The tales in the Mabinogion were actually a series of stories that were passed down over the centuries from storytellers until someone decided to put them all together around the twelfth century. Its contents draw upon the myths, legends, and history of Celtic Britain: four branches of a storyline set largely within the confines of Wales and the otherworld.
Compiled from texts found in two late-medieval manuscripts – the Red Book of Hergest and the White Book of Rhydderch – this collection was initially edited and translated by antiquarians William Pughe and Lady Charlotte Guest in the early nineteenth century. The tales comprise an ensemble of parts, the first four “Pwyll”, “Branwen”, “Manawydan”, and “Math” comprising the Four Branches of the Mabinogion.
Lady Charlotte came up with the title Mabinogion. Each of the Four Branches ends with the term ‘So ends this Branch of the Mabinogi.’ The Welsh word ‘mab’ means ‘son’. Lady Charlotte concluded that ‘mabinogi’ was a noun meaning ‘a story for children’ and that the word ‘mabinogion’ was its plural.
Most versions of the book consist of eleven tales: four connected narratives called The Four Branches of the Mabinogion, The Four Native Tales, and The Three Romances.Hanes Taliesin (“The Tale of Taliesin”) is a later survival, not present in the Red or White Books, and is omitted from recent translations. In chronological order, the texts are as follows:
Culhwch and Olwen (c.1100) (Native tale)
The Four Branches of the Mabinogion (c.1190)
Pwyll Prince of Dyfed
Branwen Daughter of Llyr
Manawydan Son of Llyr
Math Son of Mathonwy
The Four Branches are the most mythological of the tales.
Lludd and Llyfelys (c.1200-1250) (Native tale)
The Three Romances(c.1200-1250)
The Lady of the Fountain
Peredur son of Efrawg
Geraint son of Erbin
The Three Romance tales are Welsh versions of Arthurian tales that also appear in the work of Chrétien de Troyes. Scholars have long debated whether the Three Romances are based on Chrétien’s poems or if they derive from a shared original. The Welsh stories are not direct translations and include material not found in Chrétien’s work.
The Dream of Macsen Wledig (c.1200-1250)
The Dream of Rhonabwy (c. 1300-1350)
The Mabinogion is generally recognised to be one of the oldest and most complete repositories of British Celtic Myth, as well as a masterpiece of medieval story-telling in its own right.