This branch completely lived up to expectations. If I thought the first branch was full of magical metaphors for sexual anxiety, it has nothing on the fourth branch.

At that time Math son of Mathonwy could not live unless his feet were in the lap of a virgin, unless the turmoil of war prevented him.

I’m aware of the many beliefs about the magical efficacy of virginity, but this sentence begs for elaboration more than almost any sentence I’ve ever read. Since none is given… why? I assume a curse, but for any particular reason? I read “feet in lap” as a form of sex-substitute, with non-sexual parts standing in for sexual parts to effect a sort of virginal anti-sex sex magic. Anyway, imagining the logistics of this cracks me up.

Math’s virgin footrest is Goewin. Unfortunately for her, Math’s creepy nephew Gilfaethwy becomes obsessed with her, and plots with his brother Gwydion son of Don to rape her. Gwydion comes up with this completely bonkers, though effective plot:

He tells Math that Pryderi (hi, Pryderi!) has these hitherto-unknown animals called pigs which taste delicious. He and Gilfaethwy visit Pryderi disguised as poets* (!) and scam Pryderi out of some pigs by trading for magic beans conjured horses which will vanish with the first light. When Pryderi’s horses evaporate at dawn, he goes to war. Math rides out to meet Pryderi’s army, leaving Goewin behind because he doesn’t need his feet in a virgin’s lap if he’s at war, and Gwydion helps Gilfaethwy rape her.

*Bards? I’m imagining what a “poet disguise” would look like nowadays. A dreamy air and a laptop?

This is all even more surreal for me than it would be anyway (Virgin footrest! Bacon wars!) because there is an extremely noble, Aragorn-like character in the Lloyd Alexander series named… Gwydion son of Don. As if starting a war to facilitate a rape wasn’t bad enough, Original!Gwydion kills Pryderi in single combat. Poor Pryderi. He’d been around so long, I had subconsciously been expecting him to survive till the end.

When Math returns, Goewin straightforwardly tells him he’ll need to find another virgin because his nephew raped her. Considering how other women had been wronged, then blamed for it, one might expect Goewin to be as well. But no! Math says he’ll marry her (hopefully she liked that idea – hey, they spent lots of time together in an intimate fashion already, maybe they were already in love but could never consummate it because she’d break her pledge and he’d lose his footrest) and give her authority over the kingdom, and take revenge! Goewin and Math are my official favorite Mabinogion couple.

There follows a remarkable sequence of events. Math transforms the brothers into a stag and a hind, and sends them out into the forest to breed with each other. A year later, they return with a fawn, whom Math turns back into a boy and takes in. Switching their genders, he turns them into a boar and a sow, they return with a piglet-boy, and Math switches their genders again and makes them wolves. With the cub-boy, Math decides they’ve had enough forced incestuous bestial sex to teach them not to rape people. Or, as he phrases it, “You have been greatly shamed that each of you has offspring by the other.”

There is not enough boggle in the world. Do their fawn, piglet, and cub sons have adventures in other stories? Can they shape-shift at will?

Then Math needs another virgin (I guess he had an interim virgin for the last three years) and Gwydion nominates Math’s niece Aranrhod. I would not take Gwydion’s advice if I were Math. In fact, Math doesn’t take Aranrhod’s word either, and makes her step over his magic wand to prove that she’s a virgin. (I don’t even need to comment on symbolism here, do I?) When she does, she instantly gives birth: an infallible proof of lack of virginity. She flees, dropping a lump of something which Gwydion takes. It turns out to be a boy who, like Pryderi, grows supernaturally fast.

I wonder about Aranrhod. Was Gwydion trying to screw her over? Was he trying to kill Math by getting him to put his feet in a non-virgin’s lap? Was she already pregnant (in which case, who was the father?), or did the babies spontaneously manifest as magical proof that she’d had sex?

Gwydion raises the boy and rubs his existence into Aranrhod’s face. (Are Gwydion and Aranrhod siblings? There’s clearly some serious history between them.) She displaces her anger at Gwydion and maybe Math too onto the boy, and lays various curses on him: that he will never get a name until she gives him, never bear arms until she gives them to him, and never marry a woman from any human race. Through various tricks and magics of Gwydion, the boy gets a name (Lleu) and weapons from Aranrhod, and, in a gorgeous passage, Gwydion and Math join their magic to make him a wife of flowers.

No one asks the flower woman, Blodeuedd, how she feels about this. You’d think both Math and Gwydion would know better by now. But after they are married, Blodeuedd falls for another man, Gronw, has an affair with him, and plots Lleu’s death.

There are some character types that occur over and over in these stories: put-upon women and very stupid men. Lleu obligingly tells his wife his secret – that he can only be killed when standing with one foot on a specially constructed outdoor bath and one on a billy goat! And then he even more stupidly agrees to demonstrate this bizarre balancing act.

(I am reminded of an Indian legend of a demon who could not be killed inside or outside, by day or night, by man or beast. He was slain by Vishnu incarnated as a man-lion, on a threshold at twilight.)

Gronw throws a spear at Lleu, who flies up in the form of an eagle and vanishes. Gronw and Blodeuedd then move in together, taking over Lleu’s lands. Gwydion goes to look for Lleu, and finds that he’s become a rotting zombie eagle being eaten by pigs. Everything has come full circle, all the way back to the pigs that started it all, except now the pigs are eating the people instead of the other way around.

Gwydion turns him back into a man, and he recovers after some recuperation time. Gwydion turns Blodeuedd into an owl (and suddenly Alan Garner’s The Owl Service makes so much more sense to me) and Lleu kills Gronw by throwing a spear through a boulder he was hiding behind.

You will all unsurprised to hear that this was my favorite branch. I particularly feel for the women in it, who all got a raw deal, even if Goewin did end up becoming a queen and married to probably the most decent and least stupid man available. Are there any other stories about the same characters, either additional myths or later retellings?
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This branch is very fairytale-like, and has a surprisingly coherent plot (surprising, that is, considering all the pell-mell events and apparently random disappearing that occurred early on.) Rhiannon returns. Unsurprisingly, she is put-upon.

After the head of Bran the Blessed is buried, Manawydan (one of the seven survivors of the cauldron affair) tells Pryderi he doesn’t want to go home to London. Pryderi offers to marry him off to his mother, Rhiannon, and give him a realm instead. (Pwyll is now dead.) Rhiannon agrees, and she and Manawydan and Pryderi and his wife Cigfa become friends and wander around and feast until poof! Everyone vanishes but them! They continue wandering and feasting, but eventually they get bored, go to London, and take up various crafts, but always get run out of town for being better craftspeople than anyone else. I had union songs going through my head every time they got in a labor dispute: Will you be a lousy scab, or will you be a man?

They return to their depopulated realm, but a white boar appears and runs into a fort which also appears, taking the dogs with them. Having learned nothing from his father’s experiences with white animals and packs of hounds, Pryderi goes into the fort and gets stuck to a golden bowl. (Another Grail precursor?) Rhiannon goes to rescue him, and also gets stuck. Then the fort vanishes with them.

In an echo of Arawn and Pwyll, Manawydan reassures Cigfa that he’s not going to try anything with her. They go back to England, where he becomes such a good shoemaker that the other shoemakers decide to kill him. I guess being a great hero means being great at everything: shoe-making, hilt-making, basket-weaving…

They go back to the realm and grow wheat. Since it’s still depopulated, no farmers try to kill them. But mice eat all the grain. Manawydan catches one fat mouse and decides to hang her. A cleric, a priest, and a bishop conveniently show up to dissuade him. The suspicious timing of these holies not having escaped Manawydan’s notice, he demands Pryderi and Rhiannon’s release from the “bishop.”

The latter explains that he’s actually a friend of Gwawl (Rhiannon’s fiancé whom she had Pwyll beat up back in the First Branch) and put all the enchantments on the realm and them in revenge. The mice were his retinue, and the fat mouse is his pregnant wife! Manawydan gets him to remove the enchantments and swear not to take revenge in exchange for Mrs. Mouse’s life. Pryderi and Rhiannon appear, along with the rest of the population. Rhiannon had to wear a donkey collar while she was held captive. Poor Rhiannon.

This branch may trump all the rest for familiar folklore motifs, especially when it gets to the mouse part. It was also probably the inspiration for the extremely creepy sequence in Lloyd Alexander’s Taran Wanderer, in which animal transformation is presented as a fate worse than death… and Taran is assisted by a mouse.

Coming soon (probably later today): gay incestuous bestiality mpreg!
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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
Write-up won by [livejournal.com profile] coraa for [livejournal.com profile] helphaiti. The translation is by Sioned Davies.

I had never before read these medieval Welsh tales, though I was vaguely aware that they were influential on Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series, Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, Susan Cooper’s “Dark is Rising” series, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and a number of other fantasy novels that I have read. (I know about Evangeline Walton’s books but I haven’t read them.)

[livejournal.com profile] coraa intrigued me by describing one branch as “gay incestuous genderswitching bestiality MPREG” – a completely accurate description, by the way. She also mentioned the king who needed to keep his feet in the lap of a virgin at all times. Also completely accurate!

I almost always enjoy reading myths and ancient tales, and this was no exception. The stories are dreamlike, complete with sudden shifts in perspective and dissolves into new lands and new scenes. The logic by which events occur is also dreamlike, intuitive, based on emotion and fairytale motifs rather than psychological realism. They are surreal but not random, tapping into the raw materials of the human psyche: rational and irrational fears, the metaphors by which we shade our eyes from thoughts otherwise too bright or dark to directly perceive.

As I read the stories and compared them to the modern works which took at least a little inspiration from them, I thought how little modern fantasy even attempts to recreate the atmosphere of myth as opposed to borrowing characters and events, and how rational and predictable are most systems of magic in modern fantasy. I like a lot of modern fantasy. But sometimes I wish more of it would dip into the substance as well as the set dressing of its roots. Not everything has to be realistic, nor does everything have to be explained. If we can’t find mystery and stories in which the events are driven by the characters’ emotions and inner landscapes in fantasy, where can we find it? (That’s rhetorical. Modern stories of that nature are usually published as magic realism, though there are some exceptions.)

I began my reading by looking up pronunciation notes, which were rather terrifying. If I applied them correctly, “Nghymru” (Wales) is pronounced “Ingimri,” and “Pwyll” is pronounced "Poo-i-[voiceless breathy sound]". Then I found, in those notes, a few ready-made phonetic pronunciations for important names. However, since they were all along the lines of “Gooyd-eeon” and “Gill-vaye-thooee,” I didn’t find them as helpful as I had initially hoped. Most intimidating language since Mandarin!

In the First Branch, Prince Pwyll goes out hunting, scares a pack of white hounds with red ears from a stag, and feeds it to his own pack. Even one as ignorant of Welsh myth as I could have told him it is always a bad idea to interfere with obviously supernatural creatures. Sure enough, the hounds belong to Arawn, king of Annwfn. The notes helpfully explain that the latter is an “Otherworld,” not any sort of Hell.

Unlike Lloyd Alexander’s Evil Overlord, this Arawn is reasonable about the insult and only asks to switch places with Pwyll for a year so Pwyll can kill one of his enemies for him. The extremely honorable Pwyll does so, sleeping with Arawn’s beautiful wife for an entire year but refusing to have sex with her. When he returns, his wife is extremely grateful that he’s suddenly willing to have sex with her again, for Arawn disguised as Pwyll did the exact same thing. Granted that sex under those circumstances would not be consensual in the normal sense… those poor ignored wives! ("Those poor women" was a thought I often had while reading this.)

Since I earlier mentioned fairy-tale elements being literalizations of the inner landscape, what I take from that, at least, is the terrifying sense of not knowing the man you're bound yourself to - the feeling that he's changed so much, or that you never really knew him in the first place - that he's a different person wearing your man's skin.

Anyway, Pwyll and Arawn are best friends forever after. No further mention of their wives.

But then Pwyll encounters the beautiful Rhiannon, who has somehow fallen in love with Pwyll and asks him to rescue her from her engagement to a man she doesn’t love. But a mysterious suppliant comes up to Pwyll and begs for an unspecified favor.

“Ask what it is first,” I thought.

“Anything!” says Pwyll.

“Why did you say that?” exclaims Rhiannon, reading my mind.

“I want to sleep with and marry the woman you love,” says the not-so-mysterious suppliant.

“Pwyll, you idiot,” I thought.

“Never has a man been more stupid than you have been,” says Rhiannon, not needing to read my mind.

She goes on to explain that the suppliant is Gwawl son of Clud, her unwanted fiancé. (Pronounced Goo-a-ool son of Clid. I think.) She proceeds to outline an elaborate plot for trapping Gwawl in a bag and beating the hell out of him. Not only does this work like a charm, Rhiannon then gets Gwawl to agree not to seek vengeance. I don’t know why Rhiannon isn’t ruling the world at this point, but instead she settles down with Pwyll and gets pregnant.

But alas! Her baby disappears, and Rhiannon’s serving women, to avoid getting blamed for sleeping on the job, kill some puppies and smear her mouth with blood so everyone will think she’s eaten the baby. Bizarre as it is, this is not an uncommon fairytale motif: I can think of a couple other stories where this happens, including one from India. I think it taps into various anxieties, from seeing animals eat their young, to the nightmare-terror of being accused of something horrible and untrue – perhaps even the phenomenon of psychotic post-partum depression, in which women very occasionally do kill their babies.

Pwyll sort of believes Rhiannon’s story, but neither of them can prove anything. Rhiannon has to sit outside on a mounting block, tell any strangers the story, and offer to carry them to court. Meanwhile, to my total lack of surprise, a baby mysteriously shows up on the doorstep of a neighboring lord, via an “enormous claw” (Grendel, on a road trip?) He and his wife adopt the baby, who grows supernaturally fast, luckily for Rhiannon, who is still stuck outside giving strangers piggyback rides.

Then, in a twist I was not expecting due to the usual prevalence of coincidences and birthmarks in similar stories, the lord hears about Rhiannon and logically deduces who the child really is. Also to my surprise, he and his wife talk it over and decide to return the boy rather than trying to keep the whole thing a secret. Rhiannon is vindicated, the boy is renamed Pryderi, and everyone lives happily ever after, at least until the next branch. Hopefully not including the lying, puppy-killing serving women. I expect Rhiannon had some ideas about what to do about them.
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