“At that time Math son of Mathonwy could not live unless his feet were in the lap of a maiden, except when the turmoil of war prevented him.”
. . . from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion
Close your eyes for a moment and imagine yourself in a vast, draughty hall with bare stone walls. The space is lit by flaming torches, and the only warmth comes from the fire spitting within a cavernous hearth, and from the unwashed bodies pressed against yours as you sit on a rough wooden bench. Beyond the great walls the wind is shrieking and the sleet is lashing down – this is not a night to be outdoors. Because apart from the viciousness of the storm, other familiar and feared things lurk in the darkness: murderous raiders come in ships from across the sea – or just from the next valley; wild beasts roam the land, monsters that will rip a man to pieces in minutes; and there are dangers that are even worst, dangers that perhaps take demonic forms…But you are safe within the firelit hall. Not just safe, you are warm, well-fed and content because you’ve been drinking for a few hours. There’s a feeling of expectation as the entertainment is about to start: the most famous story-teller in the land, the superstar of your times, stands and is greeted by a thunderous noise as men stamp their feet and bang their drinking mugs on the tables. He raises his arms to acknowledge the cheers and waits as silence quickly falls… and then he begins. His voice booms through the huge space, roaring to the rafters one minute and then shrinking to a secretive whisper the next. And you are enchanted. You shudder with fear, you shake with excitement; you laugh and you rage; you nod your head in agreement and you shake it in despair. The story-teller’s is not the only voice to be heard, because every so often the crowd around you yells approval or shouts encouragement, before subsiding once more into spell-bound silence. Because his words resonate within you all – you have hunted the wild beasts for food, you have fought the Irish and the Viking invaders and you have hidden in the woodlands from something you couldn’t see… but you knew it was there, waiting…
This, my friends, is the power of The Mabinogion. These stories were part of an oral tradition that began so long ago it’s beyond our personal understanding; well over a thousand years and maybe much, much longer. Intimately linked to the Welsh landscape and filled with murder, magic, war and retribution, they weren’t meant to read by folk sitting cosily on a sofa with a mug of PG Tips or a glass of Rioja within easy reach. The tales were performed by travelling poets with a flair for the dramatic, who would enthral willing crowds wherever they were able to gather. At a time when life was hazardous and survival to the next day was uncertain, they drew on collective folk experience and shared heritage; and at a time when most people couldn’t read this was the only way of passing on stories. And if we just imagine ourselves in a room filled with the voice of Richard Burton we’re half-way there…
When I first tried to read these tales I failed miserably and put the book back on the shelf. I was disappointed with the stark nature of the prose, not appreciating that the innate poetry of the ancient Welsh tongue was one of the things that moved the original audiences. I was irritated by the repetitive nature of some of the stories, of warriors meeting and then agreeing to meet again in a year’s time – a year in which nothing happened – and I was cynical about a plot-line that had a macho, marauding war-lord spending that year sharing the bed of another man’s wife (…the most beautiful woman that anyone had seen…) but not touching her (yeah, right). Mostly I was offended that the women in these stories invariably suffered for the crimes committed by their brothers/fathers/husbands; such as Branwen, sister of Bendigeidfran, King of the Island of the Mighty (Britain). She’d been married off to Matholwch, King of Ireland, but in a much-delayed response to a hideous assault on Matholwch’s horses carried out by Branwen’s other brother Efnysien, the wrath of the Irish descended on her: “And there was such an uproar in Ireland that there was no peace for Matholwch until he avenged the insult. They took revenge by sending Branwen from her husband’s chamber, and forcing her to cook for the court; and they had the butcher come to her every day, after he had chopped up meat, and give her a box on the ear. And this is how her punishment was carried out…”
According to medieval Welsh laws a queen may be insulted in three ways and one of these is “to strike her a blow” and that, no doubt, was the significance of this passage. Obviously Branwen didn’t put up with it – three years later, having befriended a starling, she sent the bird with a message to summon aid from her brother Bendigeidfran, who strode through the Irish Sea to reach her (did I forget to mention that he was a giant and there was no ship that could hold him?)
If we believe the scholars (and of course we do) then these works are stuffed full of characters based on historical figures or personifications of celtic gods and godesses, strong and gifted men and women who led their subjects heroically and protected their lands from enemies. They demonstrate bravery, political intelligence and resolute morals, and the whole thing is wrapped up in a package of adventure, love and magic. This is our mythology, as lunatic, wonderful and enduring as anything that came out of Ancient Greece or Scheherazade’s bedchamber. The tales were eventually written down and appear in two priceless works of medieval literature – The Red Book of Hergest and The White Book of Rhydderch. They are named this way partly due to the colour of their bindings; the White Book was originally owned by Rhydderch ab Ieuan Llwyd (1325-1400) of Ceredigion and is now secure in the National Libarary of Wales, Aberystwyth. The Red Book was associated for a time with Hergest Court in Herefordshire and is now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford but most interestingly it was once owned by the Vaughan family of Tretower Court – and if you’ve read previous posts you’ll know that this is one of my favourite places and is a scant four miles from home.
Tretower Court, one-time home of the Red Book of Hergest
Sticking with The Mabinogion, last week our wanderings took us west into Pembrokeshire. One of the reasons for the trip was to visit an exhibition being held at Melin Tregwynt, an extremely successful mill where wool is woven into traditional Welsh patterns before being turned into cushion covers, blankets, throws etc.
The exhibition has closed there but it will be opening on 26th May in Crickhowell. Unsurprisingly it’s called The Beasts of the Mabinogion and is a collaborative enterprise between Oriel Cric (the gallery in Crickhowell Resource & Information Centre) and Helly Powell, a local sculptress who has been wowing visitors to the gallery and elsewhere with her Fauxidermy. Helly’s pieces to date have included stags, hares, rabbits, otters, foxes, boars and bears! Now she has turned her attention to The Mabinogion and has fashioned Rhiannon’s Horse, The Twrch Trwyth and Arawn’s Hounds killing the stag. The fabric has come from Melin Tregwynt and was chosen to fit the descriptions from the Mabinogion itself.
Arawn’s hounds, encountered by Pwyll in the First Branch of the Mabinogion: “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.” Arawn was the King of Annwfn (the Otherworld) and in wider Welsh folklore the appearance of these ‘hounds of the otherworld’ foreshadowed dramatic events. Red and white are traditionally associated with the supernatural.
Rhiannon’s Horse, also described in the First Branch of the Mabinogion: “And as they were sitting, they could see a woman wearing a shining golden garment of brocaded silk on a big, tall, pale-white horse…”
The Twrch Trwyth, the evil enchanted boar from the story of Culhwch and Olwen, that carries a pair of scissors, a comb and a razor between his ears
Also included in the exhibition are four paintings by artist Robert Macdonald and specially commissioned pieces by jeweller Kathryn Willis. All of this will be supplemented by work from other artists and I’m really chuffed that Michael bought me two wall plaques from the Mabinogion collection by ceramic artist Patricia Kelly. I’m not allowed to have them yet because they are officially for my birthday (they’re on top of the wardrobe) but here they are resting on their protective bubble-wrap: Bendigeidfran, King of the Island of the Mighty on the left and Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed on the right. They make me smile every time I see them, and what more can you ask than that?
The exhibition fits well with this year’s theme from Visit Wales – The Year of Myth and Legend. Visit Wales has produced plenty of publicity on social media etc. and one of my favourite short films ever, with Luke Evans (of The Hobbit and Disney’s live action Beauty and the Beast). If you haven’t seen it here’s a treat for you:
And if you’re in the area of Crickhowell during the next few weeks then why not drop in to the exhibition?