“The Mabinogion” and the Influence of Wales

by Lexa Pennington / Nov 19, 2014 /
Lexa Pennington's picture

When travelers imagine touring the United Kingdom, very rarely do they consider the southwest region of Wales. However, Wales should be known the world over for its profound influence on the whole of Western thought. A single text, passed down for millennia, formed the basis of European literature as we know it, and served as the foundation for important genres such as romance and fantasy, as well as the origins of world famous characters like King Arthur himself. This powerful work, The Mabinogion, hails solely from Wales, and you can see its real-world locations all over the Welsh countryside.

 

“The Mabinogion” and the Influence of Wales

 

On your next vacation to the U.K., skip the pub culture of Northern Ireland or gaudy palaces in London, and instead indulge in the rich cultural history of Wales as written about in The Mabinogion.

Though largely forgotten even by today’s great thinkers, The Mabinogion and Wales are steeped in Western history, and are well worth a read and a visit.

About The Mabinogion

The Mabinogion is most easily described as a collection of 11 traditional Welsh tales, but their significance in Welsh culture is much more nuanced. The tales come from a pre-Christian Celtic era, when Welsh peoples worshiped gods and spirits mostly unknown to modern readers. The tales in The Mabinogion outwardly tell the life stories of several important Welsh royals, though it seems that these figures signify the deities worshiped by pre-Christian Welsh groups. It’s clear the stories have been passed down for centuries, generation after generation, and their modern form is only one version of the tales.

Though the tales are immeasurably ancient, it was only relatively recently that The Mabinogion gained recognition in the literary sphere. In the 19th century, an English lady, Charlotte Guest, published her transcription of 11th century texts containing the Welsh stories. The initial translation and transcription include several errors — including the title, as the term “mabinogion” doesn’t exist in the Welsh copy — and scholars continue to argue over correct interpretations to this day.

The first four tales of The Mabinogion are easily the most significant, as they introduce the most important characters (Pwyll, Branwen, Manawydan, and Math) and establish the main themes for the rest of the collection (redemption, loyalty, and love, among others). In pursuit of adventure, the characters and their armies tromp all over the western coast of the Welsh countryside, and many of the landmarks of the stories you can visit still today.  

Experiencing Wales in Person

After you fly into the U.K., make your way to Wales to see the magical landscape depicted in The Mabinogion. Wales boasts more than 600 pre-Christian Celtic sites, including hill forts, cairns, and other places of archaeological significance, and most are open for visitation throughout the year. Of these, Castell Henllys is perhaps the most impressive, as researchers have continued excavation of this site for decades, and reconstruction efforts have transformed it to exactly as it looked when it was in use more than a millennium ago.  

Snowdonia is a national park located within Wales dedicated to preserving the landscape as it has appeared for thousands of years. The mountains and coasts remain misty and mysterious, allowing you to feel transported to a time long past. You can easily spend whole days walking or cycling around the countryside and enjoying the rich natural beauty.

There are several archaeological sites and ruins dotted around Snowdonia as well. One particular Iron Age settlement, dubbed Tre’r Ceiri or Town of Giants, boasts more than 150 huts, and many walls still stand over 12 feet high.

 

Snowdonia - “The Mabinogion” and the Influence of Wales

If The Mabinogion hints about Arthur and his knights strike your fancy, Wales is full of ancient sites named for and concerning the romantic king. If you’d prefer to stick close to northern Wales and Snowdonia, visit Llyn Llydaw and Llyn Ogwen, two lakes thought to be the birthplace and resting place of Arthur’s sword, Excalibur. Additionally, a few stones around Wales bear indentations thought to be created during the crushing force of Arthur’s steed during battle; seek out Carn March Arthur and Carreg Carn March Arthur to learn more about the mythology behind these marks. Finally, a slew of hilltop standing stones named Bedd Arthur are thought to be the king’s final resting place, though without excavation, this claim remains unsubstantiated.

Simply wandering around Wales’ scenic countryside is enough to fill you with nostalgia for the time of The Mabinogion, an era ruled by iron and stone. Wales may be a quiet region of the U.K. today, but its important archaeological sites speak of its past significance and its impact on the way of the West today.