"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

13th. Century Literature: Part I

Among the small backlog of unreviewed books on my desk, The Mabinogion is probably most obscure. This collection of ancient Welsh tales and Arthurian legends was written down around the 13th century but is, like Beowulf and many other early European manuscripts, derived from a much older source, probably oral. The authors or compilers (most likely many) are likewise veiled in obscurity. Mabinogi are the traditional stories of the ancient Celtic people that all bards and most people would have known; something like what the legends of Johnny Appleseed and George Washington chopping down the cherry tree are to Americans.

The nearest definition I can give of these stories as a whole would be fantasy. About half of them in some way mention Arthur or are versions of the better-known Arthurian canon. Having just read Chretien De Troyes a few months ago helped in navigating the maze of outlandish adventurers. Unfortunately, names in my edition are translated with what is evidently a near approximation to their Gaelic originals so even a comparatively easy to recognize name like Guinever is spelled Gwenhwyvar. Among the many long lists of names are ones like: “Adaon the son of Taliesin, Llary the son of Kasnar Wledig, Fflewddur Fflam, and Greidant Galldovydd, Gilbert the son of Kadgyffro, Menw the son of Teirgwaedd,” and so on, and on, and on.

My high expectations were tolerably met in the first story or “branch” of The Mabinogion that recounts the tale of Pwyll, prince of Dyved who exchanges kingdoms for one year with another king he meets while hunting. As I continued reading, though, my interest waned. Long lists of funny names (spanning multiple pages Old Testament style), events that lacked any verisimilitude, and flat undeveloped characters that all appeared the same, must have been what did it for me. I am, however, being unfair to a book from the Middle Ages. Of course it is not going to compare to a novel by Dickens or Austen. But it did little good to tell myself this while drifting into a doze.

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