Throughout my time at university, I had never been satisfied by general interpretations of The Four Branches of the Mabinogi. Most scholars have seemed reluctant to view the tales as myths even. Most of the modern research published, no matter how useful, seems to say more about current academic values than it does about the text itself.
As a result, a few years back I began looking at what people in the past thought of their great narratives, their traditional tales and myths. What I discovered was that even as far back as the Roman Empire, myths were not only sacred tales about gods, but were regarded as multi-layered and symbolic texts that needed to be interpreted if they were to be understood. This is how it was put by the 4th century Greek philosopher Sallustius:
. . . to wish to teach the whole truth about the Gods to all produces contempt in the foolish, because they cannot understand, and lack of zeal in the good, whereas to conceal the truth by myths prevents the contempt of the foolish, and compels the good to practice philosophy.
In keeping with his Classical training, Sallustius believed the hidden truths of myth were revealed through what he called ‘philosophy’, a way of perceiving underlying patterns, concepts and themes not immediately apparent in the surface narrative of a tale. Sallustius is implying the symbolic philosophies preserved in myth could make the incomprehensible universe meaningful, and give adepts a clear place in the vast order of things.
Alongside this early appreciation of the symbolic nature of myth was a similar tradition that saw storytelling as a way of teaching moral truths. The Old Testament for example contains several allegories, as do other Christian texts. But the allegory, or instructive symbolic tale, wasn’t a Christian invention. It’s likely to have been a common element of many oral traditions, known throughout the ancient world as a tool for teaching young minds how to think, how to look beyond surface details to the heart of a tale’s meaning.
The Four Branches share some similarities with allegories. For example, in some medieval allegories we find characters that personify certain human traits, such as Folly or Virtue. Similarly, in The Four Branches the name of the very first character, Pwyll, is also the Welsh word for the human qualities of discernment, deliberation, wisdom, caution and care. A more modern equivalent term may be mindfulness. There are also peculiar, symbolic events that are described without explanation, the suggestion being that they contain what Pwyll himself calls ystyr hud, or ‘magical meaning’.
In an oral tradition such as the one that gave us The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, interpretation would likewise have been a natural response amongst audiences. There were no peer reviewed journals, no guides to linguistics or indexes of comparative literature. Very little was written down, and what was written was only available to a very few. Instead, medieval audiences would have interpreted the tales from within the context of their own native lore, that slowly evolving body of traditional knowledge that preserved very ancient ideas and attitudes.
But for us today, getting access to this wider body of oral lore is difficult. Our modern culture is undoubtedly far removed from that of our ancestors. All we have as proof of this older culture of oral lore is to be had in medieval writing, and within those pages the oral tradition could only sound as an echo. Yet by comparing these medieval texts with The Four Branches, we can begin to tease out the oral threads that connect them.
Having spent several years studying and comparing medieval tales, I’ve come to the conclusion that many of them contain different versions of the same basic set of ideas. But those ideas are never explicitly stated; as Sallustius describes, they remain hidden, intentionally esoteric. Guessing at those grand ideas, grasping for that unity of vision and meaning, can only ever be done with the imagination, as has always been the case.