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Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales [Paperback]

Patrick K Ford
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

29 Feb 2008
The four stories which make up the "Mabinogi" along with three additional tales from the same tradition form this collection and comprise the core of the ancient Welsh mythological cycle. Included are only those stories that have remained unadulterated by the influence of the French Arthurian romances, providing a rare, authentic selection of the finest works in medieval Celtic literature. In this first thoroughly revised edition and translation since Lady Charlotte Guest's famous "Mabinogion" in 1849, Patrick Ford has presented a scholarly document in readable, modern English, a literary achievement of the highest order.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 206 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; 2Rev Ed edition (29 Feb 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520253965
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520253964
  • Product Dimensions: 1.4 x 13.9 x 21 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 724,924 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

Product Description


"Ford is one of the most eminent Celtic scholars of our day, and any contribution he makes to the field of Welsh criticism and letters is welcome and is bound to be significant. The present translation is no exception."--"World Literature Today --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Patrick K. Ford is the Margaret Brooks Robinson Research Professor of Celtic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
This is THE edition for the stories of Pwyll, Gwion Bach/Taliesin and Culwich and Olwen. The introduction and notes alone are worth the cover price. Translations are elegantly rendered, and Ford discusses the difficulties in explicating the history and meanings of the stories.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The definitive translation 14 Sep 2006
This is a far better translation than Jeffrey Gantz' Penguin edition, with good notes and first rate introductions, both to the work as a whole and then to each of the tales. For non-Welsh speakers, the Ford edition will bring you far closer to the rich feel of the original Welsh. I grew up with "Lady Charlotte Guest's" version, but now prefer this one. Mae'n dysgedig iawn!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An astounding achievement 13 April 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Ford's translation stands head and shoulders above any other. Additionally he provides the reader with handy notes and, where necessary, engaging encouragement to plough through the more tedious sections.

All in all an essential read. A must for fans of The Chronicles of Prydain and The Owl Service - basically this book is the homeland for a huge amount of contemporary fiction.
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Amazon.com: 4.8 out of 5 stars  20 reviews
78 of 81 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ian Myles Slater on: Not the Usual Contents 31 Jan 2005
By Ian M. Slater - Published on Amazon.com
Although at least one new translation of the collection of medieval Welsh narratives known as "The Mabinogion" has been announced (and parts are available on-line), Patrick K. Ford's "The Mabinogi, and Other Medieval Welsh Tales" is the most recent version to be published in book form, and, despite being a variant selection of material, is in some ways the most satisfactory. Patrick Ford gives a clear and vigorous rendering, with an excellent introduction and notes. He does not try to make the medieval texts sound up-to-date, but he doesn't strive for quaintness, either (the stories are quite strange enough!). Typically, he restores the correct "Mabinogi," instead of the enshrined scribal error in the nineteenth-century title of 'The Mabinogion." (According to Eric P. Hamp's "Mabinogi and Archaism," in "Celtica" Volume 23 [1999], even the manuscript form "mabinogi" is problematic for other reasons!)

I have reviewed the nineteenth-century translation by Lady Charlotte Guest, whose failure to recognize a scribal slip created the collective title of "Mabinogion" for a diverse group of tales, and the standard modern translation by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, which, following a little-known predecessor from 1929, created the standard modern "canon" of these stories by dropping one of Charlotte Guest's selections, and evaluated these older translations there. The Jones and Jones list was followed in Jeffrey Gantz's translation for the Penguin Classics, which appeared about a year before Ford's translation of "The Mabinogi, and Other Medieval Welsh Tales," and I have discussed it briefly in comparison with the Jones and Jones version.

Although the Jones and Jones translation has been the "Revised Standard Version" of "The Mabinogion" for half a century, during which it underwent several revisions to keep the scholarship up to date, Ford's version has several advantages, not all of which are immediately evident; I would suggest that anyone with a serious interest in Celtic literature, or even a strong curiosity, read, and if possible own, both.

Patrick Ford, then at UCLA, and later at Harvard, dropped five stories, three of which were influenced by, if not copied from, French sources, and restored the missing tale, which he had re-edited from the manuscripts, and published separately. Ford's translation, therefore, contains stories in three of the four usual categories. (Note that preferred spellings of proper names vary, and I have not tried to be fully consistent.)

First, "The Four Branches of the Mabinogi," from which the collective title was derived, consisting of "Pwyll, Prince of Dyved," Branwen Daughter of Llyr," "Manawydan Son of Llyr," and "Math Son of Mathonwy." These begin with a story about the conception and birth of Pwyll's son, Pryderi, whose death is one of the early events in the "Fourth Branch," and concern a variety of heroes, and what are clearly rationalized gods. (Evangeline Walton turned each of the "Four Branches" into a novel; and other writers have done versions of one or another of them.)

Second, there are two "native tales," "The Dream of Maxen Wledig" and "The Story of Lludd and Lleuelys," about Roman ("historical") and pre-Roman ("mythical") Britain as imagined by the medieval Welsh. The 'Lludd" text, as we have it, actually belongs to the "Chronicle" tradition launched by Geoffrey of Monmouth's supposed translation from an "ancient British book." (Which, if any part of it ever had any existence, was NOT the "Mabinogion.") The name of Lludd seems to be Welsh variant of a Celtic divine name, "Nuada" in Irish, "Nodens" in old British inscriptions, and "Nudd" in other Welsh sources; the variation seems to be due to assimilation to his epithet, Llaw Eraint, "Silver Hand," which is explained in the Irish tale of how the physician of the Gods made new hand for Nuada Argatlam." (H.P. Lovecraft picked up "Nodens" for the Cthulhu Mythos, a use which is unrelated; but Tolkien, whose hero Beren also lost a hand, actually wrote an early article on the Nodens inscriptions, and the apparent offerings of metal hands.) He may be behind King Lud, the supposed eponym of London. As Ford points out, Lleuellys, usually given as Llevellys, and also modernized as Llefellys, clearly should be read as Lleu-ellys, and recognized as a version of the god Lugh: the name Lleu is also used for a character in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi.

"Maxen," in which a Roman Emperor seeks as his wife a princess seen in a dream, seems to reflect an even more garbled version of a story known to Geoffrey, compounding several real people, including Helen, the mother of the Emperor Constantine. She was, in a medieval confusion compounding an honest mistake with local patriotism, believed to be British, and identified with "Elen of the Hosts." Ford drops this, as it seems to contain a rather high proportion of medieval hagiography and romance, and a very low proportion of archaic Welsh tradition.

Third are two Arthurian stories in native Welsh mode. "Culhwch and Olwen," is an elaborate quest, dragging in, at least by name, most of the gods and heroes traceable in Welsh material, and some of their Irish cousins into the bargain, mostly as part of Arthur's court.

"The Dream of Rhonabwy" is a visionary encounter with Arthur and his warriors (and anything else I could say would probably be controversial); a fascinating text, which, after a very grittily realistic opening, almost boasts of its authentically dreamlike obscurity. It breaks off in a manner most modern readers will find unsatisfactory -- and its arbitrary nature may have been part of the point. Ford does not include it; a pity, but it is probably the least readable part of the collection.

Ford also does not translate the fourth group, the three "Romances," "Owain" (otherwise known as "The Lady of the Fountain"), "Peredur son of Evrawc," and "Gereint the Son of Erbin," the first and last of which are clearly versions of Chretien de Troyes' Old French Arthurian Romances, "Yvain" and "Erec," while the second is related in a more complex manner to his unfinished and problematic "Perceval le Gallois." These seem to illustrate Celtic materials going out into wider European society, and then flowing back into Wales to enrich (and confuse) the native heroic and mythic tradition with ideas of chivalry.

The story missing from the three other modern translations was published by Charlotte Guest as "The Tale of Taliesin," but it is also found in some manuscripts as two separate tales. Although attested rather late, there are Irish parallels, and its tradition would seem to belong very much with the "native tales" like the "Four Branches of the Mabinogi" and "Culhwch." There seems to have been a real Taliesin, an early medieval poet, to whom much-later poems were also attributed, but this story-complex has more to do with the myths about the nature of poetry. (It is also behind Thomas Love Peacock's comic novel, "The Misfortunes of Elphin," and quite a bit of modern fantasy literature.)

The version of "Taliesin," based, as noted earlier, on the text Ford had re-edited from manuscripts, is restored to its two-story version, as "The Tale of Gwion Bach" and "The Tale of Taliesin," and includes reliable versions of the poems attributed to the variously-reborn hero. Again, there was a real Taliesin, a dark-age Bard, according to Welsh tradition; but these poems, like the stories, are pretty much independent of anything he may have actually composed. But they *may* reflect some very archaic ideas about the magical nature of poetry, which were old when the real Taliesin was alive.

The absence of the tale(s) from other twentieth-century translations seems to be due to the fact that Charlotte Guest's text for the story (with poems) had passed through the hands of the notorious Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams, 1747-1826). Iolo was a Welsh and local patriot, and a pioneering scholar who may have known more about medieval Welsh than anyone in his lifetime. Unhappily, he didn't hesitate to *invent* evidence to support his theories (and promote his own district in Wales), and Charlotte Guest was only one of the nineteenth-century writers he had led astray. Since the other copies of the Taliesin story were all obviously late, there had been little incentive to plunge into that thicket.

Unfortunately, the Guest version of Taliesin had been worked over by Robert Graves for his brilliant, and absurd, "The White Goddess," and a reliable version for non-Celticists was more than overdue. Ford's text edition was of value for another reason; there are close parallels between the stories of Gwion and the boyhood of the Irish hero Fionn (Finn McCool), investigation of which certainly needed a proper edition of the Welsh version to work from, even if they were considered examples of late borrowings instead of a common heritage.

As an added bonus for readers of his "The Mabinogi," Ford included as an appendix a translation of the notoriously difficult "Cad Goddeu," or "Battle of the Trees," also found in Guest's notes. It too had been given a splendid, and absurd, interpretation in terms of the Irish Ogham script by Robert Graves, who demonstrated his profound lack of knowledge of Welsh, and equally deep understanding of Irish. (Graves actually "improved" and re-ordered the translation he was using, without reference to the original....) Ford doesn't claim to understand its "real meaning," if any, only what it actually says, and it is very nice to have it. (By the way, "The Battle of the Trees" seems rather likely to have been in Tolkien's mind, along with Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane, when he was writing about the Siege of Orthanc.)
33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Basic Text for Welsh Literature and Folklore/Mythic Studies 22 Oct 1997
By inisglas@seanet.com - Published on Amazon.com
This is THE edition for the stories of Pwyll, Gwion Bach/Taliesin and Culwich and Olwen. The introduction and notes alone are worth the cover price. Translations are elegantly rendered, and Ford discusses the difficulties in explicating the history and meanings of the stories.
25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential reading for anyone interested in Celtic heritage 30 Oct 2001
By Carl McColman - Published on Amazon.com
There are several translations of the Mabinogion in print, but this is the one I recommend. Not only is the translation a careful balance of scholarly accuracy and readable prose, but it has excellent introductory material as well. As for the text itself... well, as an amateur Celtic scholar and practitioner of neo-Celtic spirituality, I think anyone, of any faith tradition, who wants to cultivate a "Celtic" form of spirituality, owes it to themselves (and to Celtic culture) to become familiar with the primary sources of Celtic myth. The Welsh Mabinogion and the Irish Tain are the two places to start. So... whether your interest in Celtic myth is academic or personal/spiritual, this is an essential text.
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best Translation of the Mabiongi 1 Dec 2003
By Mary F. Jones - Published on Amazon.com
Though he leaves out the decidedly more "literary" romances ("The Dream of Rhonabwy", "The Dream of Maxen", and the three retellings of Chretien de Troyes' Arthurian works), Ford's translation of the main cycle of Welsh mythology is without comparison. He is able to make the Four Branches come alive in a modern way, while preserving their magic.
Most important, however, are his notes, and his new translation of "Taliesin", the story of the famous Welsh bard. He uses a version older than the Guest edition, and tackles the difficult poetry to make it fully readable where he can. As for his notes, Ford makes excellent use of Indo-European scholarship, particularly the works of Georges Dumezil, to illustrate the primitive themes embedded in these late-medieval tales.
This volume should be on any medievalist's shelf.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Comparing this ed. to Davies' 2008 Oxford UP ed. 26 Jan 2008
By John L Murphy - Published on Amazon.com
How does the handsomely bound new rendering by Sioned Davies, Chair in Welsh at Cardiff, compare with the standard version often used and widely praised, Harvard professor Ford's? I consulted my 1977 copy as Ford's new printing has not yet been published. Will his "30th Anniversary" U of California paperback reissued edition find itself in a dead heat with Davies? The race may prove a photo finish!

I compared their translations of a favorite passage of mine early on in the First Branch, Pwyll's tale. Arawn's just been reunited with his queen after the year's test by unwitting yet steadfast doppelganger Pwyll. She wonders, post-coitally after a long year's lapse, why it's been so long since her husband made love with her.

Here's Ford (1977 ed., p. 41) first at the starting line.

"Shame on me," she said, "if from the time we went between the sheets there was even pleasure or talk between us or even your facing me-- much less anything more than that-- for the past year!"

And he thought, "Dear Lord God, it was a unique man, with strong and unwavering friendship that I got for a companion." And then he said to his wife, "Lady," he said, "don't blame me. I swear to God," he said, "I haven't slept with you since a year from last night nor have I lain with you."

And he told her the entire adventure.

"I confess to God," she said, "as far as fighting temptations of the flesh and keeping true to you goes, you had a solid hold on a fellow."

"Lady," he said, "that's just what I was thinking while I was silent with you."

"That was only natural," she answered.

--You can feel the hesitant insertion of the teller's dramatic pauses implied with the "saids." These intensify rhythms of the poet's strong, confident prose. A few contractions and the well-placed dashes quicken the dialogue's pace. The language avoids the flowery exactitude and chivalric diction that marked Gwyn and Thomas Jones' 1949 Everyman edition. But, neither does Ford choose an entirely modern register. He keeps a slightly elevated style while emphasizing verve and a gently sophisticated voice for the couple.

--Compare and contrast Davies (2008 ed., p. 7). As in other pages I spot-checked, the two professors run neck and neck and overlap considerably-- a sign of how both scholars channel what Ford calls the "restraint" in this passage as well as its humor and tension.

"Shame on me," she said, "if there has been between us for the past year, from the time we were wrapped up in the bedclothes, either pleasure or conversation, or have you turned your face to me, let alone anything more than that!"

And then he thought, "Dear Lord God," he said, "I had a friend whose loyalty was steadfast and secure." And then he said to his wife, "Lady," he said, "do not blame me. Between me and God," he said, "I have neither slept nor lain down with you for the past year."

And then he told her the whole story.

"I confess to God," she said, "you struck a firm bargain for your friend to have fought off the temptations of the flesh and kept his word to you."

"Lady," he said, "those were my very thoughts while I was silent just now."

"No wonder!" she said.

--Davies in her preface emphasizes the "performative" qualities in her edition. In this passage, she appears to let the lines go longer rather than reining them in to English syntax. They drift away slightly before coming back to us. Perhaps this echo demonstrates Davies' own scholarship in the medieval Welsh interplay between orality and literacy. The author of two books on the Mabinogi, she stresses the "interactive" nature of the manuscript to be read aloud for the "acoustic dimension" embedded in the Welsh texts and through alliteration, tone, and beat, she tries to give us a feel for this tempo, albeit imperfectly conveyed perforce into our clunkier English.

--Both Davies and Ford include the four branches: Pwyll, Branwen, Manawydan, and Math. Both include Lludd & Llueyls. But, reflecting textual differences in the original manuscript anthologies, they also differ. Ford's tales attributed to Gwion Bach & Taliesin, Culhwch & Olwen, and his appendix on Cad Goddeu do not appear in Davies. She provides Peredur, The Dream of the Emperor Maxen, The Lady of the Well, Geraint, and Rhonawby's Dream.

--Both editors explain their textual choices and open with prefaces. They both add glossaries, pronunciation guides, and bibliographies. Ford situates the tales in Indo-European contexts and Davies delves into their delivery as recited stories. Ford begins each tale with a short introduction; Davies adds explanatory notes in a detailed appendix, keyed to asterisks in the body of the text. Davies keys her "Index of Personal Names" to pages in the text while Ford does not. For study and teaching, it looks like the competition may result in a dignified and spirited draw. Most serious readers doubtless will want to consult, as I have, both fine efforts side-by-side.

(This review's, fittingly, also at the Davies listing on Amazon US. May both translations flourish.)
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