December 27, 2010 by

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi


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The Four Branches of the Mabinogi is a compliation of Welsh mythological tales found in the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest, both dating to the middle of the fourteenth century.   The stories however, are older, the specific versions dating to around 1100 AD, and thus before the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth. 

Parker writes:  “The Four Branches also relay aspects of a deeply pagan thought-world, which ultimately draws on traditions and beliefs from the Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures of prehistoric Britain, as well as those of the Celtic Iron Age and Romano-British eras.”

The first branch tells the story of Pwyll, Lord of Dyfed.  Pwyll spends a year as Lord of  Annwn, the Underworld and then encounters Rhiannon, whom he marries.  I loved the following exchange between the two, in the initial stages of their courtship when Pwyll inadvertently promises Rhiannon to someone else and Rhiannon isn’t shy about speaking her mind:

Gwawl:  ‘Lord, it is for you I have a request, and to ask you for it I have come.’

Pwyll:  ‘Whatever boon you put to me, as far as I am able to get it, it will be yours.’

Rhiannon:  ‘Och!’ Why do you give such an answer?’

Gwawl:  ‘That is how he has given it, Lady, in the presence of nobles.”

Pwyll:  ‘Friend, what is your boon?’

Gwawl:  ‘You are [about] to sleep with the woman whom I love the most tonight. And it is to ask for her, [along] with the provisions and victuals which are here that I have come.’

Pwyll fell silent, for there was not an answer he could give.

Rhiannon:  ‘Be dumb as long as you like.  There was never a man so slow with his wits as you were [just] then.’

“The main action of the Four Branches takes place in two key centres of power within this region: the Cardigan/Teifi valley area of Dyfed in West Wales, and the northwest of Gwynedd centred on the Anglesey and Arfon coastlands. The relationship between these regional power-centres and the crown of London in the Mabinogi bears a strong resemblance to the geo-politics of the late-twelfth century, echoing the relationship between the native Welsh warlords and the Anglo-Norman Angevin kings during centuries between the establishment of the March and the Edwardian conquest of the late 13th century. These parallels were not accidental. It would appear that for the contemporary courtly audiences in Wales, this process of typological insinuation – linking the mythic past with the politics of the present – was an established function of the genre.”

“A single character, Pryderi links all four branches. In the first tale he’s born and fostered, inherits a kingdom and marries. In the second he’s scarcely mentioned, but in the third he’s imprisoned by enchantment and then released. In the fourth he falls in battle.

The tales themselves are concerned with the themes of fall and redemption, loyalty, marriage, love, fidelity, the wronged wife, and incest.

They’re set in a bizarre and magical landscape which corresponds geographically to the western coast of south and north Wales, and are full of white horses that appear magically, giants, beautiful, intelligent women and heroic men.”

4 Responses to The Four Branches of the Mabinogi

  1. Andrew Breeze

    Sarah — I have read your comments on the _Four Branches_ and agree with your that they must predate Geoffrey of Monmouth, though I would put them a little later than you do, to about 1128 or so.

    What I was thinking is that your experience as a writer of fiction puts you in a strong position to comment on my book _The Origins of the ‘Four Branches of the Mabinogi’_ (Gracewing, 2009), which, as you doubtless know, proposes a female author for it, who died in January 1136.


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