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  • That Was Genius Team

Episode 96 - Mabenn... Mabeno... Mabbi... Welsh Stories (Wales Week)

Tom's Notes:

Wales week


• Robert, Whales

• We had a chat with Amy about a PHD

• Turtalie, there were 3 Colonel Sanders’s in the Civil War

• Hinstogram; thanks for the great feedback

• Elly Heney If you guys gave me a shout out I would do a victory lap of my local supermarket wearing only a placard reading "Vitruvius is a boring shithead". With photographic evidence. Also, Merry Christmas

The Mabinogion.

Off air last week we discussed the importance of having rhymes to remember your US treasury secretaries through history didn’t we? And how many people nowadays neglect this area of history? Well I thought I’d give our listeners an example to demonstrate the gaping hole in their modern education.

Mr McAdoo doo doo, US treasury secretary,

Mcadoo doo doo, in the early 20th century,

He married Woodrow Wilson daughter in a White House ceremony,

And thrice lost the Democratic Party presidential nominations in the 1930s.

I was always going to go for early Welsh/Celtic mythology on this topic. I’ve encountered bits and pieces of Welsh/Celtic mythology a number of times when researching other topics for this podcast and it’s has always looked like really good fun, and it hasn’t disappointed.

The Mabinogion is a collection of the earliest Welsh stories. The name ‘Mabinogion’ comes from Lady Charlotte Guest who popularise the stories in the middle of the 19th Century. It is here version of the stories that I have been reading and there are 11 in here first publications, 12 in later publications. Amusingly, the title ‘The Mabinogion’ is actually an error on Guest’s part but nonetheless has become the collective name of these stories (it means, Stories of Young Men or something similar). They are very significant and were, amongst many other things, a major influence on Tolkien, particularly his book the Silmarillion. Tolkien also translated one of the stories.

Our oldest versions of these stories are in the White Book of Rhydderch (start of the 14th Century) and the Red Book of Hergest (end of the 14th Century, start of the 15th). The stories are old enough to have reasonably unclear origins. As usual, and we have encountered this countless times in this podcast, very old stories were handed down the generations orally, then someone would have written these down, usually someone with Christian persuasions because these were the people who could write, these original documents are now lost, the stories have been copied a number of times, changes have been made, things have been added and we’re left with a collection of stories of murky provenance.

Of the stories in the Mabinogion, four are classified as ‘The Four Branches of the Mabinogi’. These are regarded as the best of the stories and the current versions are from the 11th century.

There are four grouped together and called in some places ‘the Four Independent Narrative Tales’ and these are important because they appear to have minimal influence from other regions.

Then there is a third grouping which are similar in style to continental romances, like those of Chretien de Troyes. So Welsh stories but have been obviously influenced by Norman style, or Welsh copies of Norman stories, or stories with a common ancestor. Take your pick.

I haven’t been able to read all of these stories this week, but I’ve cracked through a few!

The Lady of the Fountain

This is an Arthurian tale that is essentially the same as a story of Chrétien de Troyes. De Troyes is 12th century French poet most famous for his Arthurian Romance stories, he, for example, created the character Lancelot and introduced the Holy Grail to the stories. Interestingly, his name; Chrétien de Troyes, translates into English as the Cretin of Troy.

“Oh look! Someone’s given us a big wooden horse as a present!”

“But Sir, I can hear voices and rattling armour coming from inside.”

“Oh what fun! It must be a pinata!”

In the story, Kynon, at the court of Arthur, tells a story. Once upon a time, he decided he wants an adventure, preferably with fighting and women, so off he went. He came across a mysterious castle full of maidens, very similar to Castle Anthrax in that scene in Monty Python and The Holy Grail (in fact, I wonder if it’s the inspiration). Here’s a quote;

“They rose up at my coming, and six of them took my horse, and divested me of my armour; and six others took my arms, and washed them in a vessel until they were perfectly bright. And the third six spread cloths upon the tables and prepared meat. And the fourth six took off my soiled garments, and placed others upon me.”

“Maidens! Maidens! I’ve shat myself. Sort it out would you? I’m the skid-marking Knight of Camelot. Sir Shartalot.”

The father of all these maidens tells Kynon that if he’s looking for a fight, go to a mound in the woods where there is a weird black man who talks to animals (it’s unclear whether ‘black’ means African, so I’m just paraphrasing the document, not being racially insensitive, although there is an opportunity for a coal miner joke). This weird black man seems to contribute nothing to the plot other than being slightly obstructive and eventually pointing wandering knights to a fountain. Kynon goes to this fountain, drinks from a cup and the moment it touches his lips, there is a horrible rain storm and a knight comes out of nowhere on a horse and charges him. He beats up Kynon and Kynon returns embarrassed. Not embarrassed enough to not tell anyone about it though.

It’s obviously not a good story, because Arthur has fallen asleep. Owain however, thinks, that sounded like great fun, I’m going to head off to see what Kynon was on about. First he discovers the castle of the maidens, they see him coming and start thinking “Oh god no, not another soiled Welshmen who couldn’t fight his way out of a paperbag. Remember girls, standards. All smiles. The customer is always right.”

Owain stays there and then the next day he goes to the fountain, drinks from the cup, causes a storm and just like before, a knight charges at him from out of nowhere. Owain gives this knight a right old knuckle sandwich. Bops him right in the snozz and the knight runs back to his castle, Owain follows, but gets trapped entering the castle between two portcullises, or is it portculi? Anyway, Owain is trapped, he shouts at another fair maiden (they were ten a penny back then) and she gives him her magic ring. Now I said about Tolkien liking his Celtic literature, well, this ring makes people invisible. Heard that one before!

Owain sneaks in with the help of this bint, sees the funeral of the knight he biffed, and watches his wife crying with anguish at the loss. Nothing turns Owain on like a distressed noble lady, and he decides he wants her as his wife. When he tells the bint about this, she decides to help in between shaving him, feeding him and generally being his 1950s housewife. She goes to the Noble lady, puts forward Owain’s case, then heads back to find him, giving him a good shag as a final farewell. Or at least that’s how I interpret this passage; “she went back to the chamber where she had left Owain; and she tarried there with him as long as it might have taken her to have travelled to the Court of King Arthur.” I think that’s about as raunchy as it gets in the mid 19th century. Owain then marries the widow.

3 years later, Arthur decides he is missing Owain and he sets out with his retinue to find him. They reach the fountain and have a really tough time defeating the knight that keeps turning up. Well of course they did, it’s our Owain! Owain buggers off back with Arthur.

After 3 years, Owain realises he told his wife he’d only be away for 3 months. He gets all upset and basically wanders around getting drunk like in a bad 80s Hollywood film where the protagonist ends up in a downtown bar drinking whiskey, “same again, fill me up! Why did I let her go? My lovely, lovely lady.” Long story short, he returns to find his wife and has many adventures before and after, with a big black lion that he found. A bit like He-man and Battle Cat. Usual stuff, beating up giants, rescuing the bint from a cave that sort of thing.

Kilhwch and Olwen

I made the mistake of trying to read Kilhwch and Olwen. I’ll be honest, it was quite painful. Two sections in particularly were difficult. Anyway, it represents the grouping of stories thought to be very Welsh, old stories that hadn’t been influenced much from other areas.

In a nutshell, Kilhwch wants to marry Olwen, the beautiful daughter of a horrible giant with an unpleasantly long name; Ysbaddaden Pencawr.

Kilhwch, being a young lad, is besotted with her before he’s even seen her. He decides to ask his cousin Arthur for help. PUBERTY VOICE “She sounds lovely, I think I love her, I want to marry her and be a caring husband. Oh I’m so heartbroken.”

There’s one paragraph, 2500 words long, which is basically a list of people. The character Kilhwch in Arthurs court and says to Arthur, I’m related to you, so Arthur says good on you! Well done old boy! What would you like as a gift? And Kilhwch then says I want to marry this chick called Olwen, and, quote, “this boon I likewise seek at the hands of thy warriors”. He then lists all the warriors, fucking loads of them, including…

• “Morvran the son of Tegid (no one struck him in the battle of Camlan by reason of his ugliness; all thought he was an auxiliary devil. Hair had he upon him like the hair of a stag).”

• “Sol could stand all day upon one foot.”

• “Gwadyn Ossol, if he stood upon the top of the highest mountain in the world, it would become a level plain under his feet.”

• “Gwadyn Odyeith, the soles of his feet emitted sparks of fire when they struck upon things hard, like the heated mass when drawn out of the forge. He cleared the way for Arthur when he came to any stoppage.”

• “Sugyn the son of Sugnedydd (who would suck up the sea on which were three hundred ships so as to leave nothing but a dry strand. He was broad-chested).”

• “And Gwevyl the son of Gwestad (on the day that he was sad, he would let one of his lips drop below his waist, while he turned up the other like a cap upon his head).”

So this lot all set off to see if they can get Olwen. Now for the second ridiculous passage. The giant king reels of a stupidly long list of impossible tasks that must be completed before he’ll let Kilhwch marry Olwen. It’s a fucking stupid list and I couldn’t be bothered wading through it to find anything amusing.

Anyway, Athur’s crew achieve some of the tasks but presumably decide that they can’t be bothered, or maybe someone forgot to note them all down and hand out a copy to everyone so that they could keep a track of which tasks have been done and which ones haven’t, so they kill the giant and Kilhwch marries Olwen.

Branwen, daughter of Llŷr

The next story represents the Mabinogi, so the best of the stories, and it’s quite silly.

It starts with Bendigeidfran, also known as Bran the Blessed! King of Britain. He is chilling out on the coast with his mates, eating toast, drinking tea and planning his next ascent of Everest. But what does he see in the sea? Well it’s Matholwch, king of Ireland coming with a large number of ships.

It turns out Matholwch fancies Branwen, and wants her as his wife. Bendigeidfran decides that this is okay, so they have a lovely banquet and all is going wonderfully well. Then stupid Evnissyen decides to mutilate the Irish horses. Things naturally go downhill because Matholwch is deeply insulted. Bendigeidfran tries his hardest to make amends and does persuade Matholwch to rejoin him for another feast. As part of this Matholwch is given a magical cauldron that brings people back to life.

The Irish go home with Branwen and all seems to be going well. However, the Irish nobles aren’t happy about the feast still, so they persuade Matholwch to treat Branwen badly, which he does. Branwen manages to train a starling to fly to Britain with a message. Not a speaking starling, a message was tied to its leg. “I’m awfully sorry to disturb you Bran, but I’ve got terribly important message.”

This message finds Bendigeidfran who summons and army and sails to Ireland. The Irish invite him to a banquet, but it’s a trap! There are lots of Irish fighters hiding in big bags, one of the Brits spots this and casually goes around, quote, “he squeezed the head until he felt his fingers meet together in the brain through the bone.”

At this banquet, a big fight breaks out, the crafty Irish are using the magic cauldron to bring their dead back to life, the cauldron gets destroyed and all but seven Brits die. This is where it gets rather odd, so Brian Blessed, or Bendigeidfran, is mortally wounded, quote, “And Bendigeid Vran commanded them that they should cut off his head. “And take you my head,” said he… In Harlech you will be feasting seven years, the birds of Rhiannon singing unto you the while. And all that time the head will be to you as pleasant company as it ever was when on my body.”

You can imagine it can’t you?

• Sitting around the campfire, fetid, green head singing kum-by-are, “pass me some ale! Ooops! This booze goes straight through me! Move me to another cushion would you?”

• “Who fancies going bowling?”

• Watching Foo Fighters live, “I want to crowd surf! Throw me! Throw me!”

• Opportunities with practical jokes (hiding in toilets, under duvets, washing machine).

The survivors bugger off somewhere remote and, quote, “And there they remained fourscore years, unconscious of having ever spent a time more joyous and mirthful... And it was not more irksome to them having the head with them, than if Bendigeid Vran had been with them himself. And because of these fourscore years, it was called “the Entertaining of the noble Head.”

Meanwhile in Ireland, only five pregnant women remain, they have five sons, they have to shag their sons, so everyone in Ireland is descended from this incestuous lot.

Here’s a passage from one of the other stories Sam,

“Then, behold, a dwarf came forward. He had already been a year at Arthur’s Court, both he and a female dwarf. They had craved harbourage of Arthur, and had obtained it; and during the whole year, neither of them had spoken a single word to any one. When the dwarf beheld Peredur, “Haha!” said he, “the welcome of Heaven be unto thee, goodly Peredur, son of Evrawc, the chief of warriors, and flower of knighthood.” “Truly,” said Kai, “thou art ill-taught to remain a year mute at Arthur’s Court, with choice of society; and now, before the face of Arthur and all his household, to call out, and declare such a man as this the chief of warriors, and the flower of knighthood.” And he gave him such a box on the ear that he fell senseless to the ground. Then exclaimed the female dwarf, “Haha! goodly Peredur, son of Evrawc; the welcome of Heaven be unto thee, flower of knights, and light of chivalry.” “Of a truth, maiden,” said Kai, “thou art ill-bred to remain mute for a year at the Court of Arthur, and then to speak as thou dost of such a man as this.” And Kai kicked her with his foot, so that she fell to the ground senseless.”

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