So I'm not done with the Mabinogion quite yet (it's taking a while because I'm not only reading it - I'm super-analyzing it for my Arthurian Lit class), but I thought I'd share with you an essay I wrote for said class on three of the stories within the book. If you didn't know, the Mabinogion is a collection of Celtic tales, and the title Mabinogion refers to the birth, naming, young adulthood, and marriage of a hero. This post is on the concept of Celtic heroism, and what exactly that entails.
Oh, and any page numbers are from the Everyman edition.
Within The Mabinogion, there are numerous characters who take up the position of Hero. The four heroes – Pwyll, Culhwch, Owein, and Arthur – within the stories “Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed,” “Culhwch and Olwen,” and “The Lady of the Fountain,” all define the concept of the Celtic Hero. Though these four characters are not identical, they all contain certain characteristics that are constant throughout the Celtic tales of heroism – primarily, the aspects of growth, fortitude, and honor.
|Pwyll disguised as a beggar.|
(Artist: the fabulous Alan Lee)
Culhwch, though he also starts out in “Culhwch and Olwen” as a young lord, is not nearly as naïve as Pwyll, and not at all dishonorable in any way. Culhwch definitely does undergo a growth process, however, and proves his mettle through physical fortitude and persistence. As he is inexperienced in the ways of war, he wisely asks the more experienced warrior Arthur for help in gaining Olwen’s hand in marriage, and, through the completion of the tasks set by Ysbaddaden the Giant, Culhwch entirely proves his worthiness for marrying the Giant’s daughter. In addition to these clear aspects of the Celtic Hero, Culhwch is also emphasized as heroic by being helped in his tasks by a majestic retinue of Arthur’s best men, including Cei, who could hold his breath for nine nights and days or grow as tall as the tallest tree, among other peculiarities. (p.90)
|Young Culhwch, setting out on his quest.|
|Arthur and Owein (playing Gwyddbwyl, a sort of chess)|
(Artist: once again, Alan Lee)
Arthur is the final Hero portrayed within these three stories, and though he takes the position of a supporting character, his two appearances in “Culhwch and Olwen” and in “The Lady of the Fountain” are very different indeed. In “Culhwch and Olwen,” Arthur is shown as being a sort of rowdy, good-hearted leader – the kind who can never turn down a good feast. However, he is nevertheless a powerful chieftain, and has a devoted retinue which will follow his every command. But the Arthur in “The Lady of the Fountain” is not the same – in this story, he becomes more of a revered emperor, and Owein is portrayed as being stronger than he.
These four men – Pwyll, Culwch, Owein, and Arthur – all emphasize the characteristics of the Celtic Hero. Through these tales of their adventures, we can see that the Celtic Hero undergoes a period of growth, exhibits a strong fortitude in the face of adversity, and exemplifies honor and chivalry.