The Mabinogion Arthur

This site represents part of a larger body of work involving the translation and analysis of the Arthurian texts from the Mabinogion collection. The full scope of this project, to be covered across a number of forthcoming online and print publications, will include the following:

  • A literary history of the pre-Galfredian Arthurian complex, AD 600-1100
  • A full translation (with detailed notes) of the text of Culhwch ac Olwen
  • A discussion of the socio-historical circumstances surrounding the transmission of Arthurian narrative lore into the Anglo-Norman and Continental milieux, and their subsequent 're-importation' in the form of the Three Romances.
  • A full translation (with detailed notes) of the texts of each of the so-called Three Romances, i.e. Owain, Geraint and Peredur

Culhwch ac Olwen and the Native Arthur

It is my aim to publish first volume of this study (which will include the translation given on this site, as well as the literary-historical survey of the pre-Norman Arthur) towards the end of 2017. As will be clear from the notes that accompany this translation, I have tended to regard the earliest stratum of the native Arthurian tradition as originating in a North British context, with this original core accumulating extraneous local materials in the course of its southward transmission through the Irish Sea region. Culhwch ac Olwen represents the culmination of this native Arthurian tradition, and bears witness its rich communicational background.

Following the conclusions of Simon Rodway (2005), I have assumed a mid- to late-twelfth century context for this syncretic composition. By this time, the Arthurian complex had found its centre of gravity in the Southern Brythonic world, infusing itself with the hagiography and landscape lore of south-east Wales, Brittany and the West Country. Evidence of these regional traditions are apparent in Culhwch ac Olwen, where we can also find traces of the earlier stratum: with reference to persons and places in Strathclyde, Dál Riada, Pictland and north-east Ireland appearing throughout the text.

The cluster of local references around the Carmarthenshire/Brecon Beacons region strongly suggest this was an important gathering point for these various strands of Arthurian tradition, which was by this time also thriving on the oxygen of Anglo-Norman patronage. It is not improbable that this acclaimed prose-drama might have been performed at the royal court of Dinefwr (or even at the 'first eisteddfod' at Cardigan in 1176) before being preserved in vellum and ink, presumably at a monastic scriptorium somewhere in south-west Wales. It seems likely that a fairly close descendant of this original text would have been the common source of the two extant texts found on columns 452-488 of the White Book of Rhydderch (c. 1350) and 810-844 of the Red Book of Hergest (c. 1400).

About this translation

The translation given here follows the edition of Culhwch ac Olwen produced by Bromwich and Evans (CO), which itself is drawn from the text of the White Book of Rhydderch (W) up until the point where the latter breaks off, towards the end of the Wrnach Gawr episode. (The precise point is indicated by a [*] in the translation text.) Thereafter, the text of the Red Book (R) is followed.

My general practice has been to keep the translation as plain and literal as possible without doing unnecessary violence to the stylistic norms and idiomatic structures of modern English. A precise equivilance is not always possible, however, and where a looser translation has been necessary or desirable, I have explained these departures in the accompanying footnotes. Translation, as Umberto Eco once suggested, requires the support of the encylopedia as much as the dictionary or the grammar. No-one has yet written a comprehensive encylcopedia of native Welsh culture in the mid-twelfth century, and I have tried to compensate for this absence with further footnotes - clarifying contingent points of context (e.g. narrative allusions, socio-cultural practices, contemporary geopolitical circumstances) as more specifically paleographic, semantic or grammatical problems. I have provided a select bibliography of the various resources (grammars, dictionaries, scholarly discussions and primary resources) that have been referenced in these notes, which I hope will be useful and interesting for the general reader as well the specialist.

One of the more problematic decisions for any translator of Culhwch ac Olwen is how to render the (often) richly-suggestive personal names and their associated epithets. Here, in contrast to the Jones and Jones translation (where the epithets are frequently translated) I have followed Sioned Davies's injunction to preserve the 'accoustic dimension', which might be regarded as key to the heightened quality of a sequence such as the Court List recital. I have thus left both names and most epithets untranslated, presenting them (as did Davies and Ford) in a modernised Welsh orthography. While a translation of the names of these prodigies has thus by necessity been confined to the footnotes, these are nonetheless worth consulting in order to fully appreciate this colourful parade of grotesques. It is in these very moments of cartoonish excess that we arguably come closest to the emotional essence of the work.

Culhwch ac Olwen, even across the gap of the centuries, preserves much of the vitality of an oral performance. The work of Sioned Davies, Sarah Sheehan and Joan Radner in particular (see bibliography) has been instrumental in drawing attention to the dramatic, carnivalesque 'voice' of this text - qualities I have tried to capture as much as possible in this translation.