The Mabinogion Analysis

The Stories

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

“Pwyll, Prince of Dyved.” Pwyll, the prince of Dyved, is caught stealing a dying deer. In order to redeem himself, Pwyll agrees to exchange lands and appearances with the chieftain who has caught him and to slay the chieftain’s enemy after a year’s time. During that year, each prince rules the other’s land wisely and well, and each remains faithful to his own true wife. At the year’s end, Pwyll slays the enemy, returns home on good terms with the other prince, and eventually gains the other’s lands. From a hill one day, Pwyll sees a lovely lady ride by. She eludes him three times, but on the fourth time she passes, he speaks to her. She tells him that her name is Rhiannon and invites him to come to her castle a year from that day. Pwyll goes there with his men, subdues her other suitor, and wins the lady. Some time thereafter, Rhiannon gives birth to a son who disappears the first night after his birth. The women on watch accuse her of killing the boy, and Pwyll makes her pay a heavy penance. Meanwhile, a farmer has taken the baby from a monster. Eventually, he restores the boy to Pwyll, who then releases his wife from her penance and names his son Pryderi.

“Branwen, Daughter of Llyr.” Bendigeid Vran, son of Llyr and king of the Island of the Mighty, makes a pact with Matholwch, king of Ireland, and gives him his sister Branwen to wed. When the king of Ireland suffers an insult at the hands of one of Bendigeid Vran’s men, Bendigeid Vran makes good the loss; because of the insult, however, Matholwch and Branwen are made to suffer heavily at the hands of the Irishmen. Bendigeid Vran learns of their treatment, sails to Ireland, and makes war on the Irish. Both sides suffer great losses. Bendigeid Vran is killed by a poisoned spear; his last request is that his head be buried in the White Mount in London. Branwen dies of sorrow. Finally, only seven of Bendigeid Vran’s men are left alive to bury the head of their chief, and only five pregnant Irish women survive.

“Manawydan, Son of Llyr.” Two of the men left living after the war in Ireland are Pryderi and Manawydan, the brother of Bendigeid Vran. These two men go to live on Pryderi’s lands, and Manawydan marries Pryderi’s mother. The two men and their wives—Pryderi has a wife named Kicva—live pleasantly until the countryside is magically laid desolate and everyone else disappears. They leave their lands and try to earn their living at various trades, but they are always driven off by envious competitors. When they return to their own lands, Pryderi and his mother enter a magic castle that vanishes with them. Manawydan then tries farming, and again his crops are magically desolated. Determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, Manawydan stays up all night to watch his last field. When he sees thousands of mice ravaging the field, he catches one and declares that he will hang it. Pryderi’s wife, along with three churchmen, tries to dissuade him, but he remains determined to hang the mouse. At last, the third churchman admits that he is the one who has cursed Manawydan and his friends, in revenge for an insult from Pryderi’s father years before. He promises to restore everything, including Pryderi and his mother, if Manawydan will release the mouse. Manawydan demands that the magician never touch his lands again, and he returns the mouse, who happens to be the churchman’s wife. Everything is restored, and the four companions return to their former happiness.

“Math, Son of Mathonwy.” Gwydion’s brother, Gilvaethwy, loves King Math’s footmaiden, Goewin. Hoping to secure the maiden for his brother, Gwydion tricks Pryderi into exchanging some pigs for twelve phantom steeds and twelve phantom greyhounds. Afterward, Pryderi and his men pursue the tricksters. While King Math and his men are preparing to fight this army, Gwydion and his brother rape the footmaiden before they return to the fight and win the battle for King Math. The king then punishes the brothers by turning them into animals for three years. After his penance, Gwydion has two sons. Their mother curses Gwydion’s favorite son, named Llew Llaw Gyffes, by saying that he will never have a human wife. To thwart this curse, King Math and Gwydion create for Llew Llaw Gyffes an elfwife, Blodeuwedd, out of flowers. The wife proves unfaithful by taking a lover. Determined to get rid of her husband, she asks him how he might be killed. He foolishly tells her, and in turn she tells her lover, who tries to kill Llew Llaw Gyffes. Gwydion’s son does not die, however, but is turned into an eagle. Gwydion then searches for his son, finds him, and restores him to his former shape. Gwydion and Llew Llaw Gyffes then take revenge on the wife and her lover, turning her into an owl and killing him.

“The Dream of Macsen Wledig.” Macsen Wledig, the emperor of Rome, dreams one night of a lovely maiden in a strange and wonderful land. Awakening, he sends his messengers all over the world in search of her. After wandering in many lands, they find her in a castle in Britain. They guide the emperor to her, and he finds everything as it had been in his dream. The...

(The entire section is 2099 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*British Isles

*British Isles. European island group comprising Great Britain, Ireland, and smaller surrounding islands whose early inhabitants spoke Celtic languages. Celtic culture once extended throughout Europe. By the time period in which most of the tales in The Mabinogion are set—perhaps the sixth or seventh century c.e.—continental Celts held only Brittany in western France, and Germanic Anglo-Saxons controlled the parts of southeastern and central Britain previously ruled by the Roman Empire.

The Celtic “fringe” lands of Wales, Cornwall, and Ireland provide the setting for most of The Mabinogion’s tales. Its characters also traverse parts of England, however, and places like London (King Lludd’s favorite court) and Oxford appear as Celtic towns, while the father of Peredur the knight seems to hail from York. Ireland is a place to be visited, and at least in “Branwen” is associated with otherworldly powers, while Britain is the “Island of the Mighty.”

Otherworldly places

Otherworldly places. Among the pagan Celts the connection of specific locations with gods or spirits was common and may emerge in these Christianized stories as spiritually charged spots, like Gorsedd Arberth or the oxhide cot in the “Dream of Rhonabwy.” More spectacular are mystic kingdoms like that of Annwvyn in “Pwyll,” which produced the shape-shifting King Arawn, or Heveydd the Old’s court. These places seem to dot the landscape without need of fantastic journeys. They provide a constant tension between the real and imagined, the possible and the unlikely.

Castles and courts

Castles and courts. The authors of the tales are constantly concerned with...

(The entire section is 721 words.)


(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Ford, Patrick K. The “Mabinogi” and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972. Traces history of various translations of the Welsh myths. Includes a map of Wales, a glossary, and a guide to Welsh pronunciations. Designed to inform students and general readers alike.

Graves, Robert. The White Goddess. 3d ed. Winchester, Mass.: Faber & Faber, 1959. This amended and enlarged edition celebrates the poetic myth in great detail. Hails Rhiannon as “white goddess.”

Jones, Gwyn. Kings, Beasts, and Heroes. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1972. Portions of text present an excellent condensed overview of The Mabinogion. Focuses on Culhwch and Olwen, as well as Arthur. More than twenty-two illustrations.

Laynard, John. A Celtic Quest: Sexuality and Soul in Individuation. Edited by Anne S. Bosch. New York: Spring Publications, 1975. Explains The Mabinogion and related stories in psychological and behavioral terms. Uses allegory to show the characters’ relationship to areas of the psyche. Places emphasis on the dichotomy between the nurturing mother figure and the devouring, animalistic mother.

The Mabinogion. Translated by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones. London: J. M. Dent, 1949. Excellent adaptation of the Welsh myths. Discusses the four branches of the Mabiniogi and its seven related stories in thorough detail. Advocates the literary merit of the mythological legends.