An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

September 28, 2022

Glyn: Pumed Gainc y Mabinogi

Peredur Glyn, Pumed Gainc y Mabinogi (Talybont, Y Lolfa: 2022).

Reviewed by Simon Rodway (

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, a collection of four medieval Welsh tales set in an imagined pre-Roman British past, have been a fruitful source of material for modern writers, both in Welsh and in English. They have inspired High Fantasy romps such as American author Lloyd Alexander’s children’s classic Chronicles of Prydain from the 1960s or the recent highly enjoyable Welsh-language Manawydan Jones by Alun Davies, also aimed at children. Other authors have transposed the characters and plot-lines to the modern world, notably Seren Press’s series New Stories from the Mabinogion, or the wonderful recent collection in Welsh Hen Chwedlau Newydd (‘New Old Tales’) which gives us powerful new perspectives on the stories of women from the Four Branches and other medieval texts by some of the best modern Welsh writers, including Angharad Tomos, Bethan Gwanas, Lleucu Roberts and Manon Steffan Ros. Similarly, the authors who contributed to The Mab, reimaginings of the stories for children, recently reviewed by Donna R. White for Medievally Speaking, update the texts for a modern audience, with mixed results.

A recurring approach is to treat the stories as garbled myths whose protagonists are, in origin, pre-Christian gods. This has its genesis in scholarship from the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, influenced by comparative mythologists such as Max Müller, and taking its cue from the infamous pronouncement by Matthew Arnold in 1865:

The very first thing that strikes one, in reading the Mabinogion, is how evidently the mediæval story-teller is pillaging an antiquity of which he does not fully possess the secret; he is like a peasant building his hut on the site of Halicarnassus or Ephesus; he builds, but what he builds is full of materials of which he does not know the history, or knows by a glimmering tradition merely; ‑ stones ‘not of this building’, but of an older architecture, greater, cunninger, more majestical.

Celtic scholars including John Rhys, Edward Anwyl, J. A. McCulloch and W. J. Gruffydd exercised both their formidable erudition and their lively imagination in rebuilding a Celtic Halicarnassus from the peasants’ rubble and in reinstating the characters in their rightful place in a putative pan-Celtic pantheon. Unfortunately, while comparative linguists can use observable sound laws to recreate hypothetical linguistic forms in a scientific fashion, working backwards from, say, Rhiannon to *Rigantonā, comparative mythology is a far less methodologically rigorous field ‑ needless to say no two reconstructions of the Four Branches by modern scholars look the same.

Other academics, including Saunders Lewis, John Bollard, Sioned Davies and Catherine McKenna, have eschewed such reconstruction and have shown that the tales as they stand are anything but peasants’ huts. Instead, they are carefully crafted literary works, reflecting the social and legal reality of medieval Wales. Indeed, while some of the characters bear names which may have been applied to pre-Christian deities (Lleu, cognate with Gaulish Lugus being the clearest example), there is no good reason to assume that the medieval stories about them preserve any sort of mythology. Nonetheless, the mythological approach has retained vitality at a popular level, and it is probably safe to say that the majority of those who have heard of the Mabinogi at all think of it as ‘Celtic mythology’ rather than ‘Welsh literature’. While modern scholars may disagree, there is no doubt that creative treatment of the Mabinogi as mythology has resulted in some very effective literature. To cite but one example, in the extraordinary 2017 novel Dadeni (‘Rebirth’) by Ifan Morgan Jones, the Mabinogi characters are indeed deities, but, like in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, they are weakened by the loss of belief and trapped on the mortal plane. Wildly inventive but at the same time firmly grounded in contemporary Wales, this book manages to combine nuanced social and political commentary with a breathless supernatural adventure reminiscent of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Indiana Jones.

Peredur Glyn’s Welsh-language Pumed Gainc y Mabinogi (‘Fifth Branch of the Mabinogi’) presents us with a far more terrifying species of god altogether. It is a collection of loosely connected short stories firmly rooted in the tradition of ‘Cosmic Horror’ popularized by the American writer H. P. Lovecraft. The debt to Lovecraft is explicitly dealt with in an afterword, to which we shall return. This is not the first time that Lovecraft and medieval Celtic-language literature have collided: these are two of the principal sources for Pat Mills’s tales of the ‘Celtic berserker’ [sic!] Sláine, featured in the weekly comic 2000 AD. But while the latter is an almighty mess, Pumed Gainc y Mabinogi is a triumph of deliciously creepy ‘less-is-more’ storytelling. The stories stand on their own, but, as in Lovecraft’s fiction and, indeed, the Four Branches themselves, common threads can be discerned in them, not least the lurking presence of the titular Fifth Branch of the Mabinogi, a disturbing and ancient manuscript, like and yet unlike the familiar Four Branches. The similarity to Lovecraft’s creepy tome the Necronomicon is clear. The beings that we glimpse in Peredur Glyn’s work are, like Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, Nyarlothotep etc., huge and extraterrestrial, with no regard for puny human existence. The realization of the vastness, incomprehensibility and indifference of the cosmos is often enough to upset the protagonists’ minds into madness. The prose also invokes that of Lovecraft, without quite tipping into pastiche. Peredur Glyn is a highly skilled writer, and his invocation of a familiar contemporary Wales beneath which lurks the unspeakable is chillingly effective. His homage to Lovecraft is at its most obvious in stories such as ‘Plant Llŷr’ (‘the Children of Llŷr’), whose underwater city with its impossible architecture is a clear nod to the monstrous worlds of ‘Dagon’ and ‘The Call of Cthulhu’.

‘Rigantona’ offers a straight alternative version of the First Branch narrative of Pwyll and Rhiannon, owing an obvious debt to ‘reconstructions’ by W. J. Gruffydd and others. On the whole, however, the references to the Four Branches are subtle: it is very likely that the stories could be enjoyed without any understanding of the source material. To those in the know, however, these startlingly fresh takes on familiar narratives, like the gruesome riff on the foal-snatching episode of Pwyll in ‘Cysgod y Grafanc’ (‘the Shadow of the Claw’), are a delight. It is particularly refreshing to see, in ‘Juvencus’, the ‘Battle of the Trees’ motif wrenched from the clutches of New Age Robert Graves acolytes and transformed into an adrenaline-filled action sequence, reminiscent of the film Predator, in which soldiers are dispatched one by one by a mysterious and deadly foe. The title of this story is an ‘Easter egg’ for scholars of medieval Welsh literature: ‘Juvencus’, the code-name for the soldiers’ mission, while never explained, is a reference to the Cambridge Juvencus manuscript, which contains the earliest recorded Welsh poetry. The narrative twist in ‘Lleu’ is shocking, all the more so for its modern resonances.

In one respect, Peredur Glyn’s work is very different from that of Lovecraft. Lovecraft expressed an explicit racism in much of his writing which leaves a very bad taste. It is of a different degree entirely to any discomfort which a modern reader might experience at, say, Tolkien’s descriptions of dark-skinned Orcs or C. S. Lewis’s Orientalist caricature Calormenes. Peredur Glyn addresses this head on in his afterword ‘Arswyd Cosmig ac etifeddiaeth H. P. Lovecraft’ (‘Cosmic Horror and the legacy of H. P. Lovecraft’). In this he carefully unravels Lovecraft’s personal xenophobia and racism from the powerful ‘fear of the unknown’ motif which he articulated so eloquently in his writing. He makes a strong case for reclaiming Cosmic Horror for all. While it is not always clear who Peredur Glyn’s first-person narrators are in this volume, he certainly moves beyond Lovecraft’s middle-class straight white men. All in all, this is a highly recommended collection, which steps confidently out of the shadow of its sources, and pushes Mabinogi-inspired fiction in a new and interesting direction.

Simon Rodway

Prifysgol Aberystwyth / Aberystwyth University