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

July 27, 2022

Brown and Williams: The Mab: Eleven Epic Stories from the Mabinogi

Matt Brown and Eloise Williams, eds., The Mab: Eleven Epic Stories from the Mabinogi. Illustrated by Max Low, translated into Welsh by Bethan Gwanas. London: Unbound, 2022.

Reviewed by: Donna R. White (

The Mab announces itself as a collection of retellings for young readers, but it would be more accurate to call it an adaptation of the medieval Welsh tales rather than retellings. Telling a story again may introduce changes but does not necessitate them, whereas adaptation requires change. According to Linda Hutcheon’s A Theory of Adaptation (2nd ed., Routledge, 2013), an adaptation is a re-visioning based on alterations to its sources. All adaptations, says Hutcheon, are made in a “creative as well as an interpretive context that is ideological, social, historical, cultural, personal, and aesthetic” (p. 109), and a new interpretive context mandates change. Like its source, in other words, an adaptation is a work of a particular time and place. In the case of The Mab, a twenty-first century iteration of tales first written down in the twelfth or thirteenth century, the changes incorporate a shift of genre, context, audience, tone, point of view, characterization, theme, and ideology.

The Mab is not the first children’s version of the eleven medieval Welsh tales known collectively as the Mabinogion. That honor goes to Sidney Lanier’s The Boy’s Mabinogion (1881), a highly bowdlerized edition of Lady Charlotte Guest’s English translation (1838-1849). Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, dozens of children’s books included retellings of one or more of the stories. The tales were first translated into English by Lady Charlotte Guest, who was considerably more capable than native Welsh scholars have suggested. (For a discussion of the many literary crimes these mostly male Welsh academics have accused Lady Charlotte of perpetrating, see my essays “The Crimes of Lady Charlotte Guest,” Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 15, Harvard University, 1995, pp. 242-49 and “The Further Crimes of Lady Charlotte Guest,” Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 17, Harvard University, 1996, pp. 157-66.) Four of the medieval tales are clearly linked by recurring characters, plot references, and a formulaic ending: “And , so ends this branch of the Mabinogi” (Sioned Davies, ed., The Mabinogion, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 46). These four tales comprise the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, and the other seven are a hodgepodge of early and late Arthurian tales, dream visions, and pseudo history—all collected and written down by different scribes in different decades. The only commonalities among the eleven stories are that they are all Welsh tales and that scribes bound parts of them together in several different medieval manuscripts, most notably two romantic-sounding 14th-century manuscripts known as The White Book of Rhydderch and The Red Book of Hergest. Lady Charlotte dubbed her translation The Mabinogion because of an error at the end of the First Branch in one medieval manuscript; the scribe mistakenly wrote “mabinogion” instead of “mabinogi,” and Lady Charlotte assumed the former was the plural form. The popularity of her translation ensured that the name became permanent. Modern Welsh scholars tend to use the word “mabinogi” to refer only to the Four Branches and “mabinogion” to refer to the entire collection of stories. The adaptors of The Mab ignore the word “mabinogion” entirely and refer to the collection as a whole as the Mabinogi, which misleadingly suggests that all the stories are closely related to one another. However, only the most nitpicky of Welsh scholars would quibble over this usage.

As an adaptation, The Mab is a creative act of reinterpretation, and the eleven children’s writers who have tackled this version of the Mabinogion have reinterpreted their chosen tales in a variety of ways. This approach is in keeping with the medieval manuscripts in that, as Welsh professor Sioned Davies tells us, the original tales “vary as regards date, authorship, sources, content, structure, and style” (Davies, p. x). Since the source material is itself varied, it is appropriate for the modern writers to approach storytelling in idiosyncratic ways. They all strive to maintain language and content suitable for children aged 9-12, but each writer has a distinctive style.

Because each story has a different author, the tone, theme, point of view, and characterization differ from one story to the next. Matt Brown’s “Rhiannon, Pwyll and the Hideous Claw: A Retelling of the First Branch of the Mabinogi” has a lightly humorous tone with a running gag about trousers, while Sophie Anderson’s “Branwen and the Cauldron of Rebirth: A Retelling of the Second Branch of the Mabinogi” evokes a poetic melancholy while belaboring the power of love—very different from the action adventure of its source. The most extreme character changes occur in Nicole Davies’s “Happily Ever After: A Retelling of the Third Branch of the Mabinogi.” The original tale focuses on the wisdom, intelligence, and perseverance of Manawydan, a Welsh prince. Davies transfers most of his qualities to Cigfa, her first-person narrator, who is Manawydan’s daughter-in-law. In the medieval tale, Cigfa epitomizes the wet blanket cliché: she is fearful, and she whines and complains about everything. Davies turns her into a strong woman capable of agency while Manawydan becomes a bit of a wimp. Davies adds feminist ideology that fits uncomfortably in its medieval setting. Perhaps I am being unfair to Davies, however, because Manawydan is my favorite character in the Mabinogion. He’s a quiet, capable man who always figures out what to do, and I don’t like to see him emasculated.

Although we have no way of knowing how the tales were originally told, the sexual content of the medieval manuscripts suggests an adult audience. To make the stories suitable for modern children, the adaptors of The Mab have omitted a lot of material. Bowdlerization is a standard practice when adapting material for children, although Gwyn Thomas and Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Tales from the Mabinogion, an illustrated children’s book published in 1984, is astonishingly blunt about the sexual content of its source material. Society seems to have become more prudish since 1984. Nobody finds rape and incest suitable topics for a contemporary children’s story, so The Mab does not include the rape of Goewin in the Fourth Branch or the subsequent punishment of the rapist and his brother (transformed into male and female animals and forced to mate with each other). Only selected portions of each tale are included, and most of the familial links are left out. Family relationships are particularly obscure in Eloise Williams’s “Meadowsweet and Magic: A Retelling of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi,” despite the fact that relationships between uncles and nephews are the foundation of the Fourth Branch. Readers of Williams’s story do not realize that in the original tale the wizard Gwydion helps Lleu because Lleu is his nephew and Gwydion has raised him from birth. In Williams’s version, Lleu’s random wish finds its way to Gwydion, who grants the wish simply because he has time on his hands.

Each contributor of The Mab focuses on a single episode in his or her selected tale, an appropriate approach to converting long, meandering medieval tales into modern short stories for children. The Four Branches, which are episodic in the original, fare better than the other tales in this respect. Most of the other stories seem to end abruptly in the middle of the tale, particularly the three French-influenced Arthurian tales. The retelling of “Culhwch and Olwen,” the most Welsh of the Arthurian tales, works better because, like the Four Branches, it is already episodic in structure. Claire Fayers’s “The Strange and Spectacular Dream of Rhonabwy the Restless: A Retelling of the Dream of Rhonabwy” works as a complete story only by drastic manipulation of the source.

The least successful stories in The Mab are the retellings of the three French-influenced Arthurian tales about the knights Peredur, Owain, and Geraint; “The Dream of the Emperor Maxen”; and “Lludd and Llefelys.” In the case of “Lludd and Llefelys,” Zillah Bethel’s present-tense reinterpretation of the story creates a mystical tone that turns the straightforward original into a set of choppy, confusing scenes that culminate in a moral lesson for King Lludd. The other stories suffer from abrupt endings that make it clear the writers are only telling part of the story. All these stories lack the background context that is provided in their sources.

Although the stories in The Mab differ greatly from their medieval sources, they retain the Welsh names, which Anglophone readers may find difficult, thus requiring a pronunciation guide at the end of the book, and the writers tell lively, PG-rated stories. According to Hutcheon, adaptations have to work both for knowing audiences and for audiences that are unfamiliar with the original sources. The Mab works best for an unfamiliar audience that does not get bogged down in fidelity discourse. Max Low’s illustrations are colorful and slightly cartoonish, and they complement the tales nicely. One of the outstanding features of The Mab is that it is bilingual: each story is followed immediately by a modern Welsh translation. The Welsh people put a lot of effort into keeping their native language alive, so I’m glad to see the editors provide Welsh versions of these native Welsh tales. Some schools in Wales provide instruction via the Welsh language, so Welsh-speaking children will appreciate reading their native tales in their native tongue.

Donna R. White

Arkansas Tech University


June 20, 2022

The Adventures of Maid Marian


Bill Thomas’s The Adventures of Maid Marian


Reviewed by Kevin J. Harty

La Salle University


Poor Maid Marian and her sisters!  When left to their own devices, neither film nor television generally knows what to do with them.  The one exception has been the Tony Robinson BBC children’s comedy series Maid Marian and Her Merry Men (1989-1994).  The series reduced Robin Hood to an over-the-top foppish former tailor whose contribution to Sherwood lore is to coordinate the Lincoln green colors of the outfits for the Merry Men with those of the forest, so that the outlaws can more easily blend into the scenery.  In the admittedly zany series, the real brains behind the Sherwood outlaws are Marian’s.  The Marian character in Cybil Richards’s 2000 mildly pornographic film Virgins of Sherwood Forest is a twentieth-century film director who is knocked on the head and wakes up à la Twain in twelfth-century England.  She gets no respect in either century, but she does at least get the best line in the film.  Exiting Sherwood after a tryst with one of the merrier of the Merry Men, she deadpans, “So, why do they call you little, John?”  Keira Knightley tried her hand at being Robin Hood’s decidedly independent daughter only to resort to gendered stereotype and don a wedding dress at the end of the 2001 Disney made-for-television film Princess of Thieves. In the BBC series Robin Hood (2006-2009), Lucy Griffiths’ Maid Marian, disguised as the Night Watchman, outdid the eponymous hero with her nocturnal exploits against the Sherriff—at least until she was killed off early in the series. One yearns for the solid, dependable Marians of old—Enid Bennett, Olivia de Havilland, and Audrey Hepburn—who stood by their men careful not to upstage them, at least not too often.  The latest film Marian, Sophie-Louise Craig, in Bill Thomas’s direct-to-streaming 2022 The Adventures of Maid Marian could use some help blending into the scenery.

The film opens with a series of title cards telling us exactly where we are in this version of the oft-told tale of Robin Hood. Three years ago, Prince John, serving as King Regent, had levelled crippling taxes on the people in the absence of his brother, King Richard the Lionheart.  In the North, however, Robin Hood and Marian Fitzwater stood against John, exposing in the process the corruption of the Sheriff of Nottingham, William de Wendenal.  King Richard rewarded Robin and Marian for their bravery,


Sophie-Louise Craig as the title character in The Adventures of Maid Marian


commanding that Robin join him to fight in the Crusades to liberate Jerusalem and the rest of the Holy Land, and sending de Wendenal into exile.  Absent Robin, Marian and Sherwood are left unprotected, but anyone with a conscience cannot sit idly by and do nothing.  Marian hides out in Kirklees Priory disguised as a novice, Sister Matilda.  Marian, however, makes a poor novice (“How do you solve a problem like Matilda?”), not least because she receives regular love letters from Robin and sneaks about at night disguised as Robin to help the poor. The poor, by the way, are scarcely to be seen in the film—which is probably a good thing. No one in the film seems to have any time to rob from the rich, so there is nothing to give to the poor.

            Three years pass, and the Crusade ends.  Robin is back home, but, alas, Richard is dead in France, and de Wendenal is also back in England seeking revenge on Robin and the restoration of his title and lands.  As he clumsily attempts to do carry out his revenge, de Wendenal is aided in no small part by the Prioress of Kirklees, Sister Elizabeth, his cousin no less, who is intent upon punishing Robin for sullying her family name.  Equally corrupt, is Abbot Eustace, who is being blackmailed to aid de Wendenal, lest his past unsavory deeds be made public. Other minions of de Wendenal include a sniveling Guy of Guisborne [sic] and the double-crossing Warden of Sherwood, who at the end of the film is named new Sheriff of Nottingham by Prince, now King, John.

            Bill Thomas likes to advance the action of his film by inserting endless overhead shots of Sherwood—his cameraman is like a kid with a new toy drone—and by repeating scenes.  Thus, Marian is attacked and tied up twice.  Marian must twice run up the incredibly steep hill that the Priory rests on.  There are, at one point, two Sheriffs of Nottingham, the exiled de Wendenal and Baron William de Lech, who is assassinated by a second woman archer disguised as Robin Hood.  Robin himself is twice shot in the back, once with an arrow loosed from a crossbow and once with a spear launched from a ballista.  Guisborne produces several ballistae on a moment’s notice to attack a wooden shack in which Robin and Marian are unsuccessfully trying to hide, and somehow Robin manages to survive both wounds.

            The ballistae are not the only weapons in de Wendenal’s armory.  Each of his men is armed with a Morgenstern, and they all wear helmets modeled after that found in the Sutton Ho treasure trove. Marian is, though, a match for any man she meets whether she is armed with long bow, crossbow, axe, staff, or sword.  She even sheds her outfit of Lincoln green for a full suit of chain mail, eventually

Dominic Andersen as a decidedly second-fiddle Robin Hood in

The Adventures of Maid Marian


killing de Wendenal in a duel.  The twice-wounded Robin barely gets to fight at all.  Indeed, in the film, his initial interest lies in leaving England almost as soon as he arrives back home to become a pig farmer in France where Richard has deeded him some land. 

There is much talk in the film of the famed deeds of Robin Hood and his Merry Men—only Little John and Friar Tuck appear briefly in the film—but there is little in Dominic Andersen’s portrayal of Robin to suggest he is really a match for the legend that has grown up around the Wolfshead, as Robin is repeatedly referred to in the film.  Indeed, Andersen seems to have arrived back in England from boyband practice rather than from France, and he looks ten, if not fifteen, years younger than Marian, who is always rescuing him from danger.  Not that she gets much respect for doing so.  When Tuck attempts to come to Marian’s aid, he is admonished not to do so by Abbot Eustache who quotes 1 Timothy 2:12 to justify their abandoning Marian: “Do not permit a woman to exercise authority over a man.”

The Adventures of Maid Marian is mercifully short, and does nothing to burnish Marian’s screen reputation, instead reducing her to a twelfth-century cougar in hot pursuit of a much younger, pouty-lipped boyfriend.  Marian may be plucky, but to no real end.  Bill Thomas does have the temerity to end his film on a note that suggests there will be one or more sequels.  Such a note was struck both by Guy Ritchie at the of his 2017 King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and by Otto Bathurst at the end of his 2018 Robin Hood.  So far, we have been spared the sequel or the franchise for either.  I suspect the same will be true for poor Marian in The Adventures of Maid Marian.

The Adventures of Maid Marian, directed by Bill Thomas, Signature Entertainment and Picture Perfect Productions, with Sophie-Louise Craig as Marian, Dominic Andersen as Robin Hood, James Groom as King John, Bob Cryer as the Sheriff of Nottingham, Jon Lee Pellet as Little John, Harry Harrold as Friar Tuck, Adam Benwell as Guy of Guisborne, Jennifer Matter as Prioress Elizabeth, Roland Stone as Abbott Eustace, Gerard Cooke as the Warden of Sherwood, Danny Husbands as William de Lech, Kitty Dobson as the Second Woman Disguised as Robin Hood, and Robin Gould as King Richard the Lionheart (whose actual onscreen appearance seems to have ended up on the cutting room floor). Running time: 1:22. Released straight to digital platforms on 6 May 2022 in the US and on 9 May 2022 in the UK.

May 20, 2022

Naismith, Ní Mhaonaigh, and Rowe: Writing Battles

Rory Naismith, Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, and Elizabeth Ashman Rowe, eds., Writing Battles: New Perspectives on Warfare and Memory in Medieval Europe. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021.

Reviewed by: Craig M. Nakashian

This edited volume fits nicely into Medievally Speaking’s mission to encourage “critical engagement with the continuing process of inventing the Middle Ages” in that it discusses how medieval people themselves invented and reimagined the world around them. The act of remembering battles was fundamentally a creative one, an effort to memorialize and shape the perception of historical events both for posterity and contemporary utility.

The volume includes ten scholarly articles, in addition to the introduction and afterword, and covers a wide array of examples from how contemporaries saw the role of London in combat to how Mel Gibson has shaped our understanding of a medieval melee. The articles were inspired by the “slew” of conferences that were sponsored by the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at the University of Cambridge to commemorate major battles in the 2010s. The volume primarily “showcases” some of the papers presented at those conferences, expanded and developed into articles.

One of the central themes of the volume is the “timelessness of warfare as a structuring element in both society and memory.” (1) The editors note that there are “striking continuities” in how battles are remembered, memorialized, and understood by contemporaries and later observers. Battles were often seen as “key markers in the course of history” and were woven into collective memories, nostalgia, and cultural historical imagination. (1)

The introduction itself is a brief, but highly effective, overview of the chapter contents and the central themes of the volume. Instead of discrete paragraphs discussing each chapter, the editors offer a discussion that links themes running through each contribution and ties them together. They also highlight continuities in methods and conceptual frameworks. This is a very useful approach to a volume such as this, though it benefits from the fact that the geographical range of the volume is limited to Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia (despite the subtitle of “Medieval Europe”). Either way, the introduction, while only running to four printed pages is among the best scholarly introductions to an edited volume that I have seen. With that said, I will proceed to review the book in discrete paragraphs.

Robert Bartlett kicks off the volume with an article covering one of the most basic aspects of memorializing a battle - how do you go about naming it? One of the examples that Bartlett cites is near and dear to my own memory growing up as an American Civil War buff - the United States named major battles in that war according to the nearest river or stream (Bull Run, Stone’s River, Antietam, etc.) whereas the Confederates named them according to the nearest town (Manassas, Murfreesboro, Sharpsburg, etc.). For later medieval conflicts, Bartlett points out the crucial role played by heralds (memorialized by Shakespeare’s Henry V). He also considers the grammatical forms and etymological realities of how battle names developed. His presentation is lively, vibrant, and suffused with humor throughout. His conclusion forwards the psychological impulse to name a battle at all as a mechanism to create “a simple and solid event from the mess.” (20)

Jenny Benham shifts the focus a bit and considers the role of battle in efforts to create peace. Her approach examines battle narratives to see how they were situated in a Roman-inspired “just war” paradigm and she demonstrates how the portrayal of battles was often shaped in order to promote their role in achieving peace. Peace was the ultimate purpose of war in this conception and it could be achieved by victory in battle and war (provided they were justified). Observers also often saw two mechanisms of peace strategies - mediation and arbitration - which Benham does an excellent job unpacking and examining.

Matthew Strickland’s article – “‘Undying glory by the sword’s edge’: Writing and remembering battle in Anglo-Saxon England” - looks at the commemoration and memory of Anglo-Saxon battles prior to Hastings. His fundamental question was why certain battles were commemorated whereas others were largely forgotten. He shows how much our reliance on chance survivals of evidence - he uses the wonderful epic poem The Battle of Maldon as his prime example - have shaped our understanding of the cultural perception of battle and war in Anglo-Saxon society. He asks (and argues) whether “the laconic annals recording battle in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle were intended merely as an aide memoire, implying access to fuller oral accounts and poems (whether legendary or more contemporary).” (48) The implication is that the answer was a strong affirmative.

The following three articles come from the volume’s editors. The first is Rory Naismith’s “Fortress London: War and the making of an Anglo-Saxon city”. Naismith argues that war made London into the de facto capital of England by the eleventh century (despite Winchester’s historical claim to centrality). He examines London’s military role in three phases - the most important of which was against the Vikings in the 900s. Naismith also unpacks a great deal of how London was imagined in various phases, focusing on the relevance and scope of the various names given to it over the period(s) - Lundenwic, Londinium, Lundenceaster, and Lundenburg.

Elizabeth Ashman Rowe moves the action northward with her article “‘Axe-age, sword-age’: Writing battles in Viking Age and medieval Scandinavia”. She surveys the available evidence for writing about battles, and she wisely adopts a broad approach that includes poetry and sagas to supplement runic inscriptions and manuscript evidence. She examines evidence across a broad temporal swath as well, from early medieval runic writing up through the writings of the thirteenth century author Snorri Sturluson. She focuses on the cultural purpose of narrating battles, and argues that in addition to the political and religious purposes in battle memory, we must also account for their role in establishing fame and reputation amongst warriors.

The final article from one of the volume’s editors is Máire Ní Mhaonaigh’s “Medieval Irish battle narratives and the construction of the past” wherein she examines Irish battle-writing from the late eighth to early twelfth centuries. She shows how medieval Irish writers, much like writers in other medieval societies, used a glorious, imagined past to presage a strong and vibrant present (and future); in the case of medieval Ireland the imagined past was linked to the legend of Troy (as it was in many other medieval societies). The Irish used both Classical traditions as well as Biblical ones to fit themselves into the cultural narrative of history. She shows how the narratives of battle memories were designed to illuminate and support the ideology and ambition of the elites who consumed them, even if the details of particular engagements were less than trustworthy.

Natalia I. Petrovskaia broadens the discussion even further with her article, “Which ‘pagans’?: The influence of crusades on battle narratives in Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia”. In it, she engages with how modern audiences envision the Middle Ages and how medieval peoples understood those whom they saw as quite different from themselves. Much of her discussion swirls around the use of the term “Saracen”, which she shows to be an ubiquitous way of referring to essentially any non-Christian population. She sees this lumping together of non-Christian populations as a mechanism of establishing Christian unity. She ends with a reminder that our modern theories of self-identification are useful lenses through which to approach the medieval past, but that ultimately we should focus on the theoretical frameworks that they themselves utilized, often derived from the teachings of the fifth century theologian Orosius, the translatio imperii, and synchronicity to align historical memory with emotionally-memorable contemporary events.

The three editors then team up for a joint article that examines the battle of Stamford Bridge (1066) in which King Harold Godwineson of England defeated an army led by King Harald of Norway and his own brother Tostig. They give accounts of the battle found in four separate languages (English, Latin, Old Norse, and Irish) ranging in period from near-contemporaries (such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Irish poet Gilla Cóemáin) to the early thirteenth century writings of Snorri Sturluson. They show how each text was constructed to influence the memory of the event (even the laconic Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) and they do a valuable service in providing versions of the original texts. One area of criticism would be that it would have been nice for them to weigh in with more of their own analysis - it is tantalizing to have these three engaging with such fascinating materials and I felt that they could have gone further with their own interpretations.

The final two articles bring us into the twentieth century, first with Anthony Pollard’s fascinating look at how Hollywood makes movie magic in “Shooting arrows: Cinematic representations of medieval battles”. Pollard, both a professional academic historian and someone who served as a technical advisor on major film productions, looks at how modern movie-makers seek to imagine and portray the medieval past. He shows how proper terrain was crucial for both medieval commanders and the film-makers seeking to restage their epic victories and defeats. He pushes back against the tendency to portray medieval battles as merely mindless chaotic melees and questions why gunpowder does not turn up in more medieval cinema, given its presence on battlefields from the fourteenth century onwards. Surprisingly he does not tie in Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with its use of gunpowder to draw distinctions between the “backwards” Christians and “scientific” Muslims. Still, his article is a strong defense of historical cinema, inaccuracies and anachronisms notwithstanding.

Finally, Robert Tombs advances the discussion to how battles in the First World War were remembered and memorialized. He shows how the cultural memory of the war in Britain was focused on battles themselves and a general theme of loss and mourning, primarily through the use of poetry. In France, on the other hand, the overarching focus was one of pride and celebration of liberation. He gives an excellent overview of how the British (and to a lesser extent French) saw the Great War up through Blackadder in 1989, but his article is often focused more on memories of the Great War itself, not necessarily just the battles.

The volume ends with a brief Afterword written by Brendan Simms whereby he pulls together the various themes of the volume, including how war should be seen as a “process” in addition to an “event”. He reexamines how battles were commemorated, named, recorded, and appropriated by contemporaries and successors for their own purposes. He ends with a strong defense of seeing the people of the past as fundamentally people, rather than as a foreign “other” to our contemporary world.

Overall, this volume provides a great deal of food for thought on how medieval authors understood the role of battles in their own past and in their cultural imagination about their own presents (and futures). While the subtitle overpromises the breadth of areas under study, as an examination of how authors from Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia understood the “timelessness of warfare as a structuring element in both society and memory”, it does an excellent job and will provide plenty of food for thought for anyone interested in how medieval peoples conceptualized battles. (1)

Craig M Nakashian, PhD

Texas A&M University-Texarkana