As Lloyd Alexander (author of Prydain Chronicles, beginning with The Book of Three) openly admits, he does lift a lot from the Mabinogi, although he makes Arawn evil instead of neutral, appears to add the three witches, ignores some unsavory parts of King Math and Gwydion, and in general substantially fleshes out the motivations and personalities of the characters. Indeed, the Prydain Chronicles are all about character. Yet much British literature has been influenced by these tales, too. The idea of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia being connected to our world by certain strange gateways likely stems from Welsh mythology, as are likely to be, albeit in a more remote sense, the gateways to the hidden wizard world in the recent Harry Potter books. Tolkien draws on these sources for the enchanted trees, his Ents, as does C.S. Lewis to a lesser degree with his tree spirits. An early form of King Arther even figures into these tales.
The first branch of the Mabinogi concerns Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed (southeaster Wales). This tale begins with Pwyll out hunting, where he encounters Arawn and offends him by feeding his dogs on the stag Arawn killed. Arawn offers to mend the difference providing that Pwyll exchange shapes with him and dispatch an enemy with whom he fights every year. Pwyll does so, with the story noting that Pwyll took pains to be chaste (at the annoyance of Arawn’s wife, which Arawn discovers upon his return) and dispatches the enemy, somehow killing him by refraining from finishing him off. Arawn has ruled Pwyll’s kingdom well, and the two exchange shapes at the end of the year. Afterwards Pwyll camps on the magic Mound of Arberth, which has the property that any noble who sits on it will see an amazing sight or be wounded. Pwyll and his men take their chances, and Pwyll sees a beautiful lady (Rhiannon) seated on a horse, but strangely his men cannot catch her, even though her horse never breaks from his walk. He sends various men after her, eventually going himself, finally calling after her to wait for him. This she does and is pleased to wed him. Unfortunately, at their wedding feast, her original suitor (whom Pwyll apparently did not know about) appears and Pwyll rashly promises him anything he wants. (Apparently the thrower of the feasts was expected to offer gifts to all the invitees and invariably unexpected guests at the feast who are welcomed ask for an outrageous gift) He asks for Rhiannon. Rhiannon cooks up a scheme to avoid being married to him, in which she is given to him to be married next year, gives Pwyll a bag that can never be full with instructions on its use. The next year Pwyll arrives at the feast, asks for enough food to fill the bag, and when this proves difficult, suggests that the suitor, Gwawl, trample it, and when he steps in to do so, Pwyll ties him up and his men played badger-in-the-bag with him. In the course of time Rhiannon had a child but the women who watched him while Rhiannon slept decided to take her son and frame her for her murder. (Here we learn that the citizens have legal grounds to request that the ruler divorce his wife if she cannot provide him with children) Rhiannon, who is a vestige of the horse goddess in the original myth, is punished by being forced to carry (willing) visitors to the castle on her back, like a horse. A country couple’s mare leaves one night, being found with a colt and Rhiannon’s son (another vestige of the horse goddess) and he is eventually returned to her. The son’s name is Pryderi.
The second branch is the story of Branwen, daughter of Llyr. The court of Llyr was apparently in London, and the Irish king comes there to ask for his daughter, Branwen, in marriage. This the king agrees to, but Branwen’s half-brother Efnisien dislikes the arrangement and insults the Irish king by disfiguring his horses. King Bendigeidfran Llyr repays the Irish king’s honor-price, at considerable cost, with gold, replacement horses, and a cauldron that will rejuvinate dead men steeped in the cauldron (apparently created in relation to an event where some unwanted giants were unsuccessfully heated alive in an iron house to rid the country of them). The Irish king is placated, takes his new wife and leaves. Several years later his nobles suggest that perhaps he settled for too little and that his honor is not really assuaged. He then declares war on Llyr. Llyr sends its ships, except for the king, who wades across (and also acts as a bridge for his troops later). Ireland sues for peace, by building Bendigedifran a house big enough for him (so big that the Irish soldiers hidden are claimed to be flour bags, which a suspicious Efnisien “tests”, to the detriment of the contents.) Efnisien causes another uproar to prevent peace, and ultimately Llyr is victorious, although the ability of the caldron to rejuvinate men takes its toll until Efnisien hides among the Irish dead and is thrown into the cauldron, at which point it and his heart break. Bendigeidfran is wounded, but his head continues to converse until the returnees leave an enchanted otherworld castle, at which point they return to London and bury the head.
The third branch takes place after burying Bendigeidfran’s head, where to console Manawydan, Pryderi gives him his seven cantrevs of Dyfed in all but name, as well as marraige to his mother Rhiannon, who after meeting him, agrees. They commence the marraige feast, whereupon a heavy fog descends. After it lifts, the entire kingdom has no one in it. The four of them live off the feast, then by hunting for a few years until they become discontent. Then they go to England where Manawydan leads them in the craft of saddlemaking, then shieldmaking, remaining in each town until the tradesmen kick them out because the surpassing excellence of their wares hurts business. Then they return to Dyfed, encounter a wild boar which leads Pryderi’s hounds to a formerly non-existant fort. Pryderi follows ignoring advice otherwise, becoming stuck to a suspended gold bowl. His wife follows him. The other two go back to England and take up shoemaking, with the same result as before. Then they return and plant wheat. Just before they harvest the fine and abundant crop it disappears, as does the second field. Manawydan stays awake to discover mice ravaging the field and captures one. As he prepares to hang it he rejects increasingly large ransom offers from random passers-by, until he discovers that it is Llwyd son of Cil Coed who enchanted the cantrevs to avenge Gwawl son of Clud (who Pryderi’s father subjected to badge-in-the-bag). His retinue was destroying the wheat, having been asked to be changed into mice to accomplish it. After securing the return of the kingdoms, the release of his friends, and a promise of not avenging them, he released the mouse, who is Llwyd’s pregnant wife.
The fourth and final branch begins with Gilfaethwy and Gwydion, sons of Don. Gilfaethwy loves the maiden is whose lap Math, lord of Gwynedd, is accustomed to put his feet. In order to provide Gilfaethwy a chance to be alone with her, Gwydion gets permission to bring the herd of pigs that Arawn had given Pryderi (who was the lord of the twenty-one cantrevs to the south). This he does by exchanging them for a conjured hunting team. Pryderi attacks but is compelled to retreat a bit and great loss of life ensues. Pryderi requests combat with Gwydion to settle the matter and Gwydion kills him by strenth and magic. Upon return to Gwynedd, Gwydion and Gilfaethwy have raped the kings foot-maiden. They fled, but returned to get their punishment when Math decrees that food be denied them. Math turns them into a hind and stag by hitting them with his staff of enchantment, and tells them to return with their progeny in a year. The next year he changes them into male and female wild pigs (the hind becomes the male and the stag becomes the female), and the year after into male and female wolves. Each year he transforms their progeny back to a human and raises it. Thus the two were disgraced. Math needs to find a new foot-maiden, but the one who claims to be a maiden, is revealed to have lied as she drops a baby when she steps over Math’s staff and a chest as she flees. The boy left for the sea and swam like a fish immediately after his baptism. But Gwydion took the chest and a year later finds a boy, who grows up exceedingly quickly. He takes him to his mother for a name, but she is angry at the reminder of her guilt and curses him—no name until she gives him one (Lleu Llaw Gyffes). So Gwydion tricks her into it by disguising himself as a captain of a ship of shoemakers (and enchanting a ship and crew) and she curses her son again, that he will never bear arms until she puts them on him. Gwydion then creates an attacking army, whereupon the lad’s mother dresses him in arms (Gwydion is dressed by her maidens) so that they can aid in the defense. She finally curses him that he will not have a wife from the living. So Math forms a woman out of flowers for him and gives him a cantrev to support her with. Unfortunately, she lusts after another. Her lover wants to get rid Lleu so she asks him how he can be killed. He gives the elaborate conditions that must be fulfilled, she fulfills them, with her lover killing him with the poison spear. He turns into an eagle, though, and Gwydion finds him, and coaxes him to himself, whereupon he transforms him back into a human. Lleu avenges himself on his wife’s lover (whose retinue refuses to take the blow for him), with so much force that the spear pierces the rock that he asked be able to put between himself and the spear and kills the lover. Lleu rules well and eventually becomes lord of Gwynedd.
There are three other tales, the first being that of Culhwch and Olwen, an ancestor to the story of Sir Kay (Cei is a warrior of Arthur who helps Culhwch) and the green lady. In this tale Culhwch goes to King Arthur on a feast day as a bard, and it being a feast, Arthur is supposed to give everyone a present. He offers Culhwch whatever he wants (except his kingdom, ship, sword, knife, and wife [all of which have names]). Culhwch asks for the daughter of the chief giant, in the name of all of Arthurs warriors. Then follows a long listing of the warriors, apparently rather poetic and rhyming in Welsh, who become more colorful as the list continues. In order to preserve his honor, Arther had to accomplish it, so he sends some men along with Culhwch. Culhwch finds the daughter, who advises him that if he wants any chance of winning her, he has to promise to get whatever her father asks. They come to the chief-giants castle and ask for his daughter, returning each day and wounding the giant with whatever he tries to kill his “damned and barbarous son-in-law” with. Eventually he agrees if Culhwch agrees to several pages worth of impossible demands, to which Culhwich agrees with a monotonic “It is easy for me to accomplish that, though you may not think so”. Arthur’s warriors (of which Cei is prominent) aid Culhwich in accomplishing all the tasks, the most notable of which are killing of a giant, which they do by pretending to be sword polishs, polishing the sword and killing him, and of finding Mabon which requires asking an owl, a stag, and an eagle, each of which being progressively older and recommending the next because they do not know, until the eagle mentions a salmon which almost kills him, who they find after some effort. The giant gives his daughter to Culhwch and is summarily killed. Culhwch inhabits the fort, marries the daughter and is faithful to her for his life. Arthurs troops disband to their own land.
The second auxiliary tale, relates how the noble Tegid and and his enchantress wife Ceridwen have an exceedingly ugly son (named Afagddu, “Utter darkness”). She knows that he will not be success among the nobles unless he has some exceptional qualities to offset his ugliness, so she spends a year and a day brewing a potion. At the end of this time, three drops spring out of the cauldron, onto Gwion Bach, whom she hired to stir the cauldron and who had pushed her son out of the way (tragically, she had fallen asleep). The contents of the cauldron are now the most potent poison and the cauldron breaks because of it. Ceridwen pursues Gwion Bach, both of them taking different shapes in the pursuit. Eventually Gwion Bach becomes a wheat kernel in a pile of wheat and she becomes a hen and eats him. For nine months she carried him (presumably in human form) and doesn’t have the heart to kill him when he came out so she puts him in a coracle in the sea.
The third tale is that of the great bard Taliesin. The coracle, carrying the spirit of Gwion Bach floats through King Arthur’s time (which was when Ceridwen lived) into Maelgwn’s time, is caught in lord Gwyddno’s wier on All Hallows Eve instead of the ten pounds of salmon it normally caught. The catch of that day was requested by his son Elphin, who was getting less and less money as he spent his fathers money on the social life. He names himself Taliesin after Elphin’s words when he sees him. Elphin’s wife raises Taliesin and Elphin’s wealth becomes greater each day. Elphin makes a boast that he can compete with King Maelgwn: his wife is as chaste as any and his bard is more skilled than any other. The king imprisons Elphin and sends his son Rhun to verify her chastity: Rhun has deflowered all women that have met him. But Taliesin has Elphin’s wife exchange places with her maid. Rhun seduces the maid, she falls asleep due to his sleeping potion, and he cuts off her finger with Elphins ring. The king shows Elphin the evidence but Elphin notes that the hands are way too big for his wife’s (who has very thin and delicate hands), they the fingernails have not been cut for a month (she cuts them everyday), and that the fingernails have rye flour in them. Then Taliesin goes to Maelgwn’s court, sits watching the warriors enter the hand and enchants them by making blerum blerum sounds with his fingers and his lips. The warriors are compelled to repeat this despite the king repeated commanding them otherwise. After being hit with a plate, the chief warrior reveals that it is some spirit, namely a man at the gate. Taliesin is brought before the king, introduces himself in song, wherein he claims to be descended from heaven and to formerly have been Gwion Bach. He then sings another song about how he will rescue Elphin and the effect is that a fierce storm arose. When Elphin was brought from prison, Taliesin sang the fetters open, as well as several other songs, including a satire on the king’s bards. Then Taliesin has Elphin challenge the kings horses to race with his. Taliesin instructs Elphin’s jockey to hit each of the king’s horses on the rump with a rod and drop it as he passes each horse. After the race is won, Taliesin has Elphin dig at the spot of the last rod where a huge cauldron of gold is discovered, which Taliesin says is payment for raising him. The tale ends with Taliesin singing a song of prophesy and about the origin of Man upon the king’s request.
The legends are rather incoherent without Ford’s commentary and even with it are still rather confusing, as they seem to assume a cultural understanding which has been lost over the century’s. Certainly the motivations of the nobles are alien to that of twenty-first century Americans. However, the tales are intriguing are clearly part of a larger, lost, lore that would probably make the places where it protrudes into the story more understandable. Certainly one can see how they influenced much of fantasy and fairy-tale literature. These tales are definitely well worth reading for the unusual ideas.
While definitely a must-read for scholars, the incoherency of the tales makes this more of a scholarly endeavor. Unfortunately, much seems to have been lost in the translation.
- Naming something as one of three events: " That was one of three fortunate interrments when it was interred—and one of three unfortunate disinterments when it was disintered”, “the incident of Branwen’s slap—which was one of the three unfortunate slaps in this island”.
||Only walks, but no horse can
catch up with it.
||Restores dead men to life, only
without speech, if they are soaked in it overnight.
||Returning battle party of Llyr
discover a fully furnished castle and stay in it for a pleasurable
eighty years without sorrow (for those lost in the battle) or
aging. However, upon opening a door they were warned not to open,
the loss floods back and they leave.
|Head of Bendigedifran
||Continues to converse as if the
Bendigedifran were alive. No
oppression can reach Britain while it is buried there. Suggestively similar to the apple planted to protect Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew.
||Woman that Math and Gwydion
created for Lleu out of flowers.
|Golden bowl suspended from the
||Used to trap Pryderi and his
wife, who stuck to it and could not speak.
||Transformed soldiers who ravage
||The sign that something magical
|Potion of barddom
||Three drops that would give
magical powers and intimate knowledge of the world to whoever they
touched. Formed by distilling them, leaving the rest of the
liquid a powerful poison.
||Can change people into animals
and vice-versa and will also determine the truth of a statement. (If the statement is false, some physical representation of the
falsehood is dropped by the speaker)
||Not magical so much as
new. Apparently before Arawn gave them to Pryderi they were
unknown. Only cows were known. Suggests that Arawn has much
that we do not have.
||Math performs it with the aid of
his stoff on his two nephews, Gwion Bach and Ceridwen do it without
aids to escape and pursue (respectively).
|Death of Lleu
||Like any hero, can only be
killed by a confluence of unlikely events. Like all heros, he
knows what it is. (From commentary)
||Taliesin sits by the kings gate
and makes the motion; the soldiers are compelled to repeat it in
the king’s presence.
- Kings must maintain their honor. If someone wounds
another’s honor, he must make restitution and pay a penalty.
- Kings are expected to give gifts to attendees of the feasts. Not receiving a gift impunes the honor of the king, so if you can get the king to offer you an unlimited wish for a gift, then he is bound to give it to you or ruin his honor.
- One responsibility of the King is to produce an heir for the people; it is the people’s right to have an heir (presumably so that a peaceable transition of power happens). The people can demand a divorce if the Queen fails to produce an heir .
- Most of the stories do not actually mention “King” or “Queen”, but merely Lord.
- The only mention of women is generally with respect to their
chastity or lack of it. However, women do seem to have some
control over their own destiny as far as marraige is concerned, as
several of them arrange matters to their benefit.