Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Mabinogion


Opening Passage: From Pwyll Prince of Dyved

Pwyll Prince of Dyved was lord of the seven Cantrevs of Dyved; and once upon a time he was at Narberth his chief palace, and he was minded to go and hunt, and the part of his dominions in which it pleased him to hunt was Glyn Cuch. So he set forth from Narbeth that night, and went as far as Llwyn Diarwyd. And that night he tarried there, and early on the morrow he rose and came to Glyn Cuch, when he let loose the dogs in the wood, and sounded the horn, and began the chase. And as he followed the dogs, he lost his companions; and whilst he listened to the hounds, he heard the cry of other hounds, a cry different from his own, and coming in the opposite direction.

Summary: The Mabinogion is a very diverse set of stories, but there are connecting links: Pryderi threads through the stories of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi; Manawyddan ap Llyr, Taliesin, Geraint ap Erbin, and Pryderi are mentioned in Kilhwch and Olwen; King Arthur is a character in five of the tales. Perhaps more important than even these obvious threads is the pervasive atmosphere of the Welsh fantastic. Practically every maiden is the fairest one has ever seen. There are continual casual mentions of extraordinary deeds that no doubt had their own legend cycles once, as when we are told, without fanfare and without explanation that certain knights of King Arthur "came forth from the confines of hell" or that Gwrhyr Gwastawd Ieithoedd was the same one who knew all languages or that Ellylw the daughter of Neol Kynn-Crog is the one who lived for three ages. There is also that curious feature of Welsh fantasy, what might be called the practical impossible, as when we learn that Kai has the curious feature that nothing he carries in his hands will ever get wet from rain, or the usefulness of Caswallawn's veil of illusion.

The tales in brief:

Pwyll Prince of Dyved: Pwyll makes friends with Arawn, one of the kings of the underworld, and marries Rhiannon, with whom he has Pryderi, who only gets his name with some difficulty.

Branwen the Daughter of Llyr: Tensions arise between Ireland and Britain, the latter of which is under the rule of Blessed Bran, after the Irish king tries to build an alliance by marrying Bran's sister, Branwen. She is mistreated, and Bran invades. The British beat the Irish, but only at terrible cost. Bran's giant head is buried in London to stave off invasion.

Manawyddan the Son of Llyr: Manawyddan and Pryderi find themselves in a curious situation when a magic mist descends and everyone but themselves, even including the domesticated animals, vanishes. Pryderi solves the problem by threatening to hang a mouse.

Math the Son of Mathonwy: Gwydion and his brothers, who are nephews of Math steals the pigs of the underworld from Pryderi, leading to Pryderi's death. Math revenges Pryderi by turning his nephews into animals. Arianrhod gives birth in a rather peculiar way to Llew Llaw Gyffes, who also only gets his name with some difficulty. Since Arianrhod has placed a geis on Llew that he will never have a human wife, Gwydion and Math make Llew a wife out of flowers, Blodeuwedd; she is as shallow as you would expect a woman made from flowers to be, and she has an affair, which causes all sorts of problems for Llew.

The Dream of Maxen Wledig: Maxen Wledig, Roman Emperor, has a dream of a lovely maiden and sends his men to find her.

Lludd and Llevelys: Lludd, king of Britain has a few problems; he is invaded by people who can hear anything spoken on the wind, a terrifying scream ravages the country every May Day, and all the provisions for his court keep disappearing. He asks his brother Llevelys, king of France, for help using a brass tube, and they destroy the invaders with an insect potion, discover that the scream is actually a pair of dragons and get those dragons drunk, and then figure out that the provisions are all being stolen by a magician.

Kilhwch and Olwen: Kilhwch is in love with Olwen, daughter of a giant, despite the fact that he has never seen her. He gets help from his cousin, King Arthur, and they discover that the giant will let Kilhwch marry his daughter if Kilhwch and Arthur's knights do forty impossible tasks. So they do them, and Kilhwch marries Olwen.

The Dream of Rhonabwy: In a dream, Rhonabwy travels back in time to the court of King Arthur, who is obsessed with playing chess with Owain. This is the most bafflingly fantastic of all the tales in The Mabinogion, often reaching the point of being surreal.

The Lady of the Fountain: Owain marries the Lady of the Fountain, but loses her because he is married to his job. He gets her back with the help of a lion, though.

Peredur the Son of Evrawc: Peredur, a country bumpkin, turns out to be very much better at being a knight than most knights. One of his uncles has a man's severed head, who turns out to be Peredur's cousin, killed by the Nine Witches of Gloucester. Peredur avenges his cousin.

Geraint the Son of Erbin: Geraint marries Enid, and enjoys it so much he stops acting like a knight; Enid bemoans this fact while Geraint is sleeping, but he overhears her and assumes she is having an affair. So he goes out and fights a lot of people while taking her along and repeatedly telling her not to talk to him, until they finally make up.

Taliesin: Gwion Bach gains extraordinary wisdom from Ceridwen's cauldron; he runs away, but Ceridwen chases him. Eventually Gwion Bach turns himself into a piece of grain and Ceridwen becomes a hen and eats him. She gives birth to a boy, whom she puts in a bag and throws into the sea. He is discovered by a fisherman, Elphin, who calls him Taliesin. They have a number of adventures together as Taliesin shows himself to be the greatest bard of all time.

Favorite Passage: From Geraint the Son of Erbin:

Thereupon she raised a loud and piercing shriek, and her lamentations were much greater than they had been before, for she considered in her mind that had Geraint been alive, he durst not have struck her thus. But, behold, at the sound of her cry, Geraint revived from his swoon, and he sat up on the bier, and finding his sword in the hollow of his shield, he rushed to the place where the Earl was, and struck him a fiercely-wounding, severely-venomous, and sternly-smiting blow upon the crown of his head, so that he clove him in twain, until his sword was stayed by the table. Then all left the board, and fled away. And this was not so much through fear of the living as through the dread they felt at seeing the dead man rise up to slay them. And Geraint looked upon Enid, and he was grieved for two causes; one was, to see that Enid had lost her colour and her wonted aspect, and the other, to know that she was in the right.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


  1. MrsDarwin1:50 PM

    These synopses all sound delightfully like sitcom episodes.

  2. branemrys2:18 PM

    The situations are fantastic in the extreme, but the comedy is really there (Peredur being confused about what chivalry requires, Kai being unhorsed yet again after mouthing off, the absurdity involved in tiny little things causing immense problems or bizarre solutions fixing apparently insoluble ones) and all the characters approach everything in these crazy plots in such a practical, almost workman-like way, that the stories are indeed a bit sitcom-like.


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