Gwyneth Lewis on Sioned Davies’ The Mabinogion

“Sioned Davies, professor of Welsh at Cardiff University, has written about the stories in The Mabinogion as performances. They fit the speaking voice perfectly and are full of the repetitions and devices that make oral feats of memory possible. We get the onomatopoeia of Peredur hitting a knight “a blow that was brutal and bitter, painful and bold”. The excitement of the action is further intensified by mid-sentence switching into the present tense, as when Geraint, son of Erbin, “struck the knight on the top of his head so that all the armour on his head shatters and all the flesh splits, and the skin, and it pierces the bone and the knight falls on his knees”.

Davies’s arrangement of the tales shows what happens when an oral tradition begins to be committed to the page. The rhetorically simpler “Four Branches” precede “How Culhwch Won Olwen”, a far more “literary” production. Interestingly, Culhwch wins his bride not by his own feats but by invoking 200 of Arthur’s warriors, who do the dirty work for him. This virtuoso recitation is one of the jewels of The Mabinogion, and Davies’s decision not to translate the names conveys the stirring original rhythm of this astonishing heroic catalogue.

The stories are also released from the faux-Victorian romanticism that has dogged the text, even as late as Jeffrey Gantz’s Penguin Classics translation of the late 1970s. So, the “Countess of the Fountain” is now the “Lady of the Well” and “buskins” are “boots”. This fresh, energetic translation is a revelation and, for the first time, shows off The Mabinogion tales as what they were originally: splendid entertainment.”

The review in full can be accessed here.

(Illustration by Margaret Jones. Source.)

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