Exploring: “Four Branches,” the 4th Branch of the Mabinogi (post 3/4)

This is the third blog post out of four exploring my upcoming album Four Branches: Tales of the Mabinogi in Song. In this one, I’ll be discussing the final branch of the Mabinogi! This branch follows Math, son of Mathonwy.

Apparently, this Math guy has to have his feet in the lap of a maiden unless he’s at war (or else he’d die or explode or something…I don’t know). The thing is…this guy named Gilfaethwy is in love with the current foot-rest maiden named Goewin. His brother Gwydion concocts a plan to get Math to go to war so Gilfaethwy has a chance at this maiden, Goewin (remember, Math must have his feet in the lap of a maiden unless at war!).

In order to get Math to go to war, they trick Pryderi (who, surprise surprise, we saw in the first branch, second branch–one of the seven to survive Bran’s tragedy–and third branch) into giving them pigs, the same pigs, some say, that Pwyll received from Arawn in the very first story of the Mabinogi. Pryderi gets angry when he realized he’s basically been robbed, and goes to war against Math. Now Math can take his feet out of the lap!

Gwydion and Pryderi go head to head in one-on-one combat, and Pryderi is sadly killed. This strikes me as really sad, because we’ve seen this guy’s birth! And now killed in what might as well have been a mugging–Gwydion tricked him to give him the pigs, and all Pryderi wants is the bigs returned! Pryderi, if anything, is the victim. But that’s just my opinion.

Meanwhile, Gilfaethwy gets the girl.

Math is furious, because his maiden foot-rest has been deflowered and innocent men slain over what he probably thinks was now a dumb idea. As punishment he turns Gwydion and Gilfaethwy into three animals: deer, pigs, and wolves for one year each. Each time, Gwydion and Gilfaethwy have a kid together, and when they return for the fourth time, Math turns them back into men again. (In the song, I re-order the animals to deer, wolves, then pig to retain some of the irony of the song title/subject matter).

The song I wrote for this was “Pigs Pigs Pigs!” and obviously it’s a fun song. The story itself is so convoluted and strange that I couldn’t help but make the song upbeat and fun.

The story goes on as Math needs a new maiden foot-rest. He chooses Arianrhod, Gwydion’s sister, but she is revealed not to be a maiden and gives birth to a son in before their very eyes.

She hates the kid and curses him not to be given a name. Gwydion won’t have that though, and he tricks Arianrhod in naming him “Lion with a Steady Hand” or Lleu Llaw Gyffes (apparently the proper translation is Llew Llaw Gyffes–Llew meaning “lion” in Welsh, but whatever).

She then curses him not to have weapons unless she give them to him. Gwydion again tricks her into giving him weapons. Then she curses him never to have a wife. Gwydion, along with Math, use their magic to create a woman out of flowers, and Lleu Llaw Gyffess has a wife at last. Her name is Blodeuwedd (literally translated as Flower Face).

The song I wrote for this one is called “Steady Hand Lion,” and from the title alone I thought it deserved a bluesy rocky sound to it. It’s kind of told through Gwydion’s eyes and has sort of that “tricksy edge” I perceive Gwydion to have (since he did, after all, devise the whole Pig incident right before all of this, and then he devises all the trickery against Arianrhod).

The next song is “Invocation of Blodeuwedd,” which is a very simple chant, as if we were Math and Gwydion conjuring up the Woman of Flowers to be Lleu’s bride. This was the first song I wrote out of the 12, not knowing it would turn into a whole album retelling the story of the Mabinogi.

You’d think having a beautiful wife made of flowers was awesome, but soon she fell out of love with Lleu and fell in love with a dude named Gronw. They planned on killing Lleu and succeeded…sort of.

You see, the only way in which Lleu could be killed, according to Lleu himself, is pretty convoluted. The method includes (but is not limited to), standing with one foot on the back of goat and the other foot on the edge of a cauldron/tub on the shores of a river and getting impaled by a spear that was made over a period of a year and day (and only when people attend mass). Apparently this extremely precise recipe of “Lleu Llaw GyDead was the wrong one, because of instead of killing him, he turned into a rotting eagle and flew away. (This always amuses me…Lleu himself told Blodeuwedd this detailed list of ingredients for his own dead soup, so he either knew what she was up to, or he didn’t even know how he could die! All I can think of is Lleu rubbing his chin and thinking “Oh yeah, that’s what happens! Oops…”)

Gwydion finds him shortly after and urges him down from a tree and into his lap. Then, Gwydion turns him into a man again and curses Blodeuwedd to be an owl for eternity. Lleu kills Gronw by throwing a spear through a boulder and piercing his heart (Damn, Lleu is awesome! Super strength, impossible to kill even with the precise recipe, and turns into a freakin’ eagle? We have a superhero, guys…now I’m rethinking the songs I wrote about him…coulda been better…).

All joking aside, this story is almost a tragedy. An apparent match made in heaven is destroyed with treachery. The song I wrote for this one is “The Owl and the Eagle,” and tells both of Lleu’s curse as an eagle and Blodeuwedd’s curse as an Owl. I inserted the Welsh englyn that Gwydion sings to Lleu while in the tree, though I’m sure I butchered some of the Welsh (I’m learning, what can I say?)

This is where the four branches end, and I felt it wasn’t the best of places to stop. It’s such a downer to end on a tragedy like that. But fear not! There’s more! The next blog explores the “bonus” songs from the album, songs telling the stories of a few Independent Tales from the Mabinogion collection…

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