The Mabinogion: Story-telling and the Oral Tradition
By Kirsty OUP-UK
By the time you read this post I will be off on holiday for a few days of rest and relaxation. One of the books I’m intending to pick up during my time off is Sioned Davies‘s translation of The Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh medieval tales, which OUP published last year. With this in mind, I thought I would today bring you a short extract from Davies’s introduction to the text. Here, she talks about The Mabinogion in relation to the oral tradition of story-telling.
Although the Mabinogion have come down to us in written form, they clearly draw heavily on oral tradition and on the narrative techniques of the medieval storyteller. Of course, they are not merely written versions of oral narratives, but rather the work of authors using and shaping traditional material for their own purposes. Unlike the poetry of the period, none of the tales is attributed to an identified author, suggesting that there was no sense of ‘ownership’ as such, and that the texts were viewed as part of the collective memory. Indeed, on several occasions the final redactors (which may perhaps be a more correct term than ‘authors’ in many cases) draw attention to their sources, a common feature of medieval literature, but in so doing they distance themselves from those sources and set themselves up as merely the mouthpiece of tradition.
Although we have some evidence regarding the performance of poetry in medieval Wales, together with references to musicians such as harpists, crowthers, and pipers, and entertainers such as tumblers and magicians, very little is known of the performance of prose narrative. There is little evidence within the tales themselves––there are no requests for silence, no introductory remarks to the audience, and very few authorial asides. However, the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi contains two passages that give a tantalizing glimpse of a storyteller in action. Upon entering the court of Pryderi, in the guise of a poet, the shape-shifter Gwydion receives a warm welcome and is offered the place of honour at table. When Pryderi asks some of Gwydion’s young companions for a story, Gwydion offers his own services:
‘Our custom, lord . . . is that on the first night we come to a great man, the chief poet performs. I would be happy to tell a story.’ Gwydion was the best storyteller in the world. And that night he entertained the court with amusing anecdotes and stories, until he was admired by everyone in the court, and Pryderi enjoyed conversing with him.
Later in the tale, Gwydion gains entrance to Aranrhod’s court, again in the guise of a poet, and after dinner he and his host talk of tales and storytelling––‘And Gwydion was a good storyteller’.
In both examples, there is a clear indication of an integral relationship between the poet and storytelling. According to the medieval Welsh laws, there were three types of poet––the pencerdd (‘chief poet’), the bardd teulu (‘household bard’), and cerddor (joculator), a generic term for poets and musicians rather than the more specific ‘jester’ or ‘buffoon’. However, the laws make no reference at all to storytelling, implying perhaps that this was a secondary bardic function, given much less priority than elegy and eulogy, the predominant domains of the poet. Certainly, poets were acquainted with traditional stories, as reflected in the many allusions scattered throughout their work; yet it would seem from the surviving evidence that verse itself was not used for extended narrative in medieval Wales––the preferred medium, unlike most Indo-European countries, was prose. The situation, therefore, was not only a complex, but surely a dynamic one: despite the hierarchical legal structure, one could expect a certain degree of interaction between the various professional ‘performers’ as they entertained at feasts and gatherings. Moreover, there are examples within the Mabinogion themselves of personal narratives arising out of informal conversation at table, as in the Second Branch when Matholwch, king of Ireland, tells his table companion Bendigeidfran the history of the Cauldron of Rebirth. It would appear, therefore, that storytelling was the domain of both the professional and the amateur, while the numerous words for ‘story’, as reflected in the tales themselves, point to a wide range of forms within the narrative genre.
In order to fully appreciate the Mabinogion, we have to understand the effect that this oral milieu had on the written tales. Oral and performance features are an integral part of their fabric, partly because the authors inherited pre-literary modes of narrating, but also because the written tales were composed for oral delivery, so that their reception and dissemination continued to have an influence on both style and structure. Indeed, one of the overriding concerns of this new translation has been the attempt to communicate to readers the exhilarating power of performance.
Many passages in the Mabinogion demand a voiced performance. This is particularly true in the case of dialogue, which in some tales constitutes almost half the narrative. Often the action calls for a wide range of voices, from the giant Ysbaddaden to the drunken Peredur, from the ferocious boar Twrch Trwyth to the distressed Lady of the Well. Indeed, characters come alive through their words rather than through any descriptions which, if they exist at all, are in the main highly stereotyped. There are many other examples in the tales where a silent reading does not do them justice. This is particularly so in the case of ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’, of which it has often been said it is a tale to be heard. The long rhetorical passage describing in detail Culhwch’s steed, hounds, and equipment in a rhythmical fashion is highly reminiscent of the elaborate style of the court poets of medieval Wales, a style linked inexorably with public declamation, and found elsewhere throughout the corpus, not in extended paragraphs but as isolated descriptive phrases, especially with reference to horses, knights, squires, and in descriptions of combats, physical or verbal. The two lists in the tale also need to be read out loud for full effect. The first, a roll-call of those present at Arthur’s court, is highly alliterative and descends into farce at times, with the rhetorical effect taking on more importance than the personalities themselves. Inserted in the list, too, are tantalizing fragments of narrative––the triad of the three men who escaped from the battle of Camlan, for example, or Teithi the Old whose lands were submerged by the sea––challenging the listeners’ knowledge of traditional narrative. The second list is placed within a formulaic dialogue between Ysbaddaden and Culhwch , where the giant challenges Culhwch to perform forty seemingly impossible tasks in return for the hand of Olwen, his daughter. Upon hearing each task, Culhwch replies, ‘It is easy for me to get that, though you may think it’s not easy’, to which the giant retorts, ‘Though you may get that, there is something you will not get’, and proceeds to describe the next challenge. The formulae therefore act as a chorus of sorts between the naming of each task, easing the listing, and also the listening, process.