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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. He told of friends, brave and faithful. But of all he told about, no friend was more loyal than Manawydan, son of Llyr. No lady was more admirable than Rhiannon. And no lord was more honorable than Pwyll, King of Dyfed.
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, was in his chief court at Arberth, and a great feast had been prepared for him and his men. And after the midday meal, he said to Manawydan, son of Llyr, “Friend and companion, will you walk with me upon the Mount of Arberth?”
“I will, lord,” said Manawydan. “But 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 in such company,” said Pwyll, “and I would welcome a marvel.”
So they went up the Mount of Arberth, which rose above the court, and they sat and gazed upon the farms and herds, forests and streams of Dyfed. And in a while, they spied a veiled lady on a great white horse, approaching at an easy gait on the road past the mount.
“Do you know who the rider is?” asked Pwyll.
“I do not,” said Manawydan. “But I can find out soon enough.”
So Manawydan descended the mount, and just as he reached its foot, the lady rode past. So slow was her ride, he thought to catch up by walking. When he did not, he ran a little. But though the lady kept her pace, the distance between them grew greater. Harder he ran—but the faster he went, the farther he was from the lady. And still she went as slowly as before.
At last he returned to the mount. “My lord,” he said, “you saw it was useless to follow.”
“I did,” said Pwyll. “This truly was a marvel, and a mystery as well.”
The next day, after the midday meal, Pwyll said to Manawydan, “Let us walk again on the mount. But this time, we’ll bring my horse along.”
So once more they climbed the mount. And they had not sat long when they saw the same lady, in the same dress and veil, on the same horse, on the same road, coming at the same slow, steady pace.
Pwyll speedily mounted his horse, but as he reached the foot of the mount, she was already riding past the spot. Then he let his horse prance after, thinking to easily overtake her. When he did not, he gave his horse the rein. It began to trot, yet fell even farther behind. Then he spurred it 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,” he said, “what errand brings you here?”
“My lord,” she said, “to meet with you is my errand.”
“No answer could please me more,” said Pwyll. “But will you tell me who you are?”
“I will,” she said. “I am Rhiannon, daughter of Heveydd the Old, who would marry me off to a man I do not want. It is you I have loved since childhood, lord, and no other man will I wed 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 honor our union.”
At the end of one month, Pwyll rode with a hundred horsemen to the court of Heveydd the Old. A great company welcomed him, and a great feast was ready. And Pwyll was given the seat of honor, with Rhiannon on one side and her father on the other.
When the first meal was over and the revelry begun, a tall man in noble dress entered the hall.
“Lord Pwyll, a greeting to you.”
“Welcome, friend, and take a seat,” said Pwyll.
“I will not,” he said, “for my business is to ask of you a boon.”
“On this happy occasion,” said Pwyll, “nothing I can give will be refused.”
“My lord,” cried Rhiannon, “make not such a promise!”
“He did, lady,” said the man, “and in the presence of nobles.”
“What boon do you seek, friend?” said Pwyll.
“I ask for the lady at your side,” he said, “to be my wife instead of yours.”
Speechless sat the King of Dyfed.
“Be silent as long as you like,” hissed Rhiannon, “for no man ever used words more foolishly!”
“Lady,” said Pwyll softly, “I knew not who he was.”
“He is the man I was to marry,” she said, “Lord Gwawl, king of a rich country and cousin to a powerful magician, Lord Llewyd. But since you have given your word, you now must make it good.”
“That I could never do!” said Pwyll.
“You can, lord,” she said. “Let him have me, but make sure he never gets me.”
“How can that be?”
“I will give you a magic bag,” she said. “No matter how much is put into this bag, it will always hold more. Now, here’s what you must do.” And she whispered her plan.
“My lord,” said Gwawl, “I await your answer.”
“And here it is,” said Pwyll. “The lady is yours, for as long as you can keep her.”
“Friend,” said Rhiannon to Gwawl, “we hold this feast for the King of Dyfed. But return in one month’s time, and another will be held for you and me.”
So passed another month. Then Pwyll again rode out with his hundred men 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. And he told Manawydan and the others, “Come when you hear the horn.”
Then he entered the hall, where Lord Gwawl and his men were at the feast. And Gwawl was in the seat of honor, with Rhiannon on one side and her father on the other.
“Lord Gwawl, a greeting to you.”
“And one to you also,” said Gwawl.
“My lord, I come to ask a boon.”
“Ask and you shall have it,” said Gwawl, “if it be within reason.”
“You speak wisely, lord,” said Pwyll. “But the boon is not large. I ask only for food to fill this small bag.”
“Fill it for him,” ordered Gwawl.
So 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!’”
“My lord,” said Rhiannon to Gwawl, “you are the man for the task. Will you save our feast?”
“I will,” he declared. He 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 Manawydan and the others rushed in with swords drawn. They fell on Gwawl’s men and quickly had them fettered.
Then Pwyll removed his ragged disguise, and while he did so, his men took the bag with Gwawl in it and hung it on a peg. And Pwyll’s men began to play a game with the bag, each man hitting or kicking it fiercely. And they mocked the man within.
“Lord Pwyll,” cried out Gwawl, “please hear me! I do not merit death in a bag!”
“It’s true, lord,” said Heveydd. “A fate like that does not befit him.”
“What is your counsel?” asked Pwyll.
“My lord,” said Rhiannon, “he is punished enough. Take his pledge never to seek redress or revenge, then let him go.”
“Will you give such a pledge?” asked Pwyll.
“I will,” said Gwawl, “though Heaven knows what is owed me.”
They untied the bag and let him out. “With your leave,” said Gwawl. And he limped away with lowered head, and all his men behind.
Then the hall was put to order and they sat down to the feast, each in the same seat as the month before. And the feast went on for many days, with plentiful food and drink, excellent conversation, spirited singing, and delightful entertainment by bards and storytellers.
And Pwyll and Rhiannon left that feast as husband and wife. Yet a day would come when they would regret the treatment of Lord Gwawl in the bag.
For one year and then a second, Pwyll and Rhiannon reigned over Dyfed to the satisfaction of all. But in the third year, the nobles met in the hills of Prescelly and sent word to Pwyll.
“My lady,” said Pwyll, “the nobles complain you have not borne an heir, and ask me to take a different wife. What should I tell them?”
“My lord,” said Rhiannon, “tell them what you will.”
“Mistake me not,” said Pwyll. “I would not part with you for anything. Yet neither can I ignore the supporters of my rule.”
“Then say the time yet is short. One more year and one year only must they wait.”
Before the year was out, Rhiannon bore a son, to the great joy of the court. And that same night, three ladies were sent to watch over mother and child. But all three fell asleep before midnight, and when they rose near dawn, the boy was gone.
They searched inside the room and out, but found no sign. “Lucky we’ll be,” said one, “if they merely cut off our heads or burn us alive.”
“Let us flee,” said a second, “before the court awakes.”
“No, wait,” said the third. “I have a plan. We’ll steal a piglet from one of the sows and scatter its bones about the bed. And on Rhiannon’s face and hands we’ll smear the blood.” And this they did.
At dawn, Rhiannon woke and said, “Sisters, bring my baby.”
“Wicked woman!” cried a lady. “How can you ask for your child?”
“Are we not bruised all over from fighting you?” said another. “We never knew so strong and fierce a woman!”
“No way was there to stop you,” said the third. “But what would make a mother devour her son?”
“Sisters, what lies are you telling?” cried Rhiannon. “If the child is missing and you fear for your lives, I’ll protect you. But for God’s sake, do not accuse me of such evil!” Yet the women held to their story.
Swiftly the news spread through Dyfed. The nobles met again in Prescelly, where they summoned Pwyll and Rhiannon. “My lord,” said Pendaran, their spokesman, “we beg you, send away your wife!”
“I will not,” said Pwyll. “If you think her guilty, then yours is the power to judge and punish. But she is not barren, and on no other grounds can you seek to part us.”
The nobles conferred. “Lady,” said Pendaran, “do you contest the charges?”
“I do not,” said Rhiannon, “for I know by law no testimony can outweigh three others. Yet Heaven knows the truth.”
“Our judgment then is this,” said Pendaran. “Each evening as before, you will reign as Queen of Dyfed. But each day from dawn to dusk, for seven years, you will stay by the mounting block outside the gate at Arberth. To every traveler will you tell your crime, and each will you offer to bear on your back through the gate.”
This did Rhiannon for one year, then two, then six. And all who saw her pitied her, though many feared her also. And few burdened her to carry them.
One day, Lord Teyrnon, King of Gwent, rode up to the gate, and a fine young lad sat before him on the horse. “Lord,” said Rhiannon, “it makes me sad to see the boy, for it reminds me how I killed my own son and devoured him. But dismount and let me carry you through the gate.”
“Lady,” said Teyrnon, “never would I allow it. And shame on those who make you tell that lie.”
That evening at the feast, Teyrnon was in the seat of honor, with Pwyll on one side and Rhiannon on the other, and the boy on the other side of Pwyll. And after the meal, there was conversation and carousing, until Teyrnon called out, “A story for the company.” And all grew quiet to listen.
“I have a mare,” he began, “with no equal among horses in my land. And each May Eve, this mare would give birth. Yet come morning, the foal would always be gone. At last I said to myself, ‘Shame on me if I don’t find out the cause.’ So the next May Eve, I took up sword and spear, and carried a lamp to the stable.
“The hours passed. And ’round about midnight, the mare dropped a colt, as fine and sturdy as could be. I came closer to inspect it, when all at once I heard a great uproar. In through the window came a gigantic arm, and on its end, one huge claw. The claw fastened about the colt and started dragging it to the window.
“I gathered my wits and drew my sword. With one swift stroke, I severed the arm at the elbow. From outside came a deafening wail, a sound that swiftly moved away. I rushed out and gave chase, but the thing was too quick, and I never even saw what it was.
“Yet as I returned, I found something it had left behind. Outside the stable window was a basket, and in the basket was a baby boy. I took him to my wife, and we set to raise him as our own. And we named the boy Pryderi.
“Over the years, travelers brought us news of Rhiannon and her punishment, and sorry I was to hear it, yet it seemed no special business of my own. Then one day I looked at our lad, and what I saw astounded me, for no one did he resemble so much as Pwyll, King of Dyfed.
“And now, you men and women of this company, behold the boy yourselves, and see if any can deny he is the heir of your lord.”
And all beheld the boy, and not one could deny it.
“Heaven be praised!” cried Rhiannon.
And so was Rhiannon’s child restored and her punishment brought to an end. Yet far from finished were the troubles of Pwyll and Rhiannon.
Pryderi, Prince of Dyfed, grew in strength and skill, and many were the times he heard from Pwyll or Rhiannon or Manawydan the story of his parents’ meeting. And one day he said to them, “Show me where it happened.”
So the four of them climbed 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 about. And when it lifted, they looked out on the land, and 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?”
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 Manawydan. “And we know not even the victor’s name.”
For weeks they lived off provisions of the feast. When those were gone, they hunted and fished and gathered wild honey. But nowhere in the kingdom did they see sign of human life.
One morning, as Pwyll and Manawydan 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 until the hunters drew near, then turned and ran again.
Several times this happened, until they came to a huge stone fortress where they knew no fortress had been before. And the boar ran through the open gate, with the dogs following. Then all barking stopped, and however long they waited, they heard nothing more.
“I must go after the dogs,” said Pwyll.
“My lord,” said Manawydan, “certain it is that whoever cast the spell on Dyfed is the one who placed this fortress here. You surely will be trapped inside, and I will be powerless to help you.”
“I cannot abandon my hounds,” said Pwyll.
Into the fortress he rode. But he saw no boar, or hounds, or any living thing, or 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, there came upon him 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. And when he tried to call for help, he found that the water had stolen his voice.
Outside the fortress, Manawydan waited until hope was gone, then returned to the court.
“What has happened to my lord?” asked Rhiannon.
“I know not,” said Manawydan, and he told his tale.
“You are not as good a friend as the one you lost,” she said. “Will you take me there now?”
“My lady,” said Manawydan, “I would not lose two friends in one day.”
So Rhiannon set out alone and rode until she found the fortress. Inside she saw her lord standing silent, feet on stone, hands on vessel. Then she beheld the water, and an unbearable thirst came upon her.
“My lord,” she said happily, “do you offer me a drink?”
She stepped up and laid hands on the vessel, not heeding Pwyll’s attempt to hold it from her. Then she discovered she could not take away her hands or feet.
“Our friend was wiser than those he counseled,” said Rhiannon.
Then came a sound like thunder, and a mist, and the fortress vanished from the earth.
When night fell and neither Pwyll nor Rhiannon had returned, Pryderi wept. But Manawydan told him, “Do not fear being alone. As I have been friend and support to father and mother, so will I be to you, for as long as you need me.”
“So I thought,” said Pryderi, and he took heart.
After that, Manawydan and Pryderi fished and hunted together, learning to track the game, since their dogs were gone. And in the spring, they tilled three fields and sowed wheat. The summer passed, and Manawydan saw that the wheat in one field was ripe. Then he told Pryderi, “Tomorrow we’ll harvest this field.”
But when they arrived next morning, they saw a sight they’d never seen before. The ear of grain on each stalk was snipped off and taken away, and only straw left standing.
Then they looked at the second field and settled on next morning for the harvest. But when they came for it, they found the same as before—bare stalks only, ears all gone.
“Just one field left,” said Manawydan. “But shame on me if I do not solve this mystery.”
So Manawydan took up sword and spear, and hid that night by the field. And ’round about midnight, he heard a great squeaking and squealing, and he saw approaching a huge army of mice. Into the field they poured, and 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 rage, Manawydan rose and gave chase, flinging his spear before him. But as often as he threw it, the mice scattered so it only hit the ground. Soon the horde pulled far ahead—all but one plump mouse that lagged behind. Manawydan grabbed it.
“Say your prayers tonight, little thief,” said Manawydan, “for tomorrow you’ll be hanged.”
Early next morning, Manawydan climbed the Mount of Arberth, the mouse in his hand and Pryderi by his side. And he set two forked sticks in the ground, with another stick across them. Then around the mouse’s neck he tied a string, and the string’s other end he laid over the crosspiece.
“Do you truly mean to hang the mouse?” asked Pryderi.
“I do,” said Manawydan, “and now is the time of execution.”
He reached for the string to raise the mouse. But as he did so, he saw a rider coming up the mount—a bishop, and with him his servants and seven horses laden with baggage. And no other strangers had they seen since the spell came on Dyfed.
“A blessing on you, my sons,” said the bishop. “And what business is this you’re about?”
“Lord bishop,” said Manawydan, “I am hanging a thief.”
“A thief?” said the bishop. “Is that not a mouse I see in your hand?”
“It is, lord,” said Manawydan. “This mouse stole from me, and I will give it the reward of thievery, which is hanging.”
“My son,” said the bishop, “it ill becomes a man of noble birth to deal with such a creature. Rather than see you lower yourself like this, I will buy the mouse from you. Take a gold coin for it, and let the mouse go.”
“I will not,” said Manawydan, “for it will get the punishment it deserves.”
“I can hardly say how foolish you look,” said the bishop. “Here, take three gold coins and end this disgrace.”
“It is not for sale,” said Manawydan.
“If you won’t take three,” said the bishop, “then take twenty.”
“I will not,” said Manawydan.
“If you won’t take twenty,” said the bishop, “then take my seven horses and all their baggage.”
“By Heaven, I’ll accept none of it,” said Manawydan.
“All right,” said the bishop, “name your price.”
“The price of the mouse,” said Manawydan, “is the freedom of Pwyll and Rhiannon.”
“You shall have it,” said the bishop. “Now let the mouse go.”
“Not yet,” said Manawydan. “I want also an end to the spell on Dyfed.”
“You shall have that too. Now let the mouse go.”
“I will not,” said Manawydan, “until I know who you are, and who the mouse is.”
Then the bishop and his entourage vanished, and in their place was a great lord upon his steed, with one forearm missing.
“I am Lord Llewyd,” he said, “cousin to Lord Gwawl. It was I who enchanted Dyfed and captured Pwyll and Rhiannon. It was I in magical form who stole Pryderi, but lost him to Teyrnon. And all was to avenge the shameful treatment of Lord Gwawl at the court of Heveydd the Old, when he was hit and kicked inside the bag. And though he pledged never to seek redress or revenge, I did it in his stead, for love of him.
“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 wife, and she it is in your hand, and if she had not been pregnant, you would not have caught her. Now let the mouse go.”
“Not yet,” said Manawydan.
“What more can you want?” cried Llewyd.
“Your pledge never again to cast a spell on Dyfed, or to avenge yourself on Pwyll, or on his kin, or on me.”
“You have my pledge. And wise you were to include yourself, or the whole burden would have fallen on you. Now let the mouse go.”
“I will not,” said Manawydan, “until I see my friends.”
Then came a sound like thunder, and a mist. And when it lifted, Pwyll and Rhiannon stood among them.
Pryderi ran to his mother. “My child!” cried Rhiannon.
“Friend!” said Pwyll to Manawydan. “Is it you who has saved us?”
“It is he,” said Llewyd, “and your kingdom with you.”
And they looked out over Dyfed, and saw the farms and herds and houses all as before.
“Now let the mouse go.”
Manawydan untied the mouse and set it down. Llewyd touched it with a wand, and the mouse became a lovely young lady, heavy with child. With a scowl, he lifted her up, and horse and riders vanished.
Then the four of them returned to the court, where feast and companions waited as if nothing ever had happened. And Pwyll and Rhiannon reigned happily over Dyfed for 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 tales compiled by a single anonymous author sometime around the twelfth century. It is in the Four Branches that the tales of Pwyll, Rhiannon, and Manawydan are found.
The Four Branches were actually a literary synthesis of tales told for centuries by professional storytellers in royal courts. Along the way, these stories had gathered elements from a number of historical periods, all telescoped into a legendary past that never existed quite as portrayed.
Dyfed was a Welsh kingdom of the early Middle Ages, and the stories of the Four Branches are nominally set in that period. In the Wales of that time, a king would maintain a number of fortresses, visiting them in a regular circuit, accompanied by his fighting men and other retainers. At each of these “courts,” he would feast and hunt for weeks at a time, supported by the hospitality of the locals.
Military prowess and generosity were among the prime values in this society, and a king had to exemplify both. Another such value was honor, and the humiliation of a noble called for monetary compensation or revenge. A nobleman’s kin were expected to share in his obligations and disputes.
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.” It was also in this period that Celtic brutality began to lose its edge, and a note of gentility emerged. In earlier times, few tales ended without at least one or two heads cut off.
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, and Manawydan a sea god. 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.