Mabinogion & Confessions: Reading Challenges

Mabinogion by Unknown authors and Confessions by Augustine Bishop of Hippo


alberta's book reviews

These two books have been read for the Literary Movement, the Pre-printing Press, New to You , Books in Translation Reading Challenges 2015 and Mabinogoin also applies to the British Books Reading Challenge and Mount TBR Challenge.

I knew that  the Pre- Printing Press and early stages of The Literary Movement Challenge would take me a little outside my comfort zone for many reasons. I had not realized just how far outside that would be.

I had thought when I joined up that I would as far as possible concentrate on British books, there being many of the great classics that I have not yet read. If I added extra each month I would then venture elsewhere. So for January I began with The Mabinogion. A Welsh collection of, originally oral, tales. Having finished that I decided to have a go at Confessions by St Augustine. Bishop of Hippo.

So how did the two books read for this challenge in January go. Difficult both.

I will outline the main difficulties I had with both, at the start, so that you will know where I am coming from.

They took time to read, absorb and understand. I am an avid reader, have read for decades, am not put of by length, language or age of books. I love books, short and sharp, books with long detailed descriptions. However, I am also a fast reader. I gobble them down.

Reading slowly is very difficult for me. A physical discomfort. It is as exhausting for me as running a marathon. One of the main obstacles that prevents me listening to books.

Also with books this old translation is always going to be a problem. Translation can make or break a reading. Modern day ones stand a better chance of fulfilling expectations. This old from such completely different worlds how is a translator to manage the task.One can be fluent in a language and still not get it. Even with English the differences in meaning in words say from Shakespeare’s time to now can be vast. With Mabinogion for instance it is transcribed from oral telling at some moment in time into old Welsh then translated into English at various times since. So there is always one part of my brain questioning every thing, very tiresome.

So main problems accounted for, let us continue, I gave both 3 stars on Goodreads which is a good mark for me, it means I liked the books

1) I did sort of enjoy The Mabinogion – a bad habit of mine is to dive into a book and read the foreword at the end! If anyone else has this bad habit – don’t with this book. I went back to the foreword a third of the way through, to untangle the negativity I was feeling toward this catalogue of slash, burn and kill collection!

It is first and foremost a translation of a gathered together collection of oral folk stories, centuries old. The foreword explained some of motifs and symbolisms I had not come across before, the language and characters, the reason for and possibilities of. I went back to reading mollified and settled down to read it properly as a piece of research, not as a collection of stories.

I have never found that the oral translates well into the written. Watch a good oral teller of tales is like watching a play, there are visual clues, emphasis on certain words, actions which can reinforce or belie the words. Set down in print all that rich layer of complexity is lost.

I do understand why this collection stands so highly among the books of the period, and I gained a certain satisfaction at having my prejudices about the conduct of the ‘knights’ verified yet again, they really were not a nice mob.

Once I was back on tract and listening to the voice of the folk lore, taking on board the times they first were narrated, the history they were set into and the beliefs and superstitions of the times I could enjoy the read.

Books, old books in particular convey the social and political climes of the times they were written in. Reading between the lines can open up new (old) mindsets, but also show how we essentially do not change so much over time.

Thinking back I think I would have enjoyed them more if the Knights had not been part of them. I know they are the main characters,if they had been called anything but Arthur’s knights. However, that is just me, I’m telling why I didn’t personally like it as much as others; reading other reviews I can see I stand alone in my dislike of knights! The magic and mayhem were fun and in places humorous, shape shifters, giants, dashing heroes what’s not to like.

This collection shows the conflict and overlap between early Christianity and fairy lore. I read it as an insight into the times, forget character development there isn’t any and besides the audience would have known their folk heroes. Look for the clues and motifs. Consider the influence back and forth between folk/faerie myth, the romance of later and these tales. It is fascinating to come across familiar themes that one has found across the nations.

Last but not least probably better to read in short bursts.

2) Confessions by Augustine Bishop of Hippo
Now this one took me even more way way out of comfort. Even slower reading required for the thought and pondering the words provoked. And also, for me, the sieving out of the language. I do read, with great interest, religious books, everything fascinates, even religion. I do know quite a lot about the Christian Church; Church of England primary school and Roman Catholic secondary education. Thirteen years of instruction.

I found the language used in Confessions extreme, and irritating after a while. It felt at first as if I was listening to a very long prayer or sermon, even eavesdropping on a confessional. I do not mean to offend.

I persevered and was glad I had. I won’t read it again, I am too old to have to take a week reading a book. However, I fully understand why this book stands as such a classic of a read.

As a memoir, one of the first, it would stand so, the story of his early life and struggles to find his God are a fascinating insight into that period. Then there is close affinity to those ancient philosophers, still reasonable fresh to his times, not as ancient as now:) His questing after answers in a time when mankind still had no answers shows how mankind is imbued with this desire to ‘know’ ‘understand’ the environments around, below and above them in a way we believe other animals do not have. Although we do not know even that for a certainty.

He was a man of curiosity, intellect, imagination, will power and honesty.Honesty about his supposed sins, his ignorance and his failings. Honesty is a virtue we all should cherish when we come across it.

I went to read reviews after having read the book and I fall short of the praise everyone had for the book. I did not find anything new to ponder. I did not find the language inspiring or uplifting. I found it intriguing and interesting. Especially the light it threw on early Christianity and could see and understand with more sympathy the insecurities and early struggles of the time, where all those centuries of ‘misuse’ of the ‘Word’ had been born.

I am glad I read it. I am glad I read both of them,it is good for one to wander away from the normal paths in life:)


4 thoughts on “Mabinogion & Confessions: Reading Challenges

  1. Elena says:

    Interesting thoughts. I can’t say too much on either one – as I’ve read neither, but definitely interesting. Congratulations on getting ahead of things with the Pre-Printing Press Challenge too.


  2. alberta says:

    I have a few more pre-printing press reads coming up from the Literary Movement Challenge and then a couple that I had put aside last year to read for the pre printing press challenge last year (which I failed so dismally at:(I am looking forward to them


  3. I find your reviews interesting, Alberta, as it is hard for me to see either of these works objectively. I had to read them both for my master’s exam in medieval studies, where they were surrounded and related to many other books I read. The context helps immensely.

    That said, I completely agree with you about translations. Often, the worst translation is one that tries to sound medieval–ugh! If I can read the original, I prefer that to a bad translation, although good ones can be a joy.


    • alberta says:

      I think it would be better to read these books like that really submerged in the context – I read up a bit on the times but so superficial in the great context – unfortunately I cannot read the originals – I even have problems with too much Chaucer although I did study the Franklin’s Tale in Old English way back in school – oh that is so long ago now:)

      Maybe also reading them as part of study would be better, rather than as a ‘read’ – I have been away from study for so long now. I had wanted to read them both but as good books to read. Anyway I did enjoy them with effort and now I know more than I did always a bonus.


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