The Mabinogion

The Mabinogion is the name given to a collection of eleven Welsh prose tales culled from the Red Book of Hergest, a manuscript copied-out in about 1400. The eleven tales fall into three groups:

  1. The Four Branches of the Mabinogi. A group of four related mythological stories: ‘Pwyll Prince of Dyfed’, ‘Branwen Daughter of Llŷr’, ‘Manawydan Son of Llŷr’ and ‘Math Son of Mathonwy’.
  2. Four independent tales from Welsh tradition: ‘The Dream of Macsen Wledig’, ‘Lludd and Llefelys’, ‘Culhwch and Olwen’ and ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’ – the latter two of which feature King Arthur.
  3. The Three Romances. Three Arthurian stories that show French influence: ‘The Lady of the Fountain’ (also known as ‘Owain’), ‘Geraint Son of Erbin’ and ‘Peredur Son of Efrawg’.

A slightly earlier manuscript, the White Book of Rhydderch of about 1350, contained at least ten of the eleven stories (‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’ being absent),[*] and other manuscripts contain bits-and-pieces of The Mabinogion copied-out during the hundred-or-so years before the White Book.

The Red Book of Hergest (Llyfr Coch Hergest) is named from its red leather binding and, its former home, Hergest Court in Herefordshire. It is now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Jesus College MS 111).
The White Book of Rhydderch (Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch) was probably written-up for one Rhydderch ab Ieuan Llwyd, from Parcrhydderch, Ceredigion. Originally it was a single volume, presumably with a white binding at some stage, but it is now in two volumes, Peniarth MS 4 (which contains The Mabinogion stories) and Peniarth MS 5, in the National Library of Wales.
Lady Charlotte published the first part of The Mabinogion in 1838. Another six parts followed. All seven were published as a three volume set in 1849. In her Introduction (dated 29th August 1848), she writes:
Small portions only of it [the “Romantic Literature of Wales”] 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.
Lady Charlotte included a twelfth tale, ‘Taliesin’, in her collection, but this story is an intruder – not in the Red Book, the earliest copy is 16th century – and it is now generally excluded from The Mabinogion.
William Owen Pughe (as Idrison) had previously, in 1833, published a text and his English translation of ‘Taliesin’ in Vol. 5 of The Cambrian Quarterly Magazine (now titled The Cambrian and Caledonian Quarterly Magazine). The piece is headed “The Mabinogi of Taliesin”. Idrison claims the tale was composed, or, more likely, adapted from an earlier work, by one Hopkin Thomas Phillip “about the year 1370”. The earliest known text is incorporated into a Chronicle of world history, written c.1552 by Elis Gruffudd (National Library of Wales MS 5276D).
Pughe was editor of The Cambrian Register. The first part of ‘Pwyll’ (a self-contained episode) was published in Volume 1 (“for the year 1795”) in 1796. In his prefatory remarks, Pughe states:
There are in the Welsh language several romantic Tales; some of which are preserved in old manuscripts, and others are recited from memory by the common people. They are variously denominated Mabinogion, or Juvenile Amusements, Ystoriau, or Tales, and Hen Ystoreuon, or Old Stories. The following one is from the Red Book of Jesus College, Oxford.
The Welsh text is headed “Mabinogi I”, and the English translation “Juvenile Amusement I”. Two more instalments of ‘Pwyll’ followed, in Vol. 2 (1799) and Vol. 3 (1818).
Pughe, using the pseudonym Idrison, had the text and his English translation of ‘Math’ published in Vol. 1 of The Cambrian Quarterly Magazine (1829). The piece is headed “Mabinogion”, and Idrison’s introduction confidently states “The Mabinogion were mythological tales for the instruction of youth in the principles of Bardism.”
The White Book has many leaves missing. ‘Lludd and Llefelys’, ‘Culhwch and Olwen’ and ‘The Lady of the Fountain’ are now incomplete. There is, though, no evidence to confirm the notion that it once contained ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’.