The Mabinogion

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The Stories

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“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,...

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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 maiden accepts him. For her maiden portion, he gives her father the island of Britain and has three castles built for her. Macsen Wledig lives with his wife in Britain for seven years. While he is away, the Romans choose a new emperor, who sends a note to Wledig warning him not to return. Wledig then marches on Gaul, fights his way through Italy, and reconquers Rome.

“Lludd and Llevelys.” Three plagues are ravaging Britain: The first is a crafty foreign people, the second is the yearly midnight scream of a dragon that makes everything barren, and the third is the repeated disappearance of food at the king’s court. Lludd, the great king of Britain, asks help from his wise and well-beloved brother, Llevelys, who is king of France. Llevelys tells Lludd to mash insects in water and sprinkle the solution over the foreigners to kill them. To get rid of the screaming dragon, Lludd will have to lure it with mead, put it in a sack, and bury it in a stone coffer. To keep the food, Lludd must capture a magician who will put everyone to sleep. The king performs these tasks, and Britain is rid of the plagues.

“Kilhwch and Olwen.” Kilhwch’s stepmother has spitefully prophesied that Kilhwch will not have a woman until he wins Olwen, the daughter of Ysbaddaden, a crafty and powerful giant. Kilhwch, who has fallen in love with Olwen without having seen her, sets out immediately for King Arthur’s court, where King Arthur accepts the young man as his knight. Kilhwch then sets out to seek Ysbaddaden, bringing all of King Arthur’s gallant warriors with him. After a long journey, Kilhwch meets Olwen, the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. He and King Arthur’s men proceed to Ysbaddaden’s court to ask for Olwen’s hand. After fighting for three days and wounding the giant three times, Kilhwch learns that he can win Olwen and slay her father after performing forty nearly impossible tasks for the giant. By dint of brute force, cunning, and magic, Kilhwch, King Arthur, and his men succeed in completing the tasks. Kilhwch then slays Ysbaddaden, marries Olwen, and lives happily ever after.

“The Dream of Rhonabwy.” While seeking a man who has ravaged the land, Rhonabwy and his companions find themselves in a dark hall where the floors are covered with dung. After trying to talk to the strange people inhabiting the hall and failing, Rhonabwy lies down on an ox skin and begins to dream. He dreams of the heroic Arthurian age, when men were demigods who lived in splendor in a land where life was full. He finds himself in King Arthur’s court watching a game between King Arthur and Owain. While the game is in progress, three servants inform Owain that his ravens are being killed by King Arthur’s men, but the king insists that the game continue. Owain tells his men to raise his banner, whereupon the ravens revive and begin to slaughter the men. Three servants come to tell King Arthur how his men are being killed, but Owain insists that the game continue. At last, the king begs Owain to call off the ravens. He does so, and there is peace. Many men then bring tribute to King Arthur. At this point, Rhonabwy awakens.

“The Lady of the Fountain.” While at King Arthur’s court, Owain learns from Kynon of the powerful Knight of the Fountain, who overthrows all challengers. Upon being taunted by Kai, Owain goes in search of this knight, challenges him, and slays him. With the help of a maiden, Owain then escapes the angry townsmen who seek to avenge the death of their lord, the knight. Owain marries the dead knight’s widow and rules the land well for three years. One day, King Arthur and his knights come in search of Owain. When Arthur’s men arrive at the fountain, they challenge the new Knight of the Fountain and are overthrown by him. The king and Owain are finally reunited, and Owain returns to King Arthur’s court after promising his wife that he will return at the end of three years. Owain is later reminded of his promise when his wife comes to King Arthur’s court and removes the ring that she had given him as a token by which to remember her. Then Owain goes in search of his wife. After restoring a lady’s kingdom, killing a serpent that is about to destroy a lion, saving the maiden who aided him six years earlier, and killing her tormentors, Owain is restored to his wife. Owain performs additional feats, including defeating and transforming the Black Oppressor, and thereafter he and his wife live happily at King Arthur’s court.

“Peredur, Son of Evrawg.” As a boy, Peredur lives a sheltered life with his mother, but nevertheless he grows up strong and swift. Although his mother does not want him to become a knight, nothing can keep him from fulfilling his desire. When he prepares to leave his mother and journey to King Arthur’s court, she instructs him in the chivalric code. Peredur is an ungainly sight as he enters King Arthur’s court, for he is still awkward and naïve. He soon shows his prowess in battle, however, and through many adventures he acquires polish and skill in the arts of hunting, war, and love. Many reports of his strength and bravery reach King Arthur’s ears. Peredur spends his time defending and loving maidens, restoring kingdoms to the wronged, avenging insults, killing monsters and evil men, protecting the weak, and ridding the land of plagues. In short, he is a matchless knight. In the course of his adventures, he inadvertently causes a kingdom to wither and grow barren, but he restores it to fertility by dint of strength and courage. In the end, he rids the land of seven evil witches.

“Gerint, Son of Erbin.” While King Arthur and his men are hunting, Gerint rides with the queen and her maids. When a dwarf insults Gerint and one of the maids, the knight challenges the dwarf’s lord to a contest and defeats him. Afterward, Gerint restores a kingdom to its proper lord and wins the king’s daughter, Enid, as his wife. Gerint then travels back to King Arthur’s court and receives a stag head for his reward. In time, Gerint inherits a kingdom from his father, and he goes with Enid to rule the land. He devotes more time to his wife than he does to jousts or battles, and his subjects complain bitterly. Enid learns of their grievance and inadvertently tells her husband. In anger, Gerint sets out on a journey with his wife to prove his strength and valor. He performs superhuman feats and slaughters belligerent and cowardly knights in vast numbers, but he nearly dies from the effort. Finally, having proved himself to his wife and his subjects, he returns home to rule once more.

Places Discussed

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*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 life and customs of the royal courts through which their characters move. These are generally places of refuge and, especially, hospitality, in which rank and honor are carefully noted and taken into consideration. Food, drink, entertainment (including sex), and conversation dominate the feasts that seem so common. When provision is scanty or begrudged, as at the home of Heilyn the Red in “Dream of Rhonabwy,” the sneer of the author comes through on the page. When it simply disappears, as do the folk of Arberth, or the supplies of King Lludd’s courts, enchantment alone may be the cause.

At the royal courts wandering knights and nobles find shelter, spare armor, and women to love. Court rules and rituals are also evident, as means for controlling what could easily become drunken, unruly crowds. The granting of requests, which was a form of generosity, gets some noble characters in trouble when they fail to realize that promising “anything” may lead to disaster or a loss of face. Courts are also places of great beauty, both natural and man-made, and rich descriptions of clothing and decorations cause several narratives to pause.

King Arthur’s court

King Arthur’s court. Courts of the legendary King Arthur have various names and locations. The Camelot familiar to many modern readers disappears behind the Celtic Kelli Wig and Caer Llion ar Wysg (Caerleon on Usk). Arthur is not only the most famous and powerful ruler (sometimes called “emperor”) in the tales, he also presides over the ideal royal court as a paragon of generosity and gentility. Nonetheless, it is at his court that some characters are offended (Peredur) or even assaulted (Gwenhwyvar), in clear violations of what would elsewhere be called courtesy. Arthur’s courts also provide convenient starting points for several of the tales, including “Culhwch,” “Owein,” and “Gereint and Enid.”


*Countryside. Most of The Mabinogion’s stories entail travel for one purpose or another. While concrete routes can rarely be traced, the authors clearly associate certain types of terrain with certain moods. As might be expected, forests provide the greatest mystery and danger, as in “Gereint and Enid,” while lovely valleys, flowing rivers, and views of fine cities either contrast with characters’ black moods or accentuate the lightheartedness of the moment. The authors present these settings and details in a spare but effective way.


Cities. Neither Celtic culture nor these Welsh authors are comfortable with urban areas. London, for example, is depicted as a court rather than a town, and the towns in which the refugees of “Manawydan” seek a livelihood are hotbeds of conspiracy against the young “craftsmen.” This suggests a hint of fourteenth century mutual animosity between the bourgeois and nobles, as well as between the Welsh and English.


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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.


Critical Essays