Primary Sources: the Mabinogion 12 (the Birds of Rhiannon)

Now I mentioned Bran was dying. He got stabbed in the thigh, or maybe in the feet, or given the way this usually goes down, the genitals probably. Also maybe the spear he got stabbed with, if he got stabbed with a spear, was poisoned. Maybe it wasn’t, maybe Bran was a little whiny baby who was dying just from having razor sharp metal lodged in his insides and there was no poison at all. Point is, Bran was wounded on the lower half of his body.

“Well I’m sunk,” Bran told his seven surviving followers. “This wound’s a killer.”

“Say it ain’t so, sire,” said one of his followers, oh, let’s say Manawydan.

“No, it’s true. I’m on my way out. Let me lay on you a last request, though.” Bran indicated his neck. “You see my neck here? I want you to chop my head off and carry it around with you.”

“That’s your last request?”

“Yeah. It’s cool. I’m a magic giant, so my severed head will be just as much fun at parties as I am.” For serious, the Mabinogion specifically addresses the issue of the severed head at parties. “Take my head to London and bury it facing France, at the same cathedral were everything important in London happens. No rush.”

“No rush?”

“Yeah. You can take, mmm…” Bran did some quick mental arithmetic. “Eighty-seven years to set out on the journey of bringing my head to London. My head won’t decay at all in that time, and it’ll talk and drink and stuff. Once you start going to London, though, after eighty-seven years have gone by? Then you’ll need to hurry before my head rots.”

So Manawydan shrugged, and hefted his sword, and chopped Bran’s head off.

“Great!” cried Bran’s severed head. “Now that I’m dead, you’re in charge. Everything’s cool, don’t worry! Now let’s blow this crappy corpse-strewn island!”

#

Branwen, Manawydan, Bran’s severed head, and all the rest journeyed back from Ireland to Wales. As soon as they arrived, Branwen started talking about how she didn’t want to face life any longer, and then she keeled over, dead of grief, Calaquendi style.

“Well, that happened,” said Manawydan. He and the other survivors buried her in a nice square grave with a cursory funeral, and then proceeded the rest of the way home.

On the way they met a band of refugees, heading the other way. “Bad news!” chanted the refugees. “You remember how Bran left a dozen of his men in Wales, to guard it from invasion, while he attacked Ireland?”

“Obviously,” said Manawydan. “I was there.”

“Well, they did not do a very good job, long story short, and there’s a new king. He’s got a magic invisibility cloak and who can stand against that kind of superior stealth technology?”

“Not us,” said Manawydan. He huddled up with his six followers, and they debated as to what to do.

The consensus: pizza party!  First in one place, Harddlech, and then they relocated to Penvro and listened to some magical birdsong, the Birds of Rhiannon, for unclear reasons.

Eighty-seven years later – no, I’m not kidding, why would you think I would be kidding? Eighty-seven years of pizza party later, one of the survivors, Heilyn the Not-so-Old (who was eighty-seven years older than he’d been, so, might want to rethink that epithet) recalled that weren’t they supposed to do a thing?

“We were supposed to do a thing after eighty-seven years, weren’t we?” he asked the other pizza-party attendees, but they were too busy listening to magical birdsong to pay any attention to him. So he went to open the door that led to the road connecting the pizza parlor to London. And when he opened that door, there was a rush of air and regret, as the party died.

“All our comrades are dead!” wailed one of the survivors.

“Branwen killed herself!” sobbed another.

“A jerk with a magic cloak conquered Wales while we were away!”

“And we’ve spent all these years just having a pizza party and listening to magical birdsong!”

“This is all your fault!” Manawydan said to Bran’s severed head. “You said everything was cool! You said not to worry! Look where that got us!”

“I’d love to point fingers and argue,” said Bran’s severed head. “Or I would, if I had fingers. But I’m just now starting to rot, and I’ve got eighty-seven years of decay to catch up on, so…”

And so Manawydan and his band carried Bran’s head to London and buried it. The Mabinogion asserts that so long as Bran’s head was buried in London and no one knew about it, the whole island of Great Britain was magically protected from plague. But then as soon as the head’s location became common knowledge, boom, plague.

And that’s the end of the tale of Branwen. Have no fear, though, because the next tale in my copy of the Mabinogion (the third, if you’ve been paying attention) picks up right were this one left off.

#

Meanwhile, on Ireland, everyone was dead, remember?

Okay, no. Five pregnant women survived the carnage. They had sons, who grew up and married one another’s mothers, and then they had more kids, and repopulated Ireland, and that’s why the Irish are all kind of terrible, is because of the inbreeding in their ancestry, the end. Kind of racist against the Irish, Mabinogion! I’m half-Irish, I can joke about it, but c’mon.

NEXT: MANAWYDAN SON OF LIR!

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Primary Sources: the Mabinogion 11 (the destruction of the cauldron)

This was when Pierced Thighs said, “hey you Irish jerks, I’ma take you all out!” I don’t know who Pierced Thighs was, maybe it was a nickname for Bran who gets his thighs pierced in a bit? Regardless, that battle-cry started a huge dust-up between Mallolwch’s people on one side and Bran’s people on the other.

Though the Irish spent the last couple entries quaking in their green-tinted buckle leprechaun-shoes, they actually had a substantial advantage over the Welsh in this fight. I mean, yes, the Welsh were a band of heroes led by an actual giant, and this is a Welsh story so we’ve to suspect the narrator has picked a side. But! The Irish had the Black Cauldron. All the Irish dead got tossed into the cauldron and lickety-boom they were up and raring to go again, good as new except for being mute. The Mabinogion reminds us that for the Black Cauldron to resurrect somebody they had to cook in it overnight, and that rule remained in place here, so I guess this was a battle that went on for days and days.

Evnissyen, the psychotic jackass who started this whole conflict by mutilating a bunch of Irish horses for no reason, and who later murdered his own nephew the newly-coronated king of Ireland, saw this happening. He realized that with an effectively limitless supply of soldiers, the Irish were eventually going to win the day.

“I can’t help but feel partially responsible,” he observed, and embarked on a secret mission.

Secret mission task one: disguise himself as an Irishman.

Secret mission task two: sneak across the no man’s land to the Irish back ranks.

Secret mission task three: climb aboard the big pile of corpses that the Irish were loading into the Black Cauldron.

“What the hell? I mean, uh, ‘faith and begorrah!'” Evnissyen boomed in an unconvincing brogue.

The Irishmen tasked with loading the cauldron were, for some reason, not wearing pants. Bare bottoms! No pants! Breech-free! I don’t get it either.

Regardless, they assumed that Evnissyen was an Irish corpse, one of many, and loaded him in the cauldron along with a bunch of other bodies. Once inside the cauldron, which did not magically shatter as soon as a living body was placed within it (thanks for nothing, Chronicles of Prydain), Evinessyen stretched and flexed and pressed against the cauldron’s iron walls! And he broke that cauldron open! Cracked it like an egg! Died in the process, too. I guess that makes him a hero, but man, what a murderous jackass of a regicide.

With the cauldron broken, so too was broken the Irish fighting spirit, and the Welsh won the field. It was a marginal victory on points, though, because the Welsh were down to seven guys by the end of the fight. Eight, counting Bran, but he was dying.

THE SEVEN WHO ESCAPED:

Pryderi, aka Gweri, the son of Rhiannon and Pwyll who was shoehorned in at the end of the previous tale

Manawydan, Bran’s brother and heir apparent

Glinyeu, Taran’s son (different Taran, I assume)

Talyessin who has a whole other story that I don’t even know if it’s in the Mabinogion

Ynawg, whose name looks like a typographical error

Gruddyeu son of Muryel about whom there is nothing interesting at all

Heilyn the Not-So-Old, son of Gwynn the Old

I’ve got to give the Mabinogion credit: that is in fact seven guys. We were told seven, we got seven. Sir Thomas Malory could take a lesson or two from the Mabinogion, plainly. Oh, except Branwen was also there, but maybe she doesn’t count because she’s a woman.

NEXT: THE STARTLING CONCLUSION!

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Primary Sources: the Maboginion 10 (More atrocities!)

Mallolwch was not pleased to learn that his offerings had been so soundly rejected. “We offered him gold and whiskey with an e, what more does he want? I’m giving the throne to his nephew, even!”

His advisors whispered among themselves and eventually put forward an idea. “Sire, you know how Bran is, like, fifty feet tall at least?”

Mallolwch shrugged.  “Yes.  He’s super large and could just step on all of us, if he wanted.  But so what?  He also has a whole army!”

“Well, I was thinking,” the courtier began, swallowing nervously.  “Maybe he’s never been inside a house before?”

“I don’t see what you’re getting at. Of course he’s never been in a house. The house hasn’t been built that could…” Mallolwch trailed off, as he saw what the courtier was getting at. “You’re suggesting we build the biggest building ever, and offer it to Bran as a present?”

“Just so!”

“Hmm.”  Mallolwch leaned back and tented his fingers, considering.  “Okay.  I mean, it can’t hurt.  Worst case scenario, we’re right back where we started but we have the biggest building ever to show for it.”

#

And so the Irish constructed the biggest building ever, which had a roof so high Bran could fit in it, and also one hundred support pillars.  It was crazy impressive, the Maboginion assures us.

Also, Branwen sat her brother down and lectured him about the extent to which a protracted war would cause misery and death among the Irish peasants (who deserved better). It’s unclear whether Mallolwch sent Brawnwen to act on his behalf, or whether Bran found Branwen back on the east side of the impassable magnetic river.

Between the two of them, Branwen and the giant super-house convinced Bran to make peace. A great summit meeting was planned, in which the house would be formally presented to Bran and they would take a tour and there’d be drinking and so on.

Drinking and so on!  It’s the best part of every international incident.

However! There was a conspiracy afoot among the Irish nobles, who we’ve established as having been jerks. Hidden in one hundred leather sacks hanging from the one hundred pillars: one hundred Irish assassins!

However again! Before the official sit-down began, Bran and Branwen’s half-brother Evnissyen took it upon himself to inspect the super-house. Evnissyen, you remember, was the jerk who mutilated a bunch of Irish horses and started the whole Wales-Ireland feud. Anyway somehow he divined that the apparently decorative Irish sacks concealed hidden blades, and amused himself by sneaking up on the sacks and grabbing them.

“What’s in this sack?” he’d whisper, quiet so that none of the other assassins could hear.

The assassin in the sack would panic and make some kind of noise (“I’m just some flour!” was the most popular line the Mabinogion says). Then Evnissyen would squeeze the sack and pop the assassin within  like he was a melon.

He did this a hundred times, because he was a crazy murderous villain and there were a hundred sacks.

#

Later the peace summit happened! The hundred corpses maybe put a pall over the occasion, but since it was a secret plot, Mallolwch and his delegates didn’t know why they were there any more than Bran did.

Mallolwch officially signed over the crown of Ireland to Gwern, son of Branwen, and everyone cheered because it looked like war had been averted!  Well, not so much “war” as “Bran stomping on everyone,” but still.

After the ceremony Gwern stood at the head of a receiving line, accepting the well-wishes and envelopes of money, bar mitzvah style. Everyone was all smiles, until Evnissyen came to the front of the line.

“Nephew!” he boomed. “We’ve never met! I’m your uncle!”

“Which is why you called me nephew.” Gwern nodded. “That hangs together.”

“Want to see something no one would ever expect?”

“Sure, uncle –” Gwern was cut off, because Evnissyen picked him up and hung him, by the ankles.

“Ha ha!” boomed Evnissyen.

“Is this a Welsh thing?” asked Gwern, upside-down.  “Could you put me down?”

“This isn’t even the good part!” cried Evnissyen. Then, and I am not making this up, he carried Gwern over to a bonfire (still holding him by the ankles) and swung Gwern’s head into the flames.  “Ha ha!  I’m a crazy monster!”

Gwern screamed and died.

Everyone, Welsh and Irish alike, fell silent, paralyzed by shock, and then Branwen started screaming.

NEXT: THE BRAZEN HEAD?!

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Primary Sources: the Mabinogion 9 (Valencia? These are juice oranges!)

Mallolwch of course was able to see Bran cross the river; Bran was like fifty feet tall after all.  So he threw together an emergency plan.  It wasn’t a good plan, as Mallolwch would have been the first to admit, but it was better than what all Mallolwch’s Irish courtiers came up with (nothing).

As soon as the Welsh troops were across the river and Bran had stepped over himself, he was accosted by a host of Irish goodwill ambassadors!  Not troops, definitely not troops.  Troops would have implied that Mallolwch was something other than Bran’s very dear friend who totally by mistake and confused accident had spent the last three years abusing Branwen and blockading Wales.

“Welcome to western Ireland!” The welcoming committee thrust a gift basket into Bran’s hands.   “Here’s a fruit basket, totally complementary, and a personalized greeting from Mallolwch, who wishes he could be here in person, and a coupon good for twenty percent off at Honest Seamus’s House of Shillelaghs! And a cake shaped like a clover!”

Bran harrumphed.

The welcoming committee smiled at him, baring all their Irish teeth as best they could in an attempt to be disarmingly charming. “As we said, Mallolwch wishes he could be here, but he’s busy putting the finishing touches on his plan to abdicate the throne in favor of his son, your nephew, which is basically like giving you the throne if you think about it!”

Bran and his advisors huddled up.  “What’s happening?”

“I think they’re offering terms of surrender.”

Bran scowled, because this was weird Irish trickery.  “Then why don’t they say that?”

“Maybe they’re trying to create a version of reality where we are indeed all friends?”

“Feh!” When Bran went feh it was impressive, on account of him being fifty feet tall and all. “Irish magic!  Bah, I say, and feh!  Huddle over!”

The Irish diplomancers cleared their various throats.  “Have you come to a decision regarding our fruit basket, sire?”

“Yeah, no.  Hell no, in fact.  Hell no!” Bran and his army were not interested in the diplomat’s overtures. “Come back when you’re ready to make a real offer!”

The Irish ambassadors were prepared for this eventuality; they had a number of hole cards they could add to sweeten the deal.  “Perhaps a pot o’ gold? Some whiskey? You know we spell it with an E here? Totally different from your Scotch whisky you may be familiar with.  Fine, fine Irish whiskey?”

But Bran just rumbled at them, angry giant style, so the ambassadors skedaddled.

NEXT: THINGS GET CRAZY!

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Primary Sources: the Maboginion 8 (one bad river)

So Mallolwch was sitting in his court, fretting maybe about how he was politically obliged to treat his wife like garbage, or maybe he was just drinking. Either way, he and a bunch of Irish courtiers were there and they all had mead.  In came a couple of swineherds.

“Swineherds!” he cried. “How fares the eastern edge of my island, which is where all of the swine are herded?”

“Really weird news, sire,” the two swineherds chanted in unison, which is how we professional-grade storytellers say ‘they said.’ “You know how there’s the sea right to the east of us?”

“Right!  The Irish Sea! It separates us from Wales, and for three years we’ve forbidden all travel across it.”

“Yeah, that’s the sea we mean.  We saw a mountain out there!”

“Surely you’re mistaken.”  Mallolwch stroked his chin.  “Maybe you saw a piece of driftwood, and you only thought it might be a mountain because you’re simpleminded?”

“No, sire!  It was a mountain!  And also there was a forest!” crowed one of the swineherds, waving his hands around to indicate trees.

“What, now?  A forest?”

“And a ridge!” The other swineherd didn’t want to be outdone. “On the mountain, a ridge and a lake!  I mean, two lakes!  A ridge and two lakes!”

“Two lakes?” The king made a face. “Color me skeptical.”

“Aw, sire!”  The swineherds exchanged hurt looks, and the first one cleared his throat before continuing.  “We thought you’d be pleased with our information and maybe shower us with riches and maybe a peerage perhaps?  I mean, why would we lie about having seen lakes?”

Mallolwch stroked his chin. “A fair point.”

“Oh!  Oh!”  The second swineherd suddenly recollected another mountain/forest/ridge/lake/lake fact.  “And it was moving!  The whole thing was moving!”

The court fell quiet at that last pronouncement. I mean, what more was there to say?  The swineherds’ news cast a real pall over the assembly.

Eventually Mallolwch broke the silence. “Well, that doesn’t seem like a good thing. Sounds Welsh, if you ask me.”

The court rumbled that surely this was indeed some filthy Welsh plot.

 

“I’d ask my wife about it, since she’s an expert in all things Welsh, but she and I aren’t on speaking terms right now.” Mallolwch glared at an especially anti-Branwen courtier, who reddened and quickly turned his attention to his mead.

“What shall we do, sire?”

He considered. “You swineherds, she doesn’t have anything against you. You go talk to her.”

So the swineherds found Branwen in the kitchen at the roll-baking table, probably singing “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone” with her magical tame birds.  They asked her about the mountain and the forest and the lake and the other lake and everything moving, and of course she was easily able to explain.

“Brace yourselves, though,” she warned them.  “This explanation is a doozy.”

BRANWEN’S EXPLANATION

  • The forest is the masts and yardarms of a fleet of Welsh ships, come to invade Ireland.
  • The mountain is my brother Bran. Did you know he’s a giant? He’s a giant.
  • He’s so big he doesn’t fit in boats, much like Andre the Giant and Japanese bathrooms.  So he has to wade across the sea.
  • The ridge and lakes are his nose and eyes.
  • That’s how big he is. He’s so big his eyes are mistaken for lakes.
  • You people are fucked.

The swineherds reported this back to Mallolwch, although they cleaned up the language a bit. The Irish courtiers closed ranks and held a quick meeting, wherein they voted to retreat.

See, in Ireland at the time, there was this convenient magical river. It had a bridge across it, and that was fine, but also it was lined with magnets. Magnets can do anything, y’know? In this case they made the river unfordable. Thanks to magnets, you couldn’t swim across it and you couldn’t wade across it.

Magnets!  They’re like magic, according to the Maboginion.

The Irish court, Mallolwch and all the rest, they crossed the river via the bridge, and then they tore the bridge down. Sure, it meant abandoning the eastern part of Ireland to the invading Welsh horde, but they figured they’d be safe on the west side of this impassable river.  The text is ambiguous as to whether Branwen went them, or if they left her behind.  Left behind seems more likely to me, but I can certainly imagine a case for Mallolwch hauling her along.

Bran and his troops landed, crossed the evacuated eastern area, and arrived at the river.

“Well, shoot,” the troops said. “I guess we’re stuck. May as well go back home.”

“Nonsense!” cried Bran. “You forget, I’m huge! We need a bridge? I’ll be a bridge!” This is the origin, the Mabinogion tells us, of the familiar expression let a chief be a bridge. Which is some idiom I’m sure we all use daily.

Anyway, Bran planted his feet on the eastern back, bent at the waist, and leaned forward until he caught the western bank with his hands. Ergo, human bridge. The Welsh troops marched across his back, and then came the big Irish-Welsh showdown!

NEXT: THE IRISH SURRENDER ALMOST IMMEDIATELY!

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Primary Sources: the Mabinogion 7 (the amazingly inconspicuous starling)

Some time went by. Mallolwch and Branwen, as king and queen of Ireland, sang and danced and made merry and before too long they had a son, Gwern. And for a while everything was cool!

But then, after a couple of years, all the Irish nobles started to grumble. It wasn’t just that Branwen was awesome and made all the Irish women feel bad about themselves. It wasn’t just that Mallolwch wouldn’t shut up about Bran and how great he was vis-a-vis the Black Cauldron. It was also that Branwen’s jerk brother mutilated a bunch of horses two years ago! Stupid horse-mutilator. Stupid horse-mutilator’s sister!  Mallolwch was on Branwen’s side, but sticking up for his wife became less and less politically viable each day.

I’m reminded of the dynamic between Sir Tristram and the Irish court in le Morte d’Arthur.  In that tale, King Anguish, Arthur’s vassal, liked Tristram .  In fact Anguish wanted him to marry Anguish’s daughter Isoud.  But Isoud’s mother (also named Isoud) and her brothers, cousins, and nephews were all strong anti-Tristram partisans on account of Tristram killed Isoud’s brother.  Isoud the mother, not Isoud the daughter.  It happened in a fair and legal jousting situation, but they nevertheless held a grudge.  And they held a great deal of political power: Anguish sat uneasily on his throne.  Eventually he had to choose between keeping Tristram around and staying king of Ireland.  No hard feelings, though; Tristram later acted as Anguish’s judicial champion in an elaborate scheme to embarrass or kill one or both of them, perpetrated by some of Arthur’s French knights.

But I digress.  You can go look this all up, if want.

Eventually the Irish courtiers grew daring!  They forced Branwen out of her royal chambers and forced her to act as a scullery-maid and cook, serving all the court. Mallolwch didn’t like it maybe, but like Anguish before him (after him?  At the same time but over on the far side of Ireland?) Mallolwch saw the way his political winds were blowing and he went along with it. Maybe he even joined into the abuse and beat Branwen up!  Sources aren’t clear.

“But you know guys, when Bran hears that we’ve been abusing his sister like this, he’s not going to be happy,” Mallolwch pointed out.

“No problemo!” The courtiers had anticipated this concern.  “All we do is, we impound every ship that would travel from Ireland to Wales! He won’t be mad about it, because he won’t even know!”

At least three years went by like this, with Ireland under lockdown and Branwen the put-upon Cinderella of the Irish court. We know it had to have been three years, apparently, because that is how long it takes to do what Branwen did next: teach a starling to carry a message to Wales. According to the Mabinogion, that’s a three-year project.  It may have taken extra time because she had to do it on the sly, in between baking batches of rolls.

So, she trained a bird to deliver a message. Bird flew to Wales, found Bran in his court at Caernarvon, and landed on his shoulder.  I’m pretty sure that every time Bran’s court is mentioned in this story, it’s in a different place.  Maybe it was a moveable feast?

Bran did not notice the starling on this shoulder immediately. Maybe he and his knights were playing cards, or something.  Bird flapped its wings, trying to get his attention.

Bran did not notice.

Bird started singing, right in Bran’s ear.

Nothing.

Bird started pecking him. Finally Bran noticed! Not only did he spot the starling, screeching in his ear and pecking at his throat and jumping up and down on his shoulder, the masterfully observant Bran noticed Branwen’s attached letter. He read the letter, and finally it dawned on him that all of his cards and letters and boxes of brownies and stuff that he’d sent his sister over the last three years had never reached her. So naturally he was pissed, and the only thing for it was to invade Ireland. Bran left about a dozen of his men in Wales, and led the rest to attack.

NEXT: BRAN WALKS TO IRELAND!

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Primary Sources: the Mabinogion 6 (the Black Cauldron)

When we left off, Bran (king of Britain) was offering a gift to Mallolwch (king of Ireland).

“The Black Cauldron?”

“The Black Cauldron! It’s magic!” Bran saw further explanations would be necessary. “Say you have a corpse, okay?”

“Sure.”

“Fresh corpse, it’s got to be fresh. Dead body, what’re you going to do? Can’t labor, can’t fight, all it can do is lie there and be dead.”

Mallolwch nodded. “Okay.”

“You take this cauldron, see, you throw the dead body into it, let simmer overnight, and boom, the body comes kind of back to life!”

“Kind of back to life?” Mallolwch asked skeptically.

“100% completely kind of back to life! It can fight again! It can’t talk, but otherwise, good as new.”

Mallolwch was pretty pleased with the present, and he and Bran and all their people drank and partied well into the night afterwards, as horses were transferred over and reparations paid.

#

In the morning Mallolwch asked Bran where, exactly, Bran had obtained a magic undead-servant-making cauldron.

“Funny you should ask! I got it off an Irish guy, actually. Llassar Llaes Gynwyd – you know, ol’ Lassy – and his wife emigrated from Ireland and brought the cauldron with them. They said, jeez, something about being trapped in a big metal box that was heated white-hot such that they couldn’t bear to touch it? I didn’t really listen. Anyway. I’m actually a little surprised you aren’t familiar with the cauldron, it being Irish originally.”

“Yeah, about that. I actually know Lassy and his wife. They’re giants, right?”

“I didn’t mention it, but yes, they are like ten and twenty feet tall, ish.  So if that counts as giant, then sure.”

Mallolwch nodded.  “So, a few years ago I was out, and I met them, and what with one thing and another I ended up inviting them to my court. I mean, they were magic giants and Kymidei Kymeinvoll, that’s Lassy’s wife, Kimmy was pregnant. Not with a baby, she was pregnant with a man in plate armor with a sword and a shield and a helmet. Full grown man.”

“Impressive!”

“I know, right? So anyway, having them at court was fun at first but it got old. They ate huge amounts and they were kind of dicks about it, and there was maybe some raping and pillaging that they did, even after we asked them not to.”

Bran clucked his tongue sympathetically.

“So we ended up building this big metal house, and putting a feast in it, and telling them it was their house, and while they were inside eating we locked them in and then started heating the house up with a bonfire underneath it? We had bellows going and everything.”

“What happened? I mean, clearly they didn’t burn to death.”

“When the walls of the metal house were white-hot, Lassy tore it down by slamming into it with his shoulder. You know how white-hot metals are more liable to getting bent and shaped? He just used his body for it.”

“Huh.” Bran shook his head in wonder. “Small world! I guess he came to my court after getting kicked out of yours.”

“I got to say, we had good reason to kick him out. And this story does not explain even a little bit where this cauldron came from, so, there’s that. Anyway, have Kimmy or Lassy or their kids been trouble for you?”

“Not even a little bit! They’re all the time multiplying and building stockades and fortifying my territory for me.”

“Well, all’s well that ends well.”

#

After another day or two, Mallolwch and the Irish delegation, with new horses and also Branwen, Mallolwch’s new wife, returned to Ireland. Bran also gave them little trinkets and baubles; not an Irishman left his court without a brooch or jeweled pin or gold-leaf amulet or something.

And things were pretty okay for several years! Then some stuff went down, which we’ll get to, but trust me when I say that none of it has anything to do with Lassy and Kimmy and their giant children. This whole story has just been a waste, in terms of advancing the Bran/Branwen/Mallolwch plot.

Also at no point is the Black Cauldron referred to by that name; it’s just “the cauldron” or “the cauldron of rebirth.”  But I can’t bear to call it anything else, and c’mon, you can’t either probably.

 

NEXT: DID I MENTION BRAN WAS LIKE FIFTY FEET TALL?  NO?  BECAUSE I’M PRETTY SURE I DID!

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Primary Sources: the Mabinogion 5 (Branwen Daughter of Lir)

Bran the Blessed, son of Llyr (pronounced Lir, apparently) was king of all of Great Britain once upon a time. He hung out on a beach with his brother and two half-brothers, Manawydan, Nissyen, and Evnissyen. Nissyen was a good kid and a peacemaker, which was good, because Evnissyen was a real jerk.

Suddenly, thirteen Irish ships appeared! Bran and all his guys went down to the dock and met the travelers, who came to them in little boats.

“Hey there, fellas,” said Bran to the travelers. “Are you guys invading? Is this an invasion?”

“What? No!” The Irish visitors seemed a little offended at the idea. “We’re here on behalf of our king, King Mallolwch (pronounced mahl o look, maybe?). He’s on one of these ships, but he’s shy.”

“Is he Welsh? He sounds Welsh.”

“Despite having a very Welsh-sounding name, he is Irish. Mallolwch has a proposal for you, in two parts. But it’s all or nothing. You can’t agree to one half and not the other.”

“Lay it on me,” said Bran.

“Mallolwch wants to marry your sister, and also he wants to enter into a high-level alliance. Ireland and Great Britain, shoulder to shoulder!”

“That sounds reasonable as an opening gambit,” allowed Bran. “Let’s all go back to my place and drink and hash this out.”

So that happened, and even though Branwen was ranked number one for beauty among her people, and in the top three overall, Bran went ahead and married her off to Mallolwch. They had a nice big wedding, it was great but not especially compelling plotwise.

The next day everybody was cleaning up and sorting their things, and then Evnissyen (the jerk) decided to pick a fight. He hadn’t been invited to the wedding, because no one liked him, and when he discovered a bunch of Irish horses in the stable and Irish luggage on the patio and so on, he swore and – in another act of unexpected animal cruelty – took his aggression out on the horses. These poor defenseless Irish horses he sliced up right a razor blade, until they weren’t pretty no more, no, they were disfigured.

The Irish grooms quickly ran to tell Malollwch, who decided that Bran’s people were crazy. One minute they were giving him a hot wife, the next they were abusing his horses!

“Screw this,” he said, and left.

#

When Bran found out the Irish delegation had packed up and left, he sent his best guys Iddig and Heveydd after them to talk. This was a different Heveydd than in the last story: that was Heveydd the Old, this is Heveydd the Tall. Iddig and Heveydd caught up to the Irish group as they were loading their stuff back on their ships, and asked what was what.

“Disfigured horses is what!” cried Mallolwch. “Never let it be said that Mallolwch the Welsh-sounding Irish king ever sat around and tolerated it while his supposed friends and in-laws mutilated his horses! I mean, c’mon, what’d you expect?”

“But –”

“Land sakes, I’d think that you’d insult me first, before giving me a hot wife, if that was your plan. Otherwise, how am I supposed to take it?”

“But nobody authorized the mutilation of your horses! Bran is, right now, going around and shouting angrily at everybody who is covered in even a little bit of horse blood.”

“Even so, it’s a dick move.”

#

The messengers returned to Bran and relayed Mallolwch’s message. Meanwhile Bran had questioned Evnissyen (the jerk) and learned what had happened.

“Okay, well, he’s right to be upset, but if he leaves now then I’ll have married my sister to him for nothing, and she’s in the top three ladies of these islands. So go back and tell him whatever he needs to hear.”

Heveydd and a couple of other guys rode back to the docks (Iddig sat this one out). There, the Irish delegation was just finishing their loading. Heveydd apologized on Bran’s behalf, explaining that everybody hated Evnissyen (the jerk) but he was a prince and so hard to control. Then Heveydd offered brand new, AAA-grade, top end horses, one to replace each of the horses that had been so cruelly sliced up. When Mallolwch hesitated, Heveydd threw in a generous cash bonus, silver for each horse too.

Mallolwch huddled up with his advisors and they agreed on the following points.

  • They came all this way with the goal of making an alliance with Bran, so leaving like this ran counter to their aims.
  • Bran’s offer was a generous one, and they were unlikely to negotiate a better reparation.
  • If they refused the offer, in fact, they were going to come across as jerks.

Mallolwch didn’t want to be thought a jerk, so he ordered the ships be unloaded, again, and returned to Bran’s court with all his people.

“I feel just awful about this whole thing,” Bran told him as soon as they’d arrived.

“It’s okay. I have jerk relatives, too.”

“Well, since you married into the family, he’s your jerk relative also!” And Bran and Mallolwch shared a merry laugh.  At least, Bran laughed.  Mallolwch just gave kind of a strained, forced smile.

Bran’s face was a mask of sympathy.  “Mallolwch, buddy, are you okay with this?”

Mallolwch started to nod, and then sighed heavily.  “I know you’re being really generous by compensating me both with new horses and with the cash value of the horses that were mutilated.  I should be fine with it.  It’s okay.”

Bran didn’t like the pall the whole thing had cast on what was meant to be a merry occasion.  “Seriously though, I want to make it up to you.”

“Your offer of money plus replacement horses is more than fair,” Mallolwch assured him.  “I know that.”

But Bran wouldn’t hear it! “No, no, let me make this right. Let me give you something cool.” Bran led Mallolwch over to a side area, and pointed at a large… thing… that his people were even then in the process of setting up. “Please, accept this gift!”

“Uh, sure. What is it?”

“We call it the Black Cauldron!”

NEXT: NOT MAN OF CAULDRON BORN!

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Primary Sources: the Mabnogion 4 (Piggyback rides?)

Three years later, Pwyll and Guy were out fishing together, just shooting the breeze.

“Hey, Pwyll.”

“Hey, Guy. How’s tricks?”

“Fine. Listen, there’s a reason I summoned you here, away from your wife and court, out to Presseleu.”

Pwyll’s face fell. “You mean we’re not just going to fish and drink beer?”

“No, no, we are. We definitely are. But, dude, there’s this other thing…”

“Out with it.”

Guy winced, because he didn’t want to just spring this on Pwyll. “Rhiannon’s barren.”

“What? No, she’s not, and also, what business is it of yours? Jeez, Guy!” Pwyll’s voice hit a higher register, he was so agitated.

“It’s been three years and y’all have not had a kid. No son, no daughter. You’ve got to think about the future.” Guy gestured grandly towards the sky. “What about Guy Junior and little Guyette? Who will be their king, when you and I are gone?”

Pwyll shook his head. “Guy…”

“Just take a second wife. That’s all I’m saying. There’s a bunch of wenches around. Knock one of them up!”

“No!” Pwyll would have none of it. “I love Rhiannon and I don’t want another woman!”

“C’mon, Pwyll. Get real.”

“No, you get real! You get more respectful!” Pwyll groused, but couldn’t deny Guy had kind of a point. “One year. That’s how long everything takes. Give me a year to get Rhiannon pregnant. Until then, we didn’t have this discussion.”

“All right, boss, if that’s how you want to play it.”

#

Less than a year later, Rhiannon and Pwyll had a son, whom they named Pryderi, so I don’t know what the point of that scene was, exactly. Pryderi was half-magic, since his mother was from a magic kingdom, and he was dreadfully adorable with a mop of blonde hair, like Sparkle Plenty or Bonnie Braids.

To keep him safe Rhiannon and Pwyll went to fairly ludicrous extremes. First, the kid was basically never out of Rhiannon’s sight. Secondly, when Rhiannon had to sleep, she had six of her handmaidens stand around Pyrderi’s crib, in a circle, watching him.

Despite this, somehow, shortly after his birth Pryderi disappeared! I know, it makes no sense, but go with me. Somehow the six handmaidens worked themselves into a tizzy, because the disappearance happened on their watch.

“What will we do? What will we do?” wailed one.

“Rhiannon will have us burned to death for losing her son!” sobbed another.

“We’re the worst handmaidens ever!” cried a third.

That gave the fourth an idea. “Worst handmaidens ever, eh?” she said. “What if it was Rhiannon who was the worst mother ever? What if she murdered her little boy?”

“She didn’t, though,” said the fifth.

The sixth, however, saw where the fourth was coming from. Working quickly, the handmaidens got some pig’s blood, and splashed it on Rhiannon’s face and hands, and took the bones of a puppy and scattered them around the room. Then they tore at one another, as though they’d been struggling, and then they woke Rhiannon up. Rhiannon was a very sound sleeper I guess.

“Where’s my son?” Rhiannon asked, as she always did, first thing, upon waking.

Rather than hand the baby to her, however, the handmaidens pointed and wailed. “We tried to stop you! In your sleepwalking state you were overcome with a kind of madness and supernatural strength! There was nothing we could do!”

“What?”

“We tried! We tried so hard!”

“Are you… are you lying to me? Why are you lying to me? Just tell me the truth, it’s okay. Where’s Pyrderi?”

#

CUT TO an impromptu trial, where Pwyll, Guy, and all the assembled folk of Arbeth sat in judgement over Rhiannon. The evidence against her seemed damning: the testimony of the six handmaidens, plus the blood, plus the puppy bones. Rhiannon fervently denied having killed and eaten her own son, but could offer nothing exculpatory. Pwyll didn’t care; she said she hadn’t done it and that was good enough for him. However the folk of Arbeth refused to let Rhiannon’s supposed crime go unpunished.

Her nonsensical sentence, since Pwyll vetoed harsher punishments like execution or exile, was that she had to spend seven years sitting at the entrance to Arbeth. Whenever a stranger came to the town, she was obliged to explain that she’d murdered her own baby, and therefore as punishment she had to offer anyone who wanted one a piggyback ride. Hardly anyone ever wanted a piggyback ride because that was weird, though.

I don’t get it either.

Meanwhile Pyrderi of course hadn’t died, he’d been abducted by a monster. Said monster also abducted a colt every May Eve, from this one farm family. The year that the monster stole the baby just happened to be the same year that the farmer whose colts kept getting stolen had decided enough was enough.

So when the monster tried to steal a colt that year, Teirnon (that was the farmer’s name) was waiting, with a sword. How a farmer had a sword? Unexplained! But Teirnon sliced the monster’s arm off, driving him away, and also the monster dropped the wee baby Pyrderi.

“Hey, look, a baby,” said Teirnon. He showed his wife. “See? It’s wrapped up in silk brocade, so it’s probably a royal baby.”

“Free baby!” cried Teirnon’s wife, and so this lowly farm couple raised the secret prince. He was still half-magic, with shining hair, so they called him Gwri Golden Hair (pronounced Goo-rey, if I’m not mistaken).

Pyrderi grew up fast! That is, on his first birthday he turned six, and on his second birthday he turned nine, and on his third birthday he turned twelve.

“I’m a little concerned about Gwri,” Teirnon said. “Not because he’s aging so quickly, because as soon as he’s an adult he’ll pretty much stop aging entirely, I assume.”

“Then what is it?”

“Well, now that our three-year-old adoptive son is twelve, I can’t help but notice he’s the spitting image of our lord, Pwyll, whose infant son was supposedly slain three years ago.”

“You think we should tell him?”

“I do.”

“But what if we’re arrested and executed for rearing royal property?”

“That won’t happen,” Teirnon assured his wife. “Because we did nothing wrong! We raised Gwri the best we could, and he loves us as dearly as any boy ever loved his parents.”

So Teirnon and his wife and Gwri went to Arbeth, where Rhiannon had to offer to give them piggyback rides, which weirded them out, and then eventually Gwri’s identity as Pyrderi was established and Rhiannon’s sentence was thrown out. No word on what happened to the handmaidens.

And that’s the implausible story of Pwyll, Lord of Devydd!

NEXT: A FISHER KING!

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A brief note on podcasts

I recently started listening to some new podcasts.  That statement is almost always true, because my podcast consumption is constantly churning as I get tired of the remarkable lack of insight in Slate’s Political Gabfest or I realize that I haven’t actually listened to an episode of the Splendid Table in months, or what have you.  And so when my collection of podcasts has winnowed down to the point where I don’t have anything I want to listen to while I walk the dogs, vacuum, buy groceries, et cetera, I search out some new ones.

But I’ve enjoyed some stuff recently!  If you like things, maybe these are things you’ll like! I just started these recently, is why I picked these to describe and not others.

The Adventure Zone is a D&D game which differs from most podcasted D&D games by being really well-edited.  I don’t know how long they play to get two one-hour episodes, but I’m guessing it’s at least three full hours, maybe four.  The players are a father and three sons, the McElroy family; the youngest brother runs the game and the others play Merle the dwarf cleric, Taco the very stupid wizard, and the fighter whose name I have forgotten (I could look it up but I’m not going to).  The McElroy brothers have another podcast called My Brother, My Brother, and Me which is general-interest comedy.  Though I’ve never really gotten into it, I’m guessing that years of editing acumen have been honed on the My Brother whetstone and are only now being turned to a pastime notorious for squeezing twenty minutes of fun into four hours of play.  It’s got the occasional dick or fart joke, which isn’t my thing, but that’s the exception rather than the rule.

Worldbuilder’s Anvil is an odd duck and I’m not sure if I ought to be recommending it.  In a typical ten or fifteen minute episode, creator Jeffrey W. Ingram discusses a single very specific aspect of creating a fantasy setting (for your D&D game or novel), then suggests you write a love note to your spouse and hide it somewhere they’ll find it, so it’ll brighten your day.  In the dozen episodes he’s released since the start of 2015, he’s hit topics with a lot of unstated assumptions, which I can sum up by saying his process looks like it will eventually result in something more like a game of Sid Meier’s Civilization than Middle-Earth.  Worldbuilding, as a topic, interests me, and it’s something that I haven’t heard other podcasts address.

I already mentioned Slate’s Political Gabfest aka How Is It These Professionals Have Such Unconsidered Opinions?, but I will recommend Slate Presents Lexicon Valley because it has Bob Garfield (of On the Media, which if you aren’t already familiar with then you and I are probably interested in different podcasts) and unlike on On the Media, Garfield swears a lot.  Which surprises me every time I hear it.

And now to close, a list of all the podcasts I’m subscribed to, according to the app on my phone:

  1. Ask Me Another (the other public-radio quiz show)
  2. Escape Pod (SFF shorts; I have a huge backlog of these to listen to)
  3. Go Bayside! (defunct podcast about Saved by the Bell that I didn’t really like so I don’t know why I listened to every episode)
  4. Guild Wars Players News (I picked a GW2 podcast at random in hopes of learning what had happened in the game in the last year or so; this was the week before the announcement of the Heart of Thorns expansion)
  5. Harmontown (round-table comedy discussion; Dan Harmon created Community and I have a fundamentally unhealthy interest in Community)
  6. I Should Be Writing (Mur Lafferty reminds me that I should be writing)
  7. Jimquisition (round-table discussion of the week in video game news, I think? I just picked it up recently)
  8. Jordan, Jesse, Go! (I didn’t know I was subscribed to this.)
  9. Judge John Hodgman (probably the most consistently high-quality comedy podcast I know of; rarely my favorite but never terrible)
  10. Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff (still more round-table discussion, this time just two guys, and about topics of interest to enthusiasts of the kind of RPGs published by Pelgrane Press)
  11. Movie Fighters (it’s the only podcast available in which some guys watch a bad movie and talk about it)
  12. NPR: Bullseye with Jesse Thorn (an earnest man interviews people about pop culture)
  13. Obvious Logic (something something liberalism; maybe defunct; done by a couple of people I used to know in Boston)
  14. On the Media (mandatory public-radio media criticism)
  15. Planet Money (haven’t I unsubscribed in disgust from this yet?  Oh yes, I have like three times, and yet I keep coming back)
  16. Pop Culture Happy Hour (fun round-table discussion of current pop culture)
  17. Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men (exactly what it sounds like, two people discuss topics in the X-Men 1963-present)
  18. RPG Design PanelCast (the best way I know of to hear Rob Donogue discuss RPGs)
  19. Serial (defunct true-crime)
  20. Slate Presents Lexicon Valley (vide supra)
  21. Slate’s Politcal Gabfest (vide supra)
  22. Slate’s Serial Spoiler Specials (defunct discussion of Serial, the defunct true-crime podcast)
  23. System Mastery (not always well-informed discussion of old small-press RPGs, mostly horrible ones)
  24. the Adventure Zone (vide supra)
  25. Canon Puncture (round-table RPG discussion, maybe defunct)
  26. Dead Authors Podcast (comedy podcast starring Paul F. Tompkins as H.G. Wells interviewing [comedian] as [dead author]; uneven)
  27. Dinner Party Download (basically the same as Bullseye)
  28. Drabblecast (see Escape Pod)
  29. the Dungeons and Dragons Podcast (I actually have not listened to this in over a year I think)
  30. the Pod F. Tompkast (defunct Paul F. Tompkins comedy podcast)
  31. the Splendid Table (cooking show I have listened to maybe two episodes of in the last year, maybe)
  32. the Tobolowsky Files (autobiographical storytelling from an accomplished character actor; maybe defunct)
  33. the Tome Show (actually like six podcasts in one; I’m on one of them regularly; they’re all about D&D in some way)
  34. the Walking Eye podcast (defunct RPG round-table discussion)
  35. This American Life (the killer app for podcasts)
  36. This Feels Terrible (see Harmontown)
  37. Thrilling Adventure Hour (uneven comedy podcast that made me a fan of Annie Savage of all people)
  38. Twenty Sided Diecast (round-table discussion of video games)
  39. War Rocket Ajax (comics discussion)
  40. Welcome to Night Vale (uneven surreal comedy-horror, super uneven, did I say it was uneven?)
  41. Wiretap from CBC Radio (Canadian depression comedy)
  42. Wits (the other public-radio comedy and music variety show recorded in Minnesota)
  43. Worldbuilder’s Anvil (vide supra)

In my defense I did not realize there were so many.  Those in bold are the ones that I prioritize whenever I have to choose which to hear first.

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