Friday, March 28, 2014

The Mabinogion: The Celtic Hero

Hey there!
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)
The character of Pwyll undergoes the most obvious growth process of all four heroes. He begins as a young, naïve lord, who does not follow the chivalric laws of hunting and permits his dogs to feast on a stag which another pack killed. Arawn scolds him: “Greater discourtesy have I not seen in man… than to drive away the pack that killed the stag and bait thine own pack upon it.” (p. 4) Pwyll apologizes, having now learned his lesson, but he can only regain his honor by exhibiting fortitude in the face of difficulty and temptation. He does so, by fighting and defeating Arawn’s enemy, and by keeping his vow of chastity with Arawn’s wife. Even after he has gained Arawn’s friendship, Pwyll continues to persist in other hardships – he must undergo many setbacks before he finally obtains Rhiannon as is wife.

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.
The story of “The Lady of the Fountain” begins with Owein, our third example of a Celtic hero, setting out on a personal challenge – to overthrow the black knight that had defeated Cynon.  This reveals his strong sense of honor and chivalry even more than in the previous two heroes, and throughout the story, we find many more examples of Owein’s honor. After he breaks his promise to the Lady of the Fountain, and does not return for three years, Owein imposes a harsh penance on himself: “And thus he was wandering thus till his clothes perished, and till his body was nigh perished, and till long hair grew all over his body…and therewith he grew so weak….” (p. 144) This penance almost makes a mockery of the trials that Culwch had to undergo – Owein had no King’s retinue to keep him safe and alive. This also reveals a different view of marriage from that of the other two stories; Owein is not only expected to honor his liege lord, but also to devotedly and unfailingly honor his wife.

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. 


  1. You are having an Arthurian Lit class?? I envy you! Do you have a reading list and/or a study plan that you could share? Not that I don't have enough Arthurian books to read :), but I'd be really interested to see how such a class is organised and what books are chosen for it.

    1. Here's a preview of the course I'm taking:
      I believe you can only access the first lesson, but you can see the titles of the other lessons - you just can't enter them.

      I added a couple of books to my Arthurian Lit Challenge in addition to those required by the course, because the course only covered ancient Arthurian literature. If you want to see my list of books for the Arthurian lit challenge, here it is:

      Thanks for reading!

    2. Lucky you, it looks like a wonderful course! I like it that you aren't supposed to read a lot but you rather read in depth. I always feel I'm not getting something by reading fast and without any analysis. I just hope quantity will turn to quality sometime :) I'd be nice to see your further essays! Good luck!

  2. I so enjoyed your descriptions of these stories!

    Have you taken other courses through Mizzou Online? What do you think of them? Do you enjoy them, or are they much like "school"?

    1. Yup, I've taken tons of courses through them - I'm actually graduating highschool with a diploma from them because I took so many! :-)
      For me, they are a way to get school requirements done, and get credit from it. I don't do math and science with them - just English, history, Spanish, etc. They are good because I can do them at my own pace - which means I could technically do a lesson every two weeks, or three lessons every week, depending on the flexibility of my schedule. I can sort of mold them around the more demanding schedules of my other classes.


Book discussions make the world a better place! Write me a comment - I respond to each and every one, I promise. So check back!

(YES! I LOVE TAGS and I do them! So tag away! But no bloggerly awards, though, like the Liebster or the Sisterhood of World Bloggers. Thank you!)