WHERE THE FOLK can I listen to Talking Starlings and a Welsh Banger? Part I
Updated: Feb 20
“GO ON, TAKE IT. QUICK!”
“Hold on, let me just…” I squat down as low as I can and tilt my phone to the side, trying to find the most flattering angle for the most unflattering rock - that was just one letter away from meaning something completely different then! The small boulder sits in the dirt in the middle of a discreet field somewhere on Anglesey, lost, like most things on Anglesey, in a maze of tall hedges and narrow country lanes.
“That one’s emptying its bladder, look- it’s getting ready to charge!”
“Be?!” I look up at the herd of bullocks and see that one of them is staring back at us with a pissed off look on his face, head bowed and legs spread apart as a powerful jet of urine hits the ground beneath him.
“Nah, he- oh yeah, he does look a bit… yeah… yeah, let’s go...”
Edging away, trying to appear as relaxed as possible, we head for the lowest fence, just in case. “C’laen…”
“Dos. Dos!” Picking up pace, we see Mam opening the gate for us, signalling for us to hurry up. The earth rumbles behind us, and I know that we’re not the only ones charging towards that gate. A sudden rush of excitement picks us up, fear diminishing as we break out in nonsensical laughter. We catch glimpses of each other running with our knees kicking the air as we avoid treacherous holes and mounds of excrement. Well, avoiding most of it, at least.
Mam slams the gate shut behind us and we revert back to being the dominant species again. “Bloody idiots!” she declares.
We have come to Elim, in the small community of Tref Alaw, solely to snap a photo of that rock, for it marks the spot of Bedd Branwen, a Bronze Age funerary mound dating as far back as 2000 BC, the days of henges and stone circles. It’s what’s known as a ‘ring cairn’ or ‘ring bank enclosure’ and was used by our ancestors for human cremations (and some, later on, as gravesites).
But it wasn’t known as ‘Branwen’s Grave’ until 1813, when an excavation of the site uncovered an urn full of human remains. Some believed that this was proof that Branwen (meaning ‘White Crow/Raven’), being a major character from the Second Branch of the Mabinogion, was in fact a real person. According to legend, she committed suicide, blaming herself for a whole lot of death and destruction, and was buried along the banks of Afon Alaw, which runs nearby. Further research and a second excavation in the 1960s, led by Frances Lynch, uncovered several more urns at the site, all of which contained human remains. This at least confirmed that the site wasn’t reserved solely for Branwen, but nevertheless, most scholars and historians would still agree that Branwen was merely a fictional character… nevertheless, the name stuck.
But Bedd Branwen is just the tip of the iceberg when considering places in Wales which owe their names to characters and events from the Mabinogion. In fact, this is what partly inspired me to write this blog in the first place, and I briefly discussed the influence the Mabinogion have had on Welsh place-names in my very first post, WHERE THE FOLK can I find a Hungover Ghost?
As such, I knew that I would eventually have to cover the tales in more detail and that I would need to discuss each one separately, but even then, I was ignorant to just how influential these tales truly were and of how many locations are further mentioned in each tale. In fact, you could probably write a whole book on each one and its featured locations! Indeed, very early on, I realized that I had opened Pandora’s Box and that I had a very long journey ahead of me…
The Mabinogion have had a huge influence not only on Welsh place-names, but on Welsh culture in general, from individual names to popular narratives, traditions and iconography. They are profoundly important pieces of literature and feature some of the earliest British prose tales. They come from the Matter of Britain, being a collection of medieval literature and oral legends associated with Brittany and the UK which featured many legendary kings, heroes and knights, such as King Arthur to name but one. It was one of “the three great Western story cycles” that were popular at the time, along with the Matter of France and the Matter of Rome.
The ‘Mabinogi’, as they were known at the time, were written in Middle Welsh between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but the stories derived from old oral tales that had already been passed down by generations of storytellers, or ‘storiwr’, in Welsh. There are two main manuscripts; the White Book of Rhydderch, dated c.1350 (currently kept in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth) and the Red Book of Hergest (found in the Bodleian Library at the MS Jesus College in Oxford), dated between 1382 and c.1410.
They cover eleven stories in total, the order of which differs with each translation. Each tale is so different that some earlier scholars argued that they aren’t a “collection” at all! There’s drama, philosophy, romance, tragedy, fantasy, comedy and political spoof all in, well, two books.
From the 18th Century right up to the 1970s, most scholars thought of them simply as pre-Christian tales from Celtic mythology. However, in recent times, they are believed to be far more complicated than that- more of a combination of those Celtic tales and Anglo-French narratives, full of political undertones. Basically, old Celtic tales re-written to suit the social, political and religious environment of the time. Indeed, even the first edition of the Mabinogion was a “modernised” version!
Whilst the majority of the tales don’t follow a single narrative as such, there are four that do; the Four Branches of the Mabinogi. Essentially, although each tale focuses on different characters in different locations, the four ‘branches’ span the lifetime of one ‘Pryderi’- from his birth in the first branch to his death in the fourth. Although, he doesn’t feature heavily in the second nor fourth branches.
The tales reverted back to their oral roots following their first publication, and it wasn’t until 1795, 1821 and 1829 that they appeared in print again, existing as English translations by William Owen Pughe. But it was Lady Charlotte Guest (between 1838 and 1845) who first published the entire collection in a single book (bilingually, in both English and Welsh) and those romantic Victorians loved it! The book was quickly translated into French then German and a newfound interest in Celtic literature swept across the globe.
Many people mistakenly believed at the time that Lady Charlotte Guest had actually coined the term ‘Mabinogion’, claiming that it was the plural form of ‘Mabinogi’, but this was not the case- the term had actually been in standard use by those acquainted with the tales since the 18th Century. It is actually believed to have been a typo of the word ‘Mabinogi’, which is derived from the Welsh word ‘mab’ for ‘son’ or ‘boy’. Due to this, many have suggested that the term ‘mabinogi’ meant ‘a tale or story for a boy’, or perhaps one that was told by a young male apprentice storyteller. Today however, scholars reckon that the word either originally meant ‘youth’ or ‘story of youth’, or simply ‘tale’ or ‘story’. Basically, they haven’t got a clue.
Regardless, since then, the “Mabinogion”, as most people know them, have featured in popular culture the world over, and many of the tales are even taught in Welsh primary schools. They have become, or rather, always have been, an integral part of our culture, and, keeping to tradition, we are still reinventing them to fit in with modern times to this day!
One of the most popular tales is the one featuring the aforementioned Branwen, being the Second Branch of the Mabinogi (often subtitled ‘Branwen, daughter of Llŷr’). According to which version you read, the main focus shifts from Branwen to her brother, the giant king Bendigeidfran (or Brân , meaning crow or raven, the Blessed), but the narrative structure always stays the same, and goes something like this:
Matholwch, the King of Ireland, sails to Harlech in north-west Wales to ask Bendigeidfran, king of the “Island of the Mighty” (Britain) to ask him for the hand of his sister Branwen in marriage. This, in turn, would forge an allegiance between the two kingdoms. It made sense, so Bendigeidfran duly accepts the proposal and hosts a party to celebrate.
However, he neglects to invite his half-brother Efnysien (whose name means ‘trouble’ or ‘strife’) or to consult him on the matter of the proposal. Efnysien takes this personally, and decides to mutilate Matholwch’s horses, cutting the celebrations short (pardon the pun!). Naturally, Matholwch is furious. To compensate him, Bendigeidfran gifts him with ‘Y Pair Dadeni’ (“Cauldron of Rebirth”), a magical cauldron that has the ability to bring the dead back to life.
Accepting the apology, Matholwch takes Branwen back to Ireland to rule by his side, and she gives birth to a son, Gwern. But the honeymoon period doesn’t last very long. Efnysien’s actions still niggled at the Irish, and they take it out on poor Branwen. She is put to work in the kitchen, where she is beaten daily by the head chef, and is made to sleep alone in squalor.
This goes on for a while, but little do the Irish know that Branwen uses her spare time to tame a starling, teaching it to speak (don’t scoff- a trained starling can be just as chatty as a pet parrot!). She eventually sends the starling across the Irish Sea back to Harlech to ask her brother Bendigeidfran for help, who immediately musters together a huge army (among the ranks are Taliesin, the aforementioned Pryderi and Manawydan, the main character of the next branch) consisting of warriors from all 154 ‘cantrefs’ (medieval Welsh land divisions) of Britain.
Being a giant, Bendigeidfran walks across the Irish Sea with ease, and when the Irish lot see him and his army approaching, they initially mistake him for an island. A terrible war ensues and the Irish retreat, seeking refuge beyond a river. But Bendigeidfran forms a bridge using his own body for his army to cross, saying “He who is a leader, let him be a bridge”, which remains in use as a Welsh proverb to this day: “A fo ben, bid bont”.
Cornered, the Irish offer to make peace by building Bendigeidfran a house big enough for him to live in. Accepting the offer, the Welsh lay down their arms and join the Irish for a good-ol’ knees-up. But Efnysien is suspicious, and goes to inspect the house. There, he finds a hundred bags of “flour” hanging from the ceiling. Prodding the bags, he discovers that they actually contain armed men, lying in wait for an intoxicated Bendigeidfran. The old “Trojan Horse” technique! A furious Efnysien crushes the heads of each warrior then re-joins the party.
He asks if he can hold baby Gwern, only to cast him into the fire in front of everyone there, and it all kicks off again. With the Welsh losing, Efnysien discovers that the Irish are using the magic cauldron to revive their dead, and so decides to sacrifice his own life by hiding among the corpses. With a living soul cast inside, the magic cauldron is destroyed.
Only seven individuals survive this battle, among them Manawydan, Taliesin, Pryderi and Branwen (who kills herself shortly after). A mortally wounded Bendigeidfran (poisoned spear) tells the survivors to cut off his head and to take it back to Britain. Doing so would make the Brits forget all about the horrors that they witnessed during the war with the Irish. For the next seven years, his still-talking head entertains them all at his court back at Harlech. After that, he is moved to Gwales (Grassholm Island, off the coast of Pembrokeshire), where he is kept for a further eighty years, until Heilyn fab Gwyn opens the forbidden door that faces Cornwall, breaking the spell of forgetfulness. After this, he is taken to his final resting place at Gwynfryn (“White Hill”), considered to be where the Tower of London now stands, and is buried facing France so as to ward off French invasion.
Indeed, it comes as no surprise that this tale is teeming with political undertones. Many scholars believe that it derives from the 3rd Century BC Gallic invasion of the Balkans, with Bendigeidfran representing the Gallic chieftain Brennus. Historian Nikolai Tolstov, however, claimed that the version of the legend we all know today was influenced by the 11th Century battles of Brian Boru and Mael Sechnaill. Historian Will Parker argues that it is related to the Irish legends of Cath Maige Mucrama (Battle of Mag Mucrama) and Immram Brain (The Voyage of Bran), though the latter isn’t based on our own Brân the Blessed, mind.
But whatever the tale’s origins may be, the obvious jab at the Irish cannot be denied. According to the tale, the war leaves only five pregnant women left alive in Ireland, who give birth to five sons. These sons then repopulate the entire country using the only women available- the mothers. Through these individuals alone, the entire country is repopulated and divided into five districts (today there are four), being Connaught, Meath, Leinster, Munster and Ulster. Essentially, they were calling the Irish a bunch of inbreds.
However, Iolo Morganwg would later write that the monstrous Afanc (discussed in WHERE THE FOLK can I find a Giant Beaver Monster?) killed everyone in Britain save for two people, Dwyfan and Dwyfach, from whom all Brits are thus descended. So unless Iolo was poking fun at his own people, it could be argued that such themes were not intended to be insults, at all… was the latter more of a nod to Adam and Eve, perhaps? Iolo Morganwg was, indeed, a devout Christian. What are your thoughts?
In any case, I digress. So where the folk is mentioned in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, then? Quite a few places, as it turns out. You've got London, Aberffraw (being one of the courts of the Princes of Wales in medieval times) and Llyn-y-Pair (found over in Ireland, according to the tale, but interestingly, according to William Owen Pughe, who translated the Mabinogion in his journals before Lady Charlotte Guest did, there was a lake of the same name found near Towyn. Also, near Betws-y-Coed, you’ve got Melin Llyn-y-Pair Mine, although, “pair” in this case refers to a smelting vessel used by lead and copper miners of days gone by). You also have the Roman fort of Caer Saint/Segontium in Caernarfon, Bryn Saith Marchog (a small village in Denbighshire) and two rivers called ‘Lli’ (either meaning ‘blade’ or ‘flood’) and Archan (meaning ‘supplication’ or ‘appeal/request’) where the Irish Sea now flows.
It is important to mention at this point that it wasn’t until after the glaciers melted following the last Ice Age (around 7,500 BC) that Britain and Ireland became two separate land masses. The existence of so many legends involving characters walking between the two places have led many to believe that at some point, there existed two channels instead of the one body of water that we all recognize today, making it easier to travel from one country to the other. Consider the legends of Cantref Gwaelod, the “Welsh Atlantis” and Llys Helig, near the Great Orme (Welsh cities lost to the sea) and that of the Irish giants Fionn mac Cumhail and Benendonner, who walked over to Scotland.
Afon Llinon, or the River Shannon and River Liffey, in Ireland, are also mentioned (the Shannon is the largest river in Ireland and the Liffey runs through Leinster in Dublin). Dublin’s Irish name, Baile Atha Cliath, translates to “Town of the Ford of the Hurdles”. Interestingly, in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, hurdles were placed across Bendigeidfran’s back (not the athletic kind you’re thinking of- that would have made it far more difficult to get across!). Some historians and scholars believe that the Welsh might have gotten these two rivers mixed up when telling this tale.
Then there's Aber Alaw, where the seven survivors land upon returning to Wales, Gwales/Grassholm/Grassholm Island (ten miles off the coast of Pembrokeshire. Used by the Vikings as a base from which to launch their attacks. There is no evidence to suggest that there was ever a great hall there) and Harddlech/Harlech, “the beautiful stone/slate”, location of Bendigeidfran’s castle, being the rock upon which Harlech Castle was built in 1283. At the time this tale was set, the rock sat right beside the sea, but the sea has since retreated and is now almost a mile away from the castle.
Now, this blog is based in Wales, but I have other tales to cover, and Grassholm Island seems a bit of a pain in the arse to get to, so I have decided to visit only the latter location (as well as Branwen’s Grave, of course) in my coverage of the Second Branch of the Mabinogi.
Join me in WHERE THE FOLK can I listen to Talking Starlings and a Welsh Banger? Part II, where I shall discuss the fall of every Welsh patriot’s most beloved hero and the siege that inspired one of the most popular Welsh songs of all time…
Thanks for reading.
I’m keen to know if any of you have ever visited any of the locations mentioned in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi that I won’t be covering, and what did you make of the place?
Also, what are your thoughts on the origins of this tale? Do you think it was having a dig at the Irish in relation to the five pregnant women?
GOOGLE MAPS LOCATION:
Guest, Lady Charlotte (1838-1845) The Mabinogion
Red Book of Hergest (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Jesus College III), 1382-1410
White Book of Rhydderch (Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, MS Peniarth 4-5), 1350