“The Mabinogi”

I’ve been rereading Matthew Francis’s “The Mabinogi”, which was published last year. It’s his verse rendering of the first four branches (books) of “The Mabinogion”, a mediaeval collection of Welsh, prose tales, themselves a transcription of much earlier oral myths. I’d read a library copy earlier in the year, but bought my own, because it’s a poem I’m sure I’ll return to and because I specifically wanted to read it a second time, having looked again at the original in an English translation I’ve had for years. (Like many people, I was introduced to “The Mabinogion” through “The White Goddess”, Robert Graves’ eccentric exploration of poetic myth and inspiration.)

As Francis says in his introduction, the narrative logic of the tales, with its digressions and ellipses, its reliance on magic and a dreamlike switching between this world and the otherworld (“Unland” in his version), is not like anything we are familiar with in modern fiction and he felt that the very aspects that made a prose treatment difficult could prove a strength for poetry. I confess that when I first read them all those years ago, I found the tales rather hard to take. By contrast, Francis’s treatment of them as poetry really was an eye-opener, prompting me to go back to the originals themselves and see them in a different light.

One of the strengths of Francis’s poem is the economy and deftness with which he builds up a narrative out of a series of elliptical episodes, helped by the use of marginal notes (like those in “The Ancient Mariner”, but more functional), so that the “problems” of the original become an integral part of the poem’s strategy. His version is much shorter than the original. Not only has he made cuts, but he has also changed the motivation of at least one of the characters to  tighten the overall structure. There are omissions you might regret. In my case, it was the episode in which the seven men taking the head of the giant, Bendigeidfran (just Brân in Francis’s version), from Ireland to London for burial spend fourscore years in a royal palace in Gwales (the island of Grassholm, west of Skomer) unageing and in a blissed-out state, until one of them opens the forbidden door looking out towards Cornwall and it all ends with what sounds like the biggest drugs comedown of all time.

Although he teaches at Aberystwyth University, Francis is neither a Welsh-speaker nor Welsh-born and has been accused of cultural appropriation in a recent review in “Poetry Wales”. The reviewer nevertheless admits that it works as poetry and recognises an author’s right to deal with his material in his own way. Although I am only half-Welsh, I don’t see there is a real problem here. There are many examples of poets translating in collaboration with linguists and/or using prose cribs and “The Mabinogi” is not really a translation at all, more a reimagining.

The main strength of the poem lies in its cumulative effect and although individual quotes can’t convey this, I should like to add a few to those picked out by the reviewer in “Poetry Wales”. Take Francis’s description of the giant, when he was alive, a Brân’s-eye view of the world:

… think of the vertigo of standing there
gazing from the parapet of self
he can never climb down from

or Pryderi’s wife and mother, waiting to greet him on his return:

…the two women smiling in the doorway,
all air and light, like unfurled beech leaves

or this description of the sound of a wheat field swishing in the night wind:

a ghostly presence outside, shifting
yet rooted, as if the wind
has been planted there.

When I first read the poem, I began to wonder if I hadn’t stumbled into some mysterious otherworld myself. That same week, The Guardian‘s “Country Diary” had an entry about the Stone of Gronw — a flat stone with a hole in it, Gronw’s ineffective body-armour against Lleu’s spear — and Melvin Bragg chose “The Mabinogion” as the topic for In Our Time on BBC Radio 4. One of his experts was Sioned Davies, whose translation Matthew Francis used in writing his poem. For my next foray into the strange world of “The Mabinogion”, I’ll want to use her version. It sounds more modern in every sense than my Everyman edition, first published in 1949, with its self-consciously antique “thees” and “thous”.


Last week, “The Guardian” website published an interview with Jonathan Crowther — the compiler of the Azed crossword, which appears in “The Observer” each week. The puzzle can seem intimidating, if you’re not used to it: the words are separated by lines rather than black squares and a lot of answers are archaic or dialect words (especially Scottish words, of which there are many in the recommended Chambers Dictionary). However, the clues work in the same way as for other cryptic crosswords and the layout of the grid allows more crosschecking of letters in the more obscure words — or “lexical slag”, as Kingsley Amis said in the context of a fictional game of “Call My Bluff”.

The fact that the crosswords are sometimes themed or the words subject to a further layer of de- or encoding before entry in the grid (e.g. missing letters, anagrams, Spoonerisms or Playfair squares) adds an extra challenge. Occasionally, just understanding the rubric can seem the most difficult part. (Puzzlers like words such as “rubric” — I could have said “instructions”.)

And then there’s the task of devising your own clue for a particular word in the monthly competition crossword. The names of the winners and “very highly commended” (VHC) entries are published in the paper along with the solution, but there’s more information on the & lit. website including Azed’s comments on the entries, details of winning and VHC clues and names of “highly commended” (HC) entries. There is also an archive of puzzles and competitors going back over decades. My own stats aren’t brilliant. Since taking up the puzzle again after I retired, I  have managed a number of HC’s and even a few VHC’s, but haven’t been placed in the top three. I console myself with the thought that a number of the competitors are crossword compilers themselves.

The most astonishing thing about these puzzles is that since the first one appeared in “The Observer” in 1926, there have been only three compilers: Torquemada, Ximenes and Azed. Torquemada, Edward Powys Mathers, was actually the inventor of the cryptic crossword. And he was a poet too: Carcanet publish “Black Marigolds & Coloured Stars”, a pairing of his first two books. I haven’t read it myself, but will look out for it now.


If anyone is interested, here are links to poems I have recently had published online.

“Con Moto” published in “Atrium Poetry”

“Diagnosis” and “Voicemail” posted by Against the Grain Poetry Press in their blog

“Musical Ear” published in “Ink Sweat & Tears”

“Your Funeral” published in “London Grip”

“Anomia”, “The Double” and “Still Life” published in “The Poetry Shed”

I am very grateful to the editors of these webzines and blogs for having posted my poems.