Rowan Williams at Literary Review:
Pedeir Ceinc y Mabinogi is a set of four loosely connected prose tales preserved in a couple of late medieval Welsh manuscripts, though they must have reached their present form by about 1200. The conventional title translates as ‘The Four Branches of the Mabinogi’, mabinogi being a word meaning very roughly ‘youthful exploits’, or the early achievements of a hero. But this title tells us almost nothing about the stories. Instead of narratives about a hero’s youth, we find complex, grotesque, sometimes dreamlike stories about magical shape-shifting, curses and taboos, blood feuds, love, abuse, incest and betrayal. Some of the characters recur from story to story, though each of the ‘branches’ can be read more or less independently of the others. The stories move bewilderingly from realistic, even humorous, evocations of life in the small Welsh courts of the Middle Ages to moments of bizarre and extreme violence; they contain intense lyrical and elegiac emotion and incomprehensible survivals of what seems to be pre-Christian, pre-Roman mythical themes. The names of many of the leading figures tantalisingly echo names given to the gods in Irish and even Gallic paganism. These stories are an archaeological site in themselves, a many-layered mound of tradition, in the depths of which lie some of the most basic imaginative tools of Indo-European religion and storytelling.
But they are also completely compelling in their own right as stories. They are told with vivid visual detail, irony and wit, realistic dialogue and sheer energy. Since the 19th century, when they were translated by the aristocratic and erudite English wife of a Welsh ironmaster, there have been many good versions of the text; more recently – as Matthew Francis notes in a brief but insightful introduction – there has been a project involving the reworking of the stories as modern novellas by a group of distinguished Welsh writers. Francis has taken a quite different route and produced an extraordinary new rendering in the shape of four long poems that ruminate over the narrative detail, both compressing the stories and allowing their imagery to unfold and flower.