Subscribe to Christianity Today
The Mabinogion (Oxford World's Classics)
The Mabinogion (Oxford World's Classics)

Oxford University Press, 2007
336 pp., $30.00

Buy Now

Stephen N. Williams

Passing Strange

A new translation of The Mabinogion.

The pearl of Celtic literature, the completed expression of the Cymric genius." [1] So Ernest Renan on The Mabinogion. Renan is probably more familiar to readers of Books & Culture as the author of a controverted Life of Jesus (1863) than as an essayist on the Celtic races, but if we have misgivings about his Christology, let them not deter us from heeding these choice words. Nor do you have to be Welsh to say so, proud as the Welsh are of their literary tradition as of the antiquity of their spoken language. [2]

The Mabinogion is the name commonly used for a collection of eleven medieval Welsh tales which unveil for us a world of magic, mist, and myth, where there is no manifest boundary between what we might call the "natural" and "supernatural," a space where heroes and maidens, chivalry and enchantment, love and death, war and friendship flower and flourish. What Feuerbach said mischievously of another world—"Nothing ever happened normally in Old Testament Israel"—can be said meaningfully of this one. The Mabinogion constitutes a magnificent and influential literature that has proved to be a vital and major tributary in European culture, one way or another. If "medieval Wales" conveys anything to non-medieval non-Welsh folk, it is doubtless the image of King Arthur and his gallant company. Arthur appears in a few of the tales of The Mabinogion, but he is neither a dashing nor even (overtly) a dominant figure by and large. Never mind. Enter this world and you will find more wond'rous things than Arthur.

A new translation invites us to make that entry. Its author, Professor Sioned Davies of Cardiff University, explains her rationale:

The overriding aim of this translation has been to convey the performability of the surviving manuscript versions … . The Mabinogion were tales to be read aloud to a listening audience—the parchment was "interactive" and vocality was of its essence. Indeed, many passages can only be truly captured by the speaking ...

To continue reading

- or -
Free CT Books Newsletter. Sign up today!
Most ReadMost Shared

Seminary/Grad SchoolsCollege Guide