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An epic tale of pride and jealosy

Branwen ferch Llŷr (Branwen, daughter of Llŷr) is one of the main characters of the second of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi.

This epic tale of pride and jealousy begins when Matholwch, King of Ireland, comes to Harlech to marry Branwen.

Family discord

Branwen was the sister of Bendigeidfran, a legendary Welsh giant and King of Britain. She was also a half-sister to both Nisien, one of the good characters of the tale, and Efnisien, one of the villains.

When Efnisien heard about his half-sister’s marriage, he was furious, as Bendigeidfran had not asked for his permission before Branwen became Matholwch’s wife. In his anger, Efnisien ruined the wedding ceremony by injuring Matholwch’s horses. He cut off the horses’ ears, lips and eyelids.

As an apology, Bendigeidfran gave Matholwch a healthy horse for each one defiled, as well as a gold plate and a silver rod as thick as Bendigeidfran’s little finger. But this was not enough for Matholwch, so he was given a magical cauldron, the Pair Dadeni (Cauldron of Rebirth), which brought the dead back to life.

Branwen and her starling

Sometime later, after Branwen had settled in Ireland and given birth to a son named Gwern, she was punished for Efnisien’s actions. She was banished to the kitchens and beaten every day by the butcher. As a maid, the kitchen was Branwen’s home, but she had one friend, a little starling. One day, Branwen told the starling of her despair and sent it to Wales to tell Bendigeidfran.

Bendigeidfran’s march on Ireland

When Bendigeidfran heard about his sister’s situation, he immediately sent an army to Ireland. As Bendigeidfran was a giant, he could walk through the sea, with his navy’s boats sailing by his shoulder. Irish soldiers were dumbfounded at this sight, thinking a mountain and trees were coming for them.

In an attempt to stop Bendigeidfran and his army, Irish troops destroyed an important bridge crossing a river. But this was no hurdle for Bendigeidfran. The giant lay across the river, saying, ‘He that would lead, let him be a bridge. I will be a bridge’, and let his troops walk over him to cross the river. This quote is a well-known Welsh proverb to this day.     

Matholwch’s plot

Matholwch soon realised that he would have to make amends for punishing Branwen and agreed to make Gwern King of Ireland.

But like all good tales, the Irish had a plan in place. As part of Matholwch’s concession, he agreed to build a house for Bendigeidfran. A massive house was needed to house the giant, and a house with a hundred pillars was built. As the house was being constructed, Matholwch hid a soldier in each of the pillars in an attempt to capture Bendigeidfran.

Luckily for Bendigeidfran, Efnisien discovered the Irish plan and killed the soldiers.

But Efnisien was not a good man. He was still unsatisfied and jealous of the status of some of his family members.

A chatastrophic ending

One night, in a fury, Efnisien threw Gwern into the fire, igniting a fierce battle between the two armies.

The Irish used the Pair Dadeni to resurrect their troops, until Efnisien climbed into the cauldron and broke it into four pieces, sacrificing himself.

Only Branwen and seven of Bendigeidfran’s knights survived, and they returned to Wales. Bendigeidfran’s head was buried in London.

Branwen died of heartbreak from all that had happened. There is seldom a happy ending in the tales of the Mabinogi.