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.”
- 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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