BLOG Reginald Francis

NWR Issue r19

Rewriting the Mabinogi: Matthew Francis

Matthew Francis is an award-winning poet and professor at Aberystwyth University. When he first came to live in Wales in 1999 he decided to surround himself with the literature of his new home, and it was then that he discovered the tales of the Mabinogi.

Originally told by the Ancient Britons through oral traditions, stories from the Mabinogi were written down for the first time in Welsh during the fourteenth century in Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch (the White Book of Rhydderch). Since then they have been translated into modern Welsh and English by a handful of dedicated scholars who rescued the stories from obscurity. Tales from the Mabinogion have been adapted for stage, made into an animated film and retold in prose set in contemporary times. Famous examples of these include The Owl Service by Alan Garner and Evangeline Walton’s The Mabinogion Tetralogy. Francis appears to be the first, however, to adapt the stories entirely into English-language poetic form. His book, The Mabinogi, is a lyrical unfolding of each tale, and cleverly interweaves one narrative into the next.

On 8 November, Francis gave a talk at the National Library of Wales to explain how he adapted one of the most ancient and influential texts in Europe. It was an editor at Faber and Faber who originally suggested the idea to the author, since Faber has had many successes with historical and mythological adaptations such as Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, Ted Hughes Ovid, Alice Oswald’s Memorial and Francis’ own adaptation of the writings of the fourteenth-century explorer, Sir John Mandeville (Mandeville). Francis accepted the challenge tentatively, with full awareness of the Mabinogi’s cultural significance as part of Welsh heritage and indeed European heritage.

One of his main challenges of adaptation was approaching the text itself. In his introduction, Francis describes the ‘narrative logic, with its digressions and ellipses’ as ‘nothing we are familiar with in modern fiction’. Since these stories originate in oral tradition, the narrative does not operate in the linear form of traditional prose. As a result, Francis decided to cut out some of the more obscure references and digressions in order for the story to flow.

These stories are also filled with moments of magic that can be difficult to dramatise. Francis deals with these complexities and ambiguities with subtle and effective use of imagery and sound. In the story of Pryderi and Gwydion, Francis describes the creation of Blodeuwedd from flowers through the magician’s narrative voice.

The air was golden with her pollen
as I heaped her on the bed
in frilly armfuls,

till a million petals fused
into a woman.

And finally, when Blodeuwedd is transformed into an owl, it reads;

The silence of her movements, for example,
as of many layers of softness
being ruffled by a breeze
that pale disc of face

a tap of my wand rearranged her
into the nightgown body
and hooks of an owl

from now on, she would blossom
only in the dark.

The material transformation of Blodeuwedd from flowers to woman to owl mirrors the dream-like movements of the stories themselves whose narratives can be read simultaneously as romance, tragedy or comedy. Like Pwyll, who in the first branch of the Mabinogi ‘rides through the space between one world and another,’ Francis carries the reader with ease through each story.

In addition to incorporating magical elements [referring back to pagan beliefs], the first published texts drew on their contemporaneous setting in early Medieval Wales. Francis' adaptation reflects the poet's background as an historical fiction writer (in contrast to adaptations such as Seren’s series New Stories from the Mabinogion), particularly in his choice against giving the stories a contemporary setting. Francis described his enjoyable and detailed research: ‘I spent a happy amount of time on the internet learning how to make saddles and shoes which was enormous fun.’ This material groundedness comes through in moments such as in the second branch, when Francis describes the keeping of horses:

What is a man without horses? He’s brought his with him.
at every stable they are towelled and burnished,
honored with the heaped hay of the trough
by their grooms from home, then left
to their stiff-legged sleep.

The same effect is achieved in the first branch when Pwyll arrives at Arawn’s palace:

This clattering place must be home, these men hurrying
from the stables, his horse’s joyful headshake,
their welcoming words, dungsmell, strawsmell,
cold air seasoned with woodsmoke
and roasting hoggett.

Such immediate physical detail immerses the reader in a world that is both magical and corporeal. The reader is in another time, in a world that does not operate according to our logic and yet these moments of physical and practical reality allow us to associate ourselves with the characters’ experience.

Compared to the legends of King Arthur, the Mabinogi has not received as much attention on a global scale. Its entertainment value, historical insight and humanity, however, make it equally as capable as the Arthurian legends (which of course originated from the tales) to spark the public’s imagination. Francis’ contribution will stand out among the ranks of Mabinogi literature as the first to be written in fully poetic form in English, and to making both Welsh-language literature and the very source of the European Arthurian tradition more accessible to the wider world.

Reginald Francis is studying for an MA in Literary Studies at Aberystwyth University’s Department of English and Creative Writing.


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