The Third Branch - The Mabinogi of Manawydan

The Mabinogi of Manawydan begins in the immediate aftermath of the Second Branch. The Seven Survivors are at the White Hill in London where they have recently buried the head of the warrior-king Bendigeidfrân. The atmosphere is subdued. The carnage and upheaval of the previous Branch still hangs in the air. Manawydan, gazing out on to the town of London, declares he is now a dispossessed man, a reference to the coup d’état towards the end of the Second Branch that saw the ousting of the House of Llŷr by Caswallon son of Beli Mawr. In the cold light of day, after the enchantment of the Wondrous Head and the Birds of Rhiannon has faded away, the full scale of the loss has become clear. The Seven Survivors stand at the dawn of a new era but what they initially face is political and emotional desolation.

The continuity from the Second Branch is thus direct and sequential. The traditional opening of the chwedl, ‘X was king of Y’ is eschewed – perhaps significantly, considering that dispossession and expatriation is the key theme of the third Branch. As such, it draws on a long and complex body of exile mythology which derives, as we shall see, from a variety of sources and proto-historical experiences. That the figure of Manawydan son of Llŷr comes to embody this specifically Demetian blend of Gaelic, Belgic and sub-Roman tradition is appropriate on a variety of levels – harmonising these disparate inherited elements with the broader superstructure of the Four Branches as a whole.

Manawydan and the Expulsion of the Déisi

Like much of the Mabinogi, and the Second Branch in particular, the Third Branch draws heavily on the Gaelic tradition. A key analogue is a certain Old Irish tribal-historical tract known as Immerge Déisi ‘The Expulsion of the Déisi’, which relays the misfortunes of an uprooted people, the Déisi or Dessi (pronounced ‘Day-She’), and their attempts to find a refuge from the persecution they suffer at the hands of neighbouring peoples. The demographic upheavals described in this text have some basis in proto-historical fact (see previous section). Significantly (as the Expusion recalls) one branch of the Déisi seem to have headed eastwards across the Irish Sea and settle in Dyfed, where they intermarried with the local ruling dynasty. This lineage is recognised in the Welsh genealogies (adding further weight to the rather under-acknowledged fact that Early Medieval tribal historic records often preserve the memory genuine proto-historic events).

The Expulsion of the Déisi, by its very nature, is an anti-heroic tale – similar to (and perhaps partially modelled on) the exile narratives of the Old Testament. It begins with this unfortunate kindred being uprooted from their original homeland by the depredations of the High King Cormac’s son, an adversary too powerful to effectively avenge (a parallel with Manawydan’s reaction to Caswallon can be discerned here). After this, they wander in search of a homeland, facing the hostility of those whose lands through which they pass at every turn. Following a vision seen by ‘Eithne Dread’, a Déisian princess, the wandering tribe head for the land of Osraige in south east Ireland, from whom they win territory following a series of magical and military manoeuvres.

Cath Mag Mucrama and the Third Branch

Emerging from the same southern Irish legendary milieu as the Expulsion of the Déisi is another early medieval Gaelic saga, Cath Mag Mucrama, which also has a number of structural and thematic parallels with the Third Branch. In particular we find a similar treatment to what some scholars have called the ‘Un-king’ theme: the ascendance of a passive or even cowardly ruler, whose lack of the traditional virtues of Celtic sovereignty results in the devastation of his kingdom through a succession of natural, magical and human depredations. While the Third Branch represents a rather more nuanced and sophisticated treatment of this apparently traditional theme, its relationship to the Irish material appears too strong to entirely coincidental i. The most likely explanation is that it represents a body of tradition that came over with the Deísi in the mid-third century. The core of the Third Branch, then, might be seen as the foundation myth of Cymbro-Gaelic royal house of Dyfed, which might have crystallised during the sub-Roman and early medieval period from a blend of southern Irish and local Demetian sources. Its synthesis in the later medieval Mabinogi, where it is interwoven with material of North Brythonic and Belgic origin, merely reflects a process of ethno-mythic integration which was the function of all good tribal historic narrative.

A key aspect of this particular body of tradition was a theme known in the Irish tradition as the lómmrad or ‘denuding’ of the land. This process of supernatural desertification or encroaching wilderness – the ultimate source of the Arthurian ‘Wasteland’ motif – typically occurs in traditional Celtic narratives after the infringement of some kind of taboo on the part of a king, or as the result of some kind of curse or magical enmity. In the case of Cath Mag Mucrama – as with the Mabinogi – the root of this misfortune is manifold and ambiguous. The saga begins with Ailill son of Mug Nuádat raping a faerie woman while his bard-henchman kills the otherworld creature’s father. This sets in motion a chain of misfortunes which sees Ailill replaced as king by his unworthy foster-brother, Lugaid Mac Con. It is during the reign of this weak and cowardly High King that the ‘denuding’ of Ireland takes place: starting with the oppression by a foreign enemy, and concluding with the incursion of a series of pestilential plagues and agricultural disasters.

The Empty Land

The latter – in particular the mysterious pigs that emerge from the cave of Cruachan, or the ‘saffron coloured bird-flock’ that devastate the crops and pastures of Ireland – are strongly recalled by the plague of otherworldly mice that pillage the crops of Manawydan in the Third Branch. However, the Third Branch tends to focus on a rather more subtle but poignant form of desertification – that of the withdrawal of human life and activity. Following a supernatural clap of thunder, the main protagonists (Manawydan, Pryderi, Rhiannon and Cigfa) find themselves alone in a Dyfed that has been mysteriously abandoned:

…they looked where before they would have once seen flocks and herds and dwellings, they could see nothing at all: neither house, nor animal, nor smoke, nor fire, nor man, nor dwellings – [nothing] except the empty buildings of the court, deserted, uninhabited, without man or beast within them, their own companions lost, without them knowing anything about them; [no-one left] except the four of them.

Thus begins a strangely idyllic sequence in which the four companions enjoy a bucolic existence in the wilderness of Dyfed which, despite being empty of human inhabitation, continues to be rich in natural resources such as honey and game. The atmosphere of this section of the Branch is the most distinctive – having something of the quality of what Dostoevsky called ‘the age Abraham and his flocks’. Yet also unmistakably present is the faintly claustrophobic intimacy of the tale of Apollonius, that peculiar fantasy of late antiquity (a connection which may not be entirely accidental, as we will consider below).

As well as drawing on the lommrad tradition of Irish mythology, then, there would seem to be other key ingredients to the Third Branch – a scenario of isolation and abandonment, as much as mythic desertification. A source for this can perhaps be found in a comparatively more recent stratum of British-Celtic experience, that is the demographic upheavals following the collapse of Roman Britain, an event which is usually held to have taken place some time around the early fifth century. The circumstances of this social and economic catastrophe are somewhat obscure, not least because of the dearth of written sources that gives the British ‘Dark Ages’ their name. However, the withdrawal of the Roman military presence in 410 AD and the collapse of the monetary economy seem to have been decisive factors in the widespread disintegration of civic-urban life in southern Britain in the early fifth century. British tradition also recalls a rebellion by Saxon mercenaries in the mid-fifth century, which led to large sections of the south and east of what is now called England falling into the hands of Germanic settlers.

The causes of the shift in the demographic, ethnic and linguistic character of the southern British countryside – a process which seems to have occurred in a series of waves over a period of three hundred years – remains essentially obscure. It is not clear exactly what happened to the British-Celtic populations of the areas that fell under Anglo-Saxon control. Were they disposed of in a process of ‘ethnic cleansing’ during the wars of the mid-fifth century? Did they peacefully integrate with the invaders, and fade without trace into the Anglo-Saxon population? Or were they enslaved by the incoming colonists, allocated like chattels as bondsmen to the farms of wealthy Anglo-Saxons? There is reason to believe that it was a combination of these factors which caused the disappearance of British-Celtic speakers from the English countryside. Ethnic violence, enslavement and (in some areas) peaceful integration may have all played a part in the progressive ‘Anglicisation’ of the British mainland. However the process was a protracted one, with evidence of a British recovery in the early sixth century. During this time of scorched earth and border skirmishes, homes and farms were abandoned as the border fluctuated; and significant swathes of the countryside between the territories of the Brython and the Saxon would have regressed to uninhabited wasteland. The poignant image overgrown field and the abandoned hearth recur in the ninth-century Powysian Canu Heledd, a verse-sage composed in the englyn metre, in which we hear of the solitary wanderings of a young British woman through the ruins and wastes of the Shropshire countryside in the aftermath of an English invasion:

The hall of Cyndylan is dark tonight,
Without fire, without bed,
First I cry, after I am silent

The steeples of Basa are in fallow land tonight
Splattered with blood is the clover
They are red, and my heart is breaking

I gaze upon fallow land
From the tumulus of Gorwynnion
Long is the path of the sun, longer [still] are my memories

Here, as much as anywhere else, we have the prototype of the ‘Empty Land’ as described so vividly in the Third Branch. We might assume that the imagery and atmosphere of the Mabinogi of Manawyd would have carried a particular resonance to its original audience. The catastrophe of upheaval and desolation was not known to the Medieval Welsh, just as it formed a perennial experience for their sub-Roman ancestors. The chronicles of the time, the so-called Brut y Twysogion, record the intermittent skirmishes between and among the native princes and their Anglo-Norman Marcher neighbours. Entire villages would find themselves uprooted as a result of these outbreaks of inter-communal violence, with the borders between these various demographics re-drawing themselves with bewildering frequency. Many Welshmen of the time would, like the protagonists of the Third Branch, of suddenly finding their homeland deserted, or seeing a castle appear ‘where there had never been a castle before’. In this way, the traditional Celtic Wasteland myth – apparently also deriving from this Irish immigrant background – seems to have been brought into sharp focus through the distinctively Brythonic imagery of the Empty Land, which derived its vividness and atmosphere from a body of collective memory which had been regularly refreshed by living experience.

Medieval Typologies: Manawydan and Cadwgan ap Bleddyn

As with the other Mabinogi tales, this dreamscape of historical memory was also populated by archetypal protagonists, whose definition within the social, moral and familial space represented in the Four Branches brings them into an unmistakeable relationship with certain key figures from the medieval present. There is a strong suggestion of this kind of typological echoing between Manawydan and the early twelfth-century dynast, Cadwgan ap Bleddyn who, very much like the Third Branch hero, is characterised by the chroniclers as diplomatic and conciliatory – almost to a fault. ‘As was his custom, not wishing to hurt anyone’ was how Cadwgan was described in the Brut y Twysogion – a description which might as well have been applied to Manawydan. Following the notorious dalliance between his son Owain and Nest wife of Gerald of Windsor, the chronicles note Cadwgan’s fear that “King Henry should be enraged at the injury to his steward”. We are reminded here of Manawydan’s reluctance to anger “Caswallon and his men” by taking revenge on the bullying mob of Hereford craftsmen, during his ill-fated sorjourn in England.

Indeed, Manawydan’s fate as wandering exile, forced to wander abroad in the company of his hot-headed son-in-law Pryderi, has parallels with the fate of the historical Cadwgan. After the events of 1109, Cadwgan and his troublesome son Owain were also forced to flee the wrath of the London-based Angevin King. Despite his generally sympathetic portrayal in the Chronicles, Cadwgan ap Bleddyn was a scion of the House of Mathrafal which was a notorious unruly branch of the royal tribe, from whence a succession of violent male contenders seem to have emerged onto the Welsh dynastic stage. Owain son of Cadwgan was one of a number of notorious Powysian rogues. Mathrafal, we may recall, seem to have had the unflattering typological correlate in the in Second Branch as the murderous and psychopathic Efnisien. This would fit with what appears to have been the particular tribal and dynastic affiliations of the final author, as we will consider in more detail in the section after this.

The rise and fall of the house of Mathrafal has been considered in more detail elsewhere, but for now it might be worth drawing attention to one the key episodes in its ascendancy, to which we have already alluded above. This was the extraordinary affair involving Owain ap Cadwgan, Nest daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr and her jilted husband, Gerald of Windsor. This somewhat riotous ménage a trois seems to have left a strong impression on the collective memory of 12th century Wales, and as such seems to have formed the source of a number of scandalous allusions we find in the Four Branchs of the Mabinogi.

The trouble seems to have begun at the start of 1109, when Cadwgan ap Bleddyn decided to hold a feast for all ‘the chieftains of the land’ (a gesture which strongly suggests pretensions of pan-Welsh overlordship). While at that feast, Cadwgan’s son Owain ap Cadwgan heard that Nest, daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr (his own second cousin), was now living in a castle belonging to the marcher lord Gerald of Windsor, who was the guardian of a small Marcher enclave of Pembrokeshire which had been annexed by the English king. On the pretext of visiting her ‘as a kinswoman’, it would seem he seduced her and made her an accessory in a plan to carry her away and ransack Gerald’s castle at the same time. This was achieved some nights later, with Gerald having to make a humiliating exit through the castle latrine. (There are some echoes here of the treatment of Gwawl by Pwyll in the First Branch.)

The revenge of Gerald and his liege, King Henry I, came soon enough, and was organised by the king’s steward at Shrewsbury, Richard Bishop of London. The Bishop, exploiting the greed and fractiousness of the native Welsh, gathered various local warlords to his cause (including some from house of Mathrafal) and with this host made for Owain’s homeland (evidently located somewhere in Ceredigion). The inhabitants of these lands were scattered in all directions, some receiving asylum in the neighbouring districts while others (notably those who attempted to take refuge with Gerald in Dyfed) were simply killed. It was at this point that Owain and Cadwgan were forced to flee to Ireland, beginning a period of exile and wandering comparable to that of Manawydan and Pryderi in the Third Branch.

It is perhaps significant that the agent of Gerald’s revenge was an aristocratic clergyman, Richard Bishop of London, echoing the episcopal guise assumed by Manawydan’s oppressor Llwyd Cil Coed at the end of the Third Branch. The scouring of Owain’s territories also has its parallels in the spiriting away of the population of Dyfed, which of course constitutes the central adversity against which the action of the tale is predicated. Crucially, what turns out to be the initiating circumstance for this development – the Badger in the Bag incident – has some interesting structural parallels with the humiliation of Gerald in 1109, as we have already observed.

As did not escape the notice of the chroniclers of the time, the dalliance between Welsh royal lovers Nest and Owain was incestuous as well as adulterous. Both were great-grandchildren of the eleventh century princess Angharad (mother of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn), which made them second cousins – a close enough degree consanguinity to make their relationship canonically incestuous according to the Early Christian marital code. This was a political as well as a moral issue, and one of considerable interest in the later twelfth century, as the incest accusation was being used by the expanding Franco-Norman hegemony as means of portaying their Celtic neighbours as savage and regressive – and thereby to justifying their colonial ambitions.

The truth was that relationships which could be described as canonically incestuous abounded throughout Western Europe, and were particularly common among more marginal or insular communities. This is as much a reflection of the prohibitive nature of Early Christian marriage code, which not only debarred any union between individuals sharing the same great-great-great-great-greatgrandparents, but also placed restrictions on those who were linked by god-parenthood or in-law marriage. Within a society as parochial as that of native medieval Wales, it would be hard to find any two individuals who were not related in any of these ways. There are signs that such restrictions were recognised as largely unworkable, and at the Lateran Council of 1215, the Christian marital code was modified to allow marriages up to the fourth degree. However, as with many relationships within the Royal Tribe, the relationship between Nest and Owain was uncomfortably close, even by these more permissive standards. As such, they typified the kind of regressive, incontinent and endogamous tribalism which allowed their Norman neighbours to represent the native Welsh as unfit for sovereignty, and to pitch their colonial ambitions in terms of a righteous moral crusade.

The Welsh themselves were mindful of these accusations, and on one level the Four Branches of the Mabinogi might be seen as an attempt to work through and process this morally-compromised aspect of their traditional cultural system. The violent jealousy towards his half-sister shown by Efnisien in the Second Branch might be seen as a native Welsh critique of endogamy, with its overtones of savage tribalism. The Fourth Branch, as we will see, also represents a variety of incestuous couplings – including the grotesque combination of incest, sodomy and bestiality (the three primary Levitical taboos) to which the sons of Dôn are subjected as punishment for their rape of Math’s virginal footholder Goewin. The Third Branch too hints at an incestuous tinge to the relationship between Rhiannon and her son Pryderi, scions of the ancient House of Dyfed, as well as being avatars of the pagan dyad Mabon and Matrona (see Section 5 above). The intensity of their relationship is represented symbolically: most vividly by their joint imprisonment in the magic caer, both fixated (in a literal sense) to the mysterious handing golden bowl, which in this context might be seen as a maternal imago.

In all of these cases, incest is symptomatic of a wider malaise, a spoor of corruption linking the sins of the past with the misfortunes of the present and the future. A key concern of the Mabinogi – at a subliminal level at least – seems to be the exorcism of this troublesome element, often through a process of symbolic actions of a ‘magical’ or irrational nature. The mock-execution of the mouse on the sacred hill at Arberth, which forces Manawydan’s enemy to reveal his true nature also results in a promise that “there may never be [any more] magic or enchantment upon the seven cantrefs of Dyfed”, is a classic example of a ritual banishment of this kind. With it, significantly, Manawydan also secures the release of Pryderi and Rhiannon from their mysterious bondage in the magic caer.

Manawydan as Exile Narrative

In terms of the internal logic of the Four Branches as a whole, this brings closure to a narrative loop that began with the ‘Badger in the Bag’ incident in the First Branch – a primal event which resonates strangely throughout the Mabinogi, and which might be described as the ‘original sin’ of the royal House of Dyfed. The remarriage of Rhiannon to Manawydan at the beginning of the Branch introduces a fresh perspective to this problematic legacy, with the hope that old magical burdens (or compulsive patterns of behaviour) might finally be broken through the consciousness of this new agent.

As well as having this integral position within the narrative system of the Four Branches as a whole, the Third Branch also stands up perfectly well as a short story in its own right. The Exile Narrative was a popular topos in the medieval world, offering as it did a vehicle for the exploration of traditional Christian themes such as suffering and providence, grace and retribution, spiritual pilgrimage and Divine deliverance. Such tales offer the storyteller the opportunity to pile endless misfortunes on the heads of their protagonists – often involving disease, destitution, persecuation and the loss of family members. All of these elements appear in the Old Testament story of Job, and also in a popular piece of medieval hagiography known as the Eustace legend – to which the Third Branch has been often compared.

Another medieval favourite was the curious tale of Apollonius of Tyre which, like the Eustace legend, described the separation of families, maritime journeys, and dramatic transitions between extremes of wealth and destitution. However, unlike the Eustace legend Apollonius was not hagiography, nor even a specifically Christian tale. It hints at didactic significance, and (like the tale of Manawydan) evokes the atmosphere of the hagiographic exemplum. However, it conclusions do not point to the starkly martyrological ideals of the Eustace Legend. It has been identified with that hybrid literary genre defined by medievalists as ‘secular hagiography’ or ‘exemplary romance’. But it is perhaps easiest simply to regard Apollonius as an early pioneer of the magical narrative, as also exemplified by the earliest (and most influential) stratum of Continental Romance. The defining characteristic of this school of narrative, as we have seen, was a kind of subversive ambiguity, a dream-like arrangement of events that often appears to be obliquely signifying the occult, the unspoken or the taboo. It seems likely that its primary audience would have recognised The Four Branches as belonging to this same allusive style of discourse, and addressing subject matter of a similar complexity.

A complete, annotated translation of the Mabinogi of Manawydan is available at

iThese parallels have been discussed by John Koch (‘A Welsh Window on the Iron Age’ Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 14 (Winter 1987) pp. 17-52) and Andrew Welsh (‘Manawydan fab Llyr: Wales, England and the “New Man”’, republished in The Mabinogi – A book of essays ed. C. W. Sullivan (New York: Garland Press, 1996)). As we have seen, the Cath Mag Mucrama cycle (if we can refer to it as such) seems to have had a formative influence on the Second Branch as well.