Places: The Mabinogion

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1838-1849 (tales from The White Book of Rhydderch, 1300-1325 and The Red Book of Hergest, 1375-1425)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Folklore

Time of work: Middle Ages

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*British Isles

*British Mabinogion, TheIsles. European island group comprising Great Britain, Ireland, and smaller surrounding islands whose early inhabitants spoke Celtic languages. Celtic culture once extended throughout Europe. By the time period in which most of the tales in The Mabinogion are set–perhaps the sixth or seventh century c.e.–continental Celts held only Brittany in western France, and Germanic Anglo-Saxons controlled the parts of southeastern and central Britain previously ruled by the Roman Empire.

The Celtic “fringe” lands of Wales, Cornwall, and Ireland provide the setting for most of The Mabinogion’s tales. Its characters also traverse parts of England, however, and places like London (King Lludd’s favorite court) and Oxford appear as Celtic towns, while the father of Peredur the knight seems to hail from York. Ireland is a place to be visited, and at least in “Branwen” is associated with otherworldly powers, while Britain is the “Island of the Mighty.”

Otherworldly places

Otherworldly places. Among the pagan Celts the connection of specific locations with gods or spirits was common and may emerge in these Christianized stories as spiritually charged spots, like Gorsedd Arberth or the oxhide cot in the “Dream of Rhonabwy.” More spectacular are mystic kingdoms like that of Annwvyn in “Pwyll,” which produced the shape-shifting King Arawn, or Heveydd the Old’s court. These places seem to dot the landscape without need of fantastic journeys. They provide a constant tension between the real and imagined, the possible and the unlikely.

Castles and courts

Castles and courts. The authors of the tales are constantly concerned with the life and customs of the royal courts through which their characters move. These are generally places of refuge and, especially, hospitality, in which rank and honor are carefully noted and taken into consideration. Food, drink, entertainment (including sex), and conversation dominate the feasts that seem so common. When provision is scanty or begrudged, as at the home of Heilyn the Red in “Dream of Rhonabwy,” the sneer of the author comes through on the page. When it simply disappears, as do the folk of Arberth, or the supplies of King Lludd’s courts, enchantment alone may be the cause.

At the royal courts wandering knights and nobles find shelter, spare armor, and women to love. Court rules and rituals are also evident, as means for controlling what could easily become drunken, unruly crowds. The granting of requests, which was a form of generosity, gets some noble characters in trouble when they fail to realize that promising “anything” may lead to disaster or a loss of face. Courts are also places of great beauty, both natural and man-made, and rich descriptions of clothing and decorations cause several narratives to pause.

King Arthur’s court

King Arthur’s court. Courts of the legendary King Arthur have various names and locations. The Camelot familiar to many modern readers disappears behind the Celtic Kelli Wig and Caer Llion ar Wysg (Caerleon on Usk). Arthur is not only the most famous and powerful ruler (sometimes called “emperor”) in the tales, he also presides over the ideal royal court as a paragon of generosity and gentility. Nonetheless, it is at his court that some characters are offended (Peredur) or even assaulted (Gwenhwyvar), in clear violations of what would elsewhere be called courtesy. Arthur’s courts also provide convenient starting points for several of the tales, including “Culhwch,” “Owein,” and “Gereint and Enid.”

*Countryside

*Countryside. Most of The Mabinogion’s stories entail travel for one purpose or another. While concrete routes can rarely be traced, the authors clearly associate certain types of terrain with certain moods. As might be expected, forests provide the greatest mystery and danger, as in “Gereint and Enid,” while lovely valleys, flowing rivers, and views of fine cities either contrast with characters’ black moods or accentuate the lightheartedness of the moment. The authors present these settings and details in a spare but effective way.

Cities

Cities. Neither Celtic culture nor these Welsh authors are comfortable with urban areas. London, for example, is depicted as a court rather than a town, and the towns in which the refugees of “Manawydan” seek a livelihood are hotbeds of conspiracy against the young “craftsmen.” This suggests a hint of fourteenth century mutual animosity between the bourgeois and nobles, as well as between the Welsh and English.

BibliographyFord, Patrick K. The “Mabinogi” and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972. Traces history of various translations of the Welsh myths. Includes a map of Wales, a glossary, and a guide to Welsh pronunciations. Designed to inform students and general readers alike.Graves, Robert. The White Goddess. 3d ed. Winchester, Mass.: Faber & Faber, 1959. This amended and enlarged edition celebrates the poetic myth in great detail. Hails Rhiannon as “white goddess.”Jones, Gwyn. Kings, Beasts, and Heroes. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1972. Portions of text present an excellent condensed overview of The Mabinogion. Focuses on Culhwch and Olwen, as well as Arthur. More than twenty-two illustrations.Laynard, John. A Celtic Quest: Sexuality and Soul in Individuation. Edited by Anne S. Bosch. New York: Spring Publications, 1975. Explains The Mabinogion and related stories in psychological and behavioral terms. Uses allegory to show the characters’ relationship to areas of the psyche. Places emphasis on the dichotomy between the nurturing mother figure and the devouring, animalistic mother.The Mabinogion. Translated by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones. London: J. M. Dent, 1949. Excellent adaptation of the Welsh myths. Discusses the four branches of the Mabiniogi and its seven related stories in thorough detail. Advocates the literary merit of the mythological legends.
Categories: Places