‘The Mabinogi’ by Matthew Francis – a review by Eurig Salisbury

It was perhaps inevitable. Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf in 1999 made fashionable the work of translating into Modern English old texts deemed (often justifiably) inaccessible to a modern audience. His most notable successor in this work is Simon Armitage’s Sir Gawain and the Green Night (2007), and the trajectory of both works seems, in hindsight, to lead on unavoidably towards the fringes of Welsh literature. One is an Old English text written in England but set in Scandinavia prior to the Anglo-Saxon migration to Britain, the other an Arthurian Middle English text at home with the Matter of Britain and set in the West Midlands, in sight of the Welsh borders. Where to next?

Seren Books’ recent New Stories from the Mabinogion series seems to have shown the way. The re-imagining in prose of the eleven native Welsh tales in Seren’s series both mirrors the originals in terms of medium but also, crucially, differs enough in tone and substance to allow for a strong degree of independence. Francis’s retelling, on the other hand, despite being in verse, more closely resembles his original source material in terms of style, scope and medieval setting. This lends the work a great deal of legitimacy, but also handicaps it by highlighting its many structural deviations.

But there’s the crux. A reader with no knowledge of the original Welsh text may have little idea of the author’s deviations, and care even less. The poetry undoubtedly works. It moves along at a good pace and colours the action in a way that a medieval scribe would have had little time for. Pwyll and Arawn meet ‘in the still gaze of the stag’ not long since slain, whose ‘filched chitterlings’ the hounds ‘guzzle’. Matholwch’s ships approach the Welsh coast from Ireland, first as a ‘swirl of mosquitos’, then as a ‘flotilla of seagulls, / salt-water swans’, but they are in fact ‘more complicated than that’ and become ‘something human’.

Choosing when and how to embellish the original material is the prerogative of the storyteller. Francis succeeds time and time again in adding an extra layer of light and detail that loads an occasionally sparse Welsh text with cinematic immediacy. In that sense, the work can be enjoyed simply for what it is, namely a brilliantly perceptive reworking that elevates the finer points at the expense of narrative sweep.

But what of those who know Welsh? The lasting value of the four branches of the Mabinogi (incorrectly referred to on the sleeve as the ‘first four’) rests on the portrayal of their characters. Whilst Francis’s many structural deviations from the source should not be dismissed out of hand – he could presumably justify his choices, even though few justifications are offered – their effect collectively is to undercut the characters’ development and incentives.

Pwyll’s maturing in the first branch under the tutorship of Rhiannon, his far shrewder wife, is cut short by the astonishing omission of the whole second part of the branch. This undermines Llwyd’s motivation at the end of the third branch in seeking revenge for his friend’s earlier humiliation at the hands of Pwyll – a pivotal revelation that throws into sharp relief the less vengeful nature of Manawydan’s and Pryderi’s friendship – and is bafflingly altered so that it relates instead to the devastation of Ireland. Branwen’s brave and dignified retort to her captors, when asked – courteously for the first time in years – to explain a strange sight on the Irish sea, is likewise absent, as is any mention of the magical island of Gwales.

Furthermore, the restructuring of the four stories (effectively rewriting the last) to fit the narrative of Pryderi – the only character to appear in all four and whose life seems at first glance to follow their trajectory – falls prey to the now discounted theory that enticed Ifor Williams and others, namely that Pryderi was once the focal character for the stories as a whole. Pryderi is a poor unifier for a number of reasons, not least because he is less of a hero than most, but this seems to have counted for little in the face of Francis’s attempt to forge a ‘more straightforward narrative line that appeals to modern readers’. Modern readers can arguably deal with all sorts of narratives, but the underlying impression remains that the stories work best as individual tales that share common themes, and any attempt to force them into a straight-jacket of unity is doomed to fail.

It is, however, by association with Heaney and Armitage that Francis falls seriously short. In introducing old English texts to modern readers, both Heaney and Armitage sought linguistic rights of way into the original that both justified and enhanced their endeavour. Heaney’s troubled linguistic inheritance in Northern Ireland made him wary at first of the Old English text, until he found ‘an entry into further language’ by way of familiar words known to him through Ulster Scots. Likewise, the ‘northerner’ Armitage not only recognized plenty of the Sir Gawainpoem’s dialect, but also detected ‘an echo of his own speech within the original’. Above all, both poets translated from an older version of a language in which they themselves wrote.

Pointing out that he is ‘neither a Welsh speaker nor Welsh-born’, Francis admits he cannot ‘claim the Mabinogias part of my personal heritage’. His brief pitch for validation, however, ‘in the sense that the greatest products of the human imagination are the heritage of us all’, seems rather glib. A lack of natural affinity with a language or a country certainly does not disqualify anyone who wishes to get to grips with its literature, but an awareness of the wider factors involved is key. In the case of the Welsh language, it is essential, for its position as a minority language in relation to dominant English in its own land warrants understanding in any form of cultural exchange.

The fact is that Francis’s version is no translation – it is not described as such except in Gillian Clarke’s quoted review on the sleeve – but rather a retelling. It was based solely on a recent English prose translation, and a casual reader might be excused for failing to realise that the language of the original is still spoken. Welsh is a living language. That the work was written mostly in Wales in a town with an abundance of Welsh speakers, and a stone’s throw away from the National Library of Wales, where the earliest complete text is housed in the White Book of Rhydderch, makes the effective bypassing of the Welsh language all the more surprising.

Its absence is telling. The exoticisation of Annwfn, wrongly labelled as ‘the Otherworld of Celtic myth’ whereas it is in fact distinctly Welsh, as a ‘dreamlike, elusive’ and ‘shadowy domain’ is worryingly redolent of the colonial notion of Celtic otherness. Having the Irish refer to Branwen the sister of Bendigeidfran in a manner reserved today for members of the English upper class, ‘Her Grace His Grace’s sister’, is grating, as is the downgrading of Gwydion, ‘the greatest storyteller in the world’ in the original text, to the status of a jester with ‘the pinched face of a frog, the eyes swollen’. Francis might see himself implicitly in Pwyll’s image, ‘crossing boundaries … into forbidden territory’, but one wonders whether he has returned having ‘gained insights’ or, like a tourist, having simply had ‘an exciting, if disorientating, time.’

It is ultimately the author’s right to deal with his material in his own way. Precious, dynamic texts such as the four branches of the Mabinogi are to be engaged with, reworked and retold. Seeking meaningful dialogue with the source is not always a prerequisite for engagement, but it is at the very least advisable in a dichotomous state of play between a minority culture – in which the Mabinogi already carries centuries of weight and meaning – and a dominant one. It would be foolish to imagine that such cultural exchanges carry no consequences. When viewed from the other side, a book marketed as ‘an important contribution to the storytelling of the British Isles’ can too easily smack of cultural appropriation. To paraphrase Francis’s description of the otherworld, it may be worth remembering that it is Wales, not Annwfn, that exists ‘just over there, behind those trees.’

Eurig Salisbury
(Featured in the current Issue of Poetry Wales, Summer 2018)


‘New Stories From The Mabinogion’ by Seren Books


Poster y Mabinogion by Margaret Jones