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The first branch of the Mabinogi


In celebration of the National Eisteddfod of Wales, we thought an excerpt from a Welsh classic would be appropriate. The Mabinogion is the title given to eleven medieval Welsh prose tales preserved mainly in the White Book of Rhydderch (c.1350) and the Red Book of Hergest (c.1400). They were never conceived as a collection—the title was adopted in the nineteenth century when the tales were first translated into English by Lady Charlotte Guest. Yet they all draw on oral tradition and on the storytelling conventions of the medieval cyfarwydd (‘storyteller’), providing a fascinating insight into the wealth of narrative material that was circulating in medieval Wales: not only do they reflect themes from Celtic mythology and Arthurian romance, they also present an intriguing interpretation of British history. Below is an excerpt from the tale ‘The First Branch of the Mabinogi’.

Pwyll, prince of Dyfed, was lord over the seven cantrefs of Dyfed. Once upon a time he was at Arberth, one of his chief courts, and it came into his head and his heart to go hunting. The part of his realm he wanted to hunt was Glyn Cuch. He set out that night from Arberth, and came as far as Pen Llwyn Diarwya, and stayed there that night. And early the next day he got up, and came to Glyn Cuch to unleash his dogs in the forest. And he blew his horn, and began to muster the hunt, and went off after the dogs, and became separated from his companions. And as he was listening for the cry of his pack, he heard the cry of another pack, but these had a different cry, and they were coming towards his own pack. And he could see a clearing in the forest, a level field; and as his own pack was reaching the edge of the clearing, he saw a stag in front of the other pack. And towards the middle of the clearing, the pack that was chasing caught up with the stag and brought it to the ground.

Then Pwyll looked at the colour of the pack, without bothering to look at the stag. And of all the hounds he had seen in the world, he had never seen dogs of this colour––they were a gleaming shining white, and their ears were red. And as the whiteness of the dogs shone so did the redness of their ears. Then he came to the dogs, and drove away the pack that had killed the stag, and fed his own pack on it.

As he was feeding the dogs, he could see a rider coming after the pack on a large dapple-grey horse, with a hunting horn round his neck, and wearing hunting clothes of a light grey material. Then the rider came up to him, and spoke to him like this: ‘Sir,’ he said, ‘I know who you are, but I will not greet you.’

‘Well,’ said Pwyll, ‘perhaps your rank is such that you are not obliged to.’

‘God knows,’ he said, ‘it’s not the level of my rank that prevents me.’

‘What else, sir?’ said Pwyll.

‘Between me and God,’ he said, ‘your own lack of manners and discourtesy.’

‘What discourtesy, sir, have you seen in me?’

‘I have seen no greater discourtesy in a man,’ he said, ‘than to drive away the pack that had killed the stag, and feed your own pack on it; that’, he said, ‘was discourtesy: and although I will not take revenge upon you, between me and God,’ he said, ‘I will bring shame upon you to the value of a hundred stags.’

‘Sir,’ said Pwyll, ‘if I have done wrong, I will redeem your friendship.’

‘How will you redeem it?’ he replied.

‘According to your rank, but I do not know who you are.’

‘I am a crowned king in the land that I come from.’

‘Lord,’ said Pwyll, ‘good day to you. And which land do you come from?’

‘From Annwfn,’ he replied. ‘I am Arawn, king of Annwfn.’

‘Lord,’ said Pwyll, ‘how shall I win your friendship?’

‘This is how,’ he replied. ‘A man whose territory is next to mine is forever fighting me. He is Hafgan, a king from Annwfn. By ridding me of that oppression––and you can do that easily––you will win my friendship.’

‘I will do that gladly,’ said Pwyll. ‘Tell me how I can do it.’

‘I will,’ he replied. ‘This is how: I will make a firm alliance with you. What I shall do is to put you in my place in Annwfn, and give you the most beautiful woman you have ever seen to sleep with you every night, and give you my face and form so that no chamberlain nor officer nor any other person who has ever served me shall know that you are not me. All this’, he said, ‘from tomorrow until the end of the year, and then we shall meet again in this place.’

‘Well and good,’ Pwyll replied, ‘but even if I am there until the end of the year, how will I find the man of whom you speak?’

‘A year from tonight,’ Arawn said, ‘there is a meeting between him and me at the ford. Be there in my shape,’ he said, ‘and you must give him only one blow––he will not survive it. And although he may ask you to give him another, you must not, however much he begs you. Because no matter how many more blows I gave him, the next day he was fighting against me as well as before.’

‘Well and good,’ said Pwyll, ‘but what shall I do with my realm?’

‘I shall arrange that no man or woman in your realm realizes that I am not you, and I will take your place,’ said Arawn.

‘Gladly,’ said Pwyll, ‘and I will go on my way.’

‘Your path will be smooth, and nothing will hinder you until you get to my land, and I will escort you.’

Arawn escorted Pwyll until he saw the court and dwelling-places.

‘There is the court and the realm under your authority,’ he said.

‘Make for the court; there is no one there who will not recognize you. And as you observe the service there, you will come to know the custom of the court.’

He made his way to the court. He saw sleeping quarters there and halls and rooms and the most beautifully adorned buildings that anyone had seen. And he went to the hall to take off his boots. Chamberlains and young lads came to remove his boots, and everyone greeted him as they arrived. Two knights came to remove his hunting clothes, and to dress him in a golden garment of brocaded silk. The hall was got ready. With that he could see a war-band and retinues coming in, and the fairest and best-equipped men that anyone had ever seen, and the queen with them, the most beautiful woman that anyone had seen, wearing a golden garment of shining brocaded silk. Then they went to wash, and went to the tables, and sat like this, the queen on his one side and the earl, he supposed, on the other. And he and the queen began to converse. As he conversed with her, he found her to be the most noble woman and the most gracious of disposition and discourse he had ever seen. They spent the time eating and drinking, singing and carousing. Of all the courts he had seen on earth, that was the court with the most food and drink and golden vessels and royal jewels. Time came for them to go to sleep, and they went to sleep, he and the queen. As soon as they got into bed, he turned his face to the edge of the bed, and his back to her. From then to the next day, he did not say a word to her. The next day there was tenderness and friendly conversation between them. Whatever affection existed between them during the day, not a single night until the end of the year was different from the first night.

He spent the year hunting and singing and carousing, and in friendship and conversation with companions until the night of the meeting. On that night the meeting was as well remembered by the inhabitant in the remotest part of the realm as it was by him. So he came to the meeting, accompanied by the noblemen of his realm. As soon as he came to the ford, a knight got up and spoke like this:

‘Noblemen,’ he said, ‘listen carefully. This confrontation is between the two kings, and between their two persons alone. Each one is making a claim against the other regarding land and territory; all of you should stand aside and leave the fighting between the two of them.’

With that the two kings approached each other towards the middle of the ford for the fight. And at the first attack, the man who was in Arawn’s place strikes Hafgan in the centre of the boss of his shield, so that it splits in half, and all his armour shatters, and Hafgan is thrown the length of his arm and spear-shaft over his horse’s crupper to the ground, suffering a fatal blow.

‘Lord,’ said Hafgan, ‘what right did you have to my death? I was claiming nothing from you. Nor do I know of any reason for you to kill me; but for God’s sake,’ he said, ‘since you have begun, then finish!’

‘Lord,’ said the other, ‘I may regret doing what I did to you. Find someone else who will kill you; I will not kill you.’

‘My faithful noblemen,’ said Hafgan, ‘take me away from here; my death is now certain. There is no way I can support you any longer.’

‘And my noblemen,’ said the man who was in Arawn’s place, ‘take advice and find out who should become vassals of mine.’

‘Lord,’ said the noblemen, ‘everyone should, for there is no king over the whole of Annwfn except you.’

‘Indeed,’ he said, ‘those who come submissively, it is right to receive them. Those who do not come willingly, we will force them by the power of the sword.’

Then he received the men’s allegiance, and began to take over the land. And by noon the following day both kingdoms were under his authority.

The Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Mabinogion is edited by Sioned Davies, Chair of Welsh at Cardiff University.

For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more. You can follow Oxford World’s Classics on Twitter and Facebook.

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Image credit: Flag of Wales. By ayzek, iStockPhoto.

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