Cylch Blodeuwedd

Druidic Grove in North-West Wales

The Mabinogi: Encountering the Story Behind the Stories

by Aethnen - January 20th, 2009.
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On one hand it would be very easy to discuss the Mabinogi and other such Welsh tales from an academic point of view, explaining about the latest theories in Welsh archaeology and history, discoursing on literary patterns found in the text and what this tells us, or any number of intellectual views on folk lore and the fanciful. But I’m not. There are entire books out there written on the above subjects, and yet for all that wittering and sputtering, you would probably be no closer to really understanding the Mabinogi and its relevance for us today, than you were beforehand. Instead, I want to help you catch a glimpse of what it means to read these Welsh stories, to live with them and dream them and wake up and discover they are real.

No matter what culture we come from (ancestrally or presently) or what land we live on, there is still the inexplicable pull we feel to the unknown, what German theologian Rudolf Otto called the mysterium tremendum et fascinans (the fascinating and fearful mystery) of that which is experienced as “other” or sacred. It is innate in all human beings, and every culture has their own way of expressing their relationship to and perception of this Otherness. The peoples we now call the Celts were no different.

The Welsh had their own version of the Otherworld, and it was neither a heaven nor a hell, as most people from Christian backgrounds would interpret it. To this day, it is called Annwn or Annwfn in the land of the Cymry. Although almost always translated now as “otherworld” or “underworld”, Sioned Davies in her new translation of the Mabinogi remarks that actually the correct etymology comes from an “in, inside” + dwfn “world”, which would give you something meaning “Inner World” or the “World Within”. This etymology is far more enlightening into how the Celts, particularly the Welsh, viewed the Otherworld, not so much as just something “other” but also as something inherently within or below the surface.

This land within is a place magical and different, but only subtly so, for in the stories, it is often very like our own homes and countries, experienced with heightened sensation and emotion. One only need listen to both Welsh and Irish stories of heroes like Pwyll in the First Branch of the Mabinogi or Maelduin in Immram Maele Dúin to understand what I mean. This world within defies intellect. The dry academic who would desire to break down, dismantle and penetrate the creature of the Otherworld stands confused and frustrated by what we now relegate to the realm of the Imagination. It is in our imaginations, that land beneath the consciousness, a fertile soil with far deeper roots than our own, handed on from generation to generation, through not only genetics but also—yes, stories—that we begin to encounter the Land within the land, and the Story within the stories.

The Story within the stories is hardly nameable or definable, but it can be experienced first hand, as we dream with the land and live close to the numinous presences that rise from it, like Rhiannon on her uncatchable horse out of nowhere, or the Tylwyth Teg, the Fair Folk, who live within mountains, below lakes and under ancient ring-forts. These are places very near to us, that mountain just down the valley, the grove near the other village across from ours—these are places still named for their ancient events, remembered forever because every time you walk or drive past, you wonder “Why was that place named such?” and then if you are lucky, you find someone who can tell you, and so the stories are orally passed on.

That is what a living tradition is like, and that is how it still is in Wales. Since moving to Wales, I have found that more important than being initiated into a spiritual group, is the far more ordinary but perhaps harder-won acceptance of the people who live here that really matters. It is more about Tribe and being adopted into their society, than any kind of self-discovering attainment. And the day the whole village began to call me “Jenni Fach” or Little Jenny, is one that still makes my heart ache with happiness and a pure sense of belonging. As I have lived here and become more accepted, learned the language and helped out in the community, I have experienced what it is like to be traveling somewhere with one of my Welsh friends and to say, “What’s that place called?” “Oh that is Llwyn Blodeuwedd—where Gwydion made Blodeuedd out of flowers of meadowsweet, broom and oak leaves.” Then, we get out and walk there, only to discover that indeed the place is covered in ancient oak trees and a magnificent array of wildflowers, including meadowsweet and broom!

That is the magic of Wales and her stories. The places still exist. They are not just distant lands in some out-of-time period, but real, living localities, often with the same characteristics that defined them to locals thousands of years ago. And that is again when you realize that the Otherworld is not so much a place of otherness, but the slower, deeper current of reality and memory that runs through all these places, tying them to the past, the present and the future as seamlessly as a dream.

Thus when we approach the rich Welsh literary tradition, it is important not to cut it off from its blood and breath—the enlivening principle of people and place. In this particular instance, the Pedair Cainc Y Mabinogi (in Middle Welsh, Pedeir Keinc Y Mabinogi or The Four Branches of the Mabinogi) and accompanying stories come from two medieval Welsh manuscripts, primarily the Red Book of Hergest (about AD 1375-1425) and also the White Book of Rhydderch (about AD 1300-1325), but we would be disrespecting not only the scribes and stories, but also Wales and the Welsh people themselves, if we ignored the fact that the Mabinogi, as we have it written down, is only a single literary snapshot of this long and continual Welsh Oral Tradition, which began thousands of years ago and still evolves to this day. Even in the last 100 years, with the arrival of the radio, television and movie, the actual stories in the Mabinogi are being re-told on screen or on stage, and each time there is a new interpretation, another layer of meaning added. It is then necessary that not only do we academically research the cefndir or background of the texts (be it textual examination, cultural studies, psychological application, historical observation and what-not) but also to experience for ourselves the Story, deeper and far more timeless, than the superficial stories which are merely manifestations of the Story itself, as each generation re-tells and re-defines what the Story means for them.

In this way then, to discover this Story within the stories, this Annwfn for yourself, you have to first encounter the land and stories, and the people who live with both, in their ordinariness, in all the rain and grey slate, the lilt of the Welsh accent and the quixoticness of the colloquialisms, their humour and also dourness, the very air and food and water. It is not enough just to imagine what it would be like to live in Iron-Age Wales or discuss geological features, but to see that

Our words belong to these places,

every place as a sacred site, a holy land,

every face as Rhiannon, Brendigeidfran,

Gwydion, Branwen, Pwyll, and Arianrhod,

every story reflected in the lives of our parents,

in the eyes of our children, and

in the eyes of Pryderi,

the child of our imaginations in need of rescue within.

By realizing that the Ordinary is actually just an extension of the Other, the world begins to take on a new significance. It becomes illuminated with the animate awareness of an eye that can penetrate below the surface and into the Land within the land, the Story within the stories. It can see these places and faces and the stories that include them as being actually just the same as they have always been, a kind of soul recognition, where even you yourself become part of the Story, and suddenly no longer is it just a bunch of stories or even a Story, but also your story. This difference is subtle at first, but what a difference it makes!

Our own story is just as important as say, the Mabinogi. As we live, we unknowingly speak through our daily actions and thoughts, into the world, shaping and being shaped whether that be consciously or unconsciously. Either way, there are patterns inherent in our psyches and in our natural environments that make us inexplicably human, and not just some disembodied head floating around in space—even cyberspace!

One of the beauties of stories is that they actually remind us of who we are (whether we realize it or not), of where we come from and where we hope to attain. These stories speak to the core of our own experiences, and help us gain our bearings in life, like an ancestral map passed on so that we can voyage like Maelduin on his immram to perhaps, just once, or maybe if we’re lucky and really beginning to open our eyes, see unabashedly, who we are and once again, find our place in the world so that we too, can like the heroes and heroines, leave behind a legacy, a story of our own, to guide, inspire, and most of all, remind future generations of that fascinating and fearful mystery, the mystery we call – Life.

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