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The Secret Life of Books: The Mabinogion

Updated Monday, 11th August 2014

Welsh singer/songwriter Cerys Matthews delves into the history of Celtic mythology and the Arthurian romantic legends that make up The Mabinogion.

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Cerys Matthews holds open a large book Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC Cerys Matthews

About the episode

Presented by Cerys Matthews

The Mabinogion has long been recognised as Wales' most important contribution to European literature. This collection of 11 ancient folk tales has its roots in the strong oral storytelling tradition of the pre-Christian era.

Dating from sometime between 500-1000AD, the tales explore Celtic mythology and the Arthurian romantic legend, and are a fine example of epic narrative storytelling.

They can be seen to have influenced later fantasy writing like JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. First written down in Welsh during the late 14th century, the tales then became virtually forgotten, hidden away in two privately owned manuscripts.

It wasn’t until the Romantic Movement swept across Europe in the 19th century that the stories were resurrected and translated into English for the first time by the amateur linguist, Lady Charlotte Guest. Her 1849 publication of the collected Mabinogion tales finally brought them to a wider audience and the book has never been out of print since.

Here, Cerys Matthews explores the fascinating history of this influential collection of tales. She visits the Bodleian Library, Oxford to look at one of the ancient texts where these oral stories were first written down in Welsh, and sifts through the private correspondence of the remarkable Lady Charlotte Guest at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.

As she delves deeper into these strange tales and visits some of the locations which influenced them over a thousand years ago, their power becomes ever more apparent.

This episode was first broadcast on Tuesday 23rd September 2014 on BBC Four.

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