Matthew Francis’s Retelling of ‘The Mabinogi’ Revels in the Magic of Poetry

The Mabinogi, consists of four interlinked stories set in a version of Britain in which the magical is only a few steps away and kings can become cobblers. You might be familiar with these stories as they form the basis of a wider collection of tales called The Mabinogion, or perhaps from the Fleetwood Mac song Rhiannon, as she is a major character of these stories.

By just focusing on the four tales of The Mabinogi, rather than the wider collection of The Mabinogion, Matthew Francis is able to give the work a sense of solid unity, which many versions of The Mabinogion lack. This sense of flow and narrative completion is helped by the naming of each story, with a brief description. For instance, the first story is named: The Tale of the Hunter and The Claw. This gives a sense of the narrative but also shows it’s narrative integrity. These four tales are not just broken up because of convention, or how they were once written in a manuscript, but because each plots a different story, even if they do link into each other so neatly. So perhaps it is best to view The Mabinogi, more as a perfect quintet, complied into a single volume than a single narrative work.

Mr Francis takes the innovative step of rendering the story into verse, rather than sticking to prose like other retellings and translations into English. This to me feels like a better representation of the nature of these tales. Perhaps it is just that prose has become firmly fixed on the page, and only poetry retains the oral sense of music and magic, that all stories would once have had. I must say that I love the cover design, a luminesnt yellow, emblazoned with the title in a bright vermillion. There is certainly something striking and, rather fittingly, perhaps otherworldly about it.

There is also an aspect of altering expectations. By using poetry, it is quite clearly a work of engaging narrative, rather than a dry, scholastic, translation of the original manuscript version. You could pick this up with no knowledge of the stories and it would be an enthralling read, for each word seems perfectly balanced to pull you along the story with a verbal precision and exciting cadence that is impossible to resist.

One feature that helps with the poetic format is the use of marginal notes. These allow the main poem to leave out certain details without causing confusion. As the poem is no longer constrained by the reader’s knowledge it is free to be consist and swift in its narrative. There is no turgid exposition or flabby lines seeking to remind the reader who each character is again and again.

They marginal notes also add a sense of physicality, as if they were added later to a manuscript to help explain it. This, coupled with the judicious use of white space, and dropped capitals at the start of sections, is very reminiscent of medieval manuscripts and so gives a nod to the origins of the tales.

As although these were likely oral tales to start with, we only have them as they were recorded in two manuscripts. These manuscripts are rather brilliantly known as The Red Book Of Hergest and The White Book of Rhydderch. To think that a book is so individual and important it can be known just by the colour and where it was kept. This is also where Tolkien got the idea for The Red Book of Westmarch, which is supposedly the source for the stories in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.

As well as structuring the poem to mirror a manuscript, the lineation adds a natural oral feel to the work. Within each section headed by a dropped capital, there are shorter sections of 14 lines, broken up into shorter stanzas. These sections are described by Mr Francis as being somewhat like sonnets, which is not something I see other than in the number of lines and final couplet. What I find more interesting about these short subsections is that I can imagine the spaces in between them neatly corresponding to longer pauses in the recitation. These are not just the pauses of a speaker taking a breath, but of them taking a leisurely sip of their drink.

This approach focusing on the nature of story telling is also found in the order of the stories. Mr Francis follows the normal order of the four branches (what each story is known as) but in the fourth branch Mr Francis has changed the narrative structure considerably. To start with he frames the story as an after-dinner story told by the protagonist, and hints that the other stories are just the same. There are also changes to the order of events to highlight the continuity between the stories.

The stories may cover a range of events from full scale war to more personal vendettas, yet they are really a tale of magic and difference. For the Unland (another world in which things are similar yet clearly different, such as dogs with bright red ears) is always just in reach, and magic can turn words into armies. “Unland” is a rather good way of translating the Middle Welsh “Annwn”, as it shows how that world is like a mirror of this world, in which the rules of reality are twisted on their heads.

The use of poetry also feels rather fitting to me because of this focus. For poetry relates to prose in much the same way as the Unland relates to this real world: The base is the same yet one is intrinsically magical where things can be something else entirely. And just like how the Unland seeps into this world, poetry is always just a word or two away from prose, and like the mythically Rhiannon can readjust itself to fit amongst prose.

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