Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Collection of Welsh-language tales offering a glimpse into the largely lost Mythology of Britain (> Matter). The texts are found in The White Book of Rhydderch (early 14th century) and The Red Book of Hergest, a century later. The trappings are medieval, the sources ancient, with recurrent Celtic themes. The name was coined by Lady Charlotte Guest (1812-1895) for the first English-language translation and adaptation, The Mabinogion (1838-1849). This included the Shapeshifting tale Hanes Taliesin, in which the boy Taliesin takes the inspiration of poetry from the Goddess Ceridwen. (This, while not regarded as authentic, is of fantasy interest for its chase in which both pursued and pursuer flit through a variety of different shapes.) The definitive English translation by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones (1948; rev 1974; rev 1982) contains 11 stories.

It begins with the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, dating from the 11th century; the term mabinogi means "tales". The original hero appears to have been Pryderi, and there are tales of his conception, youth, Otherworld journey and death, but these have been overlaid with other legends. In "Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed" a human king changes places with Arawn, king of the otherworld Annwn. He lies chastely in Arawn's marriage-bed and defeats Arawn's enemy in a ritual battle. On his return, he is seated on an enchanted mound when Rhiannon rides past on a magic horse (this is probably Rigantona, the Great Queen, and a horse-goddess). She outwits an unwelcome suitor to marry Pwyll. When her newborn son, Pryderi, is stolen in the night she is accused of infanticide. Her punishment is to offer to carry visitors to the court like a horse. Teyrnon (once perhaps Tigernonos, the Great King) has lost a newborn colt every May-eve. When he cuts off a claw which comes through the window, the colt is saved and the baby discovered and restored to his parents.

Young Pryderi takes part in "Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr" but is overshadowed by the Children of the sea-god Llŷr. Brân the Blessed (Bendigeidfran) is the gigantic king of Britain. When the British set sail for Ireland to avenge his humiliated sister Branwen, Brân wades across the sea because no ship can hold him. In the ensuing battle, another brother bursts the magic cauldron which restores dead Irish warriors to life (> Lloyd Alexander; The Black Cauldron [1985]). Only seven men escape with Branwen. Brân, mortally wounded, orders them to sever his head. It brings them happiness and protects Britain, until they disobey his injunctions.

"Manawydan, Son of Llŷr" tells how Manawydan marries the widowed Rhiannon. Enchantment creates a Waste Land. In Lloegr (England), Manawydan and Pryderi make saddles, shields and shoes, until driven out by jealous craftsmen. Back in Dyfed, Pryderi and Rhiannon are successively snared by enchantment and spirited away. The crops of Manawydan and Pryderi's wife are stolen by Mice. Manawydan catches a fat one and determines to hang her; she proves the pregnant wife of the enchanter, who is avenging a trick Rhiannon once played on a suitor. Pryderi and Rhiannon are released from captivity, in which Rhiannon was made to wear the collar of an Ass.

"Math, Son of Mathonwy" tells of the death of Pryderi in battle, but chiefly concerns the children of Dôn, a Celtic goddess. Her son, abetted by his brother Gwydion, slayer of Pryderi, rapes the virgin footholder of their uncle, Math. They are sentenced to three years' Shapeshifting, alternately male and female. They propose their sister Arianrhod as virgin footholder, but she fails the test: stepping over Math's wand she drops a boy-child – who makes for the sea – and something else, which Gwydion snatches up and hides. It is another boy, whom Arianrhod refuses to acknowledge or name. Disguised as a shoemaker, Gwydion tricks Arianrhod into naming the boy Lleu Llaw Gyffes, the Fair One with the Deft Hand. She swears he will never bear arms unless she arms him. Lleu in turn tricks her. She swears he shall never have a human wife. Math and Gwydion make Blodeuwedd for him from flowers, but Blodeuwedd falls in love with Gronw and lures Lleu into telling her the secret of the Ritual slaughter by which alone he can be killed. When Gronw commits this murder, Lleu disappears as an eagle. Gwydion finds him in a treetop, his flesh rotting. Healed, Lleu kills Gronw in the same way. Blodeuwedd is turned into an owl. Her legend was the basis for Alan Garner's The Owl Service (1967).

Four independent stories follow. "The Dream of Macsen Wledig" and "Llud and Llefelys" are short tales. Macsen Wledig is Magnus Maximus, a 4th-century Roman commander in Britain, who invaded Gaul and ousted the Emperor Gratian. Llud and Llefelys are brothers who free Britain from three plagues.

The most primitive of all the stories is "Culhwch and Olwen". Culhwch, set on winning Olwen, the Giant's daughter, seeks help at Arthur's court. Arthur is here a wild warrior-chief, and has an enormous retinue with supernatural attributes. His chief companions are Bedwyr and Cei. The giant sets Culhwch a bizarrely long list of impossible tasks: he must get supernatural help to obtain everything for the wedding feast and also the equipment to shave the giant, including the comb and shears from between the ears of the boar Twrch Trwyth. A fantastic expedition scours Britain in pursuit of these items; it involves the discovery of the oldest animal and the release of the god Mabon, the Son, from age-old Bondage. (There are signs of missing episodes – tasks not accomplished, helpers not used.) The giant is brutally shaved, then beheaded.

"The Dream of Rhonabwy" begins in a filthy hall. Rhonabwy Dreams himself back to heroic times (i.e., Timeslips). At Arthur's camp he witnesses a game of gwyddbwyll (a boardgame) between Arthur and Owein. Arthur refuses to stop playing, though his men are wounding Owein's ravens. Owein orders his standard raised. His ravens slaughter Arthur's warriors. He in turn plays on, until Arthur crushes the gaming pieces. Thus Arthur's Saxon enemies are defeated.

The last three romances are of later origin. The context is Norman-French; the tales no longer show detailed knowledge of the topography of Britain, and characters and adventures follow stock patterns. Similar stories appear in Chrétien de Troyes's 12th-century Yvain, Perceval and Erec. Both probably draw on earthier British originals.

In "The Lady of the Fountain" Owein meets the Lord of the Animals. Well-water thrown on a stone summons a champion. Owein pursues him, but is trapped. The maiden Luned rescues him with a magic Ring. When the knight dies, Owein marries the Lady. Shamed for failing his promise to return from Arthur's court, he runs mad in the forest. Eventually he rescues Luned from death and is restored to the Lady.

"Peredur, Son of Efrawg" introduces the Grail hero Peredur/Perceval. His mother tries to keep him from knowledge of knighthood, but he sees three knights and determines to follow them. He is mocked at Arthur's court by Cei, but hailed as the flower of knights by Dwarfs, whom Cei abuses. (Cei, earlier a hero, is now shown as a boor. Gwalchmei [Gawain] is, by contrast, the model of a courteous knight.) Peredur leaves in anger, meets a lame king (> Fisher King), and sees a bleeding lance and a severed head on a salver borne through a hall. Often he makes mistakes through following advice literally. A hideous damsel comes to court and upbraids Peredur for not asking the meaning of the bleeding lance, by which question he could have healed the Grail king and his land. He slays the Witches who once taught him to use arms, but his story ends with the Grail king still not healed (> Healing).

"Gereint, Son of Erbin" is a Calumniated Wife tale. Gereint marries Enid, whom he has delivered from unjust impoverishment. He overhears her weeping about accusations that he is growing soft for love of her, and orders her to put on her worst dress and ride out ahead of him, without speaking. Repeatedly she disobeys, warning him of danger. He defeats his attackers, but castigates her. When their host strikes Enid for refusing his advances, Gereint rouses, kills the man and grieves that he has wronged her. In a typically Celtic final exploit, he passes through a hedge spiked with severed heads, surrounded by mist, defeats the guardian and sounds a horn hung on an apple tree to end the Enchantment. [FS]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.