The second branch features yet another put-upon woman, several folklore motifs familiar to me from stories from different continents, and the sudden recognition of an element from Madeleine L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet.

It begins with Bendigeidfran (I’m not even going to mentally attempt that one), king of… London. Or maybe he just owned the literal crown of London. (I did check the notes, but they were less than helpful on this issue.) He had two brothers, Nysien (good) and Efnysien (not good.) Matholwch (also not even attempting), king of Ireland, sails up and asks to marry Branwen, who I think is Bendigeidfran’s sister and one of the Three Chief Maidens of the Island (no idea what this means.) She is gorgeous.

Celebrations are arranged. At this point it casually mentions that Bendigeidfran had to sleep in a tent because he couldn’t fit into a house.

“Eh?” I thought. “He was hugely fat? He was incredibly tall? How big are these houses, anyway?”

I begin picturing Bendigeidfran as 6’5” and 400 lbs.

Efnysien, because he’s evil, mutilates Matholwch’s horses. I bet when he was a little boy, he set fires and wet the bed.

Matholwch, very confused as well he may be, starts to leave, but is caught by messengers and explains how he’s been insulted. To try to make up, Bendigeidfran gives him a cauldron that will return dead people to life, though they will be mute. It’s Lloyd Alexander’s zombie-making cauldron! Man, that creeped me out when I read those books as a kid.

Assuaged, Matholwch returns to Ireland, taking Branwen with him. It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye people at court start muttering about the mutilated horse insult, and poor Branwen was forced to cook for the court and be boxed on the ears by the butcher. She and Rhiannon should get together and form a support group.

The resourceful Branwen teaches a starling to talk, and sends it off with a message for her brother. Bendigeidfran takes an army and goes to rescue Branwen, but he’s so huge that they sail across the sea, and he wades. Okay. Not 6’5” and 400 lbs! There’s a great scene in which beflummoxed messengers report the advance of the man-mountain upon Ireland. Branwen tells her husband to make peace, and he agrees. This is the part which is quite lyrically retold in A Swiftly Tilting Planet.

But the Irish have a cunning plan! They hide a bunch of soldiers in sacks hanging on the walls of the (presumably gihugic) house they’ve built for Bendigeidfran. Efnysien says, “What’s in this bag?” “Flour, friend,” replied the less-than-cunning bag. In this manner, one by one, Efnisien discovers the soldiers and crushes their heads with his bare hands. Ew.

He then, in much the same random manner in which he mutilated the horses, murders Branwen’s son by throwing him in a fire. I had not expected to find crossover possibilities between the Mabinogion and Criminal Minds, but Efnisien seems like a classic disorganized sadist.

Unsurprisingly, a giant brawl breaks out, and Efnisien leaps into the cauldron, breaking it and killing himself. Only seven men escape, one of whom is Rhiannon and Pwyll’s son Pryderi.

And then! The wounded Bendigeidfran orders his men to cut off his head and take it back to London. (Shades of Barbarika: Before decapitating himself, Barbarika told Krishna of his great desire to view the forthcoming battle, and requested him to facilitate it. Krishna agreed, and placed the head atop a hill overlooking the battlefield.) The seven men, Branwen, and the head depart. Branwen dies of heartbreak. There’s a really confusing part where they all meet some guys who tell them that there was some sort of uproar and some guy named Caswallon killed the heir and is now king of London. They all feast for seven years, and then they seem to drift into an Otherworldly Hall with a Door That Must Not Be Opened and feast there for eighty years without care or sorrow.

Having the head there was no more unpleasant than when Bendigeidfran had been alive with them. Because of those eighty years, this was called the Assembly of the Noble Head.

Then someone opens the door, and they remember everything and return to London with the head, which is still protecting London to this day.

Meanwhile, back in Ireland, everyone is dead except for five pregnant women in a cave. (!) They give birth, the boys grow up and have sex with everyone else’s moms, and Ireland is repopulated.

I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the sheer overwhelming weirdness of this branch. Someone should name their garage band Five Pregnant Women in a Cave.

The Mabinogion
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