The Mabinogion are the earliest prose literature of Britain. The stories were compiled in Middle Welsh in the 12th–13th centuries from earlier oral traditions. The two main source manuscripts were created c. 1350–1410, as well as some earlier fragments. But beyond their origins, first and foremost these are fine quality storytelling, offering high drama, philosophy, romance, tragedy, fantasy, sensitivity, and humour; refined through long development by skilled performers.
The title covers a collection of eleven prose stories of widely different types. There is a classic hero quest, "Culhwch and Olwen"; historic legend in "Lludd and Llefelys" glimpses a far off age, and other tales portray a very different King Arthur than the later popular versions do. The highly sophisticated complexity of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi defy categorisation. The list is so diverse a leading scholar has challenged them as a true collection at all.
Early scholars from the 18th century to the 1970s predominantly viewed the tales as fragmentary pre-Christian Celtic mythology, or in terms of international folklore. There are certainly traces of mythology, and folklore components, but since the 1970s an understanding of the integrity of the tales has developed, with investigation of their plot structures, characterisation, and language styles. They are now seen as a sophisticated narrative tradition, both oral and written, with ancestral construction from oral storytelling and overlay from Anglo-French influences.
The first modern publications were English translations of several tales by William Owen Pughe in journals 1795, 1821, 1829. However it was Lady Charlotte Guest 1838–45 who first published the full collection, and bilingually in both Welsh and English. She is often assumed to be responsible for the name "Mabinogion" but this was already in standard use since the 18th century. Indeed, as early as 1632 the lexicographer John Davies quotes a sentence from Math fab Mathonwy with the notation "Mabin." in his Antiquae linguae Britannicae . . . dictionarium duplex, article "Hob". The later Guest translation of 1877 in one volume, has been widely influential and remains actively enjoyed today. The most recent translation a compact version by Sioned Davies. John Bollard has published a series of volumes between with his own translation, with copious photography of the sites in the stories. The tales continue to inspire new fiction, dramatic retellings, visual artwork, and research.