I’m slowly working my way back through the Mabinogion, because who doesn’t love medieval Welsh literature? I actually found myself chuckling at this light hearted tale of sexual exploitation, violent extortion and the total deception of two nations.
Pwyll was the Prince of Dyved, one day he decided to go for a hunt so he rode out of his palace at Narbeth for his favourite hunting grounds in Glyn Cuch. When he gets there he immediately loses all of his friends and hears some hounds that are not his own nearby. He goes to take a look and finds several dogs with shimmering white coats and blood red ears attacking a stag. He wanted the stag for himself and shouted the terrifying ghost dogs off before setting his own hounds on the already half dead stag.
Analysis: Who in their right mind, whilst lost and alone would piss off some clearly supernatural beasts in order to get access to a bit of venison? Is Pwyll really brave, suicidally stupid or insane?
Enter the owner of the terrifying ghost dogs, a tall, well dressed stranger who was more than a little pissed off that his quarry had been effectively stolen by Pwyll. They exchange words during which Pwyll is nothing but contrite, conciliatory and frankly quite slimy. The stranger, who claims to know who Pwyll is, talks with absolute contempt. Pwyll says he would do anything to make it up to the stranger who he suspects from the attitude to be very important. The stranger says he is Arawn one of the Kings of Annwyvn.
Analysis: It turns out Annwyvn is a sort of well known magical realm. Pwyll has pissed off a fairy king. This does not feel like a longevity enhancing move.
Arawn says that if Pwyll disguises himself as Anawn for a year and fights a duel in his place everything will be cool between them. To help him with this Arawn will place a spell on Pwyll so that no one from Annwyvn will know it is not him. He will also give Pwyll free reign over his wife for the year. He guarantees that Pwyll has never seen anyone more attractive than his wife. The condition is that he must try to beat his opponent without striking him twice, as the rival king would instantly recover if struck by a second blow. Arawn said he would give Pwyll some fairy magic to ensure that only one strike was needed.
Analysis: I’m pretty sure this would have been fairly rapey even at the time of writing. Bare in mind the crime is stealing Arawn’s hunt. Anawn is powerful enough to 100% convincingly disguise Pwyll so effectively that even his wife doesn’t notice the difference, and also give him the magic to win a duel. Why cant he just fight the duel himself? it would be far less hassle.
Pwyll is very much up for this and they head off for Annwyvn. When at the edge of the domain Anawn places the glamour over Pwyll and says that he will intuitively understand the customs of his court. They agree to meet there again in a years time. At which point Arawn strolls off whistling. Pwyll is taken aback by the majesty of the buildings and when he enters the throne room servants change him into robes of silk and gold and hand him a golden, jewelled goblet of fine wine. Pwyll looks up and the Queen, who is the most breathtakingly beautiful woman he has ever seen greets him very warmly.
Side Note: The version I read didn’t explicitly state Pwyll and the Queen did anything particularly intimate however it does spend a long time describing how lovely she is. The whole vibe is extremely rapey …. and she doesn’t even know! I have read a version of this story that was made child friendly in which it was explicitly stated Pwyll did not take “lay with the Queen” during this year but that was a twentieth century revision of the tale.
So Pwyll disguised as Arawn spent a year eating, drinking, hunting and generally having a laugh with the Queen and all his new courtly friends, until the day of the duel. Pwyll approached the agreed site for the duel with his knights and met with King Havgan who gives a lovely speech about how this is a matter between kings and the knights should step away, which they duly do. Pwyll steps forward, slashing his sword which instantly breaks Havgan’s shield and armour in two, leaving him on the floor bloodied and beaten. Havgan urges the victorious Pwyll to finish him off, to which Pwyll replies “nah”. Havgan’s domain is signed over to Pwyll and the kingdom of Annwyvn is united.
Analysis: If Arawn had the god-mode cheat for this fight why didn’t he just use it himself?!? I would say its totally unfair but then so is Havgan’s total-healing trick. Also I am ashamed to admit when reading Havgan was beaten and begging to be killed I did say allowed “Finish Him!” which led to a very complicated conversation with my four year old son.
The next morning, one year to the day after they first met, Pwyll and Arawn stand, talking in a wood. Arawn is overjoyed that Pwyll, in his name, has united his kingdom. He says that Pwyll will be equally happy because in the year that he has been gone, Arawn disguised as Pwyll has caused his land to prosper beyond imagining.
Side Note: Originally I thought I had missed something so I reread this tale a few times, and then checked in another edition. Its possible this is just a fault in the two versions I have now read but at no point prior to this did it state that Anawn was going to disguise himself as Pwyll. Don’t worry Pwyll wasn’t married.
Pwyll gets back to his court and asks his courtiers how the last year has been. They say he has been the wisest, kindest, most amazing king they have ever known in the last year. Pwyll says that he should not get the credit for that and explains the events of the last year to them.
That’s where this particular story ends and honestly I have some very complicated feelings about it. The character of Pwyll could use a really good therapist, in order to gain the friendship of someone he has just met he agrees to drop his life for a year and fight a duel without any hesitation. I have to admit however I love the almost total lack of exposition in this story, it just gets straight to it. Unfortunately “it” appears to be rape by deception, fraud, alcoholism and debauchery on a borderline industrial level and grievous bodily harm.
The concept of using magic to hook up with another mans wife whilst disguised as their husband isn’t without precedent. The names change a lot but several of the legends about the birth of King Arthur involve his father doing this. Arguably its a way of preserving the fair ladys virtue. Eleventh century Britain had some very specific feelings about adultery with various gruesome punishments (usually only for the woman). Perhaps the use of illusion was a way of making the infidelity more palatable.
I also noted in both editions of the story I read, whilst every possible unpronounceable name was provided for the places and men, the only woman in the story was merely given as “The Queen”. The whole thing screams of misogyny but honestly that wasn’t particularly uncommon in twelfth century Britain.
Another interesting mechanic is the trait of Havgan who appears to heal entirely when fatally wounded. I am sure I have heard a mechanic like this before however I cant readily find a reference. Its possible this is thematic in Brythonic mythology or may reflect a societal integration with Christianity as there are some similar concepts in the bible.
As a final note Pwyll appears to have no issues revealing the truth to his courtiers when he returns to Narbeth but there is no suggestion that Arawn tells anyone he hasn’t been around for a year. I’m not sure if I am just looking at this through a modern moral lens or if these are indicators that Arawn was a far more sinister character when he was originally written eight hundred years ago. Its also impossible to know how well established Arawn was in oral tradition and folklore prior to the codification of the Mabinogion.