Thomas Bulfinch (17961867). Age of Fable: Vol. III: The Age of Chivalry. 1913.
IX. Branwen, the Daughter of Llyr
BENDIGEID VRAN, the son of Llyr, was the crowned king of this island, and he was exalted from the crown of London. And one afternoon he was at Harlech, in Ardudwy, at his court; and he sat upon the rock of Harlech, looking over the sea. And with him were his brother, Manawyddan, the son of Llyr, and his brothers by the mothers side, Nissyen and Evnissyen, and many nobles likewise, as was fitting to see around a king. His two brothers by the mothers side were the sons of Euroswydd, and one of these youths was a good youth, and of gentle nature, and would make peace between his kindred, and cause his family to be friends when their wrath was at the highest, and this one was Nissyen; but the other would cause strife between his two brothers when they were most at peace. And as they sat thus they beheld thirteen ships coming from the south of Ireland, and making towards them; and they came with a swift motion, the wind being behind them; and they neared them rapidly. I see ships afar, said the king, coming swiftly towards the land. Command the men of the court that they equip themselves, and go and learn their intent. So the men equipped themselves, and went down towards them. And when they saw the ships near, certain were they that they had never seen ships better furnished. Beautiful flags of satin were upon them. And, behold, one of the ships outstripped the others, and they saw a shield lifted up above the side of the ship, and the point of the shield was upwards, in token of peace. And the men drew near, that they might hold converse. Then they put out boats, and came toward the land. And they saluted the king. Now the king could hear them from the place where he was upon the rock above their heads. Heaven prosper you, said he, and be ye welcome! To whom do these ships belong, and who is the chief amongst you? Lord, said they, Matholch, king of Ireland, is here, and these ships belong to him. Wherefore comes he? asked the king, and will he come to the land? He is a suitor unto thee, lord, said they, and he will not land unless he have his boon. And what may that be? inquired the king. He desires to ally himself, lord, with thee, said they, and he comes to ask Branwen, the daughter of Llyr, that, if it seem well to thee, the Island of the Mighty1 may be leagued with Ireland, and both become more powerful. Verily, said he, let him come to land, and we will take counsel thereupon. And this answer was brought to Matholch. I will go willingly, said he. So he landed, and they received him joyfully; and great was the throng in the palace that night, between his hosts and those of the court; and next day they took counsel, and they resolved to bestow Branwen upon Matholch. Now she was one of the three chief ladies of this island, and she was the fairest damsel in the world.
And they fixed upon Aberfraw as the place where she should become his bride. And they went thence, and towards Aberfraw the hosts proceeded, Matholch and his host in their ships, Bendigeid Vran and his host by land, until they came to Aberfraw. And at Aberfraw they began the feast, and sat down. And thus sat they: the king of the Island of the Mighty and Manawyddan, the son of Llyr, on one side, and Matholch on the other side, and Branwen, the daughter of Llyr, beside him. And they were not within a house, but under tents. No house could ever contain Bendigeid Vran. And they began the banquet, and caroused and discoursed. And when it was more pleasing to them to sleep than to carouse, they went to rest, and Branwen became Matholchs bride.
And, behold, one day Evnissyen, the quarrelsome man, of whom it is spoken above, came by chance into the place where the horses of Matholch were, and asked whose horses they might be. They are the horses of Matholch, king of Ireland, who is married to Branwen, thy sister; his horses are they. And is it thus they have done with a maiden such as she, and moreover my sister, bestowing her without my consent? They could have offered no greater insult to me than this, said he. And thereupon he rushed under the horses, and cut off their lips at the teeth, and their ears close to their heads, and their tails close to their backs; and he disfigured the horses, and rendered them useless.
And they came with these tidings unto Matholch, saying that the horses were disfigured and injured, so that not one of them could ever be of any use again. Verily, lord, said one, it was an insult unto thee, and as such was it meant. Of a truth, it is a marvel to me that, if they desire to insult me, they should have given me a maiden of such high rank, and so much beloved of her kindred, as they have done. Lord, said another, thou seest that thus it is, and there is nothing for thee to do but to go to thy ships. And thereupon towards his ships he set out.
And tidings came to Bendigeid Vran that Matholch was quitting the court without asking leave, and messengers were sent to inquire of him wherefore he did so. And the messengers that went were Iddic, the son of Anarawd, and Heveyd Hir. And these overtook him, and asked of him what he designed to do, and wherefore he went forth. Of a truth, said he, if I had known, I had not come hither. I have been altogether insulted; no one had ever worse treatment than I have had here. Truly, lord, it was not the will of any that are of the court, said they, nor of any that are of the council, that thou shouldst have received this insult; and as thou hast been insulted, the dishonor is greater unto Bendigeid Vran than unto thee. Verily, said he, I think so. Nevertheless, he cannot recall the insult. These men returned with that answer to the place where Bendigeid Vran was, and they told him what reply Matholch had given them. Truly, said he, there are no means by which we may prevent his going away at enmity with us that we will not take. Well, lord, said they, send after him another embassy. I will do so, said he. Arise, Manawyddan, son of Llyr, and Heveyd Hir, and go after him, and tell him that he shall have a sound horse for every one that has been injured. And beside that, as an atonement for the insult, he shall have a staff of silver as large and as tall as himself, and a plate of gold of the breadth of his face. And show unto him who it was that did this, and that it was done against my will; but that he who did it is my brother, and therefore it would be hard for me to put him to death. And let him come and meet me, said he, and we will make peace in any way he may desire.
The embassy went after Matholch, and told him all these sayings in a friendly manner; and he listened thereunto. Men, said he, I will take counsel. So to the council he went. And in the council they considered that, if they should refuse this, they were likely to have more shame rather than to obtain so great an atonement. They resolved, therefore, to accept it, and they returned to the court in peace.
Then the pavilions and the tents were set in order, after the fashion of a hall; and they went to meat, and as they had sat at the beginning of the feast so sat they there. And Matholch and Bendigeid Vran began to discourse; and, behold, it seemed to Bendigeid Vran, while they talked, that Matholch was not so cheerful as he had been before. And he thought that the chieftain might be sad because of the smallness of the atonement which he had for the wrong that had been done him. O man, said Bendigeid Vran, thou dost not discourse to-night so cheerfully as thou wast wont. And if it be because of the smallness of the atonement, thou shalt add thereunto whatsoever thou mayest choose, and to-morrow I will pay thee for the horses. Lord, said he, Heaven reward thee! And I will enhance the atonement, said Bendigeid Vran, for I will give unto thee a caldron, the property of which is, that if one of thy men be slain to-day, and be cast therein, to-morrow he will be as well as ever he was at the best, except that he will not regain his speech. And thereupon he gave him great thanks, and very joyful was he for that cause.
That night they continued to discourse as much as they would, and had minstrelsy and carousing; and when it was more pleasant to them to sleep than to sit longer, they went to rest. And thus was the banquet carried on with joyousness; and when it was finished, Matholch journeyed towards Ireland, and Branwen with him; and they went from Aber Menei with thirteen ships, and came to Ireland. And in Ireland was there great joy because of their coming. And not one great man nor noble lady visited Branwen unto whom she gave not either a clasp or a ring, or a royal jewel to keep, such as it was honorable to be seen departing with. And in these things she spent that year in much renown, and she passed her time pleasantly, enjoying honor and friendship. And in due time a son was born unto her, and the name that they gave him was Gwern, the son of Matholch, and they put the boy out to be nursed in a place where were the best men of Ireland.
And, behold, in the second year a tumult arose in Ireland, on account of the insult which Matholch had received in Wales, and the payment made him for his horses. And his foster-brothers, and such as were nearest to him, blamed him openly for that matter. And he might have no peace by reason of the tumult, until they should revenge upon him this disgrace. And the vengeance which they took was to drive away Branwen from the same chamber with him, and to make her cook for the court; and they caused the butcher, after he had cut up the meat, to come to her and give her every day a blow on the ear; and such they made her punishment.
Verily, lord, said his men to Matholch, forbid now the ships and the ferry-boats, and the coracles, that they go not into Wales, and such as come over from Wales hither, imprison them, that they go not back for this thing to be known there. And he did so; and it was thus for no less than three years.
And Branwen reared a starling in the cover of the kneading-trough, and she taught it to speak, and she taught the bird what manner of man her brother was. And she wrote a letter of her woes, and the despite with which she was treated, and she bound the letter to the root of the birds wing, and sent it toward Wales. And the bird came to that island; and one day it found Bendigeid Vran at Caer Seiont in Arvon, conferring there, and it alighted upon his shoulder, and ruffled its feathers, so that the letter was seen, and they knew that the bird had been reared in a domestic manner.
Then Bendigeid Vran took the letter and looked upon it. And when he had read the letter, he grieved exceedingly at the tidings of Branwens woes. And immediately he began sending messengers to summon the island together. And he caused seven-score and four of his chief men to come unto him, and he complained to them of the grief that his sister endured. So they took counsel. And in the counsel they resolved to go to Ireland, and to leave seven men as princes at home, and Caradoc,2 the son of Bran, as the chief of them.
Bendigeid Vran, with the host of which we spoke, sailed towards Ireland; and it was not far across the sea, and he came to shoal water. Now the swine-herds of Matholch were upon the sea-shore, and they came to Matholch. Lord, said they, greeting be unto thee. Heaven protect you! said he; have you any news? Lord, said they, we have marvellous news. A wood have we seen upon the sea, in a place where we never yet saw a single tree. This is indeed a marvel, said he; saw you aught else? We saw, lord, said they, a vast mountain beside the wood, which moved, and there was a lofty ridge on the top of the mountain, and a lake on each side of the ridge. And the wood and the mountain, and all these things, moved. Verily, said he, there is none who can know aught concerning this unless it be Branwen.
Messengers then went unto Branwen. Lady, said they, what thinkest thou that this is? The men of the Island of the Mighty, who have come hither on hearing of my ill-treatment and of my woes. What is the forest that is seen upon the sea? asked they. The yards and the masts of ships, she answered. Alas! said they; what is the mountain that is seen by the side of the ships? Bendigeid Vran, my brother, she replied, coming to shoal water, and he is wading to the land. What is the lofty ridge, with the lake on each side thereof? On looking towards this island he is wroth, and his two eyes on each side of his nose are the two lakes on each side of the ridge.
The warriors and chief men of Ireland were brought together in haste, and they took counsel. Lord, said the neighbors unto Matholch, there is no other counsel than this alone. Thou shalt give the kingdom to Gwern, the son of Branwen, his sister, as a compensation for the wrong and despite that have been done unto Branwen. And he will make peace with thee. And in the council it was resolved that this message should be sent to Bendigeid Vran, lest the country should be destroyed. And this peace was made. And Matholch caused a great house to be built for Bendigeid Vran, and his host. Thereupon came the hosts into the house. The men of the island of Ireland entered the house on the one side, and the men of the Island of the Mighty on the other. And as soon as they had sat down, there was concord between them; and the sovereignty was conferred upon the boy. When the peace was concluded, Bendigeid Vran called the boy unto him, and from Bendigeid Vran the boy went unto Manawyddan; and he was beloved by all that beheld him. And from Manawyddan the boy was called by Nissyen, the son of Euroswydd, and the boy went unto him lovingly. Wherefore, said Evnissyen, comes not my nephew, the son of my sister, unto me? Though he were not king of Ireland, yet willingly would I fondle the boy. Cheerfully let him go to thee, said Bendigeid Vran; and the boy went unto him cheerfully. By my confession to Heaven, said Evnissyen in his heart, unthought of is the slaughter that I will this instant commit.
Then he arose and took up the boy, and before any one in the house could seize hold of him he thrust the boy headlong into the blazing fire. And when Branwen saw her son burning in the fire, she strove to leap into the fire also, from the place where she sat between her two brothers. But Bendigeid Vran grasped her with one hand, and his shield with the other. Then they all hurried about the house, and never was there made so great a tumult by any host in one house as was made by them, as each man armed himself. And while they all sought their arms Bendigeid Vran supported Branwen between his shield and his shoulder. And they fought.
Then the Irish kindled a fire under the caldron of renovation, and they cast the dead bodies into the caldron until it was full; and the next day they came forth fighting men, as good as before, except that they were not able to speak. Then when Evnissyen saw the dead bodies of the men of the Island of the Mighty nowhere resuscitated, he said in his heart, Alas! woe is me, that I should have been the cause of bringing the men of the Island of the Mighty into so great a strait. Evil betide me if I find not a deliverance therefrom. And he cast himself among the dead bodies of the Irish; and two unshod Irishmen came to him, and, taking him to be one of the Irish, flung him into the caldron. And he stretched himself out in the caldron, so that he rent the caldron into four pieces, and burst his own heart also.
In consequence of this, the men of the Island of the Mighty obtained such success as they had; but they were not victorious, for only seven men of them all escaped, and Bendigeid Vran himself was wounded in the foot with a poisoned dart. Now the men that escaped were Pryderi, Manawyddan, Taliesin, and four others.
And Bendigeid Vran commanded them that they should cut off his head. And take you my head, said he, and bear it even unto the White Mount in London, and bury it there with the face towards France. And so long as it lies there, no enemy shall ever land on the island. So they cut off his head, and these seven went forward therewith. And Branwen was the eighth with them. And they came to land on Aber Alaw, and they sat down to rest. And Branwen looked towards Ireland, and towards the Island of the Mighty, to see if she could descry them. Alas! said she, woe is me that I was ever born; two islands have been destroyed because of me. Then she uttered a groan, and there broke her heart. And they made her a four-sided grave, and buried her upon the banks of the Alaw.
Then the seven men journeyed forward, bearing the head with them; and as they went, behold there met them a multitude of men and women. Have you any tidings? said Manawyddan. We have none, said they, save that Caswallawn,3 the son of Beli, has conquered the Island of the Mighty, and is crowned king in London. What has become, said they, of Caradoc, the son of Bran, and the seven men who were left with him in this island? Caswallawn came upon them, and slew six of the men, and Caradocs heart broke for grief thereof. And the seven men journeyed on towards London, and they buried the head in the White Mount, as Bendigeid Vran had directed them.4
Note 4. There is a Triad upon the story of the head buried under the White Tower of London, as a charm against invasion. Arthur, it seems, proudly disinterred the head, preferring to hold the island by his own strength alone. [back]