less honored even than teuluwr, the clerwr, or wandering minstrel, was musician and storyteller to outlying homesteads, something like the poor scholar in “Manawyddan, Son of Llyr,” who comes from Lloegr, having begged his way: “I come from England, Lord, from song making,” but whose fees amount to a mere pound.
The cyfarwydd, or storyteller, may not have retained the status of the pencerdd, yet he never lost his popularity, for his stories were always accessible to his listeners. Like the Irish seanchai, the cyfarwydd had a store of tales which were handed down from master to pupil orally. Through such an oral tradition we receive the Mabinogion--a collection of stories which had been current for centuries before they came to be written down. Although each story has been given different emphases by different storytellers, the results are often remarkably consistent, as tell the scattered manuscripts from which the diplomatic edition of the Mabinogion is derived. Interestingly, errors crept into the stories when copyists lost interest in their weary task. As is revealed below, from one such error the word mabinogion is derived.
Set against the formalism of court poetry, the mutations of the stories give a lively variety and colloquialism to an ancient oral tradition. Just as in the Welsh language, in which initial consonants mutate or p becomes b, mh, or even ph, so the stories of the Mabinogion shine with a changing iridescence of forgotten tradition, hinting at significant episodes yet simultaneously obscuring them. It is true that we have inherited a pied tradition from storytellers who had lost many of the inner keys, though memory may yet recall portions which are lost or hopelessly tangled.