Reference > Cambridge History > From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance > The Arthurian Legend > The Mabinogion
  Early Welsh Poetry Kulhwch and Olwen  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XII. The Arthurian Legend.

§ 4. The Mabinogion.


The Mabinogion, as a whole, are the most artistic and delightful expression of the early Celtic genius which we possess. Nowhere else do we come into such close touch with the real “Celtic magic,” with the true enchanted land, where “the eternal illusion clothes itself in the most seductive hues.”  30  Composed though they were in all probability by a professional literary class, these stories are distinguished by a naive charm which suggests anything but an artificial literary craftsmanship. The supernatural is treated in them as the most natural thing in the world, and the personages who possess magic gifts are made to move about and speak and behave as perfectly normal human creatures. The simple grace of their narrative, their delicacy and tenderness of sentiment and, above all, their feeling for nature, distinguish these tales altogether from the elaborate productions of the French romantic schools; while in its lucid precision of form, and in its admirable adaptation to the matter with which it deals, no medieval prose surpasses that of the Welsh of the Mabinogion. These traits are what make it impossible to regard even the later Welsh Arthurian stories as mere imitations of Chrétien’s poems. Their characters and incidents may be, substantially, the same; but the tone, the atmosphere, the entire artistic setting of the Welsh tales are altogether different; and “neither Chrétien nor Marie de France, nor any other French writer of the time, whether in France or England, can for one moment compare with the Welshmen as story-tellers pure and simple.” 31    15

Note 30. Renan, The poetry of the Celtic Races. (Trans. Hutchinson). [ back ]
Note 31. A. Nutt, in his edition of Lady C. Guest’s Mabinogion, p. 352. cf. Renan: “The charm of the Mabinogion principally resides in the amiable serenity of the Celtic mind, neither sad nor gay, every in suspense between a smile and a tear. We have in them the simple recital of a child, unwitting of any distinction between the noble and the common; there is something of that softly animated world, of that calm and tranquil ideal to which Ariosto’s stanza transport us. The chatter of the later medieval French and German imitations can give no idea of this charming manner of narration. The skilful Chrétien de Troyes himself remains in this respect far below the Welsh story-tellers.” The Poetry of the Celtic Races. [ back ]

CONTENTS · VOLUME CONTENTS · INDEX OF ALL CHAPTERS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  Early Welsh Poetry Kulhwch and Olwen  
 
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