Musings on “The Mabinogi”: Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed


Recently I finished reading the cycle of Welsh tales commonly mis-called The Mabinogion, but which is properly called the Mabinogi. Full of strange wonders and bold figures, they have influenced many other legends and authors for centuries.

They’re also bewildering, nonsensical, and outright deranged.

(But they’re also “culture,” so you get to pat yourself on the back for making it through them!)

Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed

In this first branch of the Mabinogi (as they are called), it will be helpful to remember that in Welsh, w’s are pronounced like long u’s, by which I deduce that his name is pronounced POO-will. Any person knowledgeable of Welsh is more than welcome to correct me in these matters.

The first story about Pwyll I have heard retold in various places, Stephen Lawhead’s Merlin being one of them. I like it, though it doesn’t appear to have much of a “point.” To make recompense for an unintended breach of courtesy, Pwyll switches places with Arawn, lord of the Otherworld (called Annwfn), and is tasked with ruling his kingdom for one year and a day, while Arawn does the same for Dyfed. Arawn uses his power to cause them each to appear like the other, so no one will suspect the switch. Pwyll rules excellently, and even defeats one of Arawn’s enemies, another king named Hafgan. When the year is up and he and Arawn switch places again, Pwyll returns to Dyfed and asks his subjects their honest opinion on “his” recent ruling style. They say it has been better the past year than ever before, and Pwyll decides to continue those policies. The end.

That’s it, and it’s kind of nice, but there don’t seem to be any lasting effects of the adventure. I do like that Pwyll and Arawn both remain totally honorable when it comes to each others’ wives. Pwyll and Arawn’s queen get along very well (remember, she believes he really is Arawn), but every night he turns his back to her and neither touches her nor talks to her until the morning. Arawn is surprised to learn this from his wife at the end, since he had not bound Pwyll by any such oath, but Pwyll is just that kind of guy.

There is actually another story in this first branch, telling of the strange way that Pwyll meets his wife Rhiannon, the birth of their son Pryderi, and the near loss of the same. She’s a smart, feisty character, who deserves to have more stories told about her, and she frequently bails Pwyll out of stupid decisions. Stupid decisions such as promising a guest to their wedding, named Gwawl, any gift he requests, only to have said villainous guest request Rhiannon herself. For some reason Pwyll can’t refuse, and is forced to give up his fiancé in order to keep his honor. That’s the kind of stupid logic I don’t like in these stories. I know a man’s word of honor is supposed to be all-binding, but it seems that Gwawl’s request itself is a horrible breach of the guest-host relationship and need not be honored. Such as it is, Rhiannon must go with Gwawl, but not before devising a plan by which Pwyll can come after her, trap Gwawl in a magic bag, and along with his men dance around in a circle kicking the bag until Gwawl is so beat up that he begs for mercy and gives Rhiannon back.

Way to handle things the honorable way, Pwyll.

The last part of the story involves the birth of their son and his mysterious disappearance while still a babe. The women tasked with taking care of him blame Rhiannon and accuse her of killing him in her sleep. Despite her appeals to reason and the support of her husband, the king, the council of nobles believes her guilty. Her punishment is to stand by the gates to the settlement, tell her story to everyone who passes, and offer to carry any newcomers up to the court on her back, like a mule. This punishment continues for a few years. Then we discover that the infant has appeared in a stable belonging to another noble couple, who raise the boy as their own. As the boy grows older, they realize that he looks an awful lot like King Pwyll. So, being honorable, they take the boy to the court, where he is welcomed with joy and accepted as the lost prince. Rhiannon is relieved of her unjust punishment, and names her son Pryderi (pryder means “delivered of my anxiety”).

There will be more about him later.

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Author: David

I’m a young Christian American reader writer dreamer wanderer walker flier listener talker scholar adventurer musician word-magician romantic critic religious idealist optipessimist man.

8 thoughts on “Musings on “The Mabinogi”: Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed”

  1. Ha, yes Celtic tales can be bewildering and nonsensical, but I must admit I have a soft spot in my heart for them. And to the best of my limited understanding, the idea of honor found again and again in these stories is closely related to the idea of geas–or taboos–so that a man can retain his honor if he scrupulously avoids breaking his geas, even if he accomplishes this by blatantly ignoring the heart of the taboo but obeying the letter (such as Pwyll giving his fiance to Gwawl, since he had promised him any request, then beating Gwawl up, since he hadn’t promised not to beat him up).

    Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on Pryderi’s story; it’s one of my favorites, though the characters’ clueless actions can frustrate me to no end :).

    1. I like the atmosphere of them, how close the Otherworld is, how important music and poetry is, etcetera. I love trying to pronounce all the names. It’s just hard to get involved in any of the stories or characters, because cause-and-effect seems not to apply and casual brutality and rape are common even among some heroes. I’m trying to find a character that I really can admire.

  2. Since I am spending this entire year in Scotland studying (and translating) the Mabinogi (and the Old Irish tales), I feel like I should have all sorts of deep and insightful bits to respond with here, but mostly I can only agree that the stories themselves are hard to fathom in many respects.

    As far as pronouncing ‘Pwyll’ you would be amazed to hear my Welsh professor since it sounds nothing like you would imagine. My pronunciation is still… improving, shall we say, but it might help to know that double L’s are pronounced kind of like a ‘sh’ but a little further back in the mouth. Stick the sides of your tongue against the back of your teeth and hiss like a cat and you will come as close as a non-Welsh speaker can get. It’s kind of fun, though… Double D’s are pronounced like a ‘th’. Also, the stress of any word comes on the penultimate syllable. Those are a few tricks to getting the words close-ish to right. But nothing beats sitting back and listening to a Welsh speaker, I can tell you that much.

    You might also enjoy going back through the tale and looking at how the magical elements appear in the story in comparison and contrast to, say, Arthurian tales. Pwyll meets a king of the Otherworld while out hunting and then just rides to his kingdom without any magical portal needed, as if there is really no separation between the natural and the supernatural. But the readers would have known that Arawn was from the Otherworld simply because of his hounds, which were white with red ears, as only magical creatures had. Later, Pwyll must stand on a mound, known as a ‘gorsedd’ in order to see Rhiannon coming, which is another sort of ‘Celtic’ motif. Standing on the gorsedd basically triggers an Otherworldly event.

    When you read ‘Branwen’, the Otherworld manifests quite differently. Just something to think about!

    1. Thanks for the pronunciation tips! I don’t think I can manage that double L sound, but I’m getting the hang of the double D’s.

      I had noticed some of those elements about the Otherworld and the different ways magic operates in the different stories. Patrick Ford, in his notes, also talks about them. Thanks for pointing them out, though. I’m very envious of you being in Scotland. I studied for a semester in St Andrews a few years ago, and it was the best experience of my life. Not only I did learn Old and Middle English and read many of the Arthurian romances, but the friends I made there are still with me today. I hope to return to the UK for graduate studies. At which university are you studying? Have you visited my dear, fair, sometimes-raucous St Andrews yet?

  3. Ugh. I have some strange gravity to Pwyll and have loved him for some time. Its indescribable and maybe its just that he’s a nice guy, or I wish I had him for a friend. Maybe its because he’s an example of the old style of hero, now nonexistent in our time. Either way, each time I hear the story my love for him grows.

  4. Thanks for the reminder; had n’t considered Lawhead’s work for a little while. I liked how he would weave tales in through the bards such that we knew there was some lesson the ruler needed to catch, but would barely miss. These elements are certainly in ‘Merlin’ but also in the King Raven trilogy.

    Glad to hear someone is struggling with the originals and I can’t wait to do the same!

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