Author Topic: The Best Dialogue of the Mabinogion  (Read 2092 times)

Eadgifu the Fair

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The Best Dialogue of the Mabinogion
« on: October 27, 2017, 11:05:36 PM »
The Best Dialogue of the Mabinogion
By Eadgifu the Fair

When you think about the Mabinogion, if indeed you do think about the Mabinogion – the collection of medieval Welsh prose tales found in the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest – you might think about magical boar hunts, or the birds of Rhiannon singing, or sheep that change colour. You might think about euhemerized deities or depictions of a fictionalised pre-Roman Britain. But it might not occur to you to think about dialogue, and that would be a shame, because as Brynley F. Roberts would put it, ‘Realistic natural dialogue which enlivens the narrative is a feature of all the tales’; or as I would put it, the dialogue of the Mabinogion can be really, really funny.

In this article I use Sioned Davies’ excellent translation; all the pictures are by Alan Lee.

Pwyll Pendeuic Dyuet

Pwyll begins as the story of how Pwyll, lord of Dyfed, won the friendship of Arawn, king of Annwfn (the Otherworld); but the latter half is devoted to Pwyll’s relationship with his wife Rhiannon. Let’s be honest, at that point it might as well be called Rhiannon, because Rhiannon is the best character in it – and a large part of that is her dialogue. Here’s her first encounter with Pwyll, after we’ve discovered that she rides past the same mound every day, and no-one can catch up with her:

Yeah. That’s the face of a woman who knows her horse is better than your horse.
‘Groom,’ said Pwyll, ‘I see the rider. Give me my horse.’ Pwyll mounted his horse, and no sooner had he mounted his horse than she rode past him. He turned after her, and let his spirited, prancing horse go at its own pace. And he thought that at the second leap or the third he would catch up with her. But he was no closer to her than before. He urged his horse to go as fast as possible. But he saw that it was useless for him to pursue her.
Then Pwyll said, ‘Maiden,’ he said, ‘for the sake of the man you love most, wait for me.’

‘I will wait gladly,’ she said, ‘and it would have been better for the horse if you had asked that a while ago!’

This is the first thing she says in the story. This is the best entrance anyone has ever made into a story. It’s almost the best piece of dialogue in this story, but Rhiannon surpasses herself later on! Her ex-fiancé comes to Pwyll, disguised as a suppliant, and asks for a favour; Pwyll agrees to give him anything in his power.

‘Friend,’ said Pwyll, ‘what is your request?’

‘The woman I love most you are to sleep with tonight. And it is to ask for her, and for the preparations and the provisions that are here that I have come.’

Pwyll was silent, for there was no answer that he could give.

‘Be silent for as long as you like,’ said Rhiannon. ‘Never has a man been more stupid than you have been.’

If I’m honest, I think this is the best line in all of the Mabinogion. But that might just be my overwhelming love for Rhiannon speaking. Pwyll must have been pretty impressed by this too, though, because at this point he starts calling her arglwydes – ‘lady’ – again, while she doesn’t call him arglwyd (‘lord’) again until he’s fixed this mess.

Branwen uerch Lyr

It’s difficult to pick funny dialogue out of Branwen because Branwen is not a funny story. Strange, yes, but dark: its climax is a battle which leaves almost all of Ireland dead, and only seven men of the British army alive. It focuses on Bendigeidfran, king of Britain, his sister Branwen and her ill-fated marriage to Matholwch, king of Ireland, and their brother Efnysien, an inveterate troublemaker. One of its major themes is the power of communication, whether that’s Branwen teaching a starling to speak so that she can use it to ask for rescue, Bendigeidfran’s head continuing to speak after it’s been cut off, or Efnysien – a character with a poisonous tongue if ever there was one – sacrificing himself to destroy the Cauldron of Rebirth, which can bring dead men back to life, but mute.

So it’s not surprising that really the only funny line in Branwen is from Efnysien, right before he commits the crime that sets off the final battle:

‘Why does my nephew, my sister’s son, not come to me?’ said Efnysien. ‘Even if he were not king of Ireland, I would still like to make friends with the boy.’

‘Let him go, gladly,’ said Bendigeidfran. The boy went to him cheerfully.

‘I confess to God,’ said Efnysien to himself, ‘the outrage I shall now commit is one the household will never expect.’ And he gets up, and takes the boy by the feet, and immediately, before anyone in the house can lay a hand on him, he hurls the boy head-first into the fire.

It’s a horrible act! It’s an awful moment, right after the British and the Irish had made peace! But it’s just such a cartoon villain thing to say that it still makes me laugh: ‘They’ll NEVER suspect my plans!’ Efnysien, by the way, is the name of either Crabbe or Goyle in the Welsh translation of Harry Potter: I haven’t figured out which.

Manawydan uab Lyr

Manawydan is just as strange as Branwen – less dark, but just as weird and ominous. It’s the story of Bendigeidfran’s only surviving sibling, Manawydan, who returns to Britain only to discover that his brother’s throne has been usurped by Caswallon. He decides not to fight Caswallon, and retires to Dyfed instead with Pwyll’s son Pryderi, becoming the widowed Rhiannon’s second husband. (The timing of Manawydan is... wonky: if this is pre-Roman Britain, where it’s supposed to be set, Dyfed shouldn’t exist yet.)

And then everything in Dyfed disappears, leaving only Manawydan, Rhiannon, Pryderi and his wife Cigfa.

There isn’t much the four of them can do at this point, so they decide to go travelling in England, which also shouldn’t exist yet. Manawydan and Pryderi resolve to take up crafts to support the group, and that leads to this delightful exchange:

‘What craft shall we take on?’ said Pryderi.

‘We will make shields,’ said Manawydan.

‘Do we know anything about that?’ said Pryderi.

‘We will attempt it,’ he said.

Of course, in the story, they’re so good at this – just as with every other craft they try – that they immediately become a roaring success, and the townsmen plot to kill them, forcing them to flee to the next town. Maybe we should all resolve to answer the question Do I know anything about that? with I will attempt it. On the other hand, it might lead to being driven out of town, so maybe not.

Math uab Mathonwy

Blodeuedd at her creation by Gwydion: the face of a woman bent on murder
This may be the best-known tale out of these four (known as the Four Branches of the Mabinogi). In the part of the tale at hand, Lleu Llaw Gyffes has been cursed by his mother Aranrhod that he will never have a wife from the race of men. Luckily for Lleu, he’s related to two powerful magicians, Gwydion and Math, and they conjure up a wife for him out of the flowers of the oak, the meadowsweet and the broom. She is named Blodeuedd, and duly given in marriage to Lleu.

There’s just the one hitch: no-one asked Blodeuedd how she felt about this, and she falls for local nobleman Gronw Pebr as soon she meets him. So the logical next step is for her to figure out how to kill Lleu, which she does thus, in conversation with him:

‘I am thinking about something you would not expect of me,’ she said. ‘Namely, I am worried about your death, if you were to go before  me.’

‘Well,’ he said, ‘may God repay you your concern. But unless God kills me, it is not easy to kill me,’ he said.

‘Then for God’s sake and mine, will you tell me how you can be killed? Because my memory is better than yours when it comes to avoiding danger.’

You wouldn’t think it could get less subtle than that, would you? But then comes this titbit, when Blodeuedd has led Lleu to his death-trap, and all that’s missing is the (necessary, for some reason) billy-goat:

‘Lord,’ she said, ‘these are the animals you said were called billy-goats.’

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘have them catch one and bring it here.’

Really, Lleu? CATCH ONE AND BRING IT HERE? Your wife is pretending not to know what a goat is, and you still think nothing’s up?

Lleu’s luck holds good, though, and instead of dying, he turns into an eagle. His uncle Gwydion finds him, changes him back into a man, and helps him to get revenge on Blodeuedd and Gronw Pebr – Gronw Pebr is killed by a spear, but Blodeuedd is turned into an owl and her name changed to Blodeuwedd. Blodeuedd means flowers where Blodeuwedd means ‘flower-face’, a term for the owl, so yes, this whole episode is one giant excuse for a pun.

Owain, or Iarlles y Ffynnon

This story is one of several that takes place in or around Arthur’s court, and it begins with the men of Arthur’s court exchanging stories to amuse each other, inspiring Owain to go seek out the black knight he hears tell of in Cynon’s story. The preamble gives you a pretty good idea of what kind of dialogue to expect in the rest of the tale:

Then Arthur said, ‘Men, as long as you do not make fun of me,’ he said, ‘I would like to sleep while I wait for my food; and you can tell each other stories, and Cai will bring you a jugful of mead and some chops.’ And the emperor slept. And Cynon son of Cludno asked Cai for what Arthur had promised them.

‘But I want the good story that I was promised,’ said Cai.

‘Sir,’ said Cynon, ‘it is better for you to fulfil Arthur’s promise first, and afterwards we shall tell you the best story we know.’

Cai went to the kitchen and the mead cellar, and came back with a jugful of mead and a goblet of gold, and his fist full of skewers with chops on them. And they took the chops and began to drink the mead.

‘Now,’ said Cai, ‘you owe me my story.’

‘Cynon,’ said Owain, ‘give Cai his story.’

‘God knows,’ said Cynon, ‘you are an older man and a better storyteller than me, and you have seen stranger things; you give Cai his story.’

‘You begin,’ said Owain, ‘with the strangest story that you know.’

When Cynon has told his story, Owain leaves the court to seek the black knight Cynon spoke of, and strikes him a mortal blow upon finding him. Later he finds himself in the castle of the dead knight, and falls madly in love with the knight’s widow. He also runs into Luned, the best character in this story:

Owain asked the maiden who the lady was.

‘God knows,’ said the maiden, ‘a woman you could say is the most beautiful of women, and the most chaste, and the most generous, and wisest and noblest. She is my mistress, known as the Lady of the Well, the wife of the man you killed yesterday.’

‘God knows,’ said Owain, ‘she is the woman I love best.’

‘God knows,’ said the maiden, ‘there is no way she loves you, not in the very slightest.’

Luned, you’re on thin ice.
Luned and Rhiannon clearly come of the same sharp-tongued breed, and I love them for it. For some reason, Luned agrees to help Owain court her mistress, the countess, and she does so with all the tact and sensitivity we’ve come to expect from her:

‘Luned,’ said the countess, ‘how can you be so bold, seeing that you didn’t come and visit me in my grief? And I made you wealthy. That was wrong of you.’

‘God knows,’ said Luned, ‘I really did think you would have more sense. It would be better for you to start worrying about replacing your husband than wish for something you can never have back.’

‘Between me and God,’ said the countess, ‘I could never replace my lord with any other man in the world.’

‘Yes, you could,’ said Luned; ‘marry someone as good as he, or better.’

‘Between me and God,’ said the countess, ‘if I were not repelled by the thought of putting to death someone I had brought up, I would have you executed for proposing something as disloyal as that to me. And I will certainly have you banished.’

‘I am glad,’ said Luned, ‘that your only reason is that I told you what was good for you when you could not see it for yourself. And shame on whichever of us first sends word to the other, whether it is I to beg an invitation of you, or you to invite me.’ And with that Luned left.

The countess got up and went to the chamber door after Luned, and coughed loudly. Luned looked back; the countess beckoned to her. And Luned came back to the countess.

‘Between me and God,’ said the countess to Luned, ‘what a temper you have.’

I can’t decide which is my favourite moment here: Luned’s total dismissal of her mistress’ grief, or the countess’ cough to get her attention. Either way, somehow Luned’s logic works, and the countess marries Owain. One can only hope he was nicer to her than to her late husband.

Geraint uab Erbin

Geraint is another of Arthur’s knights, who spends the first half of his story being brave and honourable and making good decisions, and the second half being the worst asshole alive. The first half of the story tells how he won and married his wife, Enid. For a while all is well, and then in the second half, he starts to doubt her faithfulness (for no reason whatsoever, I might add). So he makes the logical decision to take Enid on a road trip into England (another anachronism – England only ever enters these tales when the mood is turning scary and hostile) and forbid her to speak to him. Enid does her best, but can’t stop herself from trying to warn him when she hears people plotting to kill him. Geraint takes offence at this. I know. I don’t know why she stays with him either.

So it’s very satisfying when Geraint, while seriously injured, runs into his fellow knight Gwalchmai (known for being polite and having good sense, and thus a rare character), and Gwalchmai drags him to see Arthur, who treats his temper tantrums with the respect they deserve:

‘Geraint,’ said Gwalchmai, ‘come and see Arthur: he is your lord and your cousin.’

‘I will not,’ he replied. ‘I am in no state to go and see anyone.’

[Gwalchmai arranges for him to see Arthur anyway]

‘Lord,’ said Geraint, ‘greetings.’

‘May God prosper you,’ said Arthur, ‘and who are you?’

‘This is Geraint,’ said Gwalchmai, ‘and by choice he would not have come to see you today.’

‘Well,’ said Arthur, ‘he is ill-advised.’

[Arthur talks to Enid, the first person to say something nice to her for months, probably]

‘Lord,’ said Geraint, ‘we shall be on our way, with your permission.’

‘Where will you go?’ said Arthur. ‘You cannot go now unless you want to go to your death.’

‘He would not allow me to invite him to stay,’ said Gwalchmai.

‘He will allow me,’ said Arthur, ‘and furthermore, he will not leave here until he is well.’

‘I would prefer it, lord,’ said Geraint, ‘if you would let me leave.’

‘No, I will not, between me and God,’ he replied.

Most of all, I love this exchange because it proves that the trope of Petulant Manchild With Weapon Refuses Medical Aid is at least a thousand years old.

(If you’re anxious about the fate of Enid, Geraint does eventually realise he’s been wrong all along, although he never apologises. I know. He’s the worst.)

Culhwch ac Olwen

Culhwch is like a fairy tale, if a fairy tale had, among other things, a strange fascination with pigs and the concept of shaving. Many scholars of medieval Welsh see it as a parody of fairy- or folk-tales: I like to see it as the medieval Welsh equivalent of Shrek. Culhwch is destined to marry no woman except for Olwen, daughter of Ysbaddaden Bencawr (‘Chief Giant’). He invokes the help of Arthur, who happens to be his cousin, in first finding and then winning her. Here’s an excerpt in which the party sent to look for Olwen encounter Culhwch’s aunt, who’s excited to meet her nephew:

They made for the gate of the shepherd Custennin’s court. She heard them coming. She ran joyfully to meet them. Cai snatched a log from the wood-pile, and she came to meet them to try to embrace them. Cai placed a stake between her hands. She squeezed the stake until it was a twisted branch.

‘Woman,’ said Cai, ‘had you squeezed me like that, it would be useless for anyone else ever to make love to me. That was an evil love.’

No comment.

When Olwen is found, she reveals that her father will only live until she finds a husband, which is a fairly common motif for the daughters of giants, but not usually one they’re so blatantly aware of! Her father sets Culhwch several impossible tasks before he will give Culhwch Olwen’s hand in marriage: one of these is the hunting of the boar Twrch Trwyth, a king who was turned into a boar for his sins. Ysbaddaden must be shaved for his daughter’s wedding, and only the comb and shears that lie between Twrch Trwyth’s ears can do this.

Much to Ysbaddaden’s displeasure, Arthur helps out and Culhwch returns triumphant, and Caw of Prydyn comes to shave Ysbaddaden, leading to this exchange:

And Culhwch said, ‘Have you been shaved, man?’

‘I have,’ he replied.

‘And is your daughter now mine?’

‘Yours,’ he replied. ‘And you need not thank me for that, but thank Arthur, the one who arranged it for you. If I’d had my way you never would have got her. And it is high time to take away my life.’

Now, I’m not saying I’d like to be a giant who was fated to die when his daughter got married, but if I were, I think I’d like to go out on a note so ironic that I told her fiancé, It is high time to take away my life...


Charles-Edwards, T., ‘Honour and Status in Some Irish and Welsh Prose Tales’, Ériu 29 (1978)

Davies, S., The Mabinogion (2007)

Mac Giolla Chríost, D., Welsh Writing, Political Action and Incarceration: Branwen’s Starling (2013)

Roberts, B. F., Studies on Middle Welsh Literature (1992)
« Last Edit: October 27, 2017, 11:29:08 PM by Jubal »