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June Books 9) The Mabinogion

9) The Mabinogion

The collection of Welsh classic legends. The stories are not gems of perfection - internal inconsistencies and unresolved plot elements abound - but I found myself nonetheless carried along by most of them. Oddly enough the one that grabbed me most was Peredur, the story that later became that of Perceval or Parsifal, with his peculiar series of deeply symbolic adventures.

The Penguin explanatory apparatus was a bit annoying. A page at the start of each story, explaining what happened, and a long introduction (24 pages of a 300 page book) which all combined to present the Mabinogion as an object to study rather than literature to be enjoyed.

With all that editorial effort, I would also have liked some unpacking of the basic concepts of the Welsh society portrayed. There is a little of this - the translator explains the shifting meanings of arvei meaning first "weapons" but later "armour", and marchawg which shifted from being a mere "horseman" to a full "knight". But there were other concepts which the translator puts directly into English expecting that we will automatically understand what was meant in the original medieval Welsh: "king", "court", "girl", "to sleep with".

I'm very surprised that there is so little extant Welsh literature of that era; the Irish somehow must have preserved their manuscripts better? Or wrote things down sooner?

Top UnSuggestion for this book: Can You Keep a Secret? by Sophie Kinsella.

(Having just popped over to the LibraryThing page for the book, I am somewhat shocked by the racist comments: "Full of Welsh people with silly names." "Too many y's and l's in general." Appalling.)


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 16th, 2007 08:46 am (UTC)
I always have that problem with Penguin (or other publisher's) classic books series; 9 out of 10 times the whole this are serious literature introduction sucks all the fun out of a book.
Jun. 16th, 2007 09:19 am (UTC)
Maybe you should have held out for the Oxford edition which seems to be new:

Jun. 16th, 2007 05:26 pm (UTC)
Having read the Penguin version at university (and meant to re-read it in mythical free time ever since), I'm really keen to get my hands on this new version.
Jun. 16th, 2007 01:47 pm (UTC)
The inconsistencies are, if you've got good footnotes, part of the fun. They show where old stories have been pieced together, where monks have had a ball with the transcription, and where external content has been hastily rewritten in order to fit in with the general geography and narrative of the branches. It's humbling to know that the middle ages discovered metatextuality long before we did.
Jun. 17th, 2007 11:25 am (UTC)
Can you recommend a good edition for that?
Jun. 17th, 2007 02:27 pm (UTC)
I have to agree with martin_wisse's comments re:Penguin classics. Their slightly older translation of the Iliad is so bad as to be unreadable.

As to why there's more Irish stuff I can think of a couple of reasons, but have no proof of either of them:

Learning did seem to flourish in large chunks of Ireland pre-1000 and I don't know if there was a similar flourish in Wales.

Ireland, though close enough to have trouble (and cause trouble with) raiders, only had internally warfare to deal with while the Welsh also had the Angles and the Jutes et al to cope with.
Jun. 21st, 2007 08:15 pm (UTC)
You still amaze me with your nine books so far in June. I think I'm reading my ninth book of the year.

That book happens to be "Science, Colonialism and Ireland". I am about half way through it and am enjoying it. As a former geologist I am interested in the bits of information on the institutional history of that subject.

I must admit, I will probably not take it on holiday if I'm not finished it, but I will finish it when I get back. I am learning facts from it and on holiday I prefer to float away on magic carpet of fiction.

Over the past few years I've been delving into the literature of Ireland from the 19th and early 20th centuries and believe that the wealth of the country's English language literary heritage is in no small way due to the same Ascendancy culture that you discuss in your book. Without the elite, educated group, we would not have many of the literary giants, and even some of the smaller beings, whom we applaud and boast about on the international stage. Would you agree, or destroy my thesis with a few carefully chosen examples and words of derision.
Jun. 22nd, 2007 08:41 am (UTC)
No, I think that's right. The Irish literary contribution is pretty remarkable on a world scale, certainly compared to other countries of similar size and resources which I deal with.

( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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