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The Story of Branwen,
the Second Tale of the Mabinogi

Before the story of Branwen can begin there is some information Wesh the society of the time that should be noted. Women had very little command over their lives. In the ruling class they were often given in marriage to establish an alliance between two tribes. The male offspring of such a marriage inherited the leadership of both tribes. However the marriage was established in the most unceremonious way. A feast would be held at a court of the woman's father. When the feast was over the groom would go to bed with the bride in her bed. There was no public ceremonial declaration of fidelity. The significance of this arrangement of this mere sleeping with is that the husband's commitment could be terminated by merely ceasing to sleep with the wife.

Before the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain in the fifth century A.D. Celtic tribes occupied all of the entire island. The Anglo-Saxons drove the Celts into the western and northern reaches of Britain. The Anglo-Saxons gave the names Wales and Cornwall to the territories still occupied by Celts. The term wal in Wales and Cornwall connoted the place of the alien foreigners.

The ruling family of a kingdom in the middle part of Wales in the story of Branwen consisted of two parts.The principal part was the Llyr family which included the king Bendigeidfran, his brother Manawydan, another brother Bran and his sister Branwen. But their mother had two other sons from a different alliance. Their names were Nisien and Efnisien. Nisien was good but Efnisien was consummately evil and ever concerned with his social status. The other principal character in the story was Matholwch, the king of Ireland.

Bendigeidfran was a giant of a man, too large to live in a normal sized house. One day King Bendigeidfran was sitting on a rock which overlooked the sea. He was accompanied by his brother Manawydan and his two half-brothers Nisien and Efnisien. There were other nobles of his kingdom there as well. The group saw a fleet of thirteen ships approaching their coast under full sail from Ireland in the south. The King sent an armed group of warriors to meet the ships if they tried to land.

The group noted that the ships were of fine quality flying pennants of brocaded silk. One ship came forward and its captain conversed with the King sitting on the rock above the shore. That conversation revealed that the ships were those of Matholwch, King of Ireland. He had come to establish an alliance between Ireland and Britain, the Isle of the Mighty. The alliance required he be given the King's sister Branwen for a wife. King Bendigeidfran told Matholwch to come ashore with his retinue and he and his counselors would consider Matholwch's proposal.

Matholwch and his retinue came ashore and there was great festivity that night. The next morning the King and his counselors decided that the alliance would be good for the kingdom and therefore Branwen would be given to Matholwch. She was considered by all to be the most beautiful maiden in their world.

The King and his counselors set the date that Matholwch would sleep with Branwen at the court at Aberffraw. Matholwch and his retinue headed for Aberffraw by ship and King Bendigeidfran and his retinue set out over land.

At Aberffraw the two groups met and celebrated in tents. Matholwch sat beside the King and his brother Manawydan and his sister Branwen. When the feast was over Matholwch went to bed with Branwen.

The next day the retinues began to separate the horses and put them by ownership in different locations. It was then that the Efnisien, half-brother of the King, came upon Matholwch's horses. He asked a guard whose horses they were and was told that they were Matholwch's who had now slept with Branwen, his sister. Efnisien went into a rage over his sister being given away without him being consulted. He took his rage out on Matholwch's horses. With his knife Efnisien cut the horses ears and tails off. He slashed their lips and even cut their eye lids where he could. It was a monstrous act.

When Matholwch heard of it he thought that it was sanctioned by King Bendigeidfran to dishonor him and he set out to return to Ireland. He was puzzled by why he was so dishonored after being given such a fine maiden for a wife. When King Bendigeidfran heard of Matholwch's leaving he sent messengers to ask the reason why. They came back and conveyed Matholwch's feelings. The King then sent his brother Manawydan to Matholwch to tell him he would be compensated for the loss of his horses and given silver and gold to compensate him for the dishonor done to him.

The King said that because the perpetrator of the dishonor was his half-brother, the son of his own mother, he could not kill him as he deserved. Matholwch relented and returned to Aberffraw. The King gave him horse after horse to replace the ones that were maimed. When the King ran out of horses he started giving Matholwch colts. Finally all the colts were given and the King perceived that Matholwch was not yet satisfied. The King then told Matholwch he would give him a magic cauldron. If a dead warrior is placed in the cauldron for a day he will be alive and well except he will not be able to speak. Matholwch accepted the cauldron and seemed satisfied that his dishonor had been adequately compensated for. He asked where the cauldron had come from. King Bendigeidfran said it was brought by a big man named Llasser Llaes Gyfnewid and his even bigger wife, Cymidei Cymeinfoll. He said they talked about being imprisoned in an iron house that was heated until it was white hot and how they broke out of it. King Bendigeidfran said he thought the cauldron came from Ireland and asked if Matholwch knew of it.

Matholwch said, "This is what I know. I was hunting near the Lake of the Cauldron. From the top of a hill near the lake I saw a big man with red-blond hair coming out of the lake with a cauldron on his back. He was followed by his wife, a very big woman. They came up to me. The man announced that his wife would soon bear a son who would within a few months grow to be a fully capable warrior." Matholwch then took them to his court and gave them a place to live and food to eat. This continued for a year. But during that year the man and his wife annoyed many noble men and women and made themselves loathsome to Matholwch's subjects. Matholwch decided he did not want them around anymore but they did not choose to leave. The man was too big and fierce to drive away by force of arms,

Matholwch's subjects came up with a solution. They started building a little house of iron. They called in the blacksmiths of the country to complete the structure. They then provisioned the iron house with a great stock of food. The man and his wife along with their children, lured in by the food, entered the iron house and were locked in. Then Matholwch's subjects began piling charcoal around the house. They continued until it was nearly covered. They then set fire to the charcoal and stationed men around it with bellows to blow the fire into a fierce state. The iron of the house turned red and then white. White hot iron loses its hardness. At that stage the man inside was able to burst open a wall through which he and his wife escaped but not their children. When the man and his wife fled he managed to bring along the cauldron.

Matholwch said, "And then, Lord, he came over to you." Bendigeidfran replied, "Yes, he came here and gave the cauldron to me." Matholwch asked how Bendigeidfran had received the man and his wife. Bendigeidfran said he divided them and their progeny throughout his kingdom and they made as stalwart defenders of the land as come ever be found.

Soon Matholwch and Branwen left for Ireland with their retinue in thirteen ships.

In Ireland Branwen was well received. She gave presents of jewelry to all who came to see her. In due time she bore a son who was named Gwern. As was the practice the son was put into foster care.

Some of Matholwch's counselors, upon hearing about the maiming of his horses when he was in Wales, stated that he had not been adequately compensated for the dishonor that had been shown to him. They finally convinced the weak-willed Matholwch that the only way to properly dishonor the Welsh was to evict Branwen from his bed and make her serve as a scullery maid preparing meals for the court. To prevent Bendigeidfran from finding out how his sister was being treated no Irishman was allowed to travel to Wales and any Welshman coming to Ireland was to be imprisoned.

So Branwen worked day and night in the kitchen preparing food. One day a bird came and roosted near her while she was kneading bread dough. She gave him bits of bread dough to ensure he would come to her day after day. Then she proceeded to teach him to talk while she kneaded the dough. After she taught him to talk she told him how to recognize her brother Bendigeidfran and where to find him. She wrote a letter to Bendigeidfran telling him of her plight and rolled it up and tied it under the bird's wing.

In time the bird made his way to Wales. He found Bendigeidfran at a meeting out of doors and landed on Bendigeidfran's shoulder. He ruffled his feathers until the letter under his wing was discovered.

When Bendigeidfran read the letter and found the sorrow and dishonor his sister was being subjected to he was sad and furious. He called for the mobilization of all of the fighting men of the 154 districts of his kingdom. He and his army would go to Ireland to rescue Branwen and punish Matholwch and the Irish. He would leave seven noblemen to rule and protect the kingdom while he and the other noblemen were away.

Bendigeidfran and his army headed for Ireland, Bendigeidfran himself was too big for any ship so he simply waded across the channel next to the ships.

The swineherders of Matholwch saw the Welsh host but did not know what to make of it. They went to Matholwch to tell him what they had seen. They said they saw a forest in the sea along with a mountain. On the mountain there was a ridge with two caves side-by-side and on either side of the ridge there was a blue lake. Both the forest and the mountain were moving.

Matholwch said he did not know what it was that the swineherders had seen and that Branwen was probably the only one who would know. He sent them to Branwen.

The swineherders found Branwen in the court kitchen and told her what they had seen. They said, "Lady, what do you suppose that is?" She said, "I am no longer a lady. The forest you saw was the masts of ships and their yardarms. The mountain is the head of Bendigeidfran, my big brother, my very big brother. His head is tilted back to keep his mouth out of the water. He is barely tall enough to wade across the sea. The ridge is his nose, the caves are his nostrils and the blue lakes are his eyes. What you saw is all the fighting men of Wales coming to punish Matholwch and everyone in his kingdom for the dishonored shown to me.

When Matholwch and his counselors heard of Bendigeidfran's invasion force they decided the Irish army should withdraw across the Shannon River and destroy the single bridge which crosses it. The Irish army did just that.

Bendigeidfran and his host landed and moved south to the Shannon River. His counselors asked how they would get across the river. Bendigeidfran replied that he would be the bridge. He lay down reaching from the bridge supports on one side of the river to the bridge supports on the other. The army placed planks on his back and crossed over.

When Matholwch saw what had happened he sent messengers to Bendigeidfran to tell him that Gwern, his and Branwen's son would be made king. Thus the King of Ireland would be Bendigeidfran's nephew. Bendigeidfran noted that he could take the kingship of Ireland himself but said he would think about the offer.

The messengers came back to Matholwch and told him Bendigeidfran did not take the offer. Matholwch said, "What should we do?" His counselors replied, "There is only one thing we can do. We will build him a house that is big enough for him with doors that are big enough for him. He has never had such a house. He will be so honored that he will conclude a peace with you."

Branwen advised Bendigeidfran to accept this offer lest Ireland would be destroyed. So a truce was declared while the house was being built.

The house was magnificent and fine. It had one hundred columns. But the Irish could not resist a secret ruse. On each column they hung a large leather bag. In each bag was a fully armed warrior who was prepared upon the proper signal to cut his way out of his bag and fight for the Irish.

The evil half-brother Efnisien entered the house before Bendigeidfran and his retinue. Efnisien noticed the bags hanging from the columns. He went up to one and asked an Irishman standing nearby, "What is in this bag?" The Irishman replied, "Just some flour, Friend," Efnisien felt of the bag and found what seemed to be a head. He crushed the head with the strength in his hands. He went to a second bag and asked the same question and got the same reply. He again found the head of the Irish warrior in it and crushed it. He did this for all of the bags. He was outraged at Matholwch and his counselors for trying such a trick on the trusting Welsh.

The leaders of the two countries sat down for dinner in the house. Branwen sat between her brothers, Bendigeidfran and Manawydan. The kingship of Ireland was bestowed upon Gwern, the son of Matholwch and Branwen. Gwern went up to Bendigeidfran and greeted him. He did likewise to Manawydan. The good half-brother Nisien asked Gwern to come to him saying he would like Gwern even if he was not a king. The evil half-brother Efnisien was nearby and still seething with rage about the bagged Irish warriors. He grabbed Gwern and thrust him into the raging fire in the fireplace. Branwen tried to get to the fire to save her son but Bendigeidfran stopped her because he knew it was too late. Efnisien killed Gwern because Gwern was the only means for there to be peace between the Irish and the Welsh.

Deadly fighting broke out at the dinner table. Warriors were killing each other. The Irish fired up the magic cauldron and put those of theirs who were killed in it so they would recover by the next day.

When Efnisien saw warriors fighting the next that had been killed on the first day he knew the Welsh could never win as long as the Irish had the magic cauldron. He then laid down among the Irish dead pretending to be dead himself. He was thrown into the cauldron along with some Irish corpses. Once in the cauldron he put his legs against the side of the cauldron and pushed with all of his considerable strength. The cauldron broke, but so did Efnisien's heart from the effort.

The Welsh were victorious. All of the Irish men were killed but seven Welsh warriors survived. However Bendigeidfran was wounded in the heel with a poisoned spear.

Bendigeidfran knew he was doomed. He said that when he died his head should be cut off and taken with the warriors back to Wales.

Branwen was with them. When they started to make the crossing she looked at Ireland and Wales and cried, "Dear Son of God, alas that I was born! Two fine countries have been destroyed because of me." Her heart broke and she died there. The seven warriors prepared a fine grave for her on the shore.

The seven along with the head of Bendigeidfran continued on towards Wales. They met some travelers who informed them that Wales had been taken over by a warrior named Caswallawn. Caswallawn had a Cape of Invisibility that enabled him to kill six of the warriors which Bendigeidfran had left to rule Wales while he was in Ireland. The seventh warrior was Caradawg, the son of Bran, a brother of Bendigeidfran and Branwen. Caradawg died of grief upon seeing his warriors being killed and not knowing how or why.

The seven returning from Ireland took the head of Bendigeidfran to London and buried it there facing France where it woul provide protection from foreign invasion.

In Ireland the only survivors were five pregnant women living in a cave. They all bore sons at about the same time. When the boys were raised to young manhood each woman chose one of the other women's sons as her husband so she could have more children and save the Irish from extinction. And that is how the Irish were saved.

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