Tuesday, 2 June 2009

"The Four Branches of the Mabinogi" Will Parker.

If you love Y Mabinogi then this is a must have book.

I wanted to share my first impressions of
"The Four Branches of the Mabinogi"
before I move into a closer re-reading, taking notes + organising quotes etc type of reading. No doubt I will have more comment later.

What a feast for the mind you are Will. Having managed so far on bits and pieces, short papers in anthologies or journals, or the introductory sections that go with various translations, yours is such a magnificent massive cornucopia.
So magnificent was it that over the first couple of days after the book arrived it was almost too much. Like an ascetic suddenly switched into hedonistic celebration I could hardly encompass the giantism of what you have given me.

Now that the dazzle is settling down I can manage a tiny bit of detachment about my first forays. I can confidently say that whatever critical comment I make, now or later, the sheer scope of his study places Will Parker with the giants of Mabinogi scholarship.

I think what I like most at first grapple apart from the sheer immensity of the opus, is Will's profile of Annwvn as the "Indigenous Underworld." This very much agrees with my own views, but he has expanded my ideas with the perception of Annwvn as a view to the East, recalling Roman luxury villas in the Southwest of England. Even back in my romantic superficial beginnings with Y Mabinogi, I thought that Annwvn and its persons were Neighbours, or Foreigners, rather than the remote, transcendent theology of the "classics" (sic). So this "Indigenous Underworld" is received gratefully.

I am pleased to have a clear etymology for Annwvn. If I understand aright, Will suggests a separate Underworld (chthonic) and Otherworld (marine). I have seen (I think the Matthews) use of Otherworld which did express the kind of Foreigner mode I prefer, but was never quite comfortable either. Although "Underworld" is tricky because of its connotations elsewhere, the etymology as "deep, under" makes it imperative to reconstitute it in Brythonic fashion.

Also the chthonic UNDERWorld sheds light on Arawn's name and nature. I found a possible cognate on Arawn in arawen = grain, cereal. (See Celtnet) Since Hafgan links to the Cymraeg for Summer, this makes Arawn either the Winter King (the Man in Grey as we first meet him) in the seasonal duel, or possibly (Summer) Hafgan is his enemy because from the point of view of the grain, Summer with its killer harvesting is the enemy.

With my interest in Hywel Dda and Elen I was delighted, and perhaps a little disconcerted to find my cherished theory described independently in Will's pages. Reassuring but a bit uncomfortable (wail - this was MINE) However I do have a few more details to add still and shall continue that line to find more.

I also enjoyed much the Teyrnon material - I have been researching place names and especially Wentwood here in Gwent for my "indigenous" local tradition.

There are of course some bits where I disagree with Will but nothing major. I shall explore them as I do my close reading over the next few weeks.

I do recall one item that I will mention which is not so much a disagreement as that I feel Will has not given due weight. That is the Mari Llywd as the missing aspect of Rhiannon/ Non. In Y Mabinogi we have her as Maiden, Bride, Mother, but not as elder matriarch/ crone.
The Mari Llywd fits the gap as its practice stretches across South Wales - I have a delightful tidbit on an author who took his book about the Mari to an Eisteddford. On a stall talking to people about the book he discovered just how prevalent the Mari is - only each locality thought their surviving custom was unique!
The connection is of course the Horse/ Mare and that she is "a grey" that peculiar British convention for a pale horse. Given the Mari's geography, her tenacity of survival, and her fertility/ death's head duality I think we have our other aspect of Rhiannon as elder.

I found a review of Will's book on the net. It lists a number of inaccuracies.
For myself I apply a very tight level of assessment to a paper in an anthology or journal, or a short book. But I feel that for a long opus it is appropriate to be just a little more forgiving.
The functions of the large work, like this one, are to provide extended theory, with a wealth of cross references both intrinsic to the work examined, and extrinsic to it. "The Four Branches" amply performs these duties.
By contrast a paper or short book, which covers only a handful of points on one theme or at most a superficial outline of two or three themes, can be required to achieve 100% rigour. Any inaccuracy damns the entire item.
In an ideal world the long opus should be perfect too, but once past adolescence one has to notice we do not live in an ideal world. If we applied the same harsh criteria to a long opus as we do to a standard short paper, I suspect papers is all we'd ever get for a full book would be beyond human competence. Certainly I've never found a full length book that offered more than the obvious, that didn't have some inaccuracies on detail.

That review, and a couple of comments attached, raises the point that where we find inaccuracy on a few points we already know, it destabilises our trust on the rest of the work. We cannot then rely on using points made in our own work.
Excuse me? Really! Standard academic training is to NEVER use a secondary source, citation or quote, without checking it out. Methinks we have here the bleating of the lazy student who just doesn't want to do the required labour.
Also a touch of envy working. It is of course, so easy, and to a small mind, satisfying, to poke at the detail of a big person's work. So much easier to make a petty dig than to make the effort to dig foundations for one's own edifice.

Admiring as I am of Will's book I do not feel the same about his publisher. The book is badly presented - too bulky, with overly wide pages, and the proof reading is ABYSMAL. There are actual words left out on almost every page! Typos ditto.
I hope Will will consider a second edition with a better publisher who designs the physical book better, and knows more on how to reduce the price as well.

On the work itself I remain deeply in debt and would recommend it highly. It's utterly worth putting up with the thumping great book that needs a small cushion to support it! to get a thumping good read.
It should be obvious from the foregoing however that it's not a book for popular reading. A Level education and above, or self educated equivalent.

Go! Get it and luxuriate as I am doing. Oh what a feast indeed.


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