Saturday, 27 September 2008
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.