The Four Branches of the Mabinogi
or Pedair Cainc Y Mabinogi are the earliest prose stories in the
literature of Britain. Originally written in Wales in Middle
Welsh, the Mabinogi is generally agreed to be a single work in
four parts, or "Branches." The interrelated tales can be read as
mythology, political themes, romances, or magical fantasies.
The book has been widely
influential, giving rise to timeless literary figures such as
Arthur and Merlin, and providing the basis of much European and
world literature - the fantasy fiction genre, so popular today,
was practically unknown before its publication.
It first came to general literary
prominence in the mid 19th century, when Lady Charlotte Guest
published her translation of 11 medieval Welsh folk tales under
the title The Mabinogion.
The tales, which are outwardly
concerned with the lives of various Welsh royal families -
figures who represent the gods of an older, pre-Christian
mythological order - are themselves much older in origin.
Preserved in written form in the
White Book of Rhydderch (1300-1325) and the Red Book of Hergest
(1375-1425), portions of the stories were written as early as
the second half of the 11th century, and some stories are much
It is from this older, oral
tradition of story telling that many of the fantastic and
supernatural elements of the tales have come.
'Mabinogi', derived from the word
'mab', originally meant 'boyhood' or 'youth' but gradually came
to mean 'tale of a hero's boyhood' and eventually, simply, 'a
It's these first four heroic
'tales', or the four 'branches' of Pwyll, Branwen, Manawydan,
and Math, which make up The Mabinogi(on) proper.
A single character, Pryderi links
all four branches. In the first tale he's born and fostered,
inherits a kingdom and marries. In the second he's scarcely
mentioned, but in the third he's imprisoned by enchantment and
then released. In the fourth he falls in battle.
The tales themselves are
concerned with the themes of fall and redemption, loyalty,
marriage, love, fidelity, the wronged wife, and incest.
They're set in a bizarre and
magical landscape which corresponds geographically to the
western coast of south and north Wales, and are full of white
horses that appear magically, giants, beautiful, intelligent
women and heroic men.
The title, The Mabinogion, is
also used today to describe the other seven stories in Lady
Charlotte Guest's collection: The Dream of Macsen Wledig, which
is based on the legend of Emperor Maximus; Llud and Llefelys, a
story full of fairy tale elements; Culhwch and Olwen, the
earliest known Arthurian romance in Welsh; The Dream of Rhonabwy,
a witty meditation on ancient Britain's heroic tradition; and
three further Arthurian romances, The Lady of the Fountain,
Peredur and Geraint and Enid. A 12th story, Taliesin, translated
from a later manuscript, is included in some collections.
The Mabinogi / Mabinogion on Amazon