This is the second out of four blog posts discussing not only my upcoming album Four Branches: Tales of the Mabinogi in Song, but also the Mabinogi itself! I’ll be discussing songs 5 and 6 off of my album, as well as Branches 2 and 3 of the Mabinogi.
In the second branch, we follow along with the story of Branwen, the sister of the mighty giant king, Bendigeidfran, or Bran the Blessed. Branwen marries the king of Ireland, Matholwch, and is carried away to the Emerald Isle of Eire. But because of a misdeed Bran’s half-brother Efnisien committed, Matholwch is resentful of Branwen and punishes her in various ways. Branwen, as you can guess, does not like that one bit, and she sends word to her brother of her ill treatment.
Bran is furious. He rallies up all the soldiers he can muster and goes off to war.
Matholwch’s men are terrified (as they should…they pissed off the wrong giant!) and burn all the bridges they can behind them, trying to get Bran and his warriors off their tails. When Bran and his men find they cannot cross the river, Bran says “A fo ben, bid bont,” which is a Welsh proverb that means “He who be a leader, let him be a bridge.” He lays across the river–being a giant and all–and lets his men cross him like a bridge.
Long story short, there’s a big battle where almost all the men of Ireland are killed, and all but seven of Bran’s companions survive, and Bran’s brother Manawyddan, who will come into play later.
Bran is poisoned by a spear and orders his men to cut off his head. His head lives a while longer, but Branwen dies of a broken heart. Bran’s head is buried in the White Mount (which is said to be where the White Tower of London is), and as long as his head remains, the Island of the Mighty will never be invaded again.
This story, plainly, is a classic tragedy. Both Branwen and Bran die, along with Branwen’s and Matholwch’s child, basically everyone in Ireland, and all of Bran’s men except seven (among which are Pryderi, as we saw in the first branch, and Manawyddan, who we will be focusing on in the third branch).
I thought a somber song would be best for this story, and it’s entitled Bran’s Head, referring to his head being cut off. It’s probably one of the saddest stories in the Mabinogi, so the song manifested itself with a sorrowful feel to it.
(And a side note, no, my name “Bran Cerddorion” is not in fact named after Bran the Blessed! I was given the nickname Bran growing up because my birth name Bryan, if the y was removed, would be Bran. Not sure where my friends came up with that though–although they also did/do call me branflakes, too. I was surprised, however, to find a figure in Welsh lore named Bran! That may or may not have made me like Welsh mythology more…)
The third branch quickly follows, and tells the story of Bran’s brother, Manawyddan. After he returns to Wales, he quickly realizes he has nowhere to go. Pryderi, the song of Pwyll, invites him to live with them. Manawyddan falls in love with Rhiannon (Pwyll dies mysteriously sometime before). Manawyddan, Rhiannon, Pryderi, and Pryderi’s wife Cigfa live happily together until one day…
They ascend Gorsedd Arberth, the same mound in which Pwyll first saw Rhiannon ride by, and a mist overtakes the land. When the mist is lifted, everyone is gone except the four companions. They travel to other cities and villages, but are run out when the villagers become envious of their crafting abilities. They return home until one day Pryderi and Rhiannon go missing in a strange castle. Mist shrouds the castle, and when the mist lifts, the castle and Pryderi and Rhiannon are gone. Manawyddan and Cigfa are left alone.
To survive, they plant a few fields of grain, but one by one they go missing, too. Manawyddan stays up one night and watches as an army of rats invade their fields and flee with all their grain. He captures one and swears to hang it. It’s clear Manawyddan is at wit’s end as he builds the gallows from which to hang the rat.
Three mysterious men just happen to be passing by, first a minstrel or bard, then a priest, then at last a bishop (or sometimes said to be an arch Druid), and each one successively offers to pay for the rat’s survival. The bishop pleas with Manawyddan, and finally confesses the rat is his wife in disguise. Manawyddan realizes this guy probably has something to do with the mist and the vanishing, so he barters the rat for his friends’ return.
We soon find out, after the deal is made, that this man has been hired by Gwawl to exact revenge on Pwyll’s family. You may remember Gwawl from the “Badger in the Bag” story in the first blog.
The song I wrote for this branch is called “Good Day to Hang a Rat,” and I highlight, again, the odd and absurd nature of the story. Manawyddan’s ridiculous rage and attempts to hang the rat makes this story fun in a kind of messed up way, so I made a light, fun tune to tell this story.
It always intrigued me how far the storyline stretches throughout the Mabinogi. From the Badger in the Bag incident until the end of the third branch, we have a story being built upon itself. And with Gwawl’s revenge stamped out and Rhiannon and Pryderi living happily ever after, you may think their story is over…
But we’ll continue that story in the next post when I cover the last of the four branches in the Mabinogi!