In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mabinogion

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Critical Studies
  • Reference Works
  • Manuscript Sources, Catalogues, and Diplomatic Editions
  • Translations
  • Criticism and Commentary
  • Lludd and Llefelys

British and Irish Literature Mabinogion
Catherine McKenna
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 October 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0036


The term “Mabinogion” was employed by Lady Charlotte Guest in her translation of eleven Middle Welsh prose narratives and one from the 16th century, published in three volumes between 1838 and 1849. It has for some time been generally accepted that the term derives from a scribal error in the Red Book of Hergest, her principal manuscript source. Each of four texts concludes in the Red Book with a colophon stating that “thus ends this branch of the mabinogi,” but in one case the scribe has written mabynnogyon rather than mabinogi, mabinyogi, or mabinogy. Lady Guest seems to have understood mabinogion as a plural form, and applied it as such to her collection of tales. And indeed, recent work by Diana Luft has shown that mabinogion had been used as a plural of mabinogi before Lady Guest published her collection. Although the term mabinogi applies explicitly only to what are now generally known as the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, the term “Mabinogion” has turned out to be a convenient label for the eleven extant medieval narratives of Welsh origin (as opposed to medieval Welsh translations of texts from other literary traditions). Three translations of “The Mabinogion” that employ the term to refer to those eleven tales are currently in print. In addition to the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, the Mabinogion comprises three tales that have been described (but not without resistance) as chivalric romances. Each of these has a counterpart among the works of Chrétien de Troyes, although they seem not to be derived (at least not directly) from Chrétien. And there are four additional tales, unrelated to one another. All eleven Mabinogion texts are anonymous, and none of them has been dated with certainty. The earliest manuscript source of all eleven tales is the Red Book of Hergest (c. 1382–1400). Ten of them are found in the somewhat earlier White Book of Rhydderch (c. 1350), and there are fragments of two of the Four Branches (Branwen and Manawydan) in Peniarth 6, a manuscript of the mid-13th century. It is generally agreed that the texts are older than these manuscripts, that Culhwch and Olwen is the oldest of the eleven, and The Dream of Rhonabwy most likely the latest. Most scholars would place the composition of the Mabinogion texts between the late 11th century and the end of the 12th, but others would argue for a later date for some of them.

General Overviews and Critical Studies

Despite the convenience of the umbrella term “Mabinogion” for the eleven medieval Welsh prose narratives, even the most general critical works tend to focus on either the Four Branches or the three “romances,” and those are cited under Four Branches and Three “Romances”. The best overviews of the Mabinogion as a whole are the introductions to two modern translations, Davies 2007 and Jones and Jones 1974 (cited under Translations). Mac Cana 1992 is a 140-page overview of the Mabinogion texts and a concise review of scholarship to that point. Jarman and Hughes 1992 includes chapters that, taken together, survey all of the tales. Roberts 1992a and Roberts 1992b appear in is a collection of essays, most of them treating Mabinogion texts. Roberts is particularly interested in the processes through which oral traditional narrative acquires literary form and the transformations that it undergoes in authorial hands. Of the essays in this volume, Roberts 1992a and Roberts 1992b encompass the widest range of Mabinogion texts. Davies 1995 also proceeds from a belief in the oral origins of the Mabinogion texts, but Davies is more inclined than Roberts to see them as preserving oral traditional features in their written forms. The relationship of the Mabinogion texts to oral tradition has been one of the principal preoccupations of scholarship, and Nagy 2001 reviews the history of the folkloristic approach to these texts. Luft 2011 is a fascinating review of the history of the terms mabinogi and mabinogion that helps the reader to understand how the eleven Mabinogion texts might have come to be understood as a coherent collection, effectively challenging the traditional scholarly view that Lady Charlotte Guest in titling her translations of these tales simply made a mistake. Davies 1997 is a delightful study unique in its coverage of all eleven texts while focusing exclusively on a single narrative motif, the horse.

  • Davies, Sioned. Crefft y Cyfarwydd: Astudiaeth o Dechnegau Naratif yn Y Mabinogion. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1995.

    A detailed study of the Mabinogion tales from the perspective of their origins in oral tradition and survival as texts in oral performance. Davies’s oral traditionalist approach informs the introduction to her translation of the Mabinogion (Davies 2007, cited under Translations) and her study of the Four Branches (Davies 1993, cited under Criticism and Commentary) but is set out more fully in this Welsh language book.

  • Davies, Sioned. “Horses in the Mabinogion.” In The Horse in Celtic Culture: Medieval Welsh Perspectives. Edited by Sioned Davies and Nerys Ann Jones, 121–140. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1997.

    A survey of all the horses that appear in the eleven Mabinogion tales, focusing on the descriptions of these horses but with some attention to their functions within the stories. A useful catalogue for those interested in the role that horses play in any of the tales.

  • Jarman, A. O. H., and Gwilym Rees Hughes, eds. A Guide to Welsh Literature. Vol. 1. Rev. ed. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1992.

    This collaborative history includes a chapter on the Four Branches that provides a useful overview of early critical approaches, including W. J. Gruffydd’s argument that they were in origin a coherent heroic biography of Pryderi. Chapter 9, “Tales and Romances,” situates several of the Mabinogion tales in the context of storytelling tradition, the origins of literary narrative, and Arthurian tradition.

  • Luft, Diana. “The Meaning of Mabinogi.” Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 62 (2011): 57–79.

    Where Hamp 1974–1975 (cited under The Four Branches: Criticism and Commentary: Origins) treats the word mabinogi linguistically, Luft treats it historically, surveying the use of the term from the Middle Ages through the 19th century. She shows that the form mabinogion as a plural did not originate with Lady Charlotte Guest and that the term mabinogi has always been a source of confusion, understood and employed in a variety of ways, none of which resolves the question of why the Four Branches are so called.

  • Mac Cana, Proinsias. The Mabinogi. 2d ed. Writers of Wales Series. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1992.

    Although the title suggests that it deals exclusively with the Four Branches, this little book provides a brief overview of and introduction to all eleven Mabinogion texts. It serves as a useful survey of early scholarship and of some of the work published in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as a succinct account of Mac Cana’s own views on the origins of Welsh narrative prose.

  • Nagy, Joseph Falaky. “Folklore Studies and the Mabinogion.” In 150 Jahre ‘Mabinogion’: Deutsch-walisische Kulturbeziehungen. Edited by Bernhard Maier and Stefan Zimmer, 91–100. Tübingen, Germany: Max Niemeyer, 2001.

    Reviews the embedded nature of much Mabinogion criticism in mythological and folkloristic approaches from its beginnings in the work of W. J. Gruffydd down to the early 21st century. A useful survey and critique of the work of some early scholars.

  • Roberts, Brynley F. “Tales and Romances.” In Studies on Middle Welsh Literature. By Brynley F. Roberts, 41–79. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1992a.

    A reprint of Chapter 9 in Jarman and Hughes 1992, this essay charts a trajectory of developing strategies of narrative prose in Welsh, touching upon Lludd and Llefelys, The Deam of Maxen, Culhwch and Olwen, Peredur, Gereint, Owein, and The Dreawm of Rhonabwy

  • Roberts, Brynley F. “From Traditional Tale to Literary Story.” In Studies on Middle Welsh Literature. By Brynley F. Roberts, 81–94. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1992b.

    Originally published in Leigh A. Arrathoon, ed. The Craft of Fiction: Essays in Medieval Poetics (Rochester, MI: Solaris, 1984). Like Roberts1992a, this chapter continues to explore the development of literary prose out of oral tradition, with reference to Lludd and Llefelys, The Dream of Maxen, Culhwch and Olwen, Peredur, Gereint, Owein, and The Dream of Rhonabwy.

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