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Reviewed by:
  • The Mabinogion by Sioned Davies
  • Jacqueline N. Smith (bio)
The Mabinogion. Translated with an introduction and notes by Sioned Davies, Oxford University Press, 2018, 293 pp.

In her critical translation of The Mabinogion, Sioned Davies, Chair of Welsh at Cardiff University, prepares readers to encounter the classic collection of “eleven medieval Welsh prose tales” in both linguistic and historical contexts (i). Davies begins her critical introduction by providing a succinct, yet thorough, definition of what the Mabinogion is and how it came to be in its current state. She does so through a short explanation of the Welsh term mabinogi and history of the tales as a collection, beginning with Lady Charlotte Guest’s original English translation in the nineteenth century. This contextualized definition explains the thematic background of the title and the tales once believed to have been intended for an audience of young boys as a result. As Davies claims, “[I]t needs to be emphasized that Mabinogion is no more than a label, and a modern-day one at that: the stories vary as regards date, authorship, sources, content, structure, and style. . . . [T]he Mabinogion have taken on a life of their own, and earned their place on the European and world stage” (x). This critical translation seeks to clarify and support this claim for the sake of highlighting the cultural significance of the tale collection to Welsh and to European history.

Subsequently, Davies’s introduction proceeds to lay out and explain the implied sections of the collection, drawing historical and content connections between certain tales without overdirecting the readers in how we ought to interpret the relationships. The first four tales have been inextricably linked by their common hero, Pryderi, and shared closing line “and so ends this branch of the Mabinogi.” This group, the mabinogi proper or “Four Branches of the Mabinogi” (x) form the only truly distinct group, though the link between them is still “fairly tenuous” according to Davies (xi). The remaining seven tales have no clear groupings despite myriad attempts that scholars have made at classifying them. Davies explains why these attempts have been unsuccessful and maintains her own deduction that these are a collection of “independent and [End Page 341] extremely diverse tales” that “provide a snapshot of the storyteller’s repertoire, and give us an insight into the wealth of narrative material that was circulating in medieval Wales” (xiii). Davies’s introduction accomplishes this goal by pointing out patterns and differences in the tales rather than delineating classifications for them in absolute terms, providing readers the proper context and opportunity to contemplate their own interpretations.

The most unifying commonality in the Mabinogion is the tales’ clear basis in the oral tradition and “narrative techniques of medieval storytellers” (xiii). After describing the significance of oral storytelling and the role of a poet or bard in medieval Welsh culture, Davies claims that one of her new translation’s “overriding concerns” is to try to impress on audiences the “exhilarating power of performance” (xv). While the success of this aim remains too subjective to determine, the translations of the tales themselves are comparatively more accessible thanks to the clean, modernized diction and the translations that accompany Welsh names. Davies quotes Michael Cronin’s caution to translators: “[T]ranslation relationships between minority and majority languages are rarely divorced from issues of power and identity” (xxviii). The Mabinogion is closely linked with Welsh history and identity that began long before Guest made the first translation and continues into modern adaptations. Elements of the collection are uniquely medieval, such as the Arthurian influence; distinctively Welsh, such as the bard character Gwydion; and even geographically significant to the cross-cultural understanding of Welsh history and society that might be gained from studying the Mabinogion. These are tales of strange magic and complex names and words that have no clear English counterpart, but Davies helps both Welsh insiders and outsiders understand them by providing guiding tools.

This edition includes a map of Wales and a pronunciation guide that make the translation even more accessible to English speakers and fulfills the goals that Davies lays out in her translator’s note: to “convey the performability of surviving...


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pp. 341-343
Launched on MUSE
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