A new story! “The Dream of Rhonabwy,” and man is it a doozy. This story differs from most of the rest of the Mabinogion in several key respects; it was written later, it was written in a different part of Wales, and its entire theme and tone are different. This is an episode of Newsradio found among the Complete WKRP in Cincinnati.
Once upon at time in the late 12th century in the land of Powys in northeastern Wales there were two brothers: Madawc, the king of Powys, and his brother Iorwerth. Iorwerth was dreadfully jealous of his brother and the many honors accorded the king of Powys, and complained incessantly to all their relatives.
Madawc offered to make Iorwerth his seneschal, Master of the House, Kay to Madawc’s Arthur. “They were brothers, too, you know,” he said.
But Iorwerth declined this, thinking it would be charity and demeaning and ultimately work against Iorwerth obtaining the glories he wanted. So instead he became a bandit, and invaded Powys’s neighbor Loegria with a rogue force.
“Well obviously that’s not cool,” said Madawc. He and his knights got together and scoured all three of the counties in Powys, searching for Iorwreth. Long story short, they didn’t find him.
One of the men on this quest was Rhonabwy, the hero of this tale. He and some of his fellow searchers were out searching one day, and as they came across a particularly remote and run-down old house a storm came up, trapping them within. The people in the house, a witch and a black guy and a skinny white girl, fed them and offered them appropriate hospitality, which they accepted on account of the storm.
The hospitality the trio of peasants offered Rhonabwy and the other knights kind of sucked, even if it was appropriate: a worn sofa that was basically just a tattered rug over a pile of straw. And not even good straw! It was all stemmy because the cattle had gotten into it, which I didn’t even know was a thing but apparently so.
Rhonabwy and his companions reluctantly accepted the hospitality (the alternative was sleeping in the mud and rain outside) and eventually the fleas got tired to biting them and went to sleep, and the knights went to sleep too. Except for Rhonabwy, who couldn’t find a way to make a vermin-infested chewed straw couch comfortable. He got up and paced around the decrepit old house, looking for someplace else to lie down. Eventually he settled with just sleeping sprawled out on the floor, which at least wouldn’t have stems digging into his back. But then he saw a yellow calfskin rug spread out at the opposite end of the house from the end with all the people. He figured that would be at least as comfortable as sleeping on the floor directly, and so he lay down and went to sleep.
And asleep, he dreamed – oh, how he did dream! This story is called “the Dream of Rhonabwy,” so you know this dream is a big deal.
In the dream, Rhonabwy and his companions journeyed across a totally different portion of Wales, while a strange knight chased them. This strange knight was well-dressed, with gold edging in his armor and satin dyed green and yellow, and his horse was also in green and yellow satin.
The stranger was so very well-dressed and fit-looking and heroic that Rhonabwy and his companions were all deeply terrified. They fled across the plains at high speed, but couldn’t evade the stranger; he rode them down and they stopped and they surrendered.
“Mercy! Mercy!” begged Rhonabwy, because this was a dream and Rhonabwy was certain (the way one sometimes is in dreams) that this knight was far too mighty for Rhonabwy and his companions to fight.
The stranger laughed an eerie booming laugh, and accepted their surrender.
Rhonabwy thanked the stranger for his kindness, and politely asked his name, the better to understand who had spared them.
“I am Iddawc ap Mynyo, but you can call me Sir Corth, as that’s the name by which I’m best-known.”
“Corth?” Rhonabwy repeated, confused, for ‘Corth’ was an Anglicization of a Welsh word meaning churn or hammer or thresher or more generally thing you break things with.
“Indeed yes, for I’m called the Breaker of Britain, for what I did during le Morte d’Arthur Book XXI Chapter 4. It was I who, when King Arthur called for a peace talk with his son the usurper Mordred, drew weapons and incited the talks to break down into violence, leading to the last and greatest battle.”
“What? Why’d you do that?” asked Rhonabwy. Also Sir Thomas Malory claimed that the summit failed when a knight thought he saw a literal viper attacking him, and drew a sword to cut its head off, and everyone mistook that for a hostile act, but okay, if Sir Corth wants to take credit for it, fine.
“I was young and drunk on power and bloodlust and also wine,” said Corth. “Afterwards I went to a lake in Carmarthenshire, out in the middle of nowhere, and lived as a hermit for seven years, until I was forgiven. So everything’s cool, now.”
“Okay, so long as everything’s cool.” Rhonabwy had more questions, but he was interrupted by a distant trumpet, which heralded the appearance of yet another knight onto the plains.
This knight was even more heroic and scary-looking than Sir Corth. He was all in red satin and yellow silk, dyed bright colors, him and his horse both. He rode with mad speed across the plains and in moments he was right up on Corth and Rhonabwy.
“Corth!” he boomed, without introduction. “I want some of your fairy companions!”
“Okay sure,” Corth said easily. “Take them with my blessing.” And then Rhonabwy noticed that there were a dozen or so little gnomes perched on Corth’s tack and saddle. About half of them climbed down off of Corth’s horse and onto the yellow-and-red-clad knight’s.
As this new knight turned and rode off, Rhonabwy scratched his head in confusion. “Corth,” he asked, “who the hell was that?”
“Him?” sniffed Corth. “Just Sir Rhuvawn. He taught me how to use magic to make myself invincible in combat, so I suppose he thought I owed him. Anyway, let’s go on to Arthur’s camp.”
“Wait,” said Rhonabwy as Corth started off. “Arthur’s camp? Wouldn’t he be dead, if this is seven years after Arthur’s final battle with Mordred? Also, were we traveling companions? Weren’t you chasing me? Me, and my friends, who…” Rhonabwy trailed off, as the plains now were bare of knights excepting himself and Corth. “This is a strange dream I’m having.”
“Probably,” agreed Corth.
Scene change! Rhonabwy and Corth arrived at Arthur’s camp on the banks of the Severn river. It would have taken an hour to walk around it, so full and large was it. Tents and campfires and cabins and lots of shouting. At the edge of the camp, on a low island out on the Severn, Rhonabwy met King Arthur, as he played chess with his nephew, Sir Uwaine, whom you might remember from le Morte d’Arthur Book IX in particular. Also there was a bishop there, just hanging out.
“Corth!” cried Arthur, rising as they approached. “You’ve returned at last. And you’ve brought friends!”
“Greetings, sire…” began Rhonabwy, but Arthur wasn’t talking about him.
“Little fairy men! Hello!” Arthur waved at the gnomes ensconced among Corth’s tack. “Wherever did you find these, Corth?”
“Oh, just by the side of the road somewhere…” Corth trailed off when Arthur burst out laughing. “Sire?”
“I wasn’t laughing,” Arthur said quickly, and coughed.
“This is a really strange dream,” muttered Rhonabwy to himself.
“Indeed,” agreed Corth. “You see that magic ring Arthur’s wearing? The one on his left hand?”
“What about it?”
“It’s only through the magic of that ring that you’re able to remember any of this dream,” explained Corth.
“Ah,” said Rhonabwy. “That makes sense. No, wait, it doesn’t.” He was about to protest further, but another distant trumpet sounded, distracting him. He turned, and saw a whole series of armies approaching Arthur’s camp. “Corth, what’s happening?”
“We’re at Book IV Chapter 2 of le Morte d’Arthur,” explained Corth. “The five-king alliance that Arthur defeated in battle, securing his throne from external threats.”
“But wait, that battle was on the banks of the Humber, and this is the Severn,” murmured Rhonabwy.
“Doesn’t matter. That group there are Welsh,” Corth said, pointing. “And those are Irish, and those are Norse, and those guys over there are Danish.”
Rhonabwy and Corth found a high point, to watch the battle. It was, as might be expected, a total victory for Arthur’s side.
“Hold on,” Rhonabwy asked his spirit guide at one point. “Are Arthur’s troops fleeing? It looks like they’re fleeing!”
“They’re not fleeing,” Corth assured him. “Anyone tells you Arthur’s troops flee, they’re lying. It only looks like they’re fleeing because they’re getting out of Sir Kay’s way.”
“Arthur’s brother. He basically wins this battle single-handedly. Watch!” Corth pointed as, indeed, Sir Kay rode down the entire five-king army and slew them more or less all by himself.
“I’m beginning to doubt the historicity of this dream,” muttered Rhonabwy.
“If it helps,” said Corth, “I can tell you that fellow there? The one holding Arthur’s sword for him? That’s his half-brother Sir Cador, or Kadwr if you’re Welsh. It’s his job to hold Excalibur when Arthur isn’t using it.”
Then Arthur and Sir Uwaine finished their chess match, while sitting together on a magic carpet square that made whoever sat on it invisible. Arthur declined to advance his knights or his bishops or his rooks, instead moving up his ravens to attack Uwaine’s pawns.
Off the board, in the camp, Uwaine’s squires shrieked as birds flew down from the sky and began pecking them.
“Is that fair?” asked Uwaine.
“As King Arthur, I decree it is,” Arthur said.
One of Uwaine’s squires ran over to the chess game and begged Arthur to call off his ravens. “It’s just part of the game,” said Arthur.
“You heard the man,” Uwaine told the squire. “Go fight ravens. Raise the banner!”
So the squire went back to where a medieval Welsh version of the Birds was still going on, and raised a banner, and that inspired the humans to fight back against the birds, and there was a pitched battle that the birds (Arthur) won and the humans (Uwaine) lost.
But then in the next game they switched sides and Arthur’s humans lost to Uwaine’s ravens. The human knights all pleaded with Arthur to end the crazy magical game that led to bird-on-man violence, but Arthur and Uwaine continued the game.
Finally a very well-dressed knight rode up, all in black and purple, with silver arms and gemstones in his helmet (which was shaped like a griffin). “I’m here because magical birds have slain my sons and the sons of all the households on my island!” he cried. “End this dreadful game!”
“Fine, fine,” said Arthur. He scooped up the chessboard and crushed it to dust in his hands. Then the banner Uwaine had ordered raised was lowered, and the war between birds and humans was over.
“Sorry, what just happened?” Rhonabwy asked Corth.
“It seemed pretty straightforward to me,” said Corth. “I can give you the names of the parties involved, if it helps.
CORTH’S LIST OF THE NAMES OF THE PARTIES INVOLVED
Uwaine’s First Batch of Men:
Selyv ap Kynan Garwyn
Gwres ap Rheged
Arthur’s First Batch of Men:
Blathaon ap Mawrtheth
Rhuvawn Pebyr ap Deorthach, who claimed half of Corth’s fairies earlier
And the Rest:
Gwarthegyd ap Caw (who is also #83 on the big list in Culhwch and Olwen)
March ap Meirchawn
Caradawg Vreichvras (#65 on the big list in Culhwch and Olwen)
Gwalchmai ap Gwyar
Edern whose father was also Nodens (#15 on the big list in Culhwch and Olwen)
Rhuvawn Pebyr ap Deorthach, again
Rhiogan, prince of Ireland
Gwenwynwyn ap Nav (#44)
Howel ap Emyr Llydaw
Gwilym the prince of France
Daned ap Ath
Mabon ap Modron, super-houndsman
Peredur Paladyr Hir
Hyveidd Unllenn, again
Twrch ap Perif, not a magic pig monster, just a guy with the same first name
Nerth ap Kadarn
Gobrwy ap Echel Vorddwyttwll
Gwair ap Gwestyl
Cadwy ap Geraint (#16)
Tristan, the jackass from Books VIII through X of le Morte d’Arthur
Moryen Manawc (#20)
Bradwen ap Llyr (#19)
Llacheu not to be confused with Gwyrdre, Arthur’s son; in Welsh tradition Arthur had at least four sons.
Sir Cador (#106)
Morvran son of Tacitus (#113)
Rhyawd ap Morgant (son of #135)
Dyvyr the son of Alun Dyved, the best dog-releaser (#22)
Gwrhyr Gwalstawd Ieithoedd
Adaon ap Taliesin
Llary ap Casnar (#89)
Fflewddur Fflam, from the Chronicles of Prydain (#17)
Greidawl Galldovydd (#3)
Gilbert apf Kadgyffro
Menw the Mystic (#53)
Gwrthmwl Wledig (#4)
Cawrdav ap Caradawc Vreichvras
Gildas ap Caw (#84)
Kadyriaith ap Saidi
Bishop Bedwini who had magic powers like all bishops (#227)
Plus lots of guys from Norway, Denmark, and Greece.
“That was profoundly unhelpful,” said Rhonabwy. “What’s happening now?” he added, for in the background there was some kind of ceremony going on.
“Twenty-four asses loaded with gold and silver, led here all the way from Greece, are being present to Arthur,” explained Corth. “And now they’re working out the terms of the truce with the five-king army. Which is a fine idea, I think, having a truce. Anyone who suggests a truce ought to be allowed to speak by their lord.”
“Sure,” said Rhonabwy, but before he could say more, Sir Kay rose to his feet and began shouting about treachery, and then there was a big fight, and the noise of it was such that Rhonabwy was shocked awake. Turns out he’d been sleeping for three nights and three days and worried the heck out of his traveling companions.
The end! No moral.