The Mabinogion

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The Mabinogion

as translated by Patrick Ford


Eleven prose tales set in Britain at various times between 500 b.c.e. and 1200 c.e.; written in Welsh in the eleventh and twelfth centuries; published in English in 1849.


in four tales known as the “Four Branches of the Mabinogi,” members of semidivine, mythical families interact, marry, give birth, perform acts of heroism and trickery, and die. In a fifth tale, “Culhwch and Olwen,” with the help of the legendary Arthur, a young prince undertakes a set of monumental tasks to win the hand of the maiden he loves—a giant’s daughter.

Events in History at the Time the Tales Take Place

The Tale in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Tales Were Written

For More Information

In 1849 Lady Charlotte Guest translated into English a group of 11 Welsh tales and dubbed the ensemble The Mabinogion, a convenient, if inaccurate, title that has come to designate the 11 as a whole. The term is the plural of mabinogi, a label applied to four of the stories. The relation among these stories, called the “Four Branches of the Mabinogi,” remains a subject of considerable debate. Known as Pedair Cainc in Welsh, the “Four Branches” may refer to genealogical connections among the characters featured in the four separate stories, or perhaps even to different phases in the life of the figure of Pryderi, king of the south of Wales, who appears in each of the four tales. He is conceived, born, kidnapped, and named in the first; appears as a minor character who goes on an expedition in the second; regains some of his prominence in the third; and dies early in the fourth. Scholars have speculated that the ubiquitous Pryderi may be equivalent to the mysterious Mabon (featured in “Culhwch and Olwen”), both of whom tend to disappear or languish in captivity. This possible equivalence makes an explanation of the term mabinogi as “lore about Mabon” attractive. On the basis of language and content, scholars have generally dated the composition of the earliest versions of the texts to the second half of the eleventh century (“Culhwch and Olwen”; contains a reference to William, the eleventh-century Norman conqueror of England). The tales were composed in Welsh, a language still widely spoken in Wales. Here, in the second half of the first millennium, c.e., surviving elements of a Celtic civilization, originally extending throughout Britain, developed into a people with their own distinctive culture. A legacy of this culture, The Mabinogion is a treasure-trove of medieval Welsh literature that provides clues to the workings of ancient British society.

Events in History at the Time the Tales Take Place

The world of the ancient Britons

The peoples of ancient Britain (late first millennium, b.c.e.) spoke Celtic languages and shared a Celtic cultural heritage that stretched all the way from Asia Minor (Turkey) to the Iberian peninsula to Ireland. In the north of Britain were the Picts, predecessors of the Irish Celts. These Irish Celts immigrated to the islands and coast of the British northwest in the second half of the first millennium, c.e., ultimately to absorb the Picts and form the kingdom later known as Scotland. In the south of Britain were various British Celtic tribes, or Britons, ruled by kings and forming loose federations.

The lives of the early Britons, ancestors of the Welsh, were probably very similar to what we would find across the sea in Ireland during the same period. Society consisted of fortified communities dependent on agriculture and herding, ruled over by chieftains, and populated by extended kin groups. Wealth was measured in livestock as well as land, and status in the higher echelons of society was estimated according to pedigree and the number of followers a man had in his retinue. In upper-class society, men cultivated the art of warfare; the prominence of single combats between kings and / or champions in The Mabinogion reflects the value attached to individual prowess and martial enterprise in the culture. But battle was not the only way for an individual to excel in ancient Britain. Poetry and other forms of verbal artistry and lore, including the ability to “war with words” (which encompassed insult and satire), were highly prized in Celtic society as well.

The families of the ancient British were probably patriarchal, with authority resting in the hands of the elder males, although, as we see from the story of Rhiannon (told in the “First Branch of the Mabinogi”), aristocratic women had some control over their lives and could influence the actions of their spouses. In the upper classes, children (such as Pryderi of the First Branch and Lieu of the Fourth Branch) usually spent their childhood in fosterage with families of equal or higher rank—that is, they were raised by and in a family other than the one into which they were born. This custom forged strong ties among the powerful elite in society.

All these features of ancient British society still obtained in eleventh-and twelfth-century Wales. However, the gradual triumph of Christianity in Britain during the latter part of the Roman period (third to fifth centuries, c.e.) eradicated much of the original religion or muted it into forms of narrative, custom, and belief that were unthreatening to the new faith. The gods of ancient Britain, like those of the pre-Christian Irish, were probably organized into various pantheons or families, and different locations and tribes had their own localized divinities, both male and female. In the “Four Branches of the Mabinogi,” characters who are children of the ancestral Llyr (“Sea”) contrast with others who are children of Don (“Craft”), and both groups most likely derive from families of pre-Christian gods. Also featured in the First Branch are denizens of a supernatural kingdom, the kingdom of Annwn (“Un-World” or “Deep World”), which points to another lingering tradition about these ancient divinities.

Celtic life after the Romans

With the appearance of Roman military might in the first century, c.e., the British peoples became (in some cases, unruly) subjects of the Roman administrative state, which was centered in newly established military camps, towns, and cities (such as London and Chester) as well as in the rural villas of Roman administrators and Romanized Britons. Christianity, one of the cultural influences imported via the Romanization of Britain, established itself firmly in what had previously been a pagan country. Then, in 383, the Roman legions left the Britons behind to seize control of the Western empire under the leadership of one of their generals, the Spaniard Magnus Maximus, who briefly became emperor. (This historical character is the source for Macsen Wledig in one of The Mabinogion tales, “The Dream of Macsen”.) By the time the Romans left, the Britons were essentially a Christian people. However, the new Christian religion, like Romanization in general, made less headway among some groups—among the Picts and other tribes in the northern part of the British island and along the coast of the areas that would become Cornwall and Wales.

In the vacuum left by the departure of the Romans, Germanic peoples, some of whom had come to Britain as mercenaries, took advantage of the situation. The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes (who spoke languages that were the ancestors of English, and are known collectively as Anglo-Saxons) conquered much of Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries. The conquerors absorbed some British Celts into the new Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and drove others into a portion of southwestern Scotland (called Strathclyde), into the peninsulas of Wales and Cornwall, and across the English Channel into Brittany (then called Armorica), where even today a British Celtic language is spoken (Breton). The Cornish were conquered by the Anglo-Saxons by the end of the first millennium, c.e., but their language too survived down to early modern times.

After the profound changes brought about by the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons and the displacement of the British Celts, it took a few centuries for a sense of collective identity to develop in Wales. Signaling this collective identity was an increasing use of the term Cymry (“Fellow Countrymen”) among Welsh writers of the eleventh and twelfth centuries to designate their people. Even beyond this period, however, the Welsh (an Anglo-Saxon term meaning “strangers” or “slaves”) saw themselves as the rightful heirs to Britain and looked back wistfully to the time when the land was theirs.

In the sixth and seventh centuries, Christianity came to the Anglo-Saxons through the Britons and the Irish (in Scotland), and through missionaries sent by Rome. Thus, there was a growing religious affinity among peoples of the British Isles, but this did not lessen the struggle over boundaries between the Anglo-Saxons and the Welsh, which continued into the eleventh century. At that time, Wales west of Offa’s Dyke (constructed by the Anglo-Saxons in the eighth century and recognized on both sides as the dividing line between the two peoples) was essentially divided into three kingdoms, or centers of power: Gwynedd in the north, Powys in the center, and Dyfed (Deheubarth) in the south.

There were other, smaller kingdoms as well, and the relations among the Welsh rulers were never very stable. Often, one king or aspirant to the throne would ally himself with the Anglo-Saxons (or later, with the Normans) against his Welsh rivals. Especially along the coast, the Welsh were often harried by the Vikings who had established their own kingdom in Ireland. Meanwhile, some Welsh kings and dynastic families enjoyed close relations with their Irish counterparts, a fact reflected perhaps in the events of the “Second Branch of the Mabinogi.” (Gruffudd ap Cynan of Gwynedd, for instance, one of the longest-lived Welsh kings of the late eleventh / early twelfth centuries, was the son of an Irish-Viking princess and spent time in exile in Ireland.) Around 1050 the king of Gwynedd—Gruffudd ap Llywelyn (Gruffudd son of Llywelyn)—succeeded in unifying the Welsh more than any previous king, and also in repelling the encroaching Anglo-Saxons, but he was slain in 1063. When the Normans invaded England in 1066, its king Harold Godwin-son (who had conducted a successful military campaign against Gruffudd and exploited the power vacuum left in the wake of the death of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn), was acknowledged as overlord by the various Welsh kings.

The Tale in Focus

Plot summary

The First Branch. In the vague, pre-Roman times in which these stories are set, a king named Pwyll Pendefic rules over the kingdom of southern Wales, known as Dyfed. While hunting by himself, he accidentally insults the honor of Arawn, the king of the otherworldly kingdom of Annwn. Arawn obligates Pwyll to take his place in the otherworld for a year and to fight an important duel in defense of Arawn’s kingship in a year’s time. Pwyll accomplishes his mission successfully, spending his time in the lavish otherworldly court in the shape of Arawn, sleeping chastely with Arawn’s wife, and slaying Arawn’s rival for the throne. Thereby the king of Dyfed wins the lasting friendship of his otherworldly colleague, as well as the title “Head of Annwn.”

In the second part of the story, Pwyll and his men, while sitting on a mound famous for the unusual occurrences that happen upon it, encounter a supernatural female riding by on a horse. None of Pwyll’s men, whom he sends to determine the maiden’s identity, can catch up with her. When Pwyll himself rides after her, the woman, named Rhiannon, finally does stop and reveals her errand. She is in love with Pwyll, Rhiannon explains, even though she has not met him before, but is shortly to be given in marriage to a man she does not love. Rhiannon coaches the instantly amorous Pwyll as to how to win her before it is too late. Despite some complications brought about by Rhiannon’s former suitor, Pwyll and Rhiannon in the end are married, and she goes to live with him.

In the third part of the story, a child is finally born to Rhiannon and Pwyll, after some time and considerable anxiety on the part of Pwyll’s subjects over whether their king will have an heir after all. The baby, however, is mysteriously stolen on the night of his birth, and the women who were supposed to guard him but fell asleep concoct the story that Rhiannon ate her own newborn son. Unable to refute the monstrous charge, Rhiannon accepts the punishment of having to sit at the entrance to Pwyll’s court, tell her story to anyone who does not know it, and offer to carry visitors into the court on her back. (In fact, the text tells us, no visitor allows her to do so.) The story switches back to the night of the boy’s birth, and to the home of Teyrnon, a former member of Pwyll’s retinue, whose mare has just foaled. As Teyrnon inspects the newborn colt, a great claw reaches in to grab it, but Teyrnon cuts the arm off at the elbow. When he goes outside to investigate further, he does not find the owner of the arm but instead a baby swaddled in silk. Teyrnon and his wife adopt the child, who grows up to be a fine-looking youth, bearing a striking resemblance to Pwyll. Teyrnon, putting two and two together, realizes that this must be Pwyll’s lost son and takes him to the court of Dyfed, where the youth is reunited with his parents, and Rhiannon is released from her punishment. The young man, who had been named Gwri by his foster parents, is renamed Pryderi (“Anxiety”) in memory of his mother’s ordeal and vindication. In due time, Pwyll passes away, and Pryderi inherits the throne of Dyfed.

The Second Branch. The events of the Second Branch take place after those of the First Branch. The tale opens on the northwestern coast of Wales on the rock of Harddlech, where Bendi-geidfran son of Llyr, the king of all of Britain, and his brother Manawydan and sister Branwen are looking out over the Lrish Sea. A fleet approaches, carrying Matholwch, the king of Ireland, who offers marriage to Branwen. The offer is accepted, to everyone’s satisfaction—except that of Efnisien, Bendigeidfran’s half-brother. To protest the alliance that was formed without his consent, Efnisien mutilates Matholwch’s horses, an insult that nearly impels the Lrish party to leave in anger. Bendigeidfran intercepts them, explaining that he was not responsible for the outrage, and gives in compensation many more horses than the Irish brought with them, and a cauldron that revives the dead.

Matholwch and his men finally return to Ireland with Branwen, who is at first received cordially by the Irish. After a while, however, the memory of the insult suffered by Matholwch turns the Irish against Branwen, who is reduced to a scullery maid. She sends a message via a trained starling to her brother the king, who gathers the forces of Britain and invades Ireland. The Irish are immediately intimidated by the British and, aided by the diplomacy of Branwen, sue for peace, offering to turn the kingship over to Gwern, the son of Matholwch and Branwen. Despite an attempt on the part of the Irish to ambush their British “guests” (a plot foiled by the wily Efnisien), the two enemy hosts sit down to a feast together, where the heir to the Irish throne, Gwern, is introduced to his mother’s relatives. Pandemonium results when Efnisien tosses Gwern into the fire, where he burns to death. In the ensuing battle between the British and the Irish, Efnisien sacrifices himself by sneaking into the cauldron of revival, which the Irish are using to regenerate their fallen troops, and bursting it, as well as his own heart, in a final heroic act of exertion. Only seven Britons and Branwen survive the cataclysmic battle, which wipes out the Irish forces. One of the survivors, Bendigeidfran, who is mortally wounded, orders that his head be cut off, and that his men (who include Manawydan, his brother, and Pryderi of the First Branch) return to Britain and proceed with his head to Harddlech, and then to the island of Gwales off the southern coast of Wales. At both of these places, Bendigeidfran assures them, they will be magically fed, comforted, entertained, and protected from the ravages of time in the company of the head. When they finally leave Gwales, they are to proceed to the royal site of London, where the head is to be buried in a hill, as a means of magically protecting Britain against invasion. Branwen, realizing the enormity of the destruction that has been brought about on her account, dies of a broken heart. The rest of the party discovers that Bendigeidfran’s son, to whom had been entrusted the kingship in his father’s absence, has also died of a broken heart, and the throne has been usurped by Caswallon, son of Beli (seemingly a member of a rival family). Nonetheless, the seven from Ireland carry on, obeying their king’s instructions, enjoying the feasts in Harddlech and Gwales, and finally transporting Bendigeidfran’s head to its prescribed resting place. The text ends with an account of how Ireland was repopulated by five pregnant women, the only natives to have survived the devastating battle with the British.

The Third Branch. In the aftermath of the invasion of Ireland, the return to Britain, and the prolonged pleasure of the supernatural feast of Bendigeidfran’s head, Pryderi suggests that his fellow survivor Manawydan marry Pryderi’s widowed mother Rhiannon and settle down in southern Wales. Manawydan agrees, and the wedding is celebrated with an expedition to the same mysterious mound that figures in the First Branch. While Manawydan, Rhiannon, Pryderi, and Pryderi’s wife, Cigfa, are sitting on this mound, the country around them is magically turned into a deserted wasteland. The couples go to England, around the border country of Hereford, to seek their fortunes as craftsmen. Manawydan and Pwyll succeed at the crafts to which they apply themselves, but return to Wales for fear of reprisal from the jealous English craftsmen. Later, while on a hunt, Pryderi is lured into a fort, where he is magically trapped. His mother Rhiannon goes in after him, and suffers the same fate, after which the fort disappears. Perplexed and bereft of their spouses, Manawydan and Cigfa return to England, where Manawydan once again succeeds as a craftsman, but once again decides that it would be best to retreat to Wales. He becomes a farmer and grows a crop of wheat, but finds that in the night the wheat is stolen mysteriously. Standing guard over his last patch of wheat, Manawydan discovers the culprits: a horde of mice. He drives them away and catches a pregnant mouse. About to execute it by hanging, Manawydan is met by a series of figures who implore him to spare the mouse. These passersby finally reveal themselves to be the same person—namely, the pregnant mouse’s supernatural husband, who had enchanted Pryderi and Rhiannon, and then transformed himself, his wife, and his men into mice, in order to take revenge on behalf of his kinsman, the suitor from whom Pwyll had rescued Rhiannon in the First Branch. After Manawydan releases the lady mouse, the wasteland turns back into Wales, and Pryderi and Rhiannon are released.

The Fourth Branch. The northern kingdom of Gwynedd is ruled by Math, son of Mathonwy, who, except in wartime, always keeps his feet in the lap of a virgin. Math’s nephew, Gilfaethwy, falls madly in love with his uncle’s footholder, and his desire is detected by his brother, the magical trickster Gwydion, who concocts a plan to divert Math and allow Gilfaethwy to satisfy his desire. In the guise of traveling poets Gwydion and Gilfaethwy travel to the kingdom of South Wales, to the court of King Pryderi, son of Pwyll. They offer to give him beautifully equipped horses and hounds, created by Gwydion out of mushrooms, in exchange for the pigs that Pryderi has received from Annwn (in gratitude for Pwyll’s deeds, described in the First Branch). Pryderi agrees and gives them the pigs, seemingly the first domesticated pigs known to humankind, and Gwydion and Gilfaethwy hurry back north—the magical spell that created the horses and the hounds will soon wear off. When he sees that he has been cheated, Pryderi collects an army and sets out to attack Gwynedd and to recover his pigs. While Math is on the battlefield rising to the challenge (he in fact slays Pryderi), Gilfaethwy rapes the footholder. Gwydion and Gilfaethwy then flee. When they finally return to Math’s court to ask for forgiveness, they are turned into animals, different species for each of three years, and in the guise of animals Gwydion and Gilfaethwy give birth to animal children. After his three years of punishment, Gwydion, now rehabilitated, offers to help Math find a new virginal footholder, suggesting his own sister, Aranrhod. Math, testing her virginity, asks her to step over his magic wand. When she does so, two items drop from her: a boy—whom Math baptizes and names Dylan, and who immediately flees into the waters of the ocean, where he spends the rest of his life—and “something,” which only Gwydion notices, and which he hides in a chest under his bed. This “something” grows into another child, whom Gwydion takes and shows to Aranrhod. Her reaction, however, is hardly maternal: she curses the boy, saying that he will only receive a name and arms through her (of course, she has no intention of giving him either), and that he shall never have a human wife. Through the magic and trickery of Gwydion, Aranrhod unwittingly does name and arm her offspring, after he grows into a young man. (The name he receives is “Lleu,” which means “bright.”) And when Lleu is of an age to marry, Gwydion and Math create for him a woman made out of flowers, called Bloedeuwedd (“Flower Face”). This artificial wife, unfortunately, turns out to be treacherous, and she goads her lover, a hunter named Gronw Pebyr, into slaying Lleu, after she learns the secret of how he might be slain. As he is killed, Lleu is turned into an eagle and flies away. The faithful Gwydion does not rest until he finds this eagle, perched on a tree and dropping pieces of his rotting flesh, and through his magic transforms it back into Lieu. Gwydion tracks down Bloedeuwedd and punishes her by turning her into the first owl, to be hated by all other birds, while Lieu has his revenge on Gronw Pebyr. The text ends with the statement that Lieu ruled over Gwynedd, presumably after the death of Math.

Culhwch and Olwen. Culhwch, a young Welsh prince, refuses the proposal of his conniving stepmother to marry her daughter. As a result, she spitefully imposes upon him the magical condition of being hopelessly in love with Olwen, the daughter of the giant Yspaddaden. Culhwch’s father advises the lovelorn lad to seek the assistance of Arthur, Culhwch’s cousin, in finding the maiden, whom Culhwch has never met. At Arthur’s court (seemingly in Cornwall) Culhwch invokes the names of all the male and female members of Arthur’s retinue in the interest of asking for his cousin’s help, which is generously given. As Arthur says to his right-hand man Cei, when he rejects Cei’s advice not to admit his young cousin into the court, “We are nobles as long as anyone seeks us out; the greater the favor we bestow, the greater shall be our nobility, our fame, and our honor” (Mabinogion, p. 125).

After Arthur’s men help Culhwch find Olwen (not an easy task), Culhwch formally asks the giant Yspaddaden for her hand. Taking an instant dislike to his prospective son-in-law, Yspaddaden says that he will consent only after Culhwch has accomplished 27 daunting tasks. Most have to do with preparing for the wedding. For instance, Culhwch is to obtain the cauldron of the Irish king’s steward to cook the wedding feast, and locate and free the imprisoned huntsman Mabon, whose services will be required in the hunting of Twrch Trwyth (a gigantic boar), but whose whereabouts are known only to the most ancient of animals. Arthur and his men accomplish these deeds for Culhwch, although the text does not actually account for all of them. The quest turns momentarily ominous early on, when Cei angrily leaves Arthur and drops out of the story after Arthur teases that the giant whom Cei had just treacherously slain after plucking out his beard (one of Yspaddaden’s requests—the whiskers are to be made into a leash, for use with a dog in the hunt for the boar) would have bested Cei if the fight had been fair. The most difficult and protracted deed is the obtaining of the comb and shears to be found on the head of the boar. (Yspaddaden wants them for his prewedding preparations.) Arthur’s hunt for this animal, who was a human king turned into a boar by God in punishment for his sins, takes Arthur and his men to Ireland and throughout Wales and Cornwall. The comb and shears are finally won, but the boar escapes. The last of the tasks to be accomplished is the obtaining of “the blood of the pitch black witch, daughter of the bright-white witch from the Valley of Grief in Hell’s back country” (Mabinogion, p. 156). The blood will be used as a softener for Yspaddaden’s whiskers, so that they can be trimmed properly. Overcoming the witch and obtaining her blood proves more difficult than Arthur and his men thought; for the first time taking care of the task on his own instead of delegating it to his men, Arthur himself kills her: “Then Arthur made for the entrance to the cave; from there he threw Carnwennan his knife at the witch and cut her in half until she was twin tubs”, that is, two bloody halves (Mabinogion, p. 157). Presented with all of these accomplishments and prizes, Yspaddaden has no choice but to surrender his daughter. After he is shaved by one of Arthur’s men, who also removes the giant’s “flesh and skin down to the bone, and his two ears”, Yspaddaden declares that it is time for him to die (Mabinogion, p. 157). He is promptly dispatched, although not by Culhwch (who has been barely active throughout the questing part of the story) or Arthur, but by Goreu (“Best”), a young warrior whose brothers had all been killed by the giant, and who emerges as a new hero in Arthur’s circle in the course of this story.

Varieties of Celtic heroism

In contrast to Ireland’s medieval The Tain or Cattle Raid of Cooley (also in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times), which centers on a single and singular hero (Cú Chulainn), in these earliest of Welsh tales is a fascinating variety of heroic behavior and identity. The heroes in The Mabinogion range from the initially impetuous Pwyll of the First Branch, to the cautious Manawydan of the Third, to the forthright Bendigeidfran of the Second Branch, and the devious Gwydion of the Fourth. While these Welsh heroes are magicians (Math and Gwydion) and fighters (Pwyll), they are also peace-loving rulers (Bendigeidfran) and entrepreneurial craftsmen (Manawydan and Pryderi). They identify closely with subjects and kingdom (Bendigeidfran’s head becomes a talisman for all of Britain), but they also exhibit antisocial tendencies (the “villainous hero” Efnisien, who mutilates his future brother-in-law’s horses and throws his nephew into the fire but also sacrifices his own life for the good of his fellow Britons). The Welsh heroes of the “Four Branches” know how to use the power of speech (Gwydion can pass as a storyteller; Branwen can teach birds to talk), yet they know too the value of silence and of keeping secrets (Pwyll goes “undercover” in the otherworld). There are moreover heroines as well as heroes in this story world, whose adventures demonstrate acutely the dangerous alternation between power and powerlessness that characterizes all heroic careers. Rhiannon and Branwen are helpless at key points in their stories, but no more so than is the hero Lieu in the hands of his treacherous wife Blodeuwedd, or Pryderi both at the beginning of his heroic career, when he is kidnapped, and at the end, when he is outwitted and slain by the wily Gwydion.

The world of Arthur as reflected in “Culhwch and Olwen” partakes of the same heroic ethos, emphasizing a similar set of virtues. And yet there is something different about Arthur’s world. In the “Four Branches,” despite the occasional intervention of or foray into the otherworld, life is firmly grounded in the realities of human society, and framed with human responsibilities (such as child-bearing) and restraints (such as death). “Culhwch and Olwen” features the seemingly constant, almost restless movement of Arthur and his men, their willingness to undertake adventure and accept challenges, and Arthur’s penchant for freeing captives and those upon whom paralyzing limitations have been imposed (such as the hapless Culhwch, who would never have found Olwen without Arthur’s help). These features evoke a fantasy world of sorts, an imaginative environment of risk-taking and escape from mundane consequences. It is perhaps the timeless, deep-seated yearning for such a way of life that accounts in part for the perennial popularity of Arthurian story. Together with the “Four Branches,” then, “Culhwch and Olwen” evokes aspects of the wishful and supernatural, and of everyday life among early Britons.

The mystique of Arthur

Doubtless the preservation of Arthurian tradition in “Culhwch and Olwen” was motivated to some extent by politics, as well as by the desire to showcase and perhaps critique one of the most popular figures in the legendary lore of the British Celts. Was there a historical Arthur? This is a question we will probably never be able to answer definitively, given the meagerness of the evidence about Britain of the fifth and sixth centuries, the putative period in which Arthur lived. The sixth-century British monk Gildas speaks of a Romano-British aristocrat “Ambrosius Aurelianus” who, in the period just before Gildas’s birth (500?) led his fellow Britons in a successful counterattack against the encroaching Anglo-Saxons; considerably later sources identify this Ambrosius with Arthur.

The earliest reference we have to an actual, recognizable “Arthur” comes in the ninth-century Latin compilation known as The History of Britons (Historia Britonum, attributed to Nennius) and the tenth-or eleventh-century Welsh Annals, which speak of Arthur as a battalion leader (dux hello-rum) who led the British in a series of successful battles against the Anglo-Saxon invaders but was finally slain in the Battle of Camlann. The History also speaks of an Ambrosius, a wondrous prophetic boy who is nearly killed as a human sacrifice by a wicked king. The twelfth-century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth identifies this figure with Merlin (from the Welsh name Myrddin), a great prophet of northern British Celtic and Welsh tradition, who is brought into the Arthurian orbit for the first time in Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniae, c. 1135). There are also references to be found to Arthur and to Myrddin in obscure poems written in early medieval Welsh in the late first millennium, c.e., but it is an ongoing challenge to scholars of Welsh to reconstruct stories out of these poems and references.

Then we have “Culhwch and Olwen,” from the eleventh or early twelfth century. This is the very earliest extant example of an Arthurian


Interwoven into “Culhwch and Olwen” is the story of Creid dylad, which features Arthur’s penchant for peacemaking, a trait that resurfaces in later Arthurian tales outside Wales:

A little while before that, Creiddylad daughter of Lludd … went off with Gwythr son of Greidawl. But before he could sleep with her, Gwyn son of Nudd, came and took her by force, Gwythur son of Creidawl gathered a host and came to attack Gwyn son of Nudd. Gwyn won the battle and took Greid son of Eri … Nwython, and Cyledyr Wylt the wild, his son. He killed Nwython, cut out his heart and forced Cyledyr to eat his father’s heart; because of that Cyledyr went mad.

Arthur heard about that and came to the North. He summoned Gwyn son of Nudd to him, released his nobles from his prison, and made peace between Gwyn son of Nudd, and Gwythr son of Greidawl. This is the peace that was concluded: to leave the maiden unmolested by either party in her father’s house, and a battle between Gwyn and Gwythr every May first, forever, until judgment Day, from that day forth. The one that conquered on Judgment Day would get the maiden.
(Ford, Mabinogl p. 151).

heroic story. Certainly the impression left by the tale, particularly the listing of the members of Arthur’s court and various passing references to other stories involving Arthur and his men, is that “Culhwch and Olwen” is only the tip of an iceberg. The outline of its main story is familiar from the world of folktales—a young man sets forth in search of a hard-to-win bride and along the way wins the assistance of supernatural or unusually talented helpers. It is also familiar from the quest-driven world of later Arthurian romance, which is full of knights rescuing, and falling in love with, damsels in distress held captive by ogreish fathers, husbands, or would-be lovers.

What is especially curious about the Arthur of this text, as of virtually all the glimpses we have of Arthur before Geoffrey’s work, is that he is not characterized as a king. This may be a reflection of the amorphous nature of kingship or its nomenclature in early medieval Wales, but it may also point toward a fundamental aspect of Arthur’s function. Perhaps he serves in British Celtic story more as a leader of potentially heroic young men, who helps them achieve their rites of passage from childhood to adulthood, than as a “king” in the sense of a ruler who basically stays at home in his court or works to expand his kingdom through conquest. (In contrast to the British Celtic image, this second view is in essence the Arthur of Geoffrey of Monmouth, and of later popular imagination, medieval and modern.) Moreover, Arthur bears what was originally a Roman name (Artorius), as do some of the prominent heroes associated with him (such as Cai, from Caius). But there is very little else about the Arthur of “Culhwch and Olwen” that would strike us as “Roman” or as reminiscent of the classical world. He seems very much the British chieftain and warrior, primarily engaged in feasting, going off on warlike adventures, and hunting.

Other elements of this early tale surface in later ones. Already to be found in “Culhwch and Olwen” are Arthur’s famous sword, Caledfwlch (known in later, non-Welsh tradition as “Excalibur”) and his wife Gwenhwyfar (a Welsh name later turned into “Guenevere”), but there is no mention of “Camelot,” the name of Arthur’s renowned dwelling, which seems to be a later, non-Celtic invention. Also, alongside the generosity and courage Arthur exhibits in our story, there is also a dark side to him that surfaces in later Arthurian story, exemplified in the ominous rift between Arthur and his loyal sidekick Cei, which (the text says) would last through Arthur’s hour of greatest need. A story interwoven into the text of “Culhwch and Olwen,” having to do with the perennial struggle between two heroic males over possession of the woman Creiddylad, is perhaps meant to remind us of the instability of Arthur’s own marriage, as described in Welsh tradition and also, more famously, in the later French story of the tragic love between Arthur’s queen Guenevere and Lancelot, his favorite knight. Guenevere/Gwenhwyfar’s infidelity or vulnerability to sexual predators is intimated in Welsh Arthurian tradition, although not explicitly in “Culhwch and Olwen.” Also another early Welsh text, “The Wonders of Britain,” refers to a story about Arthur’s killing of his own son. Already in its Celtic phase of development, then, Arthurian story featured, amidst its fantasies of independence from social restrictions and pressures, troubling episodes of conjugal and familial strife.

Literary context

All 11 Mabinogion tales are preserved, together with other literary compositions, in two fourteenth-century manuscripts, The White Book of Rhydderch and The Red Book of Hergest. Moreover, individual Mabinogion tales or portions thereof are to be found in other Welsh manuscripts, some earlier than the fourteenth century. Had this ensemble of texts not survived, our knowledge of the content of storytelling in medieval Wales would be sketchy at best. It would have depended on the often obscure poems that have survived from early (pre-twelfth-century) medieval Wales, scattered allusions to characters and tales in the vast repertoire of poetry that comes to us from the later medieval periods of Welsh (twelfth-sixteenth centuries), the traditions recorded in the Welsh medieval collection known as The Triads of the Isle of Britain, and the unreliable reports of Welsh legend in the works of medieval British authors such as Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain. Written in Latin, Geoffrey’s work arguably launched the international career of Arthur as a figure of story and a paragon of sovereignty and knightly valor. His work is predated by The Mabinogion’s “Culhwch and Olwen,” but even with it as a source, scholars are still uncertain about the origins and evolution of the Arthurian cycle.

Scholars have suggested that in its tendency to catalog and to exaggerate the capabilities and peculiarities of its major and minor characters, our text may be imitating or even parodying the techniques of the oral storyteller. In any case, Welsh oral tradition plays a much more important role as source for our text than any known work of literature in Welsh, Latin, or any of the other languages spoken in or around Wales.

Events in History at the Time the Tales Were Written

A threatened identity

In the latter part of the eleventh century, when the “Four Branches” and “Culhwch and Olwen” were probably written down, England was invaded by the Normans (Northmen or Vikings who had settled in a part of France still bearing their name—Normandy). The Normans defeated the Anglo-Saxons in 1066, becoming the leading military force on the island. Soon the new conquerors turned their attention to Wales, and an on-again-off-again war between them and the Welsh commenced, lasting for more than 200 years. Initially, the Normans left the task of dealing with these difficult neighbors to certain trusted nobles who virtually conquered and set up their own mini-kingdoms in Wales (in an area called the “March,” which included Hereford, the setting in the Third Branch that is identified as “England”). The Welsh rebelled, the Normans counterattacked, and the Welsh recuperated, with the result that, except for the northeastern territory and the southern coastline of Wales, most of the land remained in Welsh lands, albeit under threat of Norman attack. Great kings emerged in the twelfth century in Wales, who, while acknowledging the overlordship of the Norman king of England, maintained their independence, such as Owain Gwynedd, Madog ap Maredudd of Powys, and Rhys ap Gruffudd of Deheubarth.

Feudalism—the notion that one’s status derives from allegiance to a lord, as opposed to the native Welsh notion that status depends on one’s kin-group—began to make headway in Wales in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries through contact with the Normans, as did the French language and the influence of French literature. The hopes of the Welsh to maintain their independence in the face of Anglo-Norman military might would be dashed, however, in 1283 (after The Mabinogion was composed) with the death in battle of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, the celebrated king of Gwynedd who came very close to unifying Wales, and with the conquest of Wales by Edward I of England. Down to recent times, Welsh poets, expressing the aspirations of a conquered yet defiant people, have prophesied the coming of a new champion of the Welsh—a new Llywelyn or a new Arthur—who will lead them to freedom from the English. The rise of the Tudor kings of England who came to power in the late fifteenth century and were of Welsh stock (“Tudor” is a Welsh name) gave hope to some of the Welsh that their nation would be vindicated. In fact, the opposite happened, with the Acts of Union of 1536 and 1542 doing away with the last vestiges of Welsh autonomy.

Life in medieval Wales

Wales of the eleventh and twelfth centuries had a rural economy, dependent on agriculture and herding, and on forests rich with game, although some of the towns or military headquarters established by the Romans during their occupation continued to function as centers of trade, political power, and cultural activity, as did the towns that developed around the monasteries established in the second half of the first millennium, c.e., and later. Society was stratified, with a land-owning aristocratic class (uchelwyr) at the top and a large population of tenant farmers of varying degrees of independence forming the base. The freemen, including the aristocracy, fought and feasted, while the un-free worked the land. Territorially and politically, Wales was divided into a north and south, Gwynedd and Dyfed respectively, with the territory of Powys in the middle, and in the course of medieval Welsh history there were further political subdivisions. Kings were often not called such (the term arglwydd, or “leader” was more frequently used than brenhin, “king”), but dominion was often held within what could be called dynastic families, with succession from generation to generation often determined by a show of power rather than by fixed rules of in heritance. A noble aspiring to leadership gathered a retinue of loyal fellow nobles around himself, among whom the poet was an important and functional figure. This social reality is reflected in “Culhwch and Olwen” in the size of Arthur’s retinue, and on the extent to which he depends on them to accomplish the tasks that Arthur agrees to perform on behalf of his cousin Culhwch.

Literature in Welsh was produced under the patronage of churches and monasteries, which in addition to cultivating the study of biblical and classical (Latin) texts supported the activities of the “native” learned classes, including poets, genealogists, and specialists in traditional law. The monasteries depended on the cooperation and patronage of powerful lords, just as the latter derived prestige and authority from the support of the church, a political agenda reflected in the literature. The majority of texts surviving from medieval Wales are Welsh poems written in praise of the nobles who supported the poetic profession and depended on the good “public relations” these poems generated for them. Welsh poetry of this period is very complex in its metrical schemes and recondite in its vocabulary and syntax. In “The Dream of Rhonabwy” from The Mabinogion, the inaccessibility of this poetry is gently mocked: “And thereupon, lo, bards coming to chant a song to Arthur. But never a man was there might understand that song save Cadyrieith [a linguistically gifted member of Arthur’s retinue] himself, except that it was in praise of Arthur” (Jones and Jones, p. 151). While the creators of literature in medieval Wales were very much observers of their times, these learned writers were also nostalgia-driven, intent on preserving in a literary form the glory of a bygone age peopled by larger-than-life ancestral figures, both Welsh and British.


Some details of the “Four Branches” are echoed in the medieval Welsh “Triads” compilations and in the vast body of court poetry, prophetic verse, and love lyrics composed in Wales between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. Given the nature of the literary evidence, however, it is difficult to determine just how popular these stories and characters were in later medieval Welsh storytelling tradition. Traces of the “Four Branches” can be found in modern Welsh folk tradition, and popular culture today has embraced these stories enthusiastically. (Comic books in Welsh featuring stories from The Mabinogion are available, for example.)

Outside Wales, the “Four Branches” had to wait until they were translated into other European languages in the nineteenth century to become widely known. In the twentieth-century, novelists such as Evangeline Walton (who wrote a quartet of novels based on The Mabinogion) and Lloyd Alexander (author of The Black Cauldron) and designers of games (such as “Dungeons and Dragons”) have mined the “Four Branches” for ideas and inspiration. There is no evidence that “Culhwch and Olwen” was ever known outside Wales. Still, somehow the salient details and general story patterns of Arthurian tradition, which are very much on display in “Culhwch and Olwen,” were introduced into the lore of the Normans and, through them, into the medieval French-speaking world as well as into all the major literary traditions of medieval Europe. The popularity of the tales of Arthur continued unabated through the seventeenth century, when this tradition was temporarily eclipsed by other literary passions in England. Arthurian lore made a remarkable comeback, however, in the nineteenth century, in no small part generated by new editions of medieval Arthurian texts (including Lady Charlotte Guest’s 1849 translation of The Mabinogion). Given the availability of Welsh Arthurian texts in translation, and the ever-increasing interest in Arthur’s British Celtic roots, it was virtually impossible for nineteenth-and twentieth-century artists who invoked this tradition—for instance, writers such as Alfred Tennyson (in Idylls of the King) and filmmakers such as John Boorman (Excalibur)—to ignore the fundamental Celtic dimension to the figure of Arthur.

—Joseph F. Nagy

For More Information

Davies, R. R. The Age of Conquest: Wales 1063-1415. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Ford, Patrick, K., trans. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

Gerald of Wales. The Journey through Wales and The Description of Wales, Trans. Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1978.

Jones, Gwyn, and Thomas Jones, trans. The Mabinogion. 2d revised ed. London: J. M. Dent and Charles E. Tuttle, 1989.

Stephens, Meic, ed. New Companion to the Literature of Wales. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1998.

Wilhelm, James J., ed. The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation. New York: Garland Press, 1994.