The Romance of Branwen

The more well-known version of the story of Bran the Blessed comes from the Mabinogion, Lady Guest's 19th century translation of the ancient text (the original text is dated to the 14th century). At any rate, hers is the more well known story and equates Bran the Blessed (AKA Bendigeid Fran) with the Children of the Welsh God Llyr, placing him, in the divine bloodline with the Welsh God Pwyll (husband, later to Rhiannon), and this story's heroine, Branwen. That story, in a nutshell, is thus:

The Irish King Math, decided on an alliance with the Welsh King Bendigeid Fran and thereby traveled to Wales to ask for permission to marry Branwen. Bendigeid Fran thought and thought the idea of marrying his sister to the Irish king was a good one, and so agreed.

The day of the wedding all was assembled under Bendigeid Fran's roof; but not without conflict. His half-brother Evisseyn ranted and raged against the marriage and refused to let it come to pass. Bendigeid Fran more or less ignored his brother's protests and agreed it should take place, and so it did. Enraged, Evisseyn took out his fury on King Math's prized stallions, slashing their throats and leaving them where the king might find them. Surprised and outraged, Math gathered his men to depart for him, but Bendigeid Fran smoothed over the conflict by gifting Math with a magical cauldron (or Grail). This Grail could, he promised revive any dead man thrown in its depths, within 24 hours, excepting that the revived man would lack the power of speech. Math accepted the gift and the marriage carried on as planned after which Math took Branwen, and their party, back home to Ireland.

But peace was, it seemed, the last thing Math had in mind. Two years passed in relative happiness, Branwen, beloved of the people of Ireland, and having given birth to Math's son; but some of Math's people still felt slighted by their king's treatment by the Branwen's family, and finally convinced him he had need to remain outraged at his treatment, as well; they blamed his new wife Branwen and in turn convinced him to do so, and he took her young son from her, and sent her to pay out her sentence in his kitchens, barring visitors from Wales, and they that did arrive, were barred from returing home.

Three years passed thusly, Branwen forced into servitude by her own husband but finally, she found a way to contact her brother: She found a starling and taught it speech so that it might take her story to Bendigeid Fran in Wales.

Hearing of her troubles, Bendigeid Fran took men, weapons, and ships and crossed the English Channel back to Ireland, to liberate his sister. When the Irish Ministers and soldiers saw them coming, they were confused and frightened and so, ran to Branwen for an explanation.

That, she explained, was her brother. A giant of a man, he was too large to fit in any standard home or ship; the forest they thought they saw must only be his ships, the beacons, his eyes.

Now the king and his men saw indeed Branwen was correct and they were in terrible trouble, and they ran, as it were. But Bendigeid Fran followed them across Ireland, until messengers arrived, offereing negotioations and reparations. The king offered a huge hall built for the Welsh King and a summit set therein, and that he would abdicate in favor of their young son and give he himself the kingship in trust for the young man. Bendigeid Fran wasn't sure he should, and it was only Branwen's coaxing that convinced him to take the settlement.

So, Math's men set to work, and once finished, the Welsh assembled in the massive hall, waiting for Math and his men to arrive; but Evinyssen still distrusted the Irish. Something seemed amiss with some of the lighting in this huge home. And so, he pierced one light only to find a fully-armed man hidden inside. But in come the Irish and negotiations take place. Branwen's son is presented to his Welsh family and accepted; until he steps before Evinyssen, who scoops him up and tosses him into the fireplace. Branwen is appalled and the Irish warriors rush in to take up the battle; the Welsh have no choice but to defend themselves, and the battle continued all night and into the morning, for the Irish fully utilized Bendigeid Fran's gift to them, the Cauldron, tossing their dead in over and over and thereby replenishing their army. Finally, Evinyssen, noticing there is no room in the cauldron for the Welsh dead, decided the only way to end the stalemate was to destroy the cauldron and so hid himself among the Irish dead. Tossed inside the cauldron, the giant man stretched to his full height and destroyed the cauldron, his heart broke, his life given in the endeavour to save his embattled family and countrymen.

The tide of the battle turned, and the Welsh attained victory; but not without consequence. Seven only escaped, among them Branwen. Bendigeid Fran himself was hit in the heel by a poisoned arrow, during the escape, and this was the hardest hit the Welsh battalion had taken thus far. Still, Bendigeid Fran ordered them not to despair. Instead, he directed them, before the poison reached any further and obliterated him utterly, to remove his head from his body. He promised that nothing would save him but that, and if they did, he would continue to be with them, and counsel and entertain them, all the long years. If they chanced to long for home, then this would bring on reminders and death to their company and at such time, he wished for his head to be buried at the Tower of London.

Their first destination was Aber Alaw in Tal Ebolyon and Just as Bendigeid Fran promised his head remained animated and interested doling out comfort and advice when they needed it. When Branwen was rested, and had a chance to think, she couldn't stand the horror of what had happened, that she had brought such ruin on two noble lands, and died on the spot, of grief. The company buried her, and moved on.

They stopped in Harlech. The news they received was not good: Bendigeid Fran's brother Cassawallawn had usurped the throne of Wales and killed Bran's son. The best they could do would be to remain in Harlech. And thus, they did; remaining there for seven years consoled when need be even by the regal birds of Rhiannon. Finally, they moved on until at last they came to Cornwall, where they spent fourscore (that is to say 80) years, under the command that they may live here, but the far keep door must not be opened.

At last, Heilyn the son of Gwynn Hen, one of the men of Bendigeid Fran's company, decided curiosity was too much to bare and he wondered as to the world outside and opened the forbidden door. As soon as this was done, and the weary man opened the door for a peek at their surroundings, the memory of the terrible forgoing events returned and the company once again rendered heartsick. The rest of the company returned to Wales and carried out Bendigeid Fran's wishes: His head was buried on the grounds of the Tower of London, keeping watch for all invaders, his remaining friends and family scattered.

Paraphrase based on Jeffrey Gantz's translation for Penguin Classics 1976 pages 66-82

page revised March 29, 2007

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