The Four Branches of the Mabinogi is an old Welsh classic that was first written down about 900 years ago. It appears to be a collection of traditional tales that probably originated in the oral storytelling tradition of the early Welsh. The only real certainty is that they were written down by some talented, but unknown, author.
The Four Branches are set in a past where the Welsh aristocracy still claim the Crown of London, and consider the whole of the island to be their sovereign territory. Historically speaking, this would have been sometime between 350 and 500AD. The Four Branches could preserve one of the oldest versions of Britain to have survived.
As a result, the tales can tell us much about what Britain was, is and could still be. They explore in great detail the possibilities and problems that arise for those who seek to claim dominion in her lands.
As one would expect of such tales, The Four Branches contain some quite traditional ideas. One of the most common is the idea of aristocracy and inherited nobility, an idea that sits at the heart of many cultures to this day.
But even though The Four Branches are almost exclusively concerned with the Welsh upper class, what’s surprising about these ‘nobles’ is that their aristocracy (status through lineage) rarely has anything to do with what kind of people they are. The tales suggest nobility isn’t something that’s inherited from your family or determined by your sex.
The nobility of The Four Branches is something that arises from personal integrity and wisdom, not family genetics. More often than not it’s the nobility of heart, not the nobility of inherited status, that’s put in service of the land and her people.
It’s obvious when characters diverge from the path of nobility because they always cause suffering, and not always their own. When the ‘nobility’ fail to act from a nobility of heart, the repercussions can be apocalyptic in magnitude.
So often in the tales the positive lesson is brought into relief by a negative example. Ignorant aristocrats inevitably make bad, blinkered choices, and when they do, the right course of action is stressed by its absence. It’s for this reason that The Four Branches can be read as lessons for civil life, a life in a civilised Britain.
The Four Branches Course 2018
This is the 5th incarnation of the Four Branches course, and each successive version has built upon the foundations of its predecessor. That’s no less true for the 2018 version, as the audio lectures are based on material from The Magic of Meaning courses of 2016 and 2017.
But this isn’t just a re-hash of what was explored in those earlier courses. This current version takes a closer look at how the tales present nobility, aristocracy, sovereignty, and ultimately the myth of Britain herself.
As with the earlier versions, the main objective of the course is to stimulate interpretation, to feel out the contours of the myths contained in The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, and attempt to apprehend the old truths concealed in its symbols.
The general approach is to consider The Four Branches as teaching tales, instructive stories that have an almost (but not quite) allegorical quality to them. They are also considered in terms of how they correspond to other myths and stories from Europe and the rest of the world.
Please see this page and scroll down to The Shape of the Course if you wish to register