I saw a tweet – I don’t remember from whom – last week with a photo of Matthew Francis’ The Mabinogi. As a part-time Druid and neopaganism enthusiast the word MABINOGI was enough to seal my split-second decision to buy it, along with the unmistakable Faber & Faber-style cover. Within a minute of seeing it I was on the Waterstones website making a Click & Collect order.
The book itself is a sight to behold – I don’t remember any Faber titles having such a bright colour scheme for its cover, and while there is a slightly citrus-y feeling about the whole thing the deep red endpapers and board are a sight to behold.
But my magpie-like affection for good packaging aside, Francis’s adaptation of the so-called Four Branches of the Mabinogi is as magical as the most powerful of the myths’ characters are. There is a useful introduction fully explaining why Francis has chosen to lay out the poem the way he has: the drop-caps really do create the sense of a medieval manuscript, and the captions in the left column are useful – a usefulness that, unfortunately, is necessary rather than supplementary. The narrative of the stories have been divided into briskly-paced chunks, some of which are so bite-sized that they leave the appetite just a touch wanting; more importantly, however, the tableau-like power of each scene is often at the expense of exposition, and makes this a much more rewarding read for someone who has a basic familiarity with the prose original than for someone who knows absolutely nothing about the Mabinogion.
The poetry itself, however, is excellent: the language is fresh and modern, the imagery stark and vivid; yet there is a constant sense of the surreal and the mysterious being evoked, reminding us that this is the dream-like world of myth. This is how Francis introduces us to Brân the Blessed:
He is the capital at the start of the sentence,
a tree, a crow’s nest, a furlong of a man.
You cannot think of him all at once.
It already begins with some self-referential cleverness: the capital at the start of that sentence, of course, is the letter H, which in the text is a drop-cap, and hence a literal giant on a page of regularly-sized text. But that third line is the real source of magic: it gives us a sense of just how big the giant king is, but it also does what it says on the tin, obscuring the screen of our imagination with that negative instruction, ‘You cannot think …’. We cannot help but try to think of all of him, but it fails from the get-go: we are left with the idea of a giant that, like a myth, is always in view but never fully seen or understood.
The sense of surrealism and mythical reality throughout the poems is heightened by an omnipresent animism in which objects have the ability to engage in dramatic action: boots ‘love’ their owner, fire ‘utters’ colours, and forests ‘gallop on’. Magic is life and movement, and the constant action-and-response dynamic between the characters and their environment create a sense that everything is alive. This is a familiar theme to anyone engaged in neopaganism and/or modern iterations of Celtic spirituality.
None of this is to say that Francis’ verse is perfect, but the blips in style are easily overlooked. The only real weakness here is the brevity of the work, which ironically is also its strength; but a happy medium between a substantial fleshing out of the narrative and the immediacy of a contemporary poetic style is usually a hard one to strike. That anyone in modern poetry is still revisiting the Mabinogion – and to do it so brilliantly – is something to celebrate in itself.