Mapping literature: Wales

By Rhiannon Morris

Wales is renowned for its ancient history. With castles and ruins littering the landscape, austere mountains, vast hills and valleys divided by streams and waterfalls; it is difficult to not feel the presence of its medieval past, which is colourfully immortalised in The Mabinogion. Filled with magic and tales of honour, the manuscripts have easily lived beyond their estimated 11th century origins, and reign as one of the foremost medieval texts to influence European literary tradition. They have inspired writers such as J.R.R Tolkein, as well as copious modern retellings.

Filled with magic and tales of honour, the manuscripts have easily lived beyond their estimated 11th century origins

However, outside of Wales, it still remains largely in the shadow of Monmouth’s famous tales of Arthur and Merlin in a History of the Kings of Britain as a prestigious Welsh literary masterpiece. This is perhaps due to The Mabinogion’s distinct “Welshness”, which feels as alien as it does familiar.

The Mabinogion encapsulates the wildness, courage and community that has defined Wales for centuries.

Although the manuscripts are steeped in Welsh tradition, there is a deeper feeling of distance found in the texts which is strangely magical. Unlike Monmouth, who wrote in the traditional academic Latin, the unknown author(s) of The Mabinogion recorded versions of stories that had been told orally for centuries before, in their native Welsh. It reaches backwards to an oral culture of community that connects modern day Wales with an archaic pre-Christian past. It is far removed from the dominance of religion found in romances such as Le Morte D’arthur. It is filled with ancient rites of honour and dominated by invisible forces of magic, which are crucial components to traditional folklore.

It is not a history, but a mythological landscape of medieval Welsh fantasy and entertainment. It is a crucial insight into the personality and imagination of the people of Wales hundreds of years ago.

The supernatural and magical elements pose questions of self-creation and identity; a woman made out of flowers, a goddess riding a horse that can never be caught unless she wants to be, whilst young princes must prove their worth through tests of honour and magical obstacles. There are moments of absurdism and dark tragedy, crucially shown through tests of intelligence and ingenuity.

It is a crucial insight into the personality and imagination of the people of Wales hundreds of years ago.

The stories show an obsession with the ‘Other’ world that is darkly seductive, not simply feared. Supernatural beings consort and integrate with normal human beings unquestioningly, implying a unique openness and ease with the different and the extraordinary. The Mabinogion is a fantasy for life and adventure, escapist abandonment in its most primitive form. If anything, its strength of endurance is the freedom it teases. Not only a freedom of expression, but a freedom of exploration.

To look for oneself in mystery, and to take into one’s stride the weirdness and peculiarities life conjures, as well as the danger and difficulty. It is almost an epic bildungsroman, in which staying true to oneself, through constant action and quest, is the dominant theme. Instead of religious faith and acceptance, characters find solace in one another and through their own choices.

The Mabinogion is one of the best examples of literature shaping culture, of breathing history, and the visceral connection between storytellers and the world around them.

With this unique strength of curiosity, it is as alive now, with recent heritage conservation projects such as the ‘Year of Legends’, as it was hundreds of years ago. The text is an epic which urges individuals to visit and explore the land to discover the stories and characters who inhabited it. The Mabinogion is one of the best examples of literature shaping culture, of breathing history, and the visceral connection between storytellers and the world around them.

It is even more prominent in the current political climate, in which the Celtic nations of Britain are reconnecting and forging their independent patriotic identities. The Mabinogion encapsulates the wildness, courage and community that has defined Wales for centuries.

Photograph: Nigel Parker via Flickr Creative Commons

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