The Arthurian legends are probably the best known of the Welsh (Celtic) legends which have, collectively, become known as The Mabinogion. The word Mabinogion is, in fact, a mistake. When Lady Charollete Guest translated the medieval Welsh texts she picked up on the use of the word “Mabynnogyon” which occurs at the end of one of the stories in the four branches of the Mabinogi, and gave this name to all the Welsh legends she translated.
Her collection, The Mabinogion, are contained in 3 volumes, and are a translation of folk tales which include the Arthurian legends, including the romances Owain, Peredur and Geraint ac Enid (this last one served as the basis for Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s two poems about Geraint in the Idylls of the King). Volume 2 contains the romance Culhwch ac Olwen and The Dream of Rhonabwy. The four branches of The Mabinogi are contained in Volume 3.
The earliest manuscript found which contains the 4 branches of the Mabinogi is the White Book of Rhydderch, which was (hand) written circa 1350. But, in fact, the stories are much older, many are pre-Christian tales, which would have existed orally amongst the Celts for many centuries, before being written down. Studies of poetry in some of the stories dates the writing down of the stories to about the 11th Century, but the oldest existing copies we have of the stories are from the 14th Century. The reason the poetry is used to try to date when the earliest written forms would have been made is because poetry changes less than prose in oral stories. The many supernatural elements to the stories indicate that they are part of a very old, pre-Christian, body of Celtic mythology.
Arthur himself, although he may have been a real Brythonic king, had become a character of mythology by the 5th-6th Century amongst the Celts. One of the mythis is that he and his soldiers are sleeping in a cave, but will one day awaken to defend the Celts (presumably now the Welsh as we are the closest ancestors to the Brythonic Celts).
The song in the video below, which is by a band called Edward H Dafis, is called “Drudwy“, the starling who acted as a messenger between Branwen and her brother Bendigeidfran whilst she was imprisioned in Ireland. The story of Branwen forms the 2nd brach of the Mabinogi. The story describes Branwen, and her brother Bendigeidfran, who is both king of Britain and a giant. Branwen is given as a wife to Matholwch, the king of Ireland. However, Branwen’s half brother Efnisien feels insulted that he was not consulted about the marriage, so he mutilates Matholwch’s horses in an act of revenge. Because of this, Matholwch punishes Branwen by banishing her to the kitchen of his castle in Ireland, and beating her everyday. In order to inform her brother Bendigeidfran back in Wales of her plight, she teaches a starling, drudwy in Welsh, to understand her and transfer messages for her. Drudwy flies from Ireland to Wales, and informs Bendigeidfran of his sister Branwen’s plight. Bendigeidfran then goes to war against Matholwch, and brings his sister back to Wales.
The song starts with the lyrics
Yn y bore,
Yn y bore
Gweler Branwen wrth y tân.
heb yr un cysur
Heb un gobaith
Ond ei chân
Draw ymhell dros y tonnau mân
Dos a’m gwyngân i Bendigeidfran
Drudwy fechan yn y man.
My translation of these lines (again, with no attempt to retain meter or rhyme) is
In the morning,
In the morning,
See Branwen by the fire.
She is busy
But without any comfort
Without any hope
In her song.
Fly straight away
Far away across the waves
Take my song of complaint to Bendigeidfran
Tiny starling do it now.
I played this song to my daughter Esyllt a few months ago as she was studying the story of Branwen in school. The school chose to perform the story for their summer concert, which will be in July. A few weeks ago they held auditions for the main part of Branwen (and the other lead parts), and Esyllt was successful in getting the lead part. She has many lines and songs to remember, so is busy learning them. But, she is blessed with the same outstanding memory that her brother Meirin has, so already she knows most of her lines and the concert is not for another 6-7 weeks.
Her name, Esyllt, comes from another one of the Arthurian legends contained in the Mabinogion. Esyllt was the lover of Trystan. These two names are better known to non-Welsh speakers from Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde, Isolde or Iseulte being the English/international translations of Esyllt. Maybe one day Esyllt will get a part in an opera or play where she will be playing her namesake.
She took the CD on which this song “Drudwy” is contained, namely “Yr Hen Ffordd Gymreig o Fyw” (The old Welsh way of life) into school, and now the song is going to form part of the concert.