It has been said that much of the scholarly knowledge used by pagans to assess the survivals of Brythonic myth used to construct literary tales in the Middle Ages are usually at least sixty years out of date. In particular that the views of scholars of the past such as W. J. Gruffydd whose studies of Y Mabinogi in books such as Math vab Mathonwy and Rhiannon from the 1920’s to the 1950’s are now dead in the water as far as contemporary scholars are concerned. The problem is that, even for those who have access to a good library, full-length works dealing with this material since Gruffydd are hard to come by and that work that does exist is largely contained in academic journals or books with a limited circulation. An exception to this, particularly for Y Mabinogi, is the proliferation of translations which include notes and introductory essays which can provide at least an outline of the direction of contemporary scholarly opinion.
As one who has, in the past, tried to put together material pertaining to Rhiannon and her presentation in Y Mabinogi, and who relied on the arguments of Gruffydd, together with other material from Rachel Bromwich and Gwyn Jones, to make some sort of summary of scholarly work, I must include myself among those who may have relied on ‘outdated’ research to present my material. But the main reason why Gruffydd is regarded as out of date is not so much that he did not make significant advances in the study of this material, but that his view of it as a corruption of earlier mythical material which therefore needed reconstruction is now regarded as misguided. The current view is rather that we should try to understand what value the texts we have had for their medieval audience and that any attempt to reconstruct the original significance of mythical remnants is necessarily too speculative to be of any value.
But if what has been done since essentially just says “Well, really, we don’t know” or employs primarily what are referred to as ‘synchronic’ analyses (usually focused on the significance of the tales as the product of a medieval Christian society) rather than ‘diachronic’ analyses based on a range of meanings a tale might have over a longer period of time, then this leaves the pagan concerned to make the best use of scholarly material with little room for manoeuvre.
Fortunately things are not quite so bad as this simple dichotomy suggests. If ‘synchronic’ means focusing on the texts we have,and the age in which they were produced, this does not necessarily imply ruling out any consideration of mythical significance. Work by, for instance, Catherine Mckenna on Rhiannon as a sovereignty goddess usefully discusses the tales in the context of what she sees as a Celtic sovereignty myth involving Rhiannon as the Goddess whom both Pwyll and later Manawydan must wed in order to legitimate their right to rule. Such a theme, she suggests, is entirely consistent with regarding the text as conveying “the growth to full and effective lordship over Dyfed of its protagonist, Pwyll, and as a mirror or exhortation for medieval Welsh princes”. This approach regards the author/redactor of the tale as being fully aware of the mythical significance of its origins and putting them to appropriate contemporary use. In a later article McKenna extended this analysis to Manawydan in the Third Branch. Mckenna’s arguments first appeared in scholarly journals but have been re-printed in book form in volumes which have limited availability.(*)
Much more accessible is the translation of the Four Branches and the other tales by Patrick Ford (1977 ) which has a useful introduction in which he asserts that if “the integrity of the text” is to be respected we should regard the mythological elements contained in that text as at least being available to the medieval redactor(s) rather than take the view of Matthew Arnold that they were “pillaging an antiquity of which they scarcely possessed the secret”. He also suggests that the Third Branch (Manawydan) “preserves the detritus of a myth wherein the Sea God mated with the Horse Goddess”. He does not think that this myth survived into the tale as a myth, but that “the mythic significance may well have been understood in a general way by an eleventh century audience”. Such an understanding is also implied by McKenna’s argument.
Ford developed these themes further in an article in 1982 (*) In a complex argument employing structuralist understandings of the relationship between myth and narrative, Ford argues for a reading that understands that narrative can only be horizontal but a mythical reading needs to look at vertical parallels elsewhere in the text. Such a mythical reading here requires us to regard, for example, the events in the First Branch where Gwawl is the ‘badger in the bag’ and those in the Third Branch, where Manawydan has a mouse in a glove, as mythically parallel events while also being different events in the narrative scheme. Similarly, Pryderi’s disappearance at the same time as Teyrnon’s foal in the First Branch, and Rhiannon’s displacement to the horse block, and the disappearance of Pryderi and Rhiannon in the enchanted fort in the Third Branch, are to be seen as mythically parallel expressions of the same theme of cyclic fertility of the land worked out in different narrative elements in the text.
Pryderi, son of Pwyll and Rhiannon and stepson of Manawydan is, in the mythical dimension, the offspring of Other World parents who are also, in the narrative scheme, characters in a medieval tale. The contemporary narrative is necessary for the multiple expression of the mythic themes. Ford concludes:
“We need not search for an Ur-myth, nor need we assume that the text is corrupt or that the medieval redactor and his audience were ignorant of their traditions. The analysis attempted here shows that the first branch and part of the third branch of the Mabinogi are concerned, among other things, with the birth of Pryderi and his loss and return, the latter events paralleled by loss and restoration of fertility in the land. Was Pryderi human or divine? Who was his father? Because Pryderi is a divine hero, his father was lord of the otherworld. In Celtic tradition, the Lord of the other world is pre-eminently the sea-god. When he mates with the Great Queen, he partakes of her characteristic shape, which is equine. Pryderi is a hero among mortal men, though his origins are divine; the narrative concerning his birth reflects, therefore, the natural and supernatural conditions attendant upon that event. He is at once son of the mortal Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, who is also known as Lord of the Otherworld, the son of Teyrnon Twrf Liant (‘Lord of the Tempestuous Sea’), who is the mare’s consort, and the son of Rhiannon, Queen of Dyfed, whose equine nature is skilfully divided among several narrative sequences.”(*)
It may be argued that such a structuralist analysis is itself no longer the chief focus in academic opinion, or that not all of what Ford suggests would be endorsed widely. But this does, at least, adopt the synchronic approach deemed necessary while also allowing diachronic elements to interact with it. And, regardless of the exigencies of academic fashion, this is a suggestive argument that allows room for the mythical content of the tales to shine through the analysis of the medieval text without reconstructing it.
(*) Articles cited above are published in:
Catherine McKenna 'The Theme of Sovereignty in Pwyll' Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 29 (1980)
Patrick Ford 'Prolegomena to a Reading of the Mabinogi' Studia Celtica 16-17 1981-82
Both of the above republished in C W Sullivan III The Mabinogi - A Book of Essays (1996) (expensive and at the time of posting unavailable).
Catherine McKenna 'Learning Lordship : The Education of Manawydan' in Ildanach Ildinech eds Carey, Koch, Lambert (1999)