A Welsh Dreaming? People, Place and the Past in the Mabinogion

One thing that was on my mind a lot this last summer is the Mabinogion – specifically the fourth branch, “Math ap Mathonwy”. For those of you wondering what these unfamiliar words mean, the Mabinogion is a cycle of interrelated Welsh stories found in two manuscripts from around about the fourteenth century; there are four chapters, or “branches”, and both manuscripts also contain a wealth of other stories which are often presented as part of the whole. The stories combine elements that show they developed and were told over a long period of time before reaching their present form: the colour and pomp of mediaeval courts; magicians, monsters and folklore; (pseudo-)historical heroes and rulers that link to the recent, Roman and pre-Roman past; and possible traces of prehistoric mythology and religion.

I’ve been thinking about “Math” a lot because I’ve been trying to find the best way to tell it, to say why I feel it matters so much to modern life; but also mainly because it’s one of my favourite branches, and now my kids really enjoy it too. This might partly be because it’s mostly set in Gwynedd, in North Wales, the part that we know best; but there’s also just something that really gets me about the tragic but human story of Lleu the hero, Blodeuwedd the woman made of flowers, and her lover Gronw. The thoughts I wanted to share with you all in this post, though, were something else that hit me on the way to work one morning the other week, about how the Mabinogion relates to the physical landscape of Wales. To explain, I’ll first have to digress:

Another story that’s been on my mind recently is the tale of the King under the Hill: the story that occurs in various places around Britain, about a legendary warrior hero who is sleeping under a nearby hill with his followers, waiting for the time when they will wake again to defend us when our need is greatest. In many cases the king is named as Arthur, saviour of the British against their enemies the Saxons – defeated at last, yes, but resting ‘til the day that he will return. I’ve been thinking about this because there’s a version in a book of Hampshire and Isle of Wight Folktales by Michael O’Leary, that I picked up while we were on holiday, centred on (the evocatively-named) Sleeper’s Hill near Winchester. Other versions, though, are told about Alderley Edge in Cheshire (celebrated by Alan Garner in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen), Craig y Dinas in North Wales, even Snowdon itself – and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are lots of other examples from around the country. The story even turns up further afield: Michael O’Leary tells how he encountered one version in Gran Canaria; Alan Garner cites examples through Europe and into Russia; and the anthropologist James C. Scott mentions a similar story from Malaysia.

Presumably one reason for this wide spread is that this story taps into some deep-seated human emotions that are common all over the world. There’s the idea that however hard life might be, surely once upon a time there was a chance of better, and the hero who made it so isn’t lost to us but will one day return to make things great again. And, with the best will in the world, while many of us might find it too hard to change things ourselves, we’d be very grateful if someone else could come and do it for us. Going to even deeper emotions, even at the age of 36 I’m struck that in my lowest, tiredest, most frustrated moments I really just want a grownup to make it better. (To digress from the digression, from a detached standpoint it’s also interesting to see how similar all this is to the story of Jesus’ resurrection. It’s sometimes been noted that the tale of Christ was cast in the mould of older mythologies – maybe this is another example; and at the least it highlights some of the psychological needs that Christianity has been able to meet.)

Alan Garner gives an insight, however, into another possible reason for this story’s frequent occurrence (at least in Britain). In his essay, “Oral History and Applied Archaeology in East Cheshire,” he convincingly suggests through the analysis of landscape and place names that in the case of his home of Alderley Edge, the story represents a memory of Bronze Age ritual mythology concerning the passage of the sun across the sky: the solar figure dies, goes beneath the ground, and rises again… (Interestingly, we learned on holiday in Copenhagen at Easter that this was an important part of religion in Denmark at that time too – archaeological finds show a wealth of religious art and activity, and while the imagery is more of boats and water and birds, there’s a captivating similarity in the journey above our heads and then under the earth.) But this raises an interesting question: if the sun is believed to sleep beneath Alderley Edge, why would the story also occur elsewhere? My suspicion is that it is because for much of the last few thousand years, human populations lived in quite small local areas and most people were not familiar with anywhere outside their own immediate landscape. I could be wrong: archaeologists are increasingly demonstrating that long-distance communication was widespread during the Bronze Age and before, and that cultural and economic exchange over these distances was a vital part of life. My feeling is, though, that the majority of people were not the ones who travelled; that most people would have lived in a relatively limited area their whole lives. So, while there may have been a wide tradition that the sun was represented by a heroic figure who lit our day, died, but then returned to salve the world once more, many people would have accepted local variations where they engaged with the story and its ritual activity through association with the landscape that they knew.

There are other possible explanations for the occurrence of the story: maybe people who heard it just liked it a lot, and told it with a local connection. Maybe Alderley Edge had some nationwide pre-eminence as a religious site – although, without any disrespect to Alderley or the wider ritual landscape Garner has identified around Cheshire, I suspect not; I’m kind of assuming that if it did, there’d be even more striking archaeological evidence and cultural memory associated with the place. Garner himself suggests that the widespread story may in fact have attached itself to Alderley Edge specifically because of its parallels with a unique local belief. But the idea of local variations on a common religious belief is interesting and worth bearing in mind.

Back to the Mabinogion. I said above that some elements in the tales appear to have been prehistoric myths. One of the clearest examples is in “Math ap Mathonwy”, the story that’s been on my mind for a long time. A number of the characters were perhaps once pre-Christian gods, recast as human characters by a Christian society; and Lleu, a hero of the latter part of the story, may in fact be a solar deity. He shows many supernatural features: the circumstances of his birth and possible death are surrounded in magic and mystery; he is indeed almost impossible to kill; and he grows and matures far faster than a human child. His name, Lleu Llaw Gyffes, “The Fair One with the Sure Hand,” is sometimes said to show a link with the Irish god Lugh Lámfhada (“Shining One of the Long Arm”) and the Gaulish Lug, and Lugh is associated in many ways with the sun. Miranda Green, Professor of Archaeology at Cardiff University, says that imagery associated with Lleu (eagles, oak trees) was closely linked with sky gods in Romano-Celtic symbolism. Added to this, Lleu’s mother’s name is Arianrhod; now, if you translate the component elements, “arian” means “silver” and “rhod”, “orb”. The sentence construction might not quite stand up – in Welsh, the noun usually comes before the adjective – but I’ve always quite liked the idea that this means the moon. So, is this a remnant of a creation myth, in which the moon gives birth to the sun?

With the king under the hill in my mind, I’ve enjoyed pondering recently that although, in the written text, the mythological elements of the Mabinogion are given very specific geographical settings, presumably these stories too once had local variants: Lleu’s life may be said to have been played out around Gwynedd, for example, but surely a Romano-British (or Iron Age, or Bronze Age, or Stone Age even) farmer in the Valleys of South Wales would not have been familiar with these far-away places? They would have made sense of the great forces of the natural world in relation to the landscape immediately around them. Perhaps, once upon a time, before the Mabinogion took on a standardised form, each locality in what’s now Wales (or places beyond) had their own story of how the sun was born of the moon, and lived, loved and lost in the fields and hills and woods that they knew. (How this might have related in prehistoric times to a king sleeping under a hill, though, is anyone’s guess.)

But then this is what hit me the other day when I got out of my car on the way to work: despite including these universal myths, the written text of the Mabinogion is startlingly geographically specific. Lleu rules in Ardudwy and both he and Gronw meet their fate by the banks of the Afon Cynfal, a small river about 15km south of Snowdon; the giant king Brân sits on the rock at Harlech looking out to sea; Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, first meets the Lord of the Otherworld in Glyn Cuch; his son Pryderi rules at Rhuddlan Teifi and fights Gwydion near Maentwrog; the seven companions of the Entertainment of the Noble Head (go and read the story) land from Ireland at Aber Alaw, then journey south via Harlech again to Gwales in Pembrokeshire. While not all places have been positively identified, it still seems as if barely a single moment of action (apart from occasional forays into the Otherworld) takes place without being connected to a named location in real life, places that presumably would have been accepted by a mediaeval audience. There is hardly ever any of the fantastical, wild, unspecific “land far away”-type landscape that comes up so often in other old tales and legends; indeed, possibly the only time this does occur is in the third branch, “Manawydan”, when a spell is cast on Dyfed banishing all people, houses and settled life – and so the indeterminate geography may in fact emphasise the wildness, mystery and loneliness of the country, in contrast with the urban settings of Hereford and Gloucester to which Manawydan and his companions retreat.

This consistent reference to real-life places might not be unique in myths and legends (there are similar features in Irish and Greek texts), but it is a striking feature of the Mabinogion. By way of contrast, the near-contemporary Norse myths frequently expand into the wide, fantastical land far way, where gods roam and grapple giants; and although at other times they allude to (quasi-)historical nations such as the lands of the Goths or the Niflungs, they are less specific about the smaller-scale locations. From what knowledge I have, the French romances that may have both influenced and been influenced by the Mabinogion are wholeheartedly about the land far away. This at times appears in the stories found compiled with the Mabinogion – “Peredur,” for example, and sometimes in “Culhwch and Olwen” – but also they too share some of the enjoyment of geographical detail. This connection between magical, godlike adventure and exact locations throughout Wales seems to be characteristic of this literature as a whole.

It’s interesting to think about how this might have come about – it’s certainly a contrast to the idea that local communities would have had their own variations on common myths. If we can assume that they did, maybe one local version was picked up by storytellers and caught a wider interest at some point before the Mabinogion was written down; or maybe the storyteller(s) who shaped the Mabinogion ran with the version from their own place of birth, and in the process disparate local tales got stitched together into one broad patchwork. It’s significant, though, that for all that they look at the nation as a whole, the stories don’t just check off the high courts and grand capitals: heroes fight and die by the smallest backcountry rivers; kings are buried at the sites of quiet villages; in one episode, the travels of a group of characters are used to explain the origin of every place-name between Ceredigion and Gwynedd containing the word, “pig.” There’s an endearing pedantry about the attention to detail – dramatic tension can appear to be almost swept aside to get the list of geographical facts included:

“And Pryderi ruled the seven cantrefs of Dyfed prosperously, and he was beloved by his people, and by all around him. And at length he added unto them the three cantrefs of Ystrad Tywi, and the four cantrefs of Cardigan; and these were called the seven cantrefs of Seisyllwch. And when he made this addition, Pryderi, the son of Pwyll, the chief of Annwfn, desired to take a wife. And the wife he chose was Cigfa, the daughter of Gwyn Gohoyw, the son of Gloyw Wallt Lydan, the son of prince Casnar, one of the nobles of this island.”

This seems like lore – like traditional knowledge learned by rote, and dutifully declaimed when occasion demands it. We know that such a body of tradition was important to the pre- and post-Roman British, preserved in fragments such as the Welsh Triads: lists of incidents, personages and places sorted with mythological and, presumably, mnemonic symbolism into groups of three. Elements of the triads and other traditions interpose into the Mabinogion and its related stories in much the same way as the geographical details: when Brân the giant king’s head is buried, this is the third goodly concealment; when it is exhumed, it is the third ill-fated disclosure. Lleu’s twin brother is named as Dylan Eil Ton (“Dylan, Son of the Wave”) and does not otherwise feature, but we’re told his death came from a blow from his uncle Gofannon, which was called the third fatal blow. Gronw Pebyr’s men, for refusing to take a strike on behalf of their lord, are recorded as one of three disloyal warbands (historical social standards notwithstanding, my children think this is somewhat unfair: to be honest, he had made his bed and had even just chosen to lie in it). All through, these asides recur: details that have to be stated, that can’t be omitted if the story passes close to them. It’s as if behind the stories, there’s a history that has to be noted, so that the explanations and underlying take on the world are always reaffirmed. As Alan Garner notes, “A feature of oral, preliterate tradition is the importance of exactitude.” And this is probably one wider intent behind the inclusion of the geographic digressions.

Whatever the case, though, there are big implications for how the stories were heard. Audiences wherever the stories were told or read were invited to witness heartstopping action in small places flung wide across Wales, places they may not otherwise have heard of or never have visited. I don’t know if these were elite stories, whether they were just told in rich halls, or in huts and market places as well (they were written at a time when books were luxuries, and class prejudice is strong throughout the narration, but they were spoken before they were written down). Presumably, though, that farmer in the Valleys I mentioned earlier, or at least his or her landlord, might well in mediaeval times have known of Ardudwy and the Afon Cynfal through these stories, whether or not they ever went there in real life. There’s an artistic impulse to tell the land, and for the whole of Wales – to celebrate the nation’s whole geography and the events that bound it, and to share it with the whole country – and told from the ground up. It’s almost like the Australian Dreamtime in this respect: the songs that Aboriginal communities preserve to sing their way from one landmark to the next, and thus connect with their whole land, its physical presence, its mythical meaning and its history. I maybe should be wary of going too far with that comparison – the Mabingion was written down in a very different society, and it doesn’t necessarily have the same age or psychic role; but there’s something similar in how the finished version seems to seek a connection for people between each other, their past and the land. Whatever the circumstances that gave the Mabinogion this shape, it’s perhaps especially fitting that it is held in such regard as Welsh literature; it’s not just a body of work from Wales, it’s storytelling about Wales in a powerful and poetic sense.

Of course, so much of all this is supposition. But it’s interesting to reflect on how the stories link to their mediaval (and previous) audience’s inner and outer landscape. Now to hit the net to find out more!



Richard Barber, “The Four Branches of the Mabinogi,” in Myths and Legends of the British Isles (Woodbridge, 1999)

Fiona Collins, The Legend of Pryderi (Stroud, 2013)

Alan Garner, “Oral History and Applied Archaeology in East Cheshire,” and other essays, in The Voice that Thunders (London, 1997)

Miranda Jane Green, Celtic Myths (London, 1993)

Michael O’Leary, Hampshire and Isle of Wight Folk Tales (Stroud, 2011)

James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (Yale, 1985)

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