Poetic retelling of Mabinogion named Hay Festival Book of the Month

Professor Matthew Francis, whose English language version of the Mabinogion has been named Hay Festival Book of the Month for December

Professor Matthew Francis, whose English language version of the Mabinogion has been named Hay Festival Book of the Month for December

12 December 2019

A collection of epic medieval Welsh tales of war, enchantment, adventure and romance, reimagined in modern English by an Aberystwyth University academic, is the Hay Festival Book of the Month for December.

The Mabinogi by Professor Matthew Francis from the Department of English and Creative Writing re-tells the first four stories, known in Welsh as ‘branches’, of the historic Mabinogion in English language poetry.

Since being published in June 2017, it has been shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year 2018 and the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry.

Professor Francis said: “I first read the original Mabinogion in translation in 1999 when I moved to Wales – it was one of the very first things I did, and I have to admit I was partly fascinated and partly baffled by it.

“I didn’t pick it up again until a number of years later, when my publisher suggested I write a re-imagining of it. I was initially quite surprised at the suggestion but I began to see how it could work; especially from a poetic point of view, as the original tales are in prose and I thought they suit being told using modern poetry very well.

“I wouldn’t call any of the tales in my book ‘translations’ – I in fact worked from an existing English translation; they are re-imaginings. I don’t think this takes away from them, but adds a new dimension and shows new uses and purposes for these classic Welsh tales. I very much enjoyed re-telling the stories and ended up really taking the tales to heart, fitting at the same time into that tradition for poets to re-tell the classics – even Shakespeare did it.

“Being named Book of the Month by Hay Festival is a great privilege, especially as our department has such strong links with the Festival – we take our students there every year and a number of my colleagues have had their work recognised there over the years.”

The original Mabinogion is an epic collection of 11 prose tales from the 14th century written in medieval Welsh that span war and enchantment, adventure and romance, which have long fascinated readers all over the world.

Professor Francis’s poetic retelling of the first four stories captures the magic and strangeness of this medieval Celtic world: a baby is kidnapped by a monstrous claw, a giant wades across the Irish Sea to do battle and a wizard makes a woman out of flowers, only to find she is less biddable than he had expected.

Poet and playwright Gillian Clarke said of Matthew Francis’s The Mabinogi: “I have waited a life for this book: our ancient British tales re-told, in English, by a poet, as they were in their original Welsh. This is more than translation. It picks up the harp and sings."

Professor Matthew Francis is the author of five Faber books of poetry, most recently The Mabinogi.

He has twice been shortlisted for the Forward Prize, and in 2004 was chosen as one of the Next Generation poets.

He has also edited WS Graham's New Collected Poems, and published a collection of short stories and two novels, the second of which, The Book of the Needle (Cinnamon Press) came out in 2014.