The mysterious tales of the Mabinogi

Published on: 27 June 2022

The stories of the Mabinogi are some of the earliest examples of prose in British literature, thought to be around a thousand years old. Matt Brown and Eloise Williams have retold some of these ancient tales in their new children's book, The Mab - and here they tell us some of their favourite stories.

Matt’s favourite stories

Branwen and the Cauldron of Rebirth From the Second Branch of the Mabinogi

One of the things I love about the stories of the Mabinogi is that they work in strange and mysterious ways. For example, in other stories, the marriage of a princess is usually where the story ends, and everyone cheers and has a bit of a dance. Not in the Mabinogi.

These stories aren’t as clear-cut as other fairytales. Take the story of Branwen, one of my favourites. At the beginning of the story, Branwen gets married to Matholwch, the King of Ireland. But rather than be a happily-ever-after moment, this marriage leads to resentment, bloodshed and a war that sees the death of all but seven soldiers. And as if that’s not exciting enough, there’s a cauldron that brings the dead back to life; talking birds; and a giant who lives for nearly one hundred years after having his head chopped off.

Happily Ever After from the Third Branch of the Mabinogi

The stories of the Mab are thrilling, and funny, and magic. They speak of a time when the gates between the real world and the Otherworld were occasionally left open, and sometimes it was possible to walk between the two.

Early on in the Mabinogi, we are told that those who look down from the top of Gorsedd Arberth (a big hill), will either see something wonderful or have some terrible misfortune fall on them. In the first story, Pwyll gets to the summit and sees Rhiannon, who he falls in love with. Hooray! But when we get to the third story, Happily Ever After, we get to see what happens when something terrible happens.

In this story, once our four heroes reach the top of the hill, every living creature disappears apart from them. I think I love this so much because that has always been a secret fantasy of mine to be the only person left in the whole world. I think I’d like it for about three days before I wanted everyone back. But in that time, I would eat nothing but Monster Munch, go for kicking practise at the Principality stadium, and wander around Buckingham Palace in my vest, pants and socks.

Three Graces, a retelling of Lludd and Llevelys

One of my favourite stories is about two brothers called Lludd and Llevelys. One is the king of Britain, and the other is the king of Ireland. In the story, three terrifying plagues come to Britain and Lludd needs his brothers help to get rid of them. The first is whispering ghosts, who steal words and thoughts that leave the world silent. The next is a horrible shrieking sound that shakes houses and shatters windows, night after night. Finally, there is a plague that takes the food from the plates of people, leaving everyone hungry. The question is, can Lludd and Llevelys work out what is wrong and save the world? SPOILER: Almost certainly.

Eloise’s favourite stories

Rhiannon, Pwyll and the Hideous Claw, from the First Branch of The Mabinogi

One of my favourite stories is Rhiannon, Pwyll and the Hideous Claw.  It’s something of a cautionary tale. Rhiannon is a powerful, enchanting woman from the Otherworld. Shimmering like a heat haze, she makes Pwyll chase her horse for a bit before catching him. She then reveals that she has chosen him to be her husband. Not the usual way things were done in ancient times. As a consequence of her strong-mindedness, she faces terrible trickery, a hideous claw which steals her baby, and punishment for a crime she didn’t commit. Standard fare for women who chose their own partners back then, whichever world they were from.  

Meadowsweet and Magic, from the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogi         

The stories of The Mab feature strong women. Women who are fierce and bold, clever and witty, smart and resilient. They make decisions and they make mistakes. Some of them commit murder.

One of my favourite characters is Blodeuwedd. The wizard, Gwydion, conjures her entirely from flowers to be a wife to a lonely man called Lleu. Unhappy with the arrangement, and with her eye on a more suitable partner, she plots Lleu’s murder. Unfortunately for Blodeuwedd the protection spell placed around him means he can only be killed in highly unusual circumstances. It’s complicated but as you will see, Blodeuwedd is inventive.

Luned and the Magic Ring, a retelling of The Lady of the Well

Luned and the Magic Ring takes us to Caerleon and the court of King Arthur. Kynon has been defeated in battle by the Black Knight, so his friend Owain decides to take up the fight. It’s the story of a one-eyed giant, ravens who sing after storms, and the chaos caused by warring men. Thankfully Luned, who uses an enchanted ring which renders the wearer invisible, a bluestone, and her keen intellect, is around to problem solve. Stories have always been a form of escape and I like to think some of the original storytellers were women transcending the boundaries of their lives through the tales they invented.

Y Mabinogi were spoken stories well before they were written down. The stories would grow and be embellished as they passed from mouth to mouth. Words have power and keep the stories of people alive long after their human form has gone, and they have entered the Otherworld. We are delighted to be bringing you the voices of the past and hope you will take them into the future with you.

Win one of five copies of The Mab with a foreword by Michael Sheen

 

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