The Mabinogion, translated by Gwyn and Thomas Jones. 24/273.
warnings: violence and accusations of baby-eating
My friend Tom wisely offered that the Mabinogion is great to read alongside the Dark Is Rising sequence, and incidentally it is as good if not better to read with the Prydain Chronicles (which are more overtly based in Welsh rather than English mythology).
I’m reading the Tom and Gwyn Jones translation, which is very thee and thou and is a classic unto itself. The Mabinogion is a set of 11 stories grouped into 4 branches. Some of it is Arthurian, but not all of it; the whole thing has exactly the kind of weird foolish courtly adventuring that medieval literature is super into.
HANG ON, LET ME CLARIFY: THIS STORY IS HILARIOUS AND GREAT
The first branch is just one story, PWYLL PRINCE OF DYFED. Pwyll is basically a guy who does a bunch of things you expect to go horribly wrong and end in death and despair, but for some reason he turns the tides of folklore and is perfectly fine.
For example: the first thing Pwyll does in his story is see Arawn, GOD OF HELL’s hounds take down a stag, chase off the hounds, and set his own dogs on the stag like maaaaaaaaaybe they caught said stag to begin with????? Arawn figures this out in about zero seconds and YOU WOULD THINK THAT WAS IT FOR PWYLL, YOU WOULD THINK YOU SHOULD NOT STEAL A STAG FROM THE KING OF HELL, but now! Arawn is just like, hey, man, let’s swap kingdoms for a year, you take care of this guy who’s bugging me—hit him once at a tourney BUT NOT TWICE—and we’ll call it even.
So Pwyll takes this amazing deal and goes to Annwn in disguise as King Arawn and everybody LOVES HIM there. You’d think there’d be trouble with the hot hellwife Pwyll has to get in bed with, like, that’s usually a slipping-up issue in folklore, BUT NO. Every day they’re bffs and every night Pwyll makes himself into this perfectly silent line of NO TOUCHING SLEEP MAN and it’s just not an issue at all. Finally the tourney comes around and you think MAYBE HE’LL SCREW THIS UP, but NO, he hits the guy once and won’t deliver a killing blow, and he and Arawn swap back places AND ARE BEST PALS FOREVER.
Then Pwyll’s friends are like, Guy you need to get some babies or something, and he is like OKAY. OKAY. BUT FIRST I WANT TO SIT ON THIS MOUND WHERE YOU EITHER GET BEAT UP OR SEE A WONDER. That sounds good, so they do that. He and his pals go up on the mound of hitting or whoa, and they keep seeing this woman go by on a nice horse, but no one can catch up with her. Finally he thinks to, IDK, go himself, and it turns out she would like him to win her from some guy.
The long and short of it is that he screws up a little but eventually ends up stomping the bad suitor into a bag and going HO HO OH IT IS BUT A BADGER /whack whack whack/, thus inventing BADGER IN A BAG, which is a horrifying Medieval game you should never play.* Then he and the lady Rhiannon, who is one awesome character, go off and get hitched.
Rhiannon has that Medieval NO BABIES problem, but provides one when pressured. Problem: the night it’s born her MANY LADIES IN WAITING all go to sleep and the baby disappears. They wake up and go OH CRAP, and decide the best solution is to put blood all over the queen and say she ate him.
It’s obviously nonsense but Rhiannon takes penance over trying to work it out because she finds all the ladies so frustrating.
Meanwhile, the baby is growing SUPERFAST in a noble house where they have paid everyone off to say he’s theirs. They get guilty when they realize it’s the prince, and that Rhiannon is stuck sitting on a stump telling everyone she ate her baby for seven years, so they give him back. Then he becomes king and the foster kidnappers are on retainer, and Rhiannon gets to go back inside, and everything is awesome.
AND THAT IS THE FIRST BRANCH OF THE MABINOGION
*It is: you put a badger in a bag, and then you kick it. That is the game. DARK AGES INDEED.