Pwyll Prince of Dyfed, from ‘THE MABINOGION’

Posted: November 4, 2021 in Chat
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The Mabinogion’ as we now have it comprises of three parts. There are the Four Branches: Pwyll Prince of Dyfed; Branwen, Daughter of Llyr; Manawydan Son of Llyr; and Math Son of Mathonwy.

Then there are the Four Independent tales: The Dream of Macsen Wledig; Lludd and Llefelyn; Culhwych and Olwen; and The Dream of Rhonabwy. Lastly there are Three Romances: The Lady of the Fountain; Peredur Son of Efrawg; and Gereint Son of Erbin.

The stories that make up ‘The Mabinogion’ are to be found recorded in two books/manuscripts: ‘The White Book of Rhydderch’, and the ‘Red Book of Hergest’. ‘The White Book (…)’ was written sometime between 1300 and 1325AD, whilst ‘The Red Book (…)’, between 1375 and 1425.

 Portions of the tales also have been found in manuscripts. It is estimated that the tales of the four branches were complete from 1050 onwards.

The title ‘Mabininogion’, however was a nineteenth-century coinage of Lady Charlotte Guest. Her version of 1838-45, also contained The Tale of Taliesin.
She was a phenomenal woman. Certainly worth looking up.

The current, possibly best, translation, is by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones.

Pwyll Prince of Dyfed.

Part 1 

Pwyll rode out hunting. He came across another’s pack of hounds which had brought down a stag. He drove them off and ‘baited’ his own hounds on it. The other hunter rode up; it was Arawn, King of Anwm (the underworld), and was incensed: Pwyll had broken protocol and dishonoured them both. The only way he could repay was to change places for one year (and a day). They each took on the form of the other and took each other’s place. After the year, on the last day, Pwyll was to meet Arawn’s rival King Hafgan at a tryst. Pwyll was to strike one blow, no more.

Pwyll spent the year in pleasantry, hunting and fine talk; each night with the queen, though, was spent chastely. At the time of the tryst, Pwyll ordered the retinue that under no circumstances were any to aid him against Hafgan. The blow was dealt, and King Hafgan pleading innocence of any wrong, died. Pwyll took over Hafgan’s province alongside the one he was already looking after.

The two re-exchanged forms and places, the debt of honour was paid.

Part 2

Prince Pwyll was still unmarried. Amongst his retinue was tale of a mysterious mound nearby, where anyone who spent the night was either set upon or found some marvel. They set out to test it. On the first night a woman came past on a horse, finely arrayed. Pwyll sent a follower to see who she was. Try as he might though, and although her horse ambled he could not catch up with her. The next night the same. On the last night he himself resolved to do the job. He could not catch up her with either, so hailed her, at which she stopped for him. She was Rhiannon, daughter of Hefydd the Old. She was to be betrothed against her will; her heart was set only on Pwyll. Pwyll was agreeable. They set off for her father’s house to discuss the matter. A feast was ordered. A young man came, greeted Pwyll; Pwyll greeted him as honour demanded. The man asked a favour of Pwyll; he agreed to grant it. But it was Rhiannon’s hated betrother. Pwyll, on his honour had granted a favour without asking who he might me. He had to delay his marriage to Rhiannon for a year, whilst she spent it with the man, such was his request; but chastely. After that year they must meet at a tryst.

At the tryst the man was tricked and captured, and only let go once he agreed to releasing Rhiannon. He did so, and the marriage was allowed between Pwyll and Rhiannon.

Part 3

After three happy years Pwyll’s retinue became uneasy; they needed an heir, and there did not seem to be any appearance. Put her by and find another wife, they said. He asked for another year. During that time a boy was born. The six midwives watching mother and baby fell asleep. Upon waking they could find no child. To save themselves they made it look as if Rhiannon had eaten the child in the night. She was distraught, sought counsel. As no body was to be found they advised her to take penance, over punishment. It was to last seven years: at the town gate she had to tell who would listen her tale, and offer to carry them in on her back.

In another part of the country lived Teyrnon Twryf Liant, Lord of Gwent Is-Coed. He noticed that whenever his prize mare foaled the foal disappeared. He resolved to discover what happened to them. His mare was ready to foal, so he spent the night with her. As she foaled a claw came through the window and grabbed it. He cut off the arm with his sword and he heard a great howling; he looked saw no one only a baby in fine covers that had been dropped. They looked after the child; he grew prodigiously. It was only when the child was at age of four they heard the tale of Rhiannon and her child. Seeing the resemblance, they took the child to court and returned him to his mother. They would take nothing in return: they had done the honourable thing.

There are here three episodes of loss: Pwyll of his Princedom, of his marriage, and of their child.
The first and third Parts depict the loss by magical/otherworldy means: Pwyll must enter the otherworld for a year; the child is abducted by otherworldly means. Both are returned at the end of a set time: four years for the child reflects the three years of marriage before the child’s birth and possibly the year previous spent apart. Alternatively the fourth year reflects the last year allowed by the retinue for the birth before more steps would be taken to procure an heir. 

There are two trysts which decide the fate of Pwyll’s fortunes. Can we expect a third such bond or agreement in the last Part to complete a pattern? There is no tryst, nor need of one. What there is though, and this proves the intent of the whole, is Lord Teyrnon and wife returning the child they had given a name to and raised for four years – as the honorable thing to do. 

Honour is the key to the whole tale: it is lack of honourable conduct allows Pwyll to bait his hounds on another’s kill. Restitution proves Pwyll’s readiness to rule: he acts out Arawn’s kingly role in the otherworld, including adapting chastity, and also wrests another realm from King Hagfan.
Honour without wisdom brings about the calamity of the marriage betrothal in Part two: Pwyll acted honourably to his guest, but not wisely in granting a stranger a favour.

The tale opened with Prince Pwyll; his first act was to go out hunting.
Part three echoes the seeking a wife of Part two. This raises the question of whether the stag hunt is to be read as, in chivalric texts, the seeking/hunting of love. Otherworldly agency occurs also in the central Part: Rhiannon’s horse cannot be caught up with, no matter how strong the pursuing horse.

In Part one Pwyll spent a year chastely with the wife of Arawn – in two, Rhiannon spent a chaste year also.
The symbolism of the deer hunt that opens Part one is repeated in the supernatural capture of Pwyll by Rhiannon and her magic horse in two. In both parts one main character must spend a year in shadow, as it were.
There is a similar repeat of images in Parts two and three.
What is the central theme of Part 3? Is it… Justice, perhaps? Or Self-Sacrifice?

What of the midwives? The midwives are shown as scheming, and willing to implicate Rhiannon, queen, in the cannibalistic murder of her new born. There is clearly some cultural theme being alluded to here. Midwives were connected with witchcraft; the implication, I think, is in the part played by luck, good fortune, in a good birth – these are chance elements, and birth an event of chance, mysterious and beyond control. By implication midwives must have transactions with the realm of chance, and mystery, both of which are otherworld elements. Murder, cannibalism, mystery; and luck/fortune/chance. Arawn’s realm by contrast differs not a jot from the known world. It is woman: Rhiannon with the mystery of speed, who embody the real otherworld; until, that is, Rhiannon took up residence in the ordinary world. There she lost her special abilities, and became subject to chance like any mortal. This also accounts for why midwives were considered to be witches/ witchlike in the terrible witch times. The midwives in the tale are portrayed almost with the qualities of bacchantes; we clearly have a call-back to orgiastic rites, later connected with the debasement of the Satanic mass; either that, or a contemporary figurative re-conception of true evil. 

The mysterious claw which seizes the baby/foal, and loss of the arm, immediately calls to mind Grendels’ arm in the hall of Heorot in ‘Beowulf’. The theme of honour, and honour combined with wisdom, as the true epithets of a ruler, are also pertinent to ‘Beowulf’. We can only speculate that the composer or transcriber of this tale was equally au fait with aspects of the ‘Beowulf’ tale.  

Wisdom would seem from this tale to be a virtue of the capacity of sight: the young man was not recognised in Part two, and so calamity befell Pwyll and Rhiannon’s betrothal.
Because Teyrnon recognised the child’s resemblance to Pwyll in three, he could be restored to his place and parents.
Greek Athena, goddess of, yes, hunting, as well as wisdom was known for her keenness of sight, an ability of super-natural penetration. 

On a more contemporaneously culturally-accessible level there are many Biblical references to sight and wisdom, mostly connected with the omnipotence of God and his all-seeing. Especially-keen sight, second-sight, and all-sight are epithets of the divine/supernatural/otherworldly; that none could recognise Pwyll or Arawn in their opposite forms in Part one is important in this respect.

Wisdom comes with honour, but also, and especially, with experience of both the natural and super-natural; it is also shown here that wisdom is an epithet of royal lineage, and that it is a part of good rule, respect and stable government.
Not necessarily age, note. 

  1. Priti says:

    Beautiful story of prince Pwyll loved to read it. Thank you for sharing💕😊🎉

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