Gwydion Conquers Pryderi by E. Wallcousins
In the first and second part of my essay, The Mabinogion: Otherwordly Realms (Part I), The Mabinogion: Otherwordly Realms (Part II), I explored the notion of the otherworld and the way it is described in the titular work, focusing on themes like the relativity of space and time, the frequent marvelous incidents, various magical objects, the supernatural aspect of many of the characters etc.
In this third and last part, I’ll discuss the remaining recurrent motifs and concepts that appear in the tales, wrapping up with the way I’ve incorporated the idea of the otherworld in my own mythic fantasy novel as well as the characters, objects and episodes that run throughout these colourful and fanciful stories.
Shape-shifting and transformation, either from human to animal or from the aspect of one person to another, is a staple of the magico-religious belief system of the Celts, one that frequently shows up throughout the Celtic literature. One of the most celebrated cases with interesting and funny ramifications is the physical exchange between the otherwordly king, Arawn, and the prince of Dyved, Pwyll, where each man takes the semblance and form of the other. Something which causes worry to Arawn’s wife when the transformed Pwyll refuses to have intercourse with her for a year and a day. An element that bears some similarities with the deception of Uther Pendragon and the birth of Arthur, stripped of its darker undertones though.
Rhiannon and Pryderi vanish in a magical fashion when they enter the fort in Dyved. While not a transformation in the traditional sense of the word, this recalls to mind the motif of the fairy houses that disappear at dawn along with the comic episodes of people stuck to a magic basin.
People turning into mice is another common theme, one we read in the third branch where Llwyd has transformed his entire court, his pregnant wife included, into rodents with the purpose of attacking and carrying away Manawydan’s crops of wheat.
In another tale, we see the narrative device of the tripartite repetition when the brothers Gwydion and Gilfaethwy are transformed into a pair of deer, then pigs and finally wolves, a punishment meted out by their uncle, king Math, for having raped his virgin foot-holder, Goewin. Genders are exchanged and the pair bears three offspring whom Math takes under his wing later.
A series of specific animals are strongly associated with the otherworld. The hunting of the stag is a significant topic in Celtic tradition and the appearance of said animal, as seen in the first branch, functions as an omen for the coming of a supernatural event. The Cŵn Annwn or Arawn’s dogs bear a special place in Celtic and especially Welsh tradition. ”Gleaming shining white” and red-eared, they are the hounds of King Arawn, protagonists of the Wild Hunt and heralds of tumultuous chaos and death.
In the tale of Culhwch ac Olwen, the adar Rhiannon are mentioned, birds possessing the ability to ”wake the dead and lull the living to sleep”. In the second branch, they comfort the surviving warriors from the battle against the Irish, appearing at a distance from Harlech even though their song ”was as clear as if the birds were near”.
Boars are another species that indicate the presence of the otherworld or the approach of some event or character of supernatural nature. The enchanted boar, Twrch Trwyth, literally leads Arthur and his warband in a merry chase after him. The ”gleaming white boar” in branch three shows the way to Manawydan and Pryderi to the fort where the latter vanishes along with Rhiannon.
Pigs feature as a royal gift from king Arawn to Pryderi, symbolic of their friendship that creates a bond between the human world and the otherworld. In the fourth branch, the trickster Gwydion steals them and incites a war with many lives lost. Later, Gwydion himself is transformed into a pig through Math’s intervention as punishment and when Gwydion’s nephew/son is transformed into an eagle, it’s a sow that leads Gwydion to him.
Throughout the Mabinogion, specific colours appear to hold distinct significance, functioning as otherwordly portents. Red, white and gold/yellow are associated either with certain characters or objects and animals originating in the otherworld. Arawn’s hounds are depicted as ”gleaming shining white” with red ears. ”And as the whiteness of the dogs shone so did the redness of their ears.” The Wild Hunt, whose head later changes to the figure of Gwyn ap Nudd, includes similar beasts.
British scholar Rachel Bromwhich stresses that this pair of colours have, also, been employed by royalty and according to Welsh laws, the lord of Dinefwr and the king of Aberffraw should enjoy red and white cattle as compensation.
The animals bearing such colours on their physical aspect function as harbingers of a supernatural occurrence and can be traced throughout the collection, as shows the case of the ”gleaming white boar” in the third branch and the ”gleaming shining white”, red-eared hounds that foreshadow king Arawn’s arrival.
Yellow/gold is often associated with the physical traits of the characters, but not only. While present in Arawn’s court, Pwyll is clad in ”a golden garment of brocaded silk”; Arawn’s wife and queen is dressed in ”a golden garment of shining brocaded silk.” The vessels from which the court is drinking are made out of gold.
When Rhiannon first appears atop her horse at the mound, she’s wearing ”a shining golden garment of brocaded silk”, and upon Teyrnon noticing her baby son, ”all the hair on his head was yellow as gold”. In the second branch, Llasar Llaes Gyfnewid emerges from the lake with ”yellow-red hair’. In the native tale of Culwch ac Olwen, the titular heroine is vividly described with a head of hair ”more yellow than the flower of the broom.”
In the third branch, Pryderi and Rhiannon vanish in a magical blanket of mist upon laying their hands on a golden bowl in the fort. Finally, the trickster Gwydion lures Pryderi with baits in the form of golden collars, bridles, leashes and saddles with gold trimmings along with twelve golden shields.
Undoutedly, the otherworld brings forth a whimsical reality that takes central stage in the Celtic tradition, functioning both as a separate entity and as a mirror that reflects anxieties, worries, concerns, ideas, beliefs and customs of the mortal plane of the medieval era. It is a world teeming with magic and fantasy, where the natural and the supernatural intermingle in a blissful marriage, where the laws of nature are flouted and the humans interact with the fairies and the dead carte blanche and vice versa.
Many of the otherwordly elements found in the tales of the Mabinogion do not belong exclusively to the Celtic tradition, but derive from the vast treasure chest of an international body of folkloric notions and beliefs. The narratives comprising the collection present an amalgamation of mythology, literature, oral tradition, history and socio-political ideals of the ancient and medieval era.
Originally sung by bards, the tales reflect the collective memory of ancient storytelling traditions, a fact that contributes to the crafting of the otherworld in the collection as a bizarre yet familiar place. A place where the uncanny reigns without restrictions, bringing together the fantastic and the mundane into a singular melange where the distinction between the two is rendered impossible.
In my own mythic fantasy novel, currently titled The Fruit of Passion, I deliberately followed as faithfully as possible this manner of depiction of the otherworld, desiring that the future readers be able to enjoy a tradition already known to them. However, I, also, took care to birth the otherwordly realm in a manner that would make it a separate entity from the one featured in the Mabinogion. For I saw no reason to simply copy and paste something that has already been explored and studied.
My own otherworld, which I’ve named ”the lost lands”, consists of a cluster of isles inhabited by the fairies, the dead and a host of otherwordly denizens who physically resemble humans but are of superior strength and possess magical abilities without exception. Though not immortal, their lifespan is longer than that of humans and they can fall prey to their own weaknesses and quirks. Considering them a vehicle to explore human complexity and behaviour, I made all my otherwordly characters as intricate as their mortal counterparts. Friendships, alliances and romances have bound mortal and otherwordly creatures together just like wars and enmities have torn them apart.
The otherwordly isles are separated from the human world by a veil or glamour which can be thinned or dissolved at liminal time frames like during the feast of Samhain (for which I’ve used the term Calan Gaeaf) and the feast of Beltaine (for which I’ve used the term Calan Haf). However, traffic can be generated between the two realms through other means as well when spells and enchantments are employed. Mounds, rivers, lakes, caves and forests are portals than can guarantee access to them.
Written down on no maps, their location cannot be traced and one can be led to them only through magic. Floating in their own time sequence, they remain ageless, and an hour there can signify mere moments or entire years in the human world. Some of them know the presence of sunset and sunrise while others are steeped in the blue hour or feel only the smile of the rising sun. Vast expanses of forest cover their ground where running waters always moisten them beneath the flowing light of spring or summer.
Nightingales, lapwings and starlings, serpents and stags and wolves, these are some of the animals that interact with the characters, either bringing them messages, leading them from one place to another or warning them of danger.
Swords and cauldrons and goblets, lockets and various vessels are infused with magic, helping the heroes in their various exploits.
As I mentioned above, alliances are a theme I’ve incorporated in my narrative. But these alliances are not given freely. Both mortal and otherwordly characters require a boon, some sort of exchange in order to strike a bargain. Which is usual the retrieval of a magical object or a political agreement a king/queen demands in order to deal with an issue that has arisen in the kingdom.
The theme of life and death and the divide between these two conditions is a recurrent one in my narrative. The realm of the dead, presided by king Arawn, can be reached by mortals but certain conditions must be met. The mortal seeking a loved one must never reveal what was spoken during the sojourn in Annwn. Just like the dead aren’t allowed to speak of the goings of Annwn should they roan the human world. Should this be violated, terrible consequences await those who break their oath.
No matter what, the realm of the otherworld is an exciting, dreamy and entertaining one that both fascinates and puzzles the modern readers in the most delightful ways, as much it fascinated and puzzled those during the medieval times. Scintillating, fanciful, bewitching and uncanny, it continues to lure us with its secrets, secrets that whisper to us about what lies in the depths of the human psyche, daring us to sunder the veil and peer into the eternal truth.