A thousand years ago, in the Celtic kingdoms of Wales, great lords gave great feasts for their fighting men and courtiers. In timbered halls, for days on end, heaps of meat and bread were washed down with gallons of beer and mead. And in between the meals, when bellies were stuffed and spirits high, the storyteller rose and spun his tales of times long past.
He told of lords, bold and generous. He told of ladies, grand and glorious. But of all he told about, no lord was more honorable than Pwyll, King of Dyfed. And no lady was more admirable than Rhiannon.
The halls are now long gone—yet some tales were written down and gathered in a book we call today The Mabinogion. And so the tales live on....
* * *
Lord Pwyll, King of Dyfed, sat feasting in his dining hall with all his men around. And when the midday meal was done, he told them, “I would go alone awhile, atop the Mount of Arberth.”
“Lord,” said one of his men, “there is a saying that whatever king sits upon that mount will meet with an attack, or else a marvel.”
“I do not fear attack,” said Pwyll, smiling, “and I would welcome a marvel.”
So on that spring day, Lord Pwyll rode up the Mount of Arberth, which rose above the court. And there he sat and gazed on the farms and herds, forests and streams of Dyfed.
“My realm is rich,” he said. “If only now I had a queen to share it.”
Just then he spied a veiled lady on a great white horse, approaching at an easy gait on the road past the hill.
“Perhaps this is an omen,” said Pwyll. “I will ride down to greet her.”
He speedily mounted his horse, but as he reached the foot of the hill, she was already riding past. He let his horse prance after, thinking to easily overtake her. When he did not, he gave his horse the rein and trotted toward her. But though the lady kept her pace, he fell even farther behind.
Pwyll spurred his horse to a gallop—but at its greatest speed, it lost more ground than ever. And still the lady rode no faster than a walk.
At last his horse began to fail, and he called out, “Lady, in the name of the man you hold dearest, please halt!”
“I will,” she said. “And for the sake of your horse, you could have asked it sooner.”
She lifted her veil and met his gaze. And no woman he had ever looked on seemed lovely next to her.
“Lady, what errand brings you here?”
“My lord, to meet with you is my errand.”
“No answer could please me more,” said Pwyll. “But will you tell me who you are?”
“I am Rhiannon,” she said, “daughter of Heveydd the Old, who would marry me off to a man I do not want. It is you I have hoped to wed since childhood, lord. No other man will I have unless you reject me, and to hear your answer have I come.”
“Lady,” said Pwyll, “if I had my choice of any woman in the world, it is you I would choose.”
“If that is so,” she said, “then come to my father’s court one month from today. A feast will be held to mark my union with Lord Gwawl. King of a rich country is he, and a powerful magician. Yet with the help of this, the bride may yet be yours.”
She handed him a woven bag. “It is magic, my lord. No matter how much is put in, it will always hold more.” And she told him her plan.
“I will do as you say,” said Pwyll, “and hope you will be mine.”
At the end of one month, Pwyll rode with a hundred horsemen to the court of Heveydd the Old, but they stayed outside, hidden in the orchard. Pwyll disguised himself with ragged clothes over his own and strung a hunting horn about his neck. He told his men, “Come when you hear the horn.”
Then he entered the hall, where Lord Gwawl and his men were at the feast. Gwawl was in the seat of honor, with Rhiannon and her father at his sides.
“Lord Gwawl, a greeting to you on this joyous day. I come to ask a boon—just food enough to fill this small bag.”
“It will be filled,” said Gwawl.
Pwyll held the bag open as servants poured in food. But the more food they put in, the larger the bag grew, so there was always room for more.
“Friend,” said Gwawl, “will your bag never be full?”
“It will not,” said Pwyll, “until a truly great lord shall climb into it, stand upon the food, and three times cry, ‘Enough!’”
Rhiannon turned to Gwawl. “My lord, you are the man for the task. Please save our feast!”
So Gwawl climbed into Pwyll’s bag, his feet in the food, and cried, “Enough! Enough! Enough!”
“Just as you say,” said Pwyll. He pushed Gwawl over so he fell inside the bag, then quickly tied it shut. Then he sounded his horn, and his men rushed in with swords drawn. They fell on Gwawl’s men and quickly had them fettered.
Heveydd cried, “Who dares disturb a feast in my hall?”
Then Pwyll removed his ragged disguise. “Friend, it is I, the King of Dyfed. More you shall know in a moment.”
He turned to the bag. “Lord Gwawl, I mean you no harm. If I release you, will you give your pledge to quit all claim to the lady?”
“I can do nothing else,” said Gwawl.
“Then go free,” said Pwyll. He untied the bag and let him out.
“I have sworn to forget the lady,” said Gwawl. “Yet I’ll not forget the insult.” He strode from the hall, with all his men behind.
Then Pwyll turned to Heveydd. “I now must ask for the hand of your daughter.”
“My lord,” said Heveydd, “for all the trouble she has caused me, you are welcome to her.”
Then the hall was put to order and they sat down to the feast. The celebration went on for many days, and Pwyll and Rhiannon left there as husband and wife.
* * *
A season passed, and then a second, while Pwyll and Rhiannon reigned happily over Dyfed. Then one fall day, while sitting at the feast, Pwyll said to her, “Let us visit the place our happiness started.”
So they rode together up the Mount of Arberth. “Just here I sat,” said Pwyll, and he sat on it once more.
Then came a sound like thunder, and a thick mist descended all around. When it lifted, they looked out on the land and were amazed. Gone were all the people in the fields, all the herds, the homes, and every other sign of settlement but the court itself—and no man, woman, or child there either.
“Good God,” cried Pwyll. “What evil has struck our land?”
Rhiannon said, “It can only be the hand of Gwawl. He has not forgotten nor forgiven. And now he works his magic for revenge.”
They hurried to the court and searched in dining hall, sleeping chambers, kitchen, and cellar. But nothing alive remained except their hounds and horses.
“By a single blow we are vanquished,” said Pwyll.
“Yes, my lord,” said Rhiannon. “Yet still we have each other.”
“And for that at least,” said Pwyll, “I give thanks.”
For weeks they lived off provisions of the feast. When those were gone, Pwyll hunted and fished, while Rhiannon gathered wild herbs and fruits and honey.
One morning, as Pwyll rode on the hunt, the hounds rushed into a thicket and flushed out a wild white boar. Off ran the boar with the dogs at its heels—but before the animals were out of sight, the boar stopped and turned. It held the dogs at bay till Pwyll drew near, then turned and ran again.
Several times this happened, till they came to a huge stone fortress where Pwyll knew no fortress had been before. The boar ran through the open gate, with the dogs following. Then all barking stopped, and however long he waited, he heard nothing more.
“Certain it is,” said Pwyll, “that he who cast the spell on Dyfed is the one who placed this fortress here. Yet I cannot abandon my hounds.”
Into the fortress he rode. He saw no boar, nor hounds, nor any living thing, nor a building of any kind. Nothing was there but a marble fountain, with a marble step around it, and next to the fountain a vessel of gold, hung from chains that reached to the sky.
When Pwyll beheld the clear water, he felt at once an unbearable thirst. He mounted the step and grasped the vessel, then dipped it in the fountain and drank deeply. Then he discovered that the vessel held his hands fast, and the step held his feet. Mightily he struggled, yet he could not pull away.
At last his strength was spent. “Certain it is,” he said, “I shall never see my love again.”
Then came a sound like thunder, and a mist, and the fortress vanished from the earth.
At day’s end, Rhiannon waited patiently for her lord, but he did not come. The next morning, she mounted her horse and started out in search. For days she rode the length and breadth of Dyfed, yet found not a trace.
At last Rhiannon wept. “Now have I been given greatest sorrow. Yet I’ll not let go of hope—for when hope leaves, there is little left in life.”
So she returned to the court, there to live as best she could. Through the end of fall, she caught small animals and learned to fish. That winter, she dug through snow and frozen ground to gather roots. In spring, she tilled three fields and sowed wheat.
The summer passed, and Rhiannon saw that the wheat in one field was ripe. “This one I’ll harvest tomorrow,” she said.
But when she arrived next morning, she saw a sight she’d never seen before. The ear of grain on each stalk was snipped off and taken away, and only straw left standing.
“How could this be?” she said. But she found no answer.
Then Rhiannon looked at the second field and settled on next morning for the harvest. But when she came for it, she found the same as before—bare stalks only, ears all gone.
“Just one field left,” she said. “But shame on me if I do not solve this mystery.”
So she took a club and hid that night by the field. Just around midnight, she heard a great squeaking and squealing. She looked out and saw approaching a huge army of mice.
Into the field they poured. Each mouse ran up a stalk of wheat until the stalk bent under its weight. Then the mouse bit off the ear, jumped to the ground, and carried the ear away.
In a fury, Rhiannon rose and gave chase, swinging her club again and again. But as often as she struck, the mice scattered so she only hit the ground. Soon the horde pulled far ahead—all but one old mouse that lagged behind.
Rhiannon grabbed it. “A mouse, is it? Perhaps, and perhaps not. But mouse or no, it surely is a thief, and the punishment for thievery is hanging. Tomorrow will be the day of justice—and on that day we’ll see what else may come.”
Early next morning, Rhiannon rode up the Mount of Arberth, the mouse in her hand. At the top, she set two forked sticks in the ground, with another stick across them. Around the mouse’s neck she tied a string, and the string’s other end she laid over the crosspiece.
“Say your prayers, little thief, for now is the time of execution.”
She reached for the string to raise the mouse. But as she did so, she saw a rider coming up the hill—a bishop, and with him his servants and seven horses laden with baggage. And no other strangers had she seen since the spell came on Dyfed.
“A blessing on you, daughter,” said the bishop. “What business is this you’re about? Could that be a mouse in your hand?”
“Lord bishop, I am hanging a thief. This mouse stole from me, and now it will pay the price of its crime.”
“My daughter,” said the bishop gently, “it ill becomes a lady of noble birth to deal with such a creature. Pray do not lower yourself so. Here, let me buy it from you. Take a gold coin and let the mouse go.”
“I will not,” said Rhiannon, “for it will get the punishment it deserves.”
“I can hardly say how foolish you look,” said the bishop. “I beg of you, take three gold coins and end this disgrace.”
“It is not for sale.”
“If you won’t take three,” said the bishop, “then take twenty.”
“I will not,” said Rhiannon.
“If you won’t take twenty, then take my seven horses and all their baggage.”
“By Heaven, I’ll accept none of it.”
“All right,” said the bishop, “name your price.”
“The price of the mouse,” said Rhiannon, “is the freedom of Pwyll and an end to the spell on Dyfed.”
“You shall have it. Now let the mouse go.”
“Not yet,” said Rhiannon. “I will see your true form and know who the mouse is.”
Then the bishop and his entourage vanished, and in their place was Lord Gwawl upon his steed.
“Yes, lady, it is I who enchanted Dyfed and captured Pwyll. And on two nights I sent my men in the form of mice to steal your crop—but on the third night, the ladies of my court asked to go instead. Among them was my mother, and she it is in your hand. Now let the mouse go.”
“I will not,” said Rhiannon, “until I have your pledge never again to cast a spell on Dyfed, or to avenge yourself on Pwyll, or on any he holds dear.”
“You have it. Now let the mouse go!”
“Not before I see my lord.”
Then came a sound like thunder, and a mist. And when it lifted, Pwyll stood with them.
“My love!” he cried. “Is it you who has saved me?”
“She it is,” said Gwawl bitterly, “and your kingdom with you.”
And Rhiannon and Pwyll looked out over Dyfed and saw the farms and herds and houses, all as before.
“Now let the mouse go.”
Rhiannon untied the mouse and set it down. Gwawl touched it with a wand, and the mouse became a trembling whitehaired lady. With a scowl, he lifted her up, and horse and riders vanished.
Then king and queen embraced and wept for joy.
“My lord, now is all my hope rewarded.”
“My lady, I had lost my hope. Thankful I am you had enough for both!”
The two returned to court, where feast and companions waited as if nothing ever had happened. And Pwyll and Rhiannon reigned well and happily, all the rest of their days.
In the late Middle Ages in Wales, a number of traditional stories were brought together and preserved in a collection we now call The Mabinogion (“mahbin-Ogeeun,” hard g). The core of this collection was “The Four Branches of the Mabinogi” (“mahbin-Ogee”), a set of interrelated stories compiled by a single anonymous author sometime around the twelfth century.
In the Four Branches, the author produced a literary synthesis of tales told for centuries by professional storytellers in royal courts. Among those tales were the various adventures of Pwyll and Rhiannon, only some of which are retold here.
The nominal setting for these adventures is Dyfed, a Welsh kingdom of the early Middle Ages. In the Wales of that time, a king’s life was mostly a series of feasts and hunting expeditions in the company of his fighting men and other retainers, all supported by the hospitality of his subjects.
As in most militant societies, women had a subordinate role, but a strong woman like Rhiannon could still make her place. Marriage was a simple affair: The couple had only to make known its intention, then spend a night together.
Though the setting of the Four Branches is supposedly early medieval, the descriptions of daily life, custom, and politics show the influence of later centuries. It was in the twelfth century, for instance, that the remaining Welsh kings took the title of “Lord.” Alongside these later influences are ones more ancient. Most of the characters and many of the plot motifs in the Four Branches derive from Celtic mythology in the centuries before Christ.
Rhiannon, for instance—whose name means “Great Queen”—has been linked to Epona, the horse goddess of the continental Celts, who was often portrayed riding at an amble and carrying a magical bag. In the same way, Pwyll may have earlier been king of a supernatural Otherworld. These divinities were “demoted” when the Celtic peoples of Britain and Ireland adopted Christianity—yet they kept their hold on the Welsh imagination.
Though this retelling is in my own words, I’ve done my best to retain the flavor of the original. To better unify the tale, I’ve reassigned some actions among the original characters—much as the compiler of the Four Branches did with his own source material.
Mabinogion translations consulted were those by Charlotte Guest (1849), Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones (1948), Jeffrey Gantz (1976), Patrick Ford (1977), and Gwyn Thomas and Kevin Crossley-Holland (1985). The last of these, Tales from the Mabinogion (Overlook Press)—comprising the Four Branches only—has an illustrated format aimed at young readers.
These pronunciations are only approximate. The Welsh double l, for instance, has no exact match in English.
Arberth ~ ARberth
Celtic ~ KELtik
Dyfed ~ DUVid
Gwawl ~ GWOWL
Heveydd ~ HEVaith
Mabinogion ~ mahbinOgeeun (hardg)
Pwyll ~ POOL or POOEETH or POOEETL
Rhiannon ~ reeANun or hreeONun