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”.