Saturday, 27 September 2008

Book Review

Will Parker: The Four Branches of the Mabinogi: Celtic Myth and Medieval Reality.

This is a curious book, and in places a very interesting and enjoyable one, though not without flaws. The most salient characteristic of Will Parker’s new translation and expansive commentary on the Four Branches (or Pedeir Keinc Y Mabinogi) is a lack of certainty as to the identity of the intended audience. Is this a book for professional Celtic scholars? If so, there are problems of both format and detail, discussed below. Or is it aimed at Celtic Pagans, Druids, and others who find spiritual meaning in the Mabinogi? Again, if so, it will prove frustrating to them, as the author does not entirely share their sympathies. Or is it for the interested general reader? If so, the very bulk of the book (692 pages) and its wealth of learned references to Dark Age Welsh history, archaeology, comparative mythology and Irish medieval literature may be hard to swallow.

Parker studied Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Cambridge, under the eminent Celtic scholars David Dumville and Patrick Sims-Williams. His grasp of Medieval Welsh language, literature and history, and the Irish equivalents, is clearly highly competent, as one would expect. Nevertheless, the book bears the signs that Parker has not had the opportunity to interact with other scholars in the field since graduating, and such contacts and discussions might have ironed out places where the arguments fail to convince.

Roberto Calasso characterised Hinduism as ‘fullness out of fullness’, and Parker’s approach to the PKM is similarly inclusive. As he states, with admirable honesty, much of the material is not original. What is original is the way he employs large, intriguing organisational concepts (‘Celtic Psychogeography’, ‘The Indigenous Otherworld’, ‘The School of Taliesin’) which go rather further that careful scholars might allow. Yet everything he says is interesting and worth reading; in particular I was impressed with his grasp of the knotty detail of the texts and his ability to draw out meanings from single words and phrases. He is an admirable close reader of these marvellously complex tales, and I repeatedly found my own understanding extended by his insights. (I was delighted that attention was drawn to the fact that Branwen calls out 'Alas, Son of God' before she dies, a lovely instance of the redactor forgetting his pre-Christian setting. Despite having read and taught Branwen uerch Lyr several times, I had never noticed this.)

However, this fascinating, valuable book presents the scholarly reader with several problems. Firstly, it could have benefited from peer-review at the final draft stage. I know all too well how easy it is to overlook obvious, kick-yourself errors in a long text on which you have been working for years. However, it must be said that there are large numbers of minor errors and inaccuracies, especially in the otherwise admirably fluent translations.

For example, on p. 402 (choosing a page at random), footnote 721 should read yn agoret, not yn argoret; footnote 722 translates the word arnaw ‘upon it’ as though it were arnat ‘upon you’, and muddles up ouyn ‘fear’ and gouyn, ‘demand’ (but, oddly, gets ouyn right in footnote 724); footnote 723 misses out a word, it, ‘to you’, in its literal translation. Elsewhere, the name Hafgan, a king of Annwn in the first branch, is glossed ‘Sun-white’, which it isn’t, not ‘Summer-white’, which it is.

When discussing the First Branch, Parker notes (absolutely correctly) that 'Mabon' derives from Common Celtic *Makwonos. But then he brings in the Irish Óengus mac Óc (fair enough) and implies that the latter's name may be etymologically related to *Makwonos, which he translates 'youth, lad'. It's hard to see what he means here. *Makwonos implies not simply 'youth, lad' but divine youth, the suffix -onos/-ona implying a theonym. The word for 'youth, boy, lad' in Common Celtic was *makwos. This is of course behind the 'mac' of 'mac Óc', but that's so obvious it surely doesn't need mentioning. He seems to imply that *Makwonos yielded British Maponos, > W. Mabon, but also Irish mac Óc. The later is impossible: 'mac Óc' derives from *Makwos Yowenkos, 'Young Son', and has so been recognised for over a century. I don't think there's any chance Parker doesn't know this - its simply a slip which an editor should have picked up. (Such slips are dispiritingly easy to do - I spelled the nominative plural of the Irish word for 'druid' wrong all the way through my PhD thesis, despite knowing perfectly well what it was.) I'm torn here between saying that, on the one hand, Parker's book is splendid, and on the other, it does have these persistent mistakes. (There are also a vexing number of missing references and inconsistent italicisations in the footnotes.)

Further, in discussing the poetry of the Book of Taliesin, he notes a passage in which the druids (derwydon)prophesy of the Flood, the Crucifixion and Doomsday, saying that it is remarkable that the author felt able to present pre-Christian functionaries as foreseeing the major events of the Christian schema. This, he argues, goes far beyond even the efforts of Irish literateurs to visualise the native past of their land as a kind of Old Testament of their own. Unfortunately, this isn't true: in the 8th century Irish text 'The Death of Conchobor', druids do indeed perceive 'the Crucifixion of Christ, the Son of God, without guilt', by a kind of eerie clairvoyance. To give a final example, Parker links Romano-British Nodons to Irish Nuada (which is standard and confirmed by Celtic linguistics) but then links them both to the biblical Noah and Sumerian Utnapishtim; there is no evidence whatsoever for this, and it is deeply unlikely as, of course, neither name is Indo-European, let alone Celtic. These errors and lapses are minor, but their frequency throughout the book will reduce the authority of its arguments in the eyes of scholars, whilst misleading those, such as most neo-Druids, who won’t know the text in the original.

Druids and Pagans sometimes raise the question of why professional academics ignore or turn their noses up at work on Celtic subjects done outside the academy. This is often interpreted as evidence of a hegemony of fusty, cliquey opinion, impermeable to the lively, creative ideas offered by amateurs. The reasons scholars tend to look askance at such work are on display in The Four Branches, despite its many virtues. First, there are the errors of fact and translation, and as a result one’s trust in the author’s judgement is somewhat compromised. (It is unfortunate that the book came out so soon after Sioned Davies’ recent, and excellent, new translation of the ‘Mabinogion’.)

Second, it is overstretched, and needed to be read in the draft stage by both an expert in medieval Welsh literature and an archaeologist. Third, its methodology is not at all clear, despite the Introduction; Jungian psychology, folklore studies, comparative literature, archaeology, historicism, Dumezilian mythography – all are pressed into service, with the odd whiff of W. J. Gruffyddian reconstructionism creeping in too. It does not feel methodologically unified. Like the author of Culhwch and Olwen, it often seems as though Will Parker has tried to cram in everything he can possibly think of – and what he has to say is always interesting and often brilliant – but judicious use of the red pen might have made for a slimmer and more user-friendly book.

I suspect that the most useful bits of the book for Pagans and general readers will be the following, in no particular order. First, the background to the manuscripts, and the superb bibliographic essay (pp. 11-8), which will introduce much recent work on the PKM to druids still stuck with Caitlín Matthews’ hopeless Mabon and the Mysteries of Britain. (One would never know from Matthews’ wretched volume that the Four Branches were written sometime in the late 11th or 12th century, by a highly learned person who was perhaps a lawyer or a cleric.) I would urge druids to read as much of this recent scholarly research as possible.

The historical material of pp. 25-91 is also useful, but should be taken in conjunction with other accounts: in particular, John Davies’ great Hanes Cymru/A History of Wales, and Robert Rees Davies’ magisterial The Age of Conquest should be used at every point. In particular, Sioned Davies’ The Four Branches of the Mabinogi (a critical work, not to be confused with her recent translation for OUP) should be required reading for those interested in the oral background to the tales. Proinsias Mac Cana’s little The Mabinogi in the ‘Writers of Wales’ series is also an excellent, scholarly introduction which will help the uninitiated to weigh up Parker’s arguments.

At best, parts of the book are so original and compelling that they make one long to see them excised, bulked up and published as stand-alone papers in the learned journals Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies or Studia Celtica. ‘Celtic Psychogeography’ is one such section, as is the concept of ‘The School of Taliesin’, which would have formed the basis of a good PhD thesis, and might have benefited from Marged Haycock’s expert eye. Another is the fascinating idea that the association of Annwn with Dyfed, and its otherworldly perfection and bounty, reflects Dyfed’s link to the prosperous south-west of Roman Britain, with its great villas and sophisticated material culture. Buried as such ideas are within this massive text, I fear that few of them will come to light and be given the hearing that they deserve in the academy.

All told, the book as we have it is a remarkable achievement: a full record of the fertile thoughts of a highly intelligent and skilled individual on one of the most fascinating products of the insular Middle Ages. If there are parts which fail to convince, the whole brims with excellent ideas, which I use (and credit) when teaching the PKM. For Druids, it will be an excellent introduction to much recent thinking on the stories, especially if they do not rely on it exclusively, as they should not, but seek out some of the ‘new’ scholarship themselves. Academics may find that the book lacks focus, despite its great intrinsic interest and the fine quality of the writing, and would prefer a more honed version, in which Parker’s many fine, original thoughts were nearer the fore.


G R Grove said...

Hi, I assume this review is copied from the other blog, where I must have missed it. I was glad to see it, because I have been dithering over whether to buy this book since I saw it on your LT listing a while back. Unfortunately your excellent review makes the problem no clearer: it's an expensive book ($100 US) of uneven quality, with flaws I might not recognize (since I'm not an academic Celticist, but merely an enthusiastic amateur). And I know well the feeling of seeing an obvious error in a book by a supposed expert, and then not knowing what else he might have got wrong... How much of the historical and archeological background does he include? And are there any illustrations, maps, etc? It seems to be from a rather small press with a diverse output, which does not necessarily inspire confidence.

Good to see you blogging in public again. I hope you are going to copy over your fairly recent post on Taliesin, now alas inaccessible - I had a link to that one in one of my blog posts, and would like to link to it again.

Undecided in Denver,

Bo said...

On balance, I think it's well worth it - not that I bought it, I was kindly sent a free copy by the author! It's a good summary of much contemporary scholarly thinking as well as a place in which some creative and original ideas are advanced. Don't depend on it if you read something you've never come across elsewhere (there are some places where I disagree with Will), but it is also a good read and quite a feat.
I'd get it.

Bo said...

Yes, this is copied by the way from The Expvlsion - I'll bring over Taliesin soon.

Fionnchú said...

Until yesterday, I (as another enthusiastic amateur despite my Ph.D., given my subsequent goliardic perigrinations to earn my keep!) missed this too, somehow, on Expvlsion, and welcome its insights. I found your review generous, critical, cautious, corrective, and encouraging in all the appropriate places. If this is how you would respond to a peer's or a student's scholarship, you prove already, so early on, how you've deserved your well-earned post at Cambridge!

Bo said...

Thanks! I hope Will doesn't find my review too exasperating - he's responded generously to it before. It is a fine book.

Shan Morgain

I'm much enjoying Will Parker's "The Four Branches of the Mabinogi" please see my own initial review at my own blog

While I see that the review here does praise the book I think it makes too much of minor inaccuracies. As I make clear in my own review, it is inappropriate to apply the same tightly focused criteria to a long opus as to a student's term paper. In a long work where the demands of organisation and cross referencing are far far higher there will be some mistakes and any book review can capitalise on them to create a junior kind of sniping satisfaction.

Yes I know it is a little unsettling to note inaccuracies on points we know well. But that doesn't prevent us making use of the wealth of material there of course. For any good scholar knows that any secondary source item must be checked carefully before using it in our own writing.
A book like Will Parker's is there to offer suggestions, patterns, possible quotes - providing we check them. It's not just a crib to rip bits out to copy and paste. So use it like any other source and all will be well.

Where the book is mabnificent is in its conceptualisation. The "Indigenous Underworld" for example justifies it even if there wsere nothing else - and there is a lot else!

GRG (Undecided in Denver) yes there are maps, and genealogies, very good ones.

Bo said...

Hi Shan - I never said minor inaccuracies *did* make it impossible to use the wealth of material in the book: far from it, I've gone out of my way to praise it.

And yes, we should apply the same--indeed stricter--criteria to a long work as to a student's paper. The book is couched as a scholarly work, but does not quite meet the criteria such a work requires (that the translations be wholly accurate, that the footnotes be right, that there be no solecisms in the text.) In a large scholarly work, yes, there will always be a few minor things the proofreaders miss, but my point is that there are a lot in Will's book, most of the ones in CM&MR could have been picked up if it had passed before someone else's eyes before publication. I know all too well the demands of writing a lengthy cross-referenced work (I teach in the dept. where Will was taught Celtic), so I don't feel it is unfair to point out errors in a published book that we absolutely would flag up in a PhD thesis.

That said, I wholly agree with you that there are magnificient ideas in the book: it's a great thing to have done, full of wonderful ideas (even when I don't always agree with them) and will be greatly appreciated by future students. M

mona said...


I was directed here from CMC. If not this book, do you have other recommendations that give the historic background, etc. of the Mabinogi? I have read only the Four Branches--with no commentary or explanation, etc. I would love to read more, so if there is a better book than this, can you recommend it? (I know you DID recommend this book--just wondering what others I might look at.)



Bo said...

Hi Mona,
I'd start with Sioned Davies' little 1993 book 'The Four Branches of the Mabinogi', and Proinsias Mac Cana's book 'The Mabinogi' in the 'Writers of Wales' series.

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