The Four Branches of The Mabinogi a branch-by-branch (i.e. tale by tale) introduction to the quartet of stories that form the luminous highpoint of medieval Welsh storytelling and which are the centrepiece of Welsh mythology.
The Four Branches of the Mabinogi are the luminous highpoint of medieval Welsh storytelling and the main repository of the British side of Celtic mythology. They consist of a quartet of prose tales set in a legendary pre-Roman Wales, though the unknown author imagines this as a fantastical version of his own high medieval era. Filled with magic, shapeshifting, and the incursions of the otherworld, these stories enchant and enthral. This lecture series is designed to introduce each branch and to spotlight the major themes and points of interest in these magical tales, which can seem forbiddingly complex without a guide.’
Reading: Sioned Davies (trans.), The Mabinogion (OUP, 2007).
This talk introduces and contextualises the Four Branches of the Mabinogi as a whole, explaining how they are a rich blend of native lore, British mythology, circulating medieval stories, and much else besides, all orchestrated by a writer of genius around the year 1100. We then delve deep into the structure and meaning of the first branch, Pwyll, Lord of Dyfed. This is the story of the chieftain Pwyll, whose territory lies in south-west Wales. His name means ‘good sense’, and the tale tells how he slowly learns to live up to it, not least through interactions with Arawn, a king of the welsh otherworld, Annwfn, and the clever, beautiful Rhiannon, who becomes his wife.
This branch is quite unlike the others, being gloomy in tone and international in scope. It details a genocidal war between Britain and Ireland, turning on the person of a British princess, Branwen daughter of Llyr, sister of the giant-king Bendigeidfran. There has already been a talk on Branwen in a previous series of lectures, but the tale is very rich and this lecture traverses the same territory in a different way, focusing on the themes of concealment, national identity, and violence.
The third branch is the most folktale-like of the the four, taking as its subject the travails of the shrewd nobleman Manawydan (brother of Branwen and Bendigeidfran) and his attempts to keep his family safe by outwitting an unknown enemy with magical powers—and an army of co-ordinated mice.
The final branch of the four is the most bewilderingly magical of all, featuring incest, punitive shapechanging, and the character with the longest afterlife of all the figures in this quartet of tales—the tragic and adulterous Blodeuwedd, the woman made from flowers. This tale unpicks the complex texture of the tale, explaining how our instinctive sympathy for poor, suffering Blodeuwedd might not have been shared by the original audience.
Reading: the revelant branch in Sioned Davies (trans.), The Mabinogion (2007)
Dr Mark Williams is Fellow and Tutor in English at St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford. He is a specialist in the medieval languages and literatures of Wales and Ireland, and the author of Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth (Princeton, 2016), and The Celtic Myths that Shaped the Way We Think (Thames & Hudson, 2021). He is in training as a Jungian psychoanalyst
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