Tales of the Mabinogi: Branwen

Tales of the Mabinogi

This is Tales of the Mabinogi, where I explain one story from Welsh mythology. This week, I’m looking at the story of Branwen, which is the second branch of the Mabinogi. It’s all about Branwen and her two brothers, Bendigeidfran and Efnisien. Bendigeidfran, by the way, is a giant. This is probably one of the most well-known Welsh stories and it’s definitely interesting one.

It starts off with Branwen agreeing to marry Matholwch, king of Ireland. Everyone’s really happy about this, apart from Branwen’s brother Efnisien. He’s really annoyed that he wasn’t consulted about it, so in revenge, he goes for the only clear choice of action. He mutilates Matholwch’s horses. This, by the way, is a story we tell children here in Wales. Anyway, Bendigeidfran (who’s the King of Britain) stops a war from happening by giving Matholwch a magical cauldron that brings the dead back to life. This totally isn’t going to backfire or anything…

Matholwch and Branwen return to Ireland, and Branwen gives birth to a son who they name Gwern. However, the Irish aren’t a fan of Branwen because of what Efnisien did, so Matholwch banishes her to the kitchen. She’s badly treated whilst there and so trains a starling to give a letter to Bendigeidfran to tell him what was going on.

Bendigeidfran takes an army to Ireland to rescue Branwen, but Matholwch tries to make peace with Bendigeidfran by making Gwern the king. However, the Irish plan to ambush the Welsh at the coronation feast by hiding in flour sacks. Luckily, Efnisien foils their plan by crushing their heads while they hide, and just to make sure that there can be no peace, Efnisien throws Gwern into the fire. Like I said, well-known children’s story. It’s actually a popular choice for a lot of school plays!

Because of what Efnisien does, a war starts and the Irish have an advantage because of their magic cauldron. I said that would backfire. Anyway, Efnisien hides with the dead Irish bodies and when he gets chucked into the cauldron, he breaks into pieces. He’s super strong or something. As a result of this, Efnisien dies.

After the battle, only seven Welsh soldiers survive and that includes Bendigeidfran, his other brother Manawydan, and Pryderi (son of Pwyll). Sadly, Bendigeidfran has been mortally wounded and tells his men to cut off his head and bury it in London. This is to ensure that the country will never be invaded from the sea. The soldiers and Branwen head towards London, but sadly Branwen dies of heartbreak when they reach Wales.

The men continue to Harlech with Bendigeidfran’s still living headand forget all about their task due to magical birds who help them forget their loss. They stay there for seven years, and after another eight years in Gwales, they finally remember that they’re meant to be going to London.

And that is the story of Branwen. I swear, Welsh mythology just gets weirder and weirder. A modern film version of the story has been created, and it’s in Welsh, English and Irish Gaelic. I wouldn’t say that it’s brilliant, but there are definitely some interesting accents going on in it.

Random fact: In the Welsh translation, either Crabbe or Goyle is called Efnisien. Interesting comparison!

Have you heard this story before? What do you think about it?

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3 thoughts on “Tales of the Mabinogi: Branwen

    1. Sort of. I’m pretty sure the Black Cauldron is based on a series called The Chronicles of Prydain, which is based on the Mabinogi. All the strange names in Black Cauldron are definitely Welsh though. 🙂

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