One of the most exciting things about the stories of The Mabinogion is their unexpectedness. The unfamiliarity of the title means that we will probably not approach the work with any preconceptions; we are therefore likely to be surprised, or even bemused, by some of the stories’ contents.
What we find in the stories is a medley of material incorporating Celtic mythology and aspects of pseudohistory told from a uniquely Welsh perspective. Those who come to the work via an academic, or annotated route will have their attention drawn to certain aspects of the texts. They will, for example, discover that the heroes and heroines of the stories are often versions of Celtic deities whose significance and status have been modified and reinterpreted over time. At different points in the journey they will also gain an insight into the medieval Welsh psyche as they see the Welsh bolstering their self-esteem by claiming Roman connections, or dealing with a battered national ego by restoring the sovereignty of the Island of Britain to their own ancestors.
Having said that, there may be some advantage in coming blind to the stories as this allows the imagination to run riot, giving the text a bizarre and magical quality. To know, for example, that Rhiannon (who features in both the First, and Third 'Branches of the Mabinogi') may have connections with the goddesses Rigantona and Epona is an intriguing thought. However, not to know this means that the mysteries surrounding Rhiannon are intensified, and not knowing gives a sense of being drawn into a misty and distant past where nothing is what it seems, and our own sense of reality is called into question.
Reading the stories from a naive perspective also allows us to respond very humanly to aspects of the text which are perhaps not of particular historical or literary significance but which may resonate with the individual reader. For example, I personally was very touched in the story 'How Culhwch Won Olwen' by this description of the death of the piglets of the Twrch Trwyth, the king-turned-wild-boar whom Arthur and his men hunt down: And then another of his pigs was killed – Gwys was his name. And from there he went to Dyffryn Amanw, and there Banw and Benwig were killed. There is something in the image of the death of these innocent piglets on a mad dash through Wales and Ireland, and the cuteness of the names, which creates for me a real sense of pathos. Other readers may be unmoved by this particular snippet of text, but it is probably fair to say that the uniqueness of the material is likely to inspire very individualistic reactions in the reader.
It is also important to remember that Sioned Davies’ translation of The Mabinogion is just that – a translation. Translation is not a direct and uncomplicated re-statement of a source text but a complex and creative re-writing of the original. No doubt, therefore, aspects of the text which capture the imagination of those reading the Welsh original may fall flat in translation. At the same time, the translated text may give new life to aspects of the material which are not particularly striking in the original version. One of the characters in ‘How Culhwch won Olwen’ is Gwrhyr Gwalstawd Ieithoedd (Gwrhyr, Interpreter of Languages). He is able to speak whatever language is necessary to communicate with the people and animals he encounters. Like Gwrhyr, The Mabinogion itself ‘speaks’ in many languages, and Professor Davies allows it to speak in English with a particular verve and freshness. At times, the language of her translation sounds totally up-to-date and contemporary, making it easier for us to identify with the world of The Mabinogion. At other times, she employs a dignified and archaic tone, intensifying the sense of an intriguing glimpse into an alien, far-distant past, and into the minds of those who inhabited it.
This fresh, energetic translation is a revelation and, for the first time, shows off The Mabinogion tales as what they were originally: splendid entertainment. Gwyneth Lewis, The Guardian
Read the full review here
From the internet:
The language is clear and the tales come across as fresh and entertaining. Greywolf, Amazon
The translation of the Welsh is easy to read and the age old stories are brought to life. witchygirl, Amazon
The first four stories are very readable but the later ones were much too complicated to follow. B.F. Jones, Amazon.