Gladly will I oppose my body to his

The Mabinogion illustration by Alan Lee
The Mabinogion illustration by Alan Lee.

The Mabinogion
Translated from Middle Welsh by Lady Charlotte Guest

This was the first book I started for the EU Reading Challenge, but ended up being the 10th book I completed. Perhaps I should have searched out a more modern translation when I first started to struggle. These are ancient tales, widely considered the oldest surviving British literature in prose form. They were almost certainly oral tales for a century or more before their earliest known recording in 1350–1410. Lady Charlotte Guest translated the tales into both modern Welsh and English in the late 19th century. Which I thought made them an interesting inclusion on my EU list.

The 11 stories in this volume have different authors, all unknown, and in fact only the first four are strictly the Mabinogi. The rest are medieval romances; some early Arthurian knight tales; and the tale of Taliesin the bard. My particular edition of The Mabinogion includes full-page illustrations by Alan Lee, who is now better known for his Lord of the Rings illustrations. It is a beautiful object.

There is a bit of a theme in these tales of women with magical powers, many of whom have pretty awful fates. For instance, the first of the Mabinogi is “Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed” and tells the story of Pwyll’s attempts to romance Rhiannon, an Otherworld woman who runs rings around him rhetorically and literally (she’s pretty awesome), but eventually falls in love with Pwyll and marries him. However, when their son Pryderi disappears on the night of his birth, she is accused of matricide and imprisoned.

The story has a happy ending, but not before Rhiannon has spent years in prison. And she’s not the only wrongfully treated woman here. I can’t decide if this is fear of magic and witchcraft, or misogyny, or both. There’s plenty of magic, used for good and evil, but even when used for good it does tend to end badly.

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