The story of Owain ab Urien travelled far in medieval Europe, mainly through Chretian de Troyes Old French classic Yvain (12th century), which although popular seems to have been stripped of its older more mythic elements. Yet on the story’s return to Wales in the 13th century, the Welsh storytellers appear to have reinvested the text with myth, renovating and remaking the story as they claimed it back.
In the 13th century story of Owain we find one of the most ancient mythic figures to be found in European literature, the many-faced Lord of Animals.
Celtic myths are symbolic, so we need to interpret them to draw out their wisdom. As a result, it’s probably worth asking if interpretation was ever a part of the Celtic storytelling tradition?
If you’re interested in interpreting the symbolic myths of the Celtic traditions, please consider joining the next Magic of Meaning course, a detailed exploration of the The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, beginning June 29th, 2020. Find out more here.
The Book of Taliesin is one of the great treasures of Welsh culture, but who wrote it? In truth, it’s an impossible question to answer, but there are some very interesting theories about who composed some of the most famous poems in the manuscript . . .
Most Celtic scholars would rightly point out that the correct answer to this question is an emphatic no. Yet there is a more nuanced story that can be told:
This is the 8th time I’m running The Magic of Meaning Part 1. As with the earlier versions, the course is focussed on interpretation, feeling out the contours of the ancient myths contained in The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, attempting to apprehend the old truths concealed in its symbols.
Put simply, The Four Branches can be read as teaching tales, instructive stories that have an almost (but not quite) allegorical quality to them. This old Welsh classic was first written down about 900 years ago. It appears to be a collection of traditional tales that probably originated in the oral storytelling tradition of the early Welsh. The only real certainty is that these tales were written down by some talented, but unknown, author.
The Four Branches are set in a past where the Welsh aristocracy still claim the Crown of London, and consider the whole of Britain to be their sovereign Celtic territory. Historically speaking, this would have been sometime between 350 and 500AD. For this reason, The Four Branches could preserve one of the oldest versions of ‘Britain’ to have survived.
As a result, the tales can tell us much about what Britain was, is and could still be. They explore in great detail the possibilities and problems that arise for those who seek to claim dominion in these lands. As one would expect of such tales, The Four Branches contain some quite traditional ideas. One of the most common is the idea of aristocracy and inherited nobility, an idea that sits at the heart of many cultures to this day.
But even though The Four Branches are almost exclusively concerned with the nobility, what’s surprising about these ‘nobles’ is that their lineage rarely has anything to do with what kind of people they are. The nobility of The Four Branches is something that arises from personal integrity and wisdom, not genetics. More often than not it’s the nobility of heart, not he nobility of inherited status, that’s put in service of the land and the people.
It’s obvious when characters diverge from the path of nobility because they always cause suffering, and not always their own. When the ‘nobility’ fail to act from a nobility of heart, the repercussions can be apocalyptic in magnitude.
So often in the tales the positive lesson is brought into relief by a negative example. Ignorant aristocrats inevitably make bad, blinkered decisions, and when they do, the right course of action is stressed by its absence. It’s for this reason that The Four Branches can be read as lessons for civil life, a life in a civilised Britain.
The Shape of the Course
The course lasts 6 weeks, and is made up of 12 online sessions held Mondays and Fridays at 4:30pm UK Time beginning June 29th. There is also an optional session every Sunday at 9pm where I’ll be answering questions and reading the relevant sections for the following week.
Each session of the course covers a section from The Four Branches. It helps if you’re already familiar with the tales, but you can also read the appropriate section before each chapter as you work through the course. The text of The Four Branches of the Mabinogi is not supplied with the course materials, you will have to buy a copy.
The translation I prefer is by Sioned Davies, The Mabinogion (OUP 2007). There is also a Kindle edition. Please DON’T use the Lady Charlotte Guest translation that’s freely available online. It’s best not to use any translations earlier than 1960. I’ll be reading from the Sioned Davies translation every Sunday 9pm UK Time during the course in the private Facebook group that you can join. Then on the Mondays and Fridays (4:30pm-5:30pm UK Time) we’ll be discussing these sections.
All of the information you need about booking your place and taking part is provided in this PDF file:
Should you have any further questions, please get in touch here.
The Book of Taliesin is one of the primary medieval sources for the Taliesin myth. But what does it actually contain?
Hope you’re well during these difficult times. If you’re self-isolating, perhaps this video can pass the time a little for you. We can at least imagine the land, even if we can’t necessarily walk on it.
The different versions of Taliesin’s folk tale give us clues as to where the animal-transformation chase scene may have taken place. Following some interesting clues in the Welsh landscape, here’s one possible location . . .
I hope you’re all well at this time and that you’re prepared for these next few months. There will be challenges ahead, so make sure you have people you can turn to.
In the mean time, the Welsh Bardic Triads (‘Trioedd Ynys Prydein’) provide an index to the oral storytelling tradition of medieval Wales. They were used by bards across the centuries not only to help them remember the vast network of traditional myth and lore, but also to present a distinct vision of the ancient past.