Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 851

The tales gathered in The Mabinogion had a long oral tradition before they were written down, perhaps as early as the twelfth or thirteenth century. Strictly speaking, The Mabinogion comprises the first four tales in the collection of Lady Charlotte Guest, which was published in 1838-1839. The entire collection of...

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The tales gathered in The Mabinogion had a long oral tradition before they were written down, perhaps as early as the twelfth or thirteenth century. Strictly speaking, The Mabinogion comprises the first four tales in the collection of Lady Charlotte Guest, which was published in 1838-1839. The entire collection of tales furnishes some of the best-known characters and motifs of European romance. The stories have unity, assurance of style, skillful dialogue, accurate delineation of character, rich color, and a noble perspective on life. Their author or authors were artists well trained in nuances and subtleties of language. No one has ever doubted that the Welsh were skilled storytellers. So were the Bretons and Icelandic bards, and their talent has left indelible impressions on Western literature. The Mabinogion, in particular, has contributed significant and ancient folkloric themes as well as some of the earliest lore of Britain.

The unknown author of “Kilhwch and Olwen,” one of the most artistic and enthusiastic contributors in The Mabinogion, creates a world of magic, color, and vigorous action. The story of the Celtic hero Kilhwch, who seeks a giant’s daughter for his wife, uses a typical quest plot, with a list of forty tasks that Kilhwch must accomplish before he wins Ysbaddaden’s daughter, Olwen. The tasks are not as important as the assemblage of persons attendant to Kilhwch, which includes his cousin Arthur. Arthur and his company form a nucleus for the later Arthurian Round Table. Appearing in this story, too, is the giant herdsman, a familiar motif in folklore, one that surfaces in other romances.

An important contribution to medieval romance generally is that richness of color that vibrates in the Welsh narrative. Olwen wears a robe of flame-red silk and a necklace of red gold set with pearls and rubies. The author states that her hair is yellower “than the flower of the broom,” her cheeks redder “than the reddest foxgloves.” Wherever she walks, white flowers spring up behind her. Kilhwch rides with two greyhounds in collars of red gold; his purple mantle has a red-gold apple in each corner.

“The Dream of Rhonabwy,” one of the early dream visions in Celtic literature, lacks such movement and character description but has more realism. The dream deals with Arthur’s battles against the Saxons; the main incident is the game played between Arthur and Owain, with its conflict between the former’s men and the latter’s ravens. Norman-French themes combine with older Irish and Welsh ones here with possible foreshadowing of Morgain la Fe (Modron), a shape-shifting figure who weaves her way through various European romances bringing magic birds, healing plasters, rings, and curative waters to innumerable heroes in time of need.

The last three stories in The Mabinogion are often compared to three similar works by Chrétien de Troyes. Much critical debate has been carried on between the Celticists, those who feel Welsh tradition underlies the spread of Arthurian material on the Continent, and the Continentalists, who assert that the latter influenced Welsh stories. As Gwyn Jones notes, opinion is swinging toward the Celticists because of evidence from linguistics, comparative folklore, and methods of composition in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, parallels between “The Lady of the Fountain,” “Peredur, Son of Evrawg” and “Gerint, Son of Erbin” on one hand and Chrétien’s similar verse romances on the other hand are considerable; perhaps the Welsh authors and the French romancer worked from a lost common source.

The characters in the three Welsh tales may lack depth, and the actions themselves may be insufficiently motivated, but Owain, Gerint, and Peredur partake of entertaining adventures. If the narratives lack the meaning and skillful joining of incident found in Chrétien’s poems, this seems purposeful rather than due to bungling artistry. In addition, many of the tales in The Mabinogion are probably retellings of materials whose origins may have been forgotten, if indeed they were ever known. Bits of ancient Irish stories, Norman-French fragments, and archaic traditions in Welsh make up their subject matter; the Welsh tellers contribute the color and vigor of action. The audience must have loved this excess of color in descriptions of garments, tapestries, ornaments, armor, and innumerable battles and adventures, whether these were smoothly connected or not. Cohesive unity was not the authors’ intent, as it was that of Chrétien de Troyes.

The familiar world of hunting, fighting, shape-shifting, and magic is there; so is Arthur presiding over a court rich with armor, jewels, beautiful ladies, and brave knights. The nebulous sixth century “battle leader,” as the Latin chronicler Nennius described Arthur, may have been only a local chieftain leading somewhat limited skirmishes in southwest Britain, but in The Mabinogion he returns to literature a powerful and glorious king. He presides over an extensive court, and important kings from all over the Western world come to pay him homage. Whether he lived or not, this is the hero England needed and remembers. The Welsh tales of The Mabinogion help immeasurably in clothing him and his famous knights with splendor, regardless of possible influences from other sources.

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