1350 AD The Mabinogion

24 January 2010

This was the next book on my WTM list.  It is a collection of Welsh tales, which were found in either or both of two medieval books, The White Book of Rhydderch and The Red Book of Hergest. The books are dated from the 1300′s, but scholars agree that the tales are older than that, though people disagree on exactly how old.  They probably started as oral tales, so it’s hard to say when they got their start.

The Mabinogion is a difficult book to review.  I have the feeling that I just do not understand and therefore appreciate it enough to form an opinion on the book one way or the other.  The stories are interesting, but they do not seem to make a whole lot of sense to me, in the sense of having a meaning or moral.

King Arthur is featured in several of the stories, and his wife Guenevere, though the Welsh spell it Gwenhwyfar.  Like King Arthur, there is evidence that at least some of the characters of The Mabinogion may have existed.  There are also other elements to many of the stories that suggest they were based on actual events, though obviously changed a lot over time.

I’ll relate my favorite story (which also happens to be the shortest), which is called Lludd and Llefelys. The two are brothers, and Lludd (pronounced Leethe) is the king of Britain, and Llefelys (pronounced Lev-el-iss) married the queen of France, and so is king.  Lludd rebuilt several cities, but one in particular was his favorite, and came to be known as Caer Ludd, then Caer Lundain, and finally Llundain, or London.  Caer is the Welsh word for fort.

Three plagues came to the Island of Britain, the first in the form of an invading people (scholars think the story is possibly referring to the Romans) who could hear any whisper, no matter how far away.  (I think they must have had good spies.)  The second plague was a scream heard above every hearth on the island that was so horrible that it caused terror, loss of senses, and even miscarriages.  The third plague was the constant disappearance of large quantities of food in the king’s palace.  Lludd was at a loss as to how to meet these disasters, so he went to his brother, King Llefelys of France, for help.  The brothers talked through a long horn (I think they mean a pipe) so that the wind could not carry their conversation to the invading people of superior hearing.

Llefelys had the answers for his brother’s concerns.  For the first plague, Llefelys gave Lludd some insects, which he was to grind up and put into water, then sprinkle the water over all the people in Britain.  All of the natives would not be harmed, but the invaders would fall down dead.

In the case of the second plague, the screaming was actually a dragon.  Lludd was to find the exact center of the island, dig a hole and place a vat of the best mead in it, covered by a sheet of brocaded silk (what everyone who wore anything worth commenting about back then wore).  Lludd was to keep watch and he would finally see two dragons fighting (there is a lot of symbolism and links to other Welsh literature here).  After a long and fierce battle, they would fall down into the sheet in the form of two little pigs.  They would sink to the bottom of the vat, dragging the sheet down with them, drink up all the mead and fall asleep.  At that point, Lludd was to wrap the sheet around them, put them in a stone chest and bury it in the ground, where they would never bother the island again.

For the third plague, Llefelys recognized the handiwork of a magician who uses magic to put everyone to sleep before carrying off their food.  Lludd would have to stand guard over his food, and if he felt sleepy, he should place a tub of cold water next to him to stand in to keep awake.

All of this Lludd did, and conquered his first two plagues.  While standing in the tub of water, guarding his food against the last of the plagues, he saw the magician making off with a hamper full of food.  Lludd went after him and said,

“Stop, stop!  Although you have inflicted many wrongs and losses before this, you will do so no more, unless your fighting skills show that you are stronger and braver than I.”  After fierce fighting, with sparks flying from their weapons, Lludd forced the magician to the ground.  The magician then asked for mercy, and if such would be granted, the magician would restore all he had ever taken from them, and be King Lludd’s faithful vassal from then on.  Lludd accepted and the people of Britain lived happily ever after.