Giants, Monsters and Dragons: An Encyclopaedia of Folklore, Legend and Myth. – book review
By Carol Rose. Oxford: ABC-Clio, 2000. 428 pp. Illus. 45.50 [pounds sterling] (hbk). ISBN 0-87436-988-6
Encyclopaedias have recently enjoyed a return to favour as a means of presenting a particular subject area in a readily accessible form. Given the increasing volume of publication and the difficulty of keeping up-to-date, such works fulfil a useful function. However, they can never really be any better than the sources used, and this one relies very heavily on secondary sources and in many instances on other encyclopaedias. It also includes literary works such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. How is this “folklore, legend and myth”? The main problem with this is that it simply perpetuates the inaccuracies of earlier work, especially in regard to the spelling of names, something which a more careful reading of good translations would have avoided.
For reasons of space, this review will focus on thirty or so entries from Welsh tradition. Taken as a group, the standard of accuracy is not good. For example, the entries for Bendigeidfran and Rhita Gawr include a dizzying array of alternative forms, many of which are not variants of these names, but obsolete or incorrect spellings culled from older and inaccurate translations. As a result, the details of narratives are sometimes inaccurate as well. Granted, a work like this cannot use primary language sources, but there is no reference in the bibliography to a standard modern translation of the Mabinogion, which would have given some indication of the regular forms of these names and precise details of the stories.
The water monster known as the afanc has two citations. Of the eight sources cited, six are themselves dictionaries, and there is no mention of the main source for this creature, the Welsh romance, Peredur. Some of the forms are odd, to say the least. Abac for example, which the author implies is a Welsh regional form, is listed quite clearly in the Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru as a Middle Irish form. The creature is not a well-known figure in Welsh folklore and the author is not always clear whether the supernatural monster or an animal (the word can be translated “beaver”) is intended. For example, she calls it a “supernatural crocodile,” but this surely was used in the nineteenth century as a translation of the term “crocodile” into Welsh and not for a native monster.
There are a number of problems with the two entries which cover Bendigeidfran/ Bran. For example, the Mabinogion is a collection of tales, not a “Welsh epic,” and Bendigeidfran’s story is not interwoven with King Arthur unless one accepts the identification between him and the Fisher King. Several odd spellings are given: Manwyddan for Manawydan; Evissyen for Evnisien. Some details are incorrect: Gwern and Caradog are not Bendigeidfran’s sons. After the defeat of the Irish, Gwern, the son of Branwen (Bran’s sister and therefore his nephew, not his son), becomes king, but he is still a child and does not fight with the uncle who kills him. “White” does not automatically signify holiness in the Welsh language; sometimes it is simply a colour, and the genealogical texts are Bonedd yr Arwyr (not Awar). In the entry on the Cwn Annwn, there is no mention of the significant appearance of Arawn as their leader in the tale of Pwyll. Under the entry on the Welsh dragon, Vortigern is listed as a Saxon king. The whole point of the story is that a Welsh king admitted the Saxons and became a traitor to his own people. The two dragons story is described as a “Celtic” legend, but it is only found in British sources and neither Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Historia Brittonum nor the scribe of Lludd a Llefelys (the three medieval sources for the legend) use the term “Celtic.” Dillus Farfog is listed as a figure in Welsh and Irish legend. Certainly, there are tales about stupid giants in Irish, but none like this from a Welsh tale, Culhwch ac Olwen, in which Cei and Bedwyr trick the giant. Cei, not Arthur, steals the cauldron of Diwrnach Wyddel. The Hwch Ddu Cwta is indeed a spectral pig associated with the feast of Calan Gaeaf (i.e. Winter’s Eve not Samhain, as the figure occurs in Welsh, not Irish, tradition). Children raced each other home singing a rhyme about the little sow catching the last one, but there is no indication that this creature belonged to a pre-Christian feast. Lailoken is a personal name, not a class of wild men, and he was associated with St Kentigirn (not Ketigern). If he is to be included, why are his Irish and Welsh cognates (Sweeney and Merlin) omitted? Tegid Foel does not appear as a giant in the texts of Hanes Taliesin, but as someone who lives in a supernatural realm under a lake.
On the positive side, the large print makes the book easy to use and there are some nice black and white illustrations. However, if the Welsh entries are any indication, the standard is not sufficient to justify the rather high price.
Juliette Wood, University of Wales, Cardiff, UK
COPYRIGHT 2002 Folklore Society
COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group