Y Mabinogi – In Gratitude to the Christian Scribes

As I work my way through the process of creating this audiobook/musical/dramatised retelling of the First Branch of the Mabinogion I am becoming more and more thankful to the Christian scribe/s who wrote it all down.

It’s easy for me now to imagine those feet walking through the monastery, silence broken only by voices singing praises to the Christian God, up stone stairs, opening a wooden door, then hearing it close behind. The light of dawn illuminating the scriptorium through elongated windows, then the sound of a chair scraping on a wooden floor. A breath as quill is dipped in ink, and then care, as each stroke is made on parchment.

Pretty much all of the ancient stories and poems from Albion we have left to us were created in this way. The tales of Y Mabinogi, Arthurian tales, the poems and prophesies of Taliesin, the same with the Bard Myrddin. The manuscripts from around the 13th century are a treasured gift.

Imagine, if those Christian scribes hadn’t written those tales and poems down, it would be very unlikely that any of us would be speaking the names Rhiannon, Blodeuwedd, Branwen, Llyr, Taliesin, Ceridwen, Bran, Gwydion, Aranrhod, Don, Beli Mawr, Gwion Bach, and many more.

I was surprised to read that, until the publication of The Mabinogion in English by Lady Charlotte Guest, those names were barely spoken, even in Wales. The first translations of the Mabinogi to find their way into print were the Arthurian tales. What we now know as The Four Branches were the very last tales to be published! And now those names are an established part, not only of modern Pagan culture, but also form a large part of Welsh national identity and pride.

As I’m creating this double album, it’s no surprise that there is a large glass of gratitude to those origins in ancient manuscripts now held in museum storage. Although we know the tales were told for centuries before they were written down, and even though the written language has Christian overtones, it was those careful scratches on parchment that are the true gift to me as a modern Bard. They placed the tales of Old Gods and Heroes onto record. Doubtlessly collected by word of mouth from villages across Wales in a very similar way as the folk song collectors Francis James Child and Cecil Sharp helped the English to retain their old folk songs, so those ancient scribes did the same with story and poem, and I am forever grateful.

5 Comments

  1. Suzanne March 31, 2017 at 12:38 pm - Reply

    Hengwah to that 🙂

  2. John Dahl March 31, 2017 at 4:12 pm - Reply

    Here in Alaska I cherish your work, I enjoy the connection. The Mabigognion is a excellent read. Thank you, Stebi

  3. sonia smith March 31, 2017 at 4:27 pm - Reply

    Your post reminded me of this song.

    https://youtu.be/hdYuIdXqo64?list=RDNL2E3nF7Zzw

  4. Gwion April 1, 2017 at 9:45 am - Reply

    “Doubtlessly collected by word of mouth from villages across Wales in a very similar way as the folk song collectors Francis James Child and Cecil Sharp helped the English to retain their old folk songs,”

    Pardon the pedantry but Francis James Child’s contribution wasn’t to collect oral versions of the ballads (as Sharp, Baring Gould etc collected songs from people) but to collate and make available, between 1882 and 1898, what was already in existence in often private collections dating from between the early mediaeval period to that current time. As far as I know he wasn’t at all interested in the tunes, only the words. Nevertheless he made a great contribution to our knowledge bringing variants together, comparing them to their Scandivian relatives and providing a commentary upon them and, although many of the ballads in his collection are “historical” stories, the ones that deal with faerie, the Otherworld etc. give us a wonderful insight into the beliefs of our ancestors.

    What’s also amazing is that, when Bronson came to collate tunes to the Child ballads in his volumes, starting in the late 1950s, some of these ballads were still being sung and a few are still being passed on orally. There are still some traveller families keeping the oral traditions alive and I understand there are still some traditional singers in Ireland with variants of these ballads. It’s a testament to the resilience of oral tradition.

    I’ll get off my soapbox now (it’s just that I’m such a fan of Child ballads) but I’m so glad that your Mabinogion project will continue the legacy of this tradition. I’m looking forward to its completion and still think that, as your next project, you should think about taking a touring version on the road around folk festivals etc.

  5. Robert Messier April 14, 2017 at 12:04 pm - Reply

    This is awesome, Damh. I too was heavily influenced by The Mabinogian and the ancient Christian scribes when I wrote my spiritual fantasy novel “Seeds”. I also created the soundtrack for the story on CD. It has more of the Judeo-Christian “feel” to it than I had originally intended but, you know how these things go. The muse moves the bard, poet, writer and musician in unexpected ways. I would love to send you the book and music soundtrack to “Seeds” if you are interested. I can’t wait to hear your cd based on the Welsh myths. It will be epic!!!

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