For today’s post I would like to take a brief look at how the tales of the Mabinogion became influential to later tellings of Arthurian legends, inspired real monarchs (especially during the Wars of the Roses), and how those historical monarchs inspired more modern fantasy (namely Game of Thrones, or in book form A Song of Ice and Fire series). The original Welsh tales of the Mabinogion were written down in the twelfth to thirteenth centuries, in the White and Red books. These tales were compiled from earlier oral traditions. A total of eleven tales is usually taken to be part of this series (however occasionally a twelfth tale is also included). The first four, are the four main branches, and deal with really ancient figures, most commonly believed to have originally been Welsh Celtic deities. Later tales are usually Arthurian in nature, and are some of the oldest written versions of Arthurian tales.
The format of the stories in the Mabinogion can be seen as influential to later Arthurian romances. The characters of Arthurian legends often even have older origins within the Celtic pantheon of deities! Tales of the court of Arthur often were written at royal courts in England, France, and even Germany. The personalities of the archetypal characters became influenced and inspired by figures known by the writers of these medieval romances!
Now how do we get from high medieval personalities influencing the personality of archetypal Arthurian character to those archetypes influencing later monarchs? Well in the late medieval and Tudor periods, especially, the use of Arthurian Romance to enhance public perception was at its height! During the Wars of the Roses (then called the Cousin’s Wars) the rulers began to try to set up their courts as they were described in Arthurian legend. Edward IV fully embraced this Arthurian craze, and he famously married for love. His queen Elizabeth Woodville, was known to be the most beautiful woman in England in this era. In Arthurian legend Guinevere was likewise known to be the most beautiful woman in all of Camelot! As I mentioned this was a marriage based on love (and lust), but also something Edward could play up to more prominently embrace the Arthurian archetypes.
Finally this brings us to how these real people inspired modern fantasy writers. The medieval period is often seen as a time of magic (and certainly the Arthurian legends are full of magical figures) making it a prime place for fantasy to grow. Some writers choose to write about the Arthurian characters, others are inspired by the Wars of the Roses main players (historical fiction tinged by magic, like Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen). Then there is George R.R. Martin who is the author that writes A Song of Ice and Fire series. This is the book series that became the HBO show Game of Thrones! Martin has admitted that he was inspired by the events of the Wars of the Roses when he formatted his series. I will not go detail by detail, but I will include a link to a YouTube video of historian Suzannah Lipscomb giving a lecture on this subject below. Several characters can be seen as possible versions of Wars of the Roses figures. The name Lannister is very similar to Lancaster, and Stark to York. There are literal dragons owned by Daenerys Targaryen. This is a link to the Welsh dragon, and the fact that the coming Tudor monarchs were of Welsh descent!
I hope that you have enjoyed this brief overview of the influence of the Mabinogion and Arthurian legends. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
Note on Image: The image at the top of the post are Lancaster and York roses. I found the image on warsoftheroses.com.
- The Mabinogion translated by Sioned Davies
- Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory
- King of the Celts by Jean Markale
- The Once and Future Queen by Nicole Evelina
- Edward IV & Elizabeth Woodville: A True Romance by Amy Licence
- A Song of Ice and Fire (series) by George R.R. Martin
- Game of Thrones (2011-2019)
- https://youtu.be/kLIDHhIRxIc (This is the lecture I mentioned above)