Warning, Enthusing in progress….sometimes books deserve their reputations....
Mathew Francis. The Mabinogi, Faber 2017
This is an excellent performance. I read praise of it that claimed it ‘Does for the Mabinogion what Heaney did for Beowulf’. This is unfair to Francis for several reasons: if you need a comparison it might be more accurate to compare it to what Logue did for Homer. And as far as narrative poetry, retelling an older source, that’s about as good as it gets in term of praise.
In the version of ‘The Mabinogion’ that you buy as the standard prose translation, there are 11 stories. The collection is not coherent, and splits itself into three groups. There are three ‘Romances’ which read like Welsh versions of stories by Chrétien de Troyes. There is a cluster of ‘native tales’ which range from the elliptically odd to the sprawling magnificence of Culhwch and Olwen. And there are the ‘Four Branches’, the ‘Mabinogi’ which stand at the head of most translations and are rightly regarded as the jewels in the crown.
They are four uniquely strange and beautiful tales.
Francis retells the four stories, shifting poetry to prose. He admits he can’t read the originals and that perhaps frees him from their syntax and means this in not a translation but a version. If you don’t know the Four Branches you are not at a disadvantage. If you do, the act of selection and emphasis implicit in any retelling will provide readers with much to think about.
His basic unit is a fourteen line stanza organised syllabically. To help the reader follow the story marginal ‘signposts’ are included.
As poetry, the collection shows an unobtrusive verbal inventiveness which muscles along in service to the story. It rewards frequent rereading, from the small details:
The trunks of birches are like ‘Nobbly moonbeams’ (p.54) Efynysien is ‘unhorsing a king/one cut at a time’ (p.28).
To larger descriptions of setting and character: In the first branch, Pwyll, disguised as Arawn, enters the latter’s bedroom:
The room is many rooms, coming and going
At the whim of its flames. The red fire
Utters yellow, and magics
A bed out of dark,
A cave hewn from curtain where they lie
In the candle’s buttered light (p.6)
Or the description of Branwen, seen through her half brother’s eyes:
And his swan of a sister, who seems to walk
Without moving her feet, nudged at times
To right and left by currents
Only she can feel…
But the world of the stories is also richly sensuous with the presence of the physical world; woods, rivers, coast lines, hills, contrast with halls and rooms. It’s one of the ways the story world differs from the contemporary one. These characters are very much at home and part of their landscapes. Francis allows this into his writing, and keeps it in view, so that the book begins:
Here at the turn off the leaf a horseman is riding
Through the space between one world and another,
Warm in his company of noises. (p.3)
The third line being particularly good.
Throughout we are reminded of landscape and its natural inhabitants. Later, in the third branch, when Dyfed is under enchantment
The land managed without them. Woodpeckers ratcheted,
A beetle cantilevered from a soft log,
Spangled flies twitched between slants of sun
That tip toed across the ground
Marking the non-hours. (p.5)
Retelling these stories presents a modern writer with a host of problems, and Francis acknowledges some of these in his introduction. ‘Stories’ unavoidably evokes modern prose fiction. But if you approach the four branches looking for character development, plot coherence, thematic unities, you might be disappointed if not confused. Pryderi may be the one character who appears in all four branches but there’s no noticeable ‘development’ of his character from one to another.
Attempts to make them into modern stories run the risk of killing off what makes them special. (This point deserves its own discussion.)
While Francis does streamline the stories, the effects of his cutting and rearranging are positive.
He moves his narrative swiftly, which in the case of the third branch’s repetitions is something readers should be grateful for. In the fourth the speed doesn’t give anyone much time to stop and wonder at Lleu’s stupidity. (He not only tells his flower wife the unique (utterly improbable) way in which he can be killed, but willingly demonstrates how it can be brought about. Inevitably he’s speared during his demonstration).
There has been much discussion about the relationships between the four branches. And these versions bring some of the links alive. Changes made to the first story affect the third. Cutting the ‘badger in the bag’ incident isn’t a great loss to the first, but it does mean we don’t get to see how smart Rhiannon is, and by removing the incident Francis removes the motivation for the malicious enchantment in the third tale. Modern coherence demands Francis alter the reason behind the revenge since the original motive has been removed; medieval narrative would have ignored the problem.
The major changes seem to be to the fourth story. But the changes pay off. The story is in some ways the most famous: it’s the one where Gwydion the magician magics a wife out of flowers for his nephew, but while that gets quoted and remembered so much more happens and the beginning of the story is tangled.
Long before we reach the the flower wife, Gwydion and Gilfaethwy, two men at the court of Math the King, plan the rape of Goewin. However, to get to her the two men have to get Math away from the court. Gwydion uses his powerful magic to steal Pryderi’s pigs (yes) and start a war. This leads to Pryderi’s death and their punishment. It’s only after this that the tale of the flower wife begins, and she is only the last of Gwydion’s attempts to side step the last of the three curses placed on LLeu by his mother.
Francis cuts the rape of Goewin, the planning that goes into it, and Math’s uniquely appropriate and repetitious punishment of Gwydion and Gilfaethwy. Scrapping Goewin’s story frees him to shift the death of Pryderi to the end of the book. Since the first tale includes his birth, his death now brings the stories to a close.
His other major change is to make Gwydion into a storyteller who is entertaining his hosts. Instead of a 3rd person tale about him, the fourth branch becomes a first person tale told by him. This alters a tale about magic into a story told by a great storyteller who claims to be a magician in the story he’s telling.
Francis hints that all the stories in the four branches are told by Gwydion. The link between the magician who can make a ship out of sea weed or dogs out of mushrooms and a poet who constantly presents one thing as another seems a fair one. But the idea seems to appear in the final branch rather than be a consistent motif all the way through.
Rereading this book over several weeks, I haven’t found anything to dislike. There’s so much to admire.
I want to use it to consider the retelling of Medieval stories in general, but I want to separate a selfish use of the book from a description of its excellence.