Breaking the Spell That Lies on the Land

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Pryderi’s Tale

This is how it was when I went with Manawydan and Brân over the two rivers – Lli and Archan -: the Cauldron was there, though we did not come back with it for it was broken as was heart of Branwen. There was great grief on all of us. As for Brân, there was only his head to keep company with. We did not quite come back, at least not at once, but remained a while neither here nor there. Time would have weighed heavily upon us then but

The Birds of Rhiannon sang, both near and far, until seven years had passed, but had not passed, as clock-time and deep-time fell out of alignment.

So it seemed and it is only like that I can tell it. We went out over the sea then and might have reached the Otherworld, but we came to the island of Gwales and remained there between the worlds with a portal to Thisworld through a closed door. I remember Manawydan saying:

“Look, there is the door we should not open”

For eighty years of deep-time we were blissful there until clock-time, which had scarcely moved, touched Heilyn. His words echoed in one world from the other:

“Shame on my beard if I shall not open the door.”

There was no choice then but to go through the portal as Brân had told us. His blissful presence there could last no longer. We took him and buried him beneath the White Hill to become part of the strength and vigour of the Island of Britain as he had foretold.

Time pressed upon us now and it was a burden for Manawydan for the sovereignty of the Island had been usurped from him and he knew that he could not recover it in Thisworld. He was haunted, still, by the sounds of Rhiannon’s birds. So I spoke to him of my mother:

“She was the most beautiful woman in the world when she came from Annwn to woo my father. So she is still and if we go to Dyfed we will find her there.”

That is what we did. We found her there with my wife Cigfa. And if she was pleased to see her son she met with my companion too as if she had always known him. As they found each other fair we held a wedding feast for them and Manawydan seemed at peace for a time. Until something stirred between the worlds out of cognizance until that day on the Gorsedd Hill it broke though with a clap of thunder and a fall of mist. When the mist cleared there was a change in the appearance of the land: it was the same land, but before it was homely and close and enclosing,  now it was wild and strange to us. It was as it had been before it was settled.

So we had to hunt for our food and one day while out hunting a gleaming white boar broke cover and we chased it – Manawydan and I – until it ran out of sight. We climbed the Gorsedd Hill to look for it and there before us was a fort that had not been there before. We watched the boar run into the fort and our hounds after it. Then there was silence.

Manawydan said to me

“My counsel is that we do not go into the fort.”

I went in and found no boar nor hounds. There was a fountain and a cup, though no cup-bearer to offer it so I took the cup in my own hands and was instantly struck dumb and could not move. It seems to me now that I waited a fleeting second and yet for ever, though I was soon aware that Rhiannon was there with me and it was as if we were a mare and a foal in a stable.

-*-

Cigfa’s Tale

When my husband Pryderi came back from that expedition bringing Manawydan with him I was unsure of him at first. He was a deep and a brooding presence. He seemed to have brought with him a troubled mind and I could not see through to him. But Rhiannon took to him immediately. I suppose he had something of her own otherworldliness about him and it soon seemed like they would be a perfect couple. For a while everything was fine, until that day on the Gorsedd Hill when the mist came down. I’m sure it was something to do with the two of them getting together that caused it. That evening, when Manawydan came back without Pryderi, I could tell by the tone in Rhiannon’s voice that she had some idea what had happened before he said a word. There was no stopping her from going after him. I remember that eerie silence after she went into the fort and then it just disappeared in a shower of mist.

I was afraid then. My husband had gone. Rhiannon had gone. It was just me and him. What would he want of me? But I had nothing to fear from him. We went away for a while but soon came back with some wheat to plant; he said we could make a start on bringing back the land we had known. When the mice came and ate the wheat he knew what to do. He grew some more. Then more again until he caught one. I told him he was mad to keep a mouse in a glove until he could hang it on a gibbet. But he just kept on building it.

So they came, the emissaries, one by one as if from beyond Dyfed, but no-one came that way any more. One by one he countered them and refused to release the mouse, whatever they offered him. It seemed strange to me then, what he was doing. But he knew. He played their game and won, patiently waiting for his chance to confront that otherworld wizard. As if Manawydan knew that the mouse was his wife. So the wizard took out his wand and agreed to what Manawydan demanded. The land just seemed to resolve itself back to how it had been before all this happened. Then there they were – Rhiannon and Pryderi – walking towards us.

_*_

The spell was broken in Dyfed
and he who had usurped the throne
of the Island of Britain shivered.
For Brân stirred beneath him.

 

Bendigeidfran as a Giant?

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Brân’s head being carried back from Ireland as imagined in the animated film Otherworld

There are many giants recorded in the folklore of Wales[*]. Sion Dafydd Rhys told of many of them in his 16th century treatise Olion Cewri , regarding them as remnants of the aboriginal occupants of Britain as asserted by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain. Many of these giants are seen in traditional fashion as ogres of one sort or another. In the literary tradition this is also the case for the giants in the medieval Welsh tale How Culhwch Won Olwen. Each of them display an ogreish appearance, including Ysbadadden Chief Giant whose daughter, Olwen, is sought by Culhwch. She is not a giant but she does have some extra-human qualities such as the fact that white clover springs up wherever she treads.

In the second of the Mabinogi tales, Bendigeidfran (Blessed Brân) is also taken to be a giant, though neither his sister, Branwen, nor his brother, Manawydan, are giants. Brân himself does not display an ogreish appearance and only seems giant-like in parts of the tale. The description of him at the beginning does not distinguish him in this way at all:

Bendigeidfran son of Llŷr was crowned king over this island and adorned with the crown of London. One afternoon he was in Harddlech in Ardudwy, in a court of his, and one afternoon he was sitting on the rock of Harddlech above the sea with Manawydan Son of Llŷr and two brothers of the same mother as he – Nisien and Efnisien – and other nobles as would be fitting for a king.

In fact nowhere in the tale is the word ‘giant’ (cawr) used to describe him. The reason for regarding him as a giant are:

  1. Because it is said he has never been contained within a house.
  2. Because of his giant-like appearance to the Irish when he is wading through the sea to attack them and his subsequent action of lying across a river so his followers can cross on his back.

The first of these may not necessarily indicate that he is a giant. Though he has not been contained within a house, he happily sits in a tent that has been put up for the wedding feast of Branwen and Matholwch. Not being contained in a house might be a geas – a fated taboo the breaking of which leads to dishonour or death. Geasa are common in the Irish tradition, and often lead to the downfall of heroes when one geas works against another. When the Irish build a house especially to hold Brân, it is not long after he enters it that fighting breaks out leading to him being fatally wounded. The Irish had previously built a house especially to trap the giant Llasar Llaes Gyfnewid and his wife Cymidai Cymeinfoll who then escaped and brought the Cauldron of Rebirth to Brân, enabling him to give it to Matholwch.

The second reason is more convincing. The Irish see what looks like a forest and a mountain crossing the sea. Branwen explains this to them as the masts of Brân’s ships and Brân himself next to them:

 ‘… that was my brother, come by wading, for there was never a ship could contain him.’
‘What was that lofty ridge with the lake on either side?’
‘The two lakes on either side of the ridge are his eyes for he is angry.’

But there is a contradiction. Earlier it was said that the sea was not so wide and deep as it is now, and there were just two rivers to cross – the Lli and the Archan – to go from Britain to Ireland. It is thought that the Lli is on the Irish side and could be Loch Laoigh (Belfast Lough) [**] On the Welsh side the candidates for the Archan are either the River Arth which currently runs into Cardigan Bay about 15 miles south of Aberystwyth or the River Ystwyth which has its estuary beside that town. Both of these rivers run into an area of sea now covering a legendary submerged plain called ‘Mays Maichghen’[**] of which the submerged lands of Cantre’r Gwaelod also form a part. There is a triad (No. 44) [***] which mentions Archanad or Archanat being carried up ‘the hill of Maelor’ on a horse called ‘Dappled’. Maelor is the giant who inhabited the hill (currently known as Pendinas) overlooking the estuary of the River Ystwyth. Brân’s crossing of a river here where a giant lived would be fortuitous.

There seems, then, to be an element of double-think in the crossing to Ireland by Brân  and in the crossing from Ireland of Matholwch’s ships at the beginning of the tale. The sea is crossed in ships much as it would be now,  and when the tale was written down, but at the same time there is no sea, only two rivers, as it is known was the case before sea levels rose in the more distant past [****]. Could there also be an element of double-think in regarding Brân as a giant? He is clearly not a giant in the sense of most other giants of Welsh folklore or in comparable literary tales. Yet he does take on giant-like characteristics at key points in the tale; and the final carrying of his head to the otherworld location of Gwales,  the transition there by the singing of the Birds of Rhiannon, the supernatural nature of his head, all point to an other-than-human identity. Is he presented both as a medieval king, or one of the recent past for the medieval audience,  but also as an aboriginal being from that more distant past when the sea levels were lower? By inspiring such double vision can gods inhabit our world while also inhabiting their own.


My reference for the original Welsh text of the Second Branch of Y Mabinogi : Ian Hughes (ed) Bendigeiduran Uab Llyr (Aberystwyth, 2017) and his introductory discussion for suggested river names in addition to the specific references below.

[*] For a comprehensive review of Welsh giant lore see Chris Grooms The Giants of Wales/Cewri Cymru (Lampeter, 1993)
[**] Patrick Sims-Williams Irish Influence on Medieval Welsh Literature   pp.192-196 (Oxford, 2011)
[***] Rachel Bromwich (ed) Trioedd Ynys Prydein (Cardiff, 2006)
[****] For a discussion of the cultural geography of Britain at this time see Chapter 2 of Barry Cunliffe Britain Begins (Oxford, 2013).

WRITING THE DEEP

Beir y Byd

“The more he spurred on his horse, the further was she from him. Yet her pace did not seem to change.” So the magical riding of Rhiannon from the Otherworld in The Mabinogi. No-one can catch up with her – though she proceeds serenely on her way – until she wishes it. When Pwyll speaks to her she stops and allows him to approach. It is then said that she lifts the veil from her face and allows him to see her. This is a revelation, not just for Pwyll who sees his future wife for the first time, but of her Otherworld presence in Thisworld. With this lifting of the veil the two worlds meet and what is hidden is made apparent. This sense of closeness, as Rhiannon rides past, and distance as she suddenly seems farther away, is here located in the narrative of a story from medieval Wales set in an indeterminate time further back in the past. So we weave our experiences of the Otherworld and the revelations of Otherworld beings into stories which embody them in Thisworld.

-§-

There are other ways in which the reality of hidden worlds may be acknowledged. Consider that there are certain techniques in musical counterpoint where two themes are woven around each other and one of them contains within it the echo of the other. So one theme can be heard by the listener and the other is heard as something different, but yet a sense of depth and significance is created as the echo is subliminally perceived. Here a hidden sound-world plays against a perceived sound-world, enacting the interaction between them in the performance of the music, though even the performer may not be fully aware of this, or will only discover it in a fully-realised and inspired performance. So a musicologist speaks of one of Henry Purcell’s 17th century ‘Fantazias’ for viols as “encouraging both players and listeners … to hear the theme as starting on a strong upbeat and – as an equally plausible alternative – to hear it starting on a weak upbeat as well.” and of another of the same composer’s works having a “structural secret” of which even experienced musicians may not be aware, involving an interplay between “the austere cantus firmus [‘fixed melody’]… and the supernatural cantus firmus enunciated only subliminally in a nearly inaudible middle voice.” (*) The suggestion here is that the music both evokes and symbolically represents the interpenetration of an apparent and a hidden world and the uncertain terrain between them.

Such artistic creation is done not just for its own sake but as an act of acknowledgement of the source of creative inspiration. Melodies that are hidden in other melodies; words referring to things that are not obviously apparent; images that are mirrors of other, unseen, images. All these reflect a vocation to bring otherness and thisness into relation with each other and to enact that relation in offerings : prayers that are not asking for something but gifts for the gods presented on the borders between the worlds.

Out of the practice of composing contrapuntal music came a body of definitions of the different types of counterpoint which were comprehensively explored in the fugal works of J S Bach. Similarly, the early Welsh bards developed a range of techniques for the composition of verse which were standardised in the bardic grammars. These became the voice of the awen. Like counterpoint they achieved harmony not so much by the fusion of different sounds in complex chords as in later music, but by setting one sound off against another to create patterns of assonance and alliteration answering each other along a line of verse. This is called cynghanedd and is easier to do in Welsh than in English because it fits well with the natural sound patterns and the grammatical structure of the language. The most creative use of it by an English poet was in the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins who taught himself Welsh and studied Welsh metrics and used them to develop innovative ways of constructing verse in English. So, writing of a kestrel in ‘The Windhover’,  he produced lines such as these:

I caught his morning morning’s minion king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon in his riding
of the rolling level underneath him, steady air and striding

which incorporate some of the techniques of cynghanedd, not as an exercise or for ornament but in order to capture the essential nature of the bird and its pattern of flight, what he called ‘Instress’. Hopkins developed several such terms to define his verse practice, including also ‘Sprung Rhythm’ and ‘Counter-Pointed Rhythm’ and related them to his attempts to achieve the presentation of ‘Thisness’ and ‘Instress’ in his poetry, both what is concretely presented to us in the world and what lies beneath the surface. So here, too, we have a sense of an invisible world infusing the world of things that can be seen. In the poem ‘Heaven-Haven’ (the title is  ‘cynghanedd groes’), he writes

Where the green swell is in the havens dumb
And out of the swing of the sea.

We might notice the obvious repetition of ‘sw-‘ in ‘swell’ and ‘swing’, but he also links ‘green swell’ with ‘havens’ by the less obvious repetition of ‘ns’ setting up an opposition between ‘swell’ and ‘swing’ which is contrary to their apparent similarity of sound, while also linking the ‘green swell’ and the ‘havens’ in an enlivened comparison of contained stillness.

I have discussed Hopkins to illustrate the use of cynghanedd because it is difficult to link the sounds and meanings of bards writing in Welsh without using that language. But it is clear that the earliest bards saw themselves as engaged in what one scholar writing in Welsh refers to as “declaiming words used for magical purposes in a way different from that used for ordinary speech”(**) It was a way of discovering a form which reflected – to use Hopkins’ terms – both the ‘instress’ and the ‘thisness’ of things: their inward as well as their outward being.

-§-

In the Mabinogi tale of the return from Ireland with the head of Bendigeidfran by the seven surviving members of the band that went there, they gain some respite from their sorrows in Harlech where the Birds of Rhiannon sing to them as they prepare for their transition to the Otherworld: “… three birds came and began to sing a song to them, and of every song they had ever heard none sounded so sweet as did this song. Though they had to look far out over the sea to get a glimpse of the birds, yet the birds seemed so apparent to them that they were there among them.” Here we are back with the idea of things being both close and far away as we were with Rhiannon’s magical riding. So it is with the Otherworld, at once distant and yet as close as an endearment whispered in the ear. Do you hear it? Can you find a way to shape it into a song, an offering, a representation of the winding path through the labyrinth which is also straight and true? This is what is asked of an awenydd and what is offered to the gods in what an awenydd makes out of what is both far and near, distant and close, hidden and apparent. So it is too for all who hear the words the gods speak, feel their breath on the breeze, see their faces in the very shapes of the trees.

 


(*) Laurence Dreyfus in his discussion of Henry Purcell’s ‘Complete Fantasises for Viols’ (PHANTASM CD PSC 1124) on which he also plays and leads the performance.

(**) J. E. Caerwyn Williams ‘Bardus Gallice Cantor Appelatur’, in Beirdd a Thywysogion (Cardiff, 1996)