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The Fifth Branch

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Almost all of the manuscripts of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi (sometimes called The Mabinogion due to a scribal error at the end of the First Branch, which early scholars and translators, most prominently Lady Charlotte Guest, misread as a plural form) lack the following story. It appears only in Aberystwyth, NLW MS 7804B, in the final folios of the manuscript, following Rhonabwy's Dream. The scribal hand does not match any of the other manuscript hands, and appears somewhat later and less formal.

Because of the text's position in the final gathering of the MS, which might have been blank at the time of the manuscript's original production, L. Marcus (1968) and others have argued that the supposed 'Fifth Branch' is in fact a nineteenth-century forgery of the school of Iolo Morgannwg. Irregularities in the story's treatment of early Welsh law, most especially the laws relating to compensation for injury, also support the forgery argument, as do inconsistencies between the contents of the story and the contents of the Four Branches. However, the Welsh vocabulary and grammar of the 'Fifth Branch' is appropriately medieval, and I myself believe that the tale is an authentic mid- to late-thirteenth century production.

The relative coherence of the 'Fifth Branch', as opposed to the rather more tangled narrative strands of the Four Branches, suggests that the story was written down in manuscript not long after its composition. In fact, the tale may never have circulated orally, and the scribe of the story may be the original author. Presuming that the 'Fifth Branch' is medieval, internal evidence requires that the story postdate 1223, the year Llewellyn ap Iorwerth convened his armies in Mabudrud. Further notes on this matter may be found in my forthcoming article, 'The "Fifth Branch" and the Wars of Llywelyn Fawr: a reconsideration of NLW MS 7804B', Speculum 48.2 (April 1973).

M. Lyon

Christ Church, Oxford


When Math ap Mathonwy died, at a great old age, so that no one but his wife Goewin grieved for him overmuch, the lords of Gwynedd wondered who was to be king after him. For Math had fathered no sons on Goewin, and his children by other women had fallen in war or died for other reasons. Some of the lords of the Island named Gwydion son of Dôn, Math's sister-son, but Gwydion said, 'I am no longer young myself, and have no will to rule.' So the lords of the Island of the Mighty considered Gwydion's brothers Gilfaethwy and Gofannon, but Gilfaethwy was too feckless to rule, and Gofannon (who was at this time in exile for the slaying of Dylan Eil Ton) too angry. Then Gwydion spoke again, and he said, 'My foster-son Lleu Llaw Gyffes, who is the son of Math's sister-daughter Arianrhod, is young and strong and would rule Gwynedd wisely.' The lords of Gwynedd praised Gwydion's choice, and they called Lleu to their assembly. When Lleu heard, he said, 'Very well. I shall be king if you ask me.'

The lords of Gwynedd arranged a feast at Caer Dathyl for Lleu's coronation, serving everything that was best to eat: cattle and roast pig and huge loaves of bread and great piles of fruit, and as much wine, mead and bragget as anyone could ever drink. But on the eve of the feast and coronation, when nearly all was made ready, Lleu heard a strange sound, and of all the piping of the world, this was the fairest he had ever heard. He pursued it out of the doorway of his house and into the forest beyond the town.

When Gwydion saw him go, he called out, 'Wait! Wait!' But Lleu did not turn, and instead Gwydion followed Lleu into the forest. Gilfaethwy saw Gwydion walking into the forest, and said, 'Gwydion is leaving the preparations, perhaps to hunt. It must be a clear night in the woods. I will go and see what he wants there.' So Gilfaethwy, too, joined the other men, and soon they had gone so deeply into the forest that they could not retrace their steps. Lleu could think of nothing but the sound of the piping, which he loved beyond reason; and Gwydion wished to bring his foster-son back to his own coronation, but he could not convince Lleu to return. Gilfaethwy only sought his pleasure, and the woods were indeed pleasant, lit by the full moon, cooled by gentle breezes and full of the singing of birds.

Then Lleu said, 'Look! Is that the white tail of an owl?' Gwydion said, 'No, it is no owl; merely a flowering tree.' And they went further into the forest. And Lleu said, 'Look! Is that the white wing of an owl?' But Gilfaethwy said, 'No, it is no owl; merely the silver bark of a birch.' Then Lleu said, 'Surely that is the white head of an owl, and the golden eye of an owl, and the hoot of an owl.' And Gwydion could see that it was an owl indeed whose song piped through the forest, and whose song they had been following all this time. He said, 'Turn around, Lleu. You are to be crowned tonight.' And Lleu answered, 'I do not care whether I am crowned or no. I would rather follow this owl wherever she takes me. For I am sure she is my wife Blodeuwedd.'

'Your wife Blodeuwedd,' Gilfaethwy said, 'nearly killed you. A coronation might be more pleasant than whatever she plans for you. But if I strike the owl with my spear, she will make an excellent dinner for us all.' The owl cried out in scorn, or perhaps laughed, and flew more rapidly. Lleu did not answer, but pursued the owl further into the shadows of the trees. Soon a strong wind blew, and a heavy fog fell over the woods, so thick that Gwydion could not see Lleu, and Gilfaethwy could not see Gwydion; and the white owl ceased her song and disappeared.

Lleu called out for Blodeuwedd, but his words were carried off by the wind. Gilfaethwy called out for his brother, but his words were carried off by the wind. Gwydion raised a fine hunting horn and wound it long and full, and the sound cut through the fog and cleared it, so that the men could see each other again. By the light of the waning moon, the three men saw that they were in a clearing, although not one of them recognised the place. There was no house or shelter, but laid out in the center of the clearing was wood for a fire, and beside the wood was a large and empty cauldron. 'Let us build a fire,' said Lleu. Gwydion laid his hands on the logs and flame rose from them.

'If only there were food and drink,' said Gilfaethwy. Gwydion placed the cauldron on the fire, and although there had not ever been any water in the cauldron before, as soon as it was hot it was full of all sorts of meat and wine. They ate and drank their fill, for they were hungry from the journey.

This is what Lleu said over his meat: 'By my confession to God, I long for my wife Blodeuwedd, and yet I hate her. If I had her here, I would lie with her at once, and I would not care that she is in the shape of an owl while I have the body of a man. But if I had her here, I would tear out every feather from her body while I held her in my arms.'

And this is what Gilfaethwy said: 'You have had her before, and she did not want you. But perhaps if you are the king of Gwynedd, she will return to you. Go home, and if she follows you there she will follow you. Give up on this mad race after an owl.'

And this is what Gwydion said: 'I charmed Blodeuwedd for you from the flowers of the hills, and when she betrayed you I gave her the form of an owl. I cannot do more to get her for you. But I can give you the Island of the Mighty, if you only return to Caer Dathyl. Go back, Lleu, and you will be king.'

But Lleu only stood and looked all around the clearing for a glimpse of white feathers, and somewhere far off in the distance, an owl hooted in disdainful laughter.

When the meal was done, Gwydion said, 'Since you will not go back, Lleu, let us all search for Blodeuwedd together until the night is over, and then, whether we find her or no, let us return to Caer Dathyl in the morning.' Lleu agreed to this plan, and the men hunted the woods for the white owl. They had not yet found her when a fleet of hounds, white with red ears, came barking in and drove the three men apart, separating them so that they could no longer hear or see each other at all.

This is what happened to Gilfaethwy: The hounds drove Gilfaethwy over hills and across a river, until he was cold and soaked with water, and then they chased him across a hundred meadows, each one different from the next. After the hundredth meadow, the hounds disappeared, leaving Gilfaethwy alone. Gilfaethwy did not know where he was, but then he saw that he was in Gwynedd, at Caer Dathyl where Lleu was to be crowned. He stepped up to the door of the hall and waited for the gatekeeper to announce him. But there was no gatekeeper, so Gilfaethwy opened the door himself and stepped inside.

The tables in the hall were heavily laden with meat and drink and all kinds of food, and a fire burned in the hearth, but besides Gilfaethwy there was not a man or woman in the hall. Gilfaethwy, hungry again after the long chase, ate his fill from the food on the tables, and drank cup after cup of wine. Then he said, 'It is a strange thing that no one is here except me. Perhaps they are all in the smaller chambers.' So he went into one chamber, and no one was there, and he went into another, and no one was there. In the third chamber, which had been Math's own bedroom, a woman was sleeping alone in the bed. Gilfaethwy thought that she was the most beautiful woman that he had ever seen. He saw that there was no other man here to protect her, and that she did not even have her maidens with her. Then Gilfaethwy took hold of the coverlet and raised it a little, and saw that the woman was Goewin who had been Queen of Gwynedd, and that she was unclothed. She did not stir. Gilfaethwy said, 'This time she will not cry out, and if she does, no one will hear her.' He removed his clothes and began to climb into the bed.

As soon as he did, Goewin sat up and cried, 'Wretch! You dare to touch me again! Do you not remember being a sow and a hind, and bearing animal children sired by your own brother? Do you not remember what it felt like to be subject to your brother's lusts? Well, this time I shall teach you a lesson, and you shall remember it.' And she raised a magic wand that she had beside her, and she struck him with it so hard that Gilfaethwy fell out of the bed. And then Gilfaethwy was gone, and in his place was a gelded mule, ugly and slow. Goewin dressed herself and led the mule out of the hall, and placed on his back the oldest, dirtiest saddle that could be found in the hall. She took a whip of Cordovan leather into her hand and climbed onto the mule's back, whipping the mule and spurring him until the mule had no choice but to trot as Goewin wished.

This is what happened to Gwydion: The hounds chased Gwydion through a strange dark country full of trees that blotted out the moonlight, and then into a low and rocky valley, and then into a hundred other lands that Gwydion could hardly see in the darkness. At last they drove him to a great house, and Gwydion saw that he was in Ceredigion, in the place that is now called Rhuddlan Teifi, once ruled by Pryderi son of Pwyll. When Gwydion turned to see whether the hounds were still chasing him, the hounds were gone and he was alone. Gwydion stopped to make a hat for himself from the grasses of the meadow, so he should not be recognised in the court, and he knocked on the door to ask for shelter. The door opened, although there was no one behind it, and Gwydion stepped into the hall.

But there were no tables in the hall, and no benches; no food, and no drink; no men and no women. There was only one thing in the hall: a great golden harp, carved with vines and strung with the best of strings. The harp had this property: it compelled anyone who played it to sing only the truth. Gwydion saw it and at once wished to play it. He stepped forward and began to play and sing. Gwydion sang of how he had last come to this hall, in disguise as a bard. He sang of how he had stolen pigs from Pryderi and started a war between Math and Pryderi, in which Pryderi died, and of how he had done this so that Gilfaethwy could lie with Goewin. As Gwydion finished his song, he saw a woman standing in the gate of the hall.

Cigfa, who had been wife of Pryderi, said, 'Gwydion son of Dôn, you have named your own crimes.'

And Gwydion answered, 'You have had your recompense, lady. Math son of Mathonwy paid the fee for your husband's life, and for three years I was forced into the shape of an animal and shamed in that way. Is anything further owed you?'

'Yes,' said Cigfa, 'because I bore no son to Pryderi, nor is there any other heir to this kingdom. Give me a son to be Pryderi's heir, and I shall be compensated.'

''That I will do,' said Gwydion, 'and gladly,' and he approached Cigfa to take her hand. When Gwydion came within her reach, Cigfa raised a magic wand and tapped him with it. At once Gwydion was gone, and in his place perched a swallow.

Before he could fly away, Cigfa caught Gwydion in a golden cage and shut the cage door, and placed the cage in a burlap sack. She said to the bird in the sack, 'I have done this not only for Pryderi, but for my kinswoman Goewin, so that the men who harmed her shall never be given power over the Island of the Mighty.'

When the hounds came, half of them split off to chase Gilfaethwy and the other half followed after Gwydion, and no hounds remained to drive Lleu onward. This is what happened to Lleu: He stood alone in the clearing, wondering whether to aid his foster-father Gwydion or his other uncle Gilfaethwy, when he saw a flicker of white in the distance, beyond the shadowy trees, and knew that it was the owl Blodeuwedd. Seeing her, Lleu began to run.

Lleu ran as swiftly as the quickest of hounds on the hunt, and yet Blodeuwedd flew faster still. Because of his great love and his great hatred for his wife, Lleu ran as swiftly as an eagle flies. The owl flew right and left and right, but at every turn Lleu followed her. The trees of the forest grew closer and closer together, and the bushes on the ground grew thorny and wild, so that there was hardly any space in which Lleu could run. Although Lleu's legs bled from the thorns, and the brocaded silk he had worn for his coronation became torn and filthy, Lleu never slowed in his pace. He thought only of Blodeuwedd, and what he would do if he caught her. Far ahead, the white owl laughed, or cried out her defiance, or kept silent so that Lleu could not track her sound. Lleu ran on.

At last, after a hundred forests, the owl Blodeuwedd lowered her wings and perched. Lleu ran until he came within reach of her, and raised both his hands to take her. But before he had grasped her, Lleu saw where Blodeuwedd had landed. She rested on the arm of a tall, fair woman, her claws pressing into a bracer of Cordovan leather on the woman's arm. The woman stood before a house Lleu had never seen before, a great wooden hall all overgrown with ivy. 'Good morning to you, my son,' said the woman, and Lleu saw that it was his mother Arianrhod.

'May God prosper you,' answered Lleu. 'That is my wife who is perched on your arm. Give her back to me.'

Arianrhod smiled. 'You have put her aside, and your uncle Gwydion transformed her into an owl on your behalf. Surely you have given up all your claims on her.' Arianrhod raised the owl and asked her, 'Is this man your husband?' The owl answered with a scornful hoot.

Arianrhod said to Lleu, 'You see that Blodeuwedd does not recognize you as her husband. If you want her to return to you, you will have to win her back, either with gifts or with promises.' The owl hooted again, as if to say, There is no promise and no gift that will bring me back to him. 'Perhaps,' said Arianrhod, 'there is another way to restore Blodeuwedd to you. Come inside my house, and we will talk of this matter.'

Lleu agreed, and he followed Arianrhod and the white owl into the hall. The room inside was large, lit by a great fire in the hearth. Beside the hearth there was a table made of sparkling stone, and on that table was a silver gwyddbwyll board set with gold pawns. Two chairs stood at either side of the table. Anyone who sat in one of those chairs would be happy, because the chairs were of red gold and cushioned with yellow silk. There was not a softer chair in the Island of the Mighty. 'Let us sit at the table,' said Arianrhod.

As soon as they sat down, there was a commotion outside of the hall. In came Cigfa, carrying a burlap sack, and in came Goewin, riding a filthy mule. 'Good morning to you both,' said Arianrhod, and the other women answered, 'May God prosper you.'

'Have you done what I asked with the wands that I gave you?' said Arianrhod.

And Goewin answered, 'By my confession to God, I did. I waited for Gilfaethwy, and when he tried to lay hands on me I turned him into this mule.'

'Very well,' said Arianrhod. 'And you, Cigfa?'

And Cigfa answered, 'By my confession to God, I did. I waited for Gwydion, and when he named his wrongdoings I turned him into a swallow and placed him in this bag.'

'Very well,' said Arianrhod.

But Lleu rose to his feet in anger. 'What have you done to my foster father and my uncle, who are your brothers, the sons of your mother Dôn?'

Arianrhod said, 'I have brought them to judgment for their crimes, for laying hands on Goewin and for bringing Pryderi to his death, and for shaming me before the people of Gwynedd by raising you to manhood and letting your ancestry be known to all. Surely they deserve the fates they have got from me and from Goewin and Cigfa.'

And Lleu said, 'By my confession to God, that is false. Both Gwydion and Gilfaethwy have paid for their deeds against Goewin and against Pryderi, and they need pay no more. As for the question of shaming you, if you yourself had been a virgin until marriage, you would not have been shamed in bearing a son.'

Arianrhod answered, 'You are a wicked son, to say such things before your mother. But you have not asked what I have done to you here, and I will tell you: With the help of Blodeuwedd I have led you, and Gwydion, and Gilfaethwy, away from Caer Dathyl on the night you were to be crowned, and you cannot return there unless I permit you to leave this place. And unless I permit you to go, you shall not ever be king of Gwynedd, and your kinsmen will not stand by you and advise you there. And if the son of my shame does not rule Gwynedd, I shall not be shamed further by his fame.'

Lleu raised his hand as if to strike Arianrhod, but Blodeuwedd flew up to knock his hand away, and at once Lleu repented of his hasty motion and lowered his arm. He said, 'You have a gwyddbwyll board spread out here. I will play you a game, and if you win, you may keep us all three imprisoned here as you have done, but if I win, you must return my uncles to their original forms, and you must bring us all back safely to Caer Dathyl in Arfon, in Gwynedd.'

Arianrhod replied, 'I will play you a game, and if I win I will keep you here, but think of what you stake. If you win, instead, I will change Blodeuwedd into a woman again, and she will be your wife forever. You cannot get her back in any other way.'

Lleu considered this, and he looked at Blodeuwedd. Even though she held the form of an owl, Lleu desired her as much as he had ever desired her. Yet Blodeuwedd had nearly brought him to his death, and after that had helped Arianrhod draw him into the forest on the very night of his coronation. Then Lleu looked at the sack Cigfa was carrying, that contained Gwydion in the form of the swallow, and he looked at the mule whom Goewin was riding. He answered, 'No, I will not play for those stakes. If I win, you will change back my uncles and you will bring us all safely to Gwynedd.'

Arianrhod said, 'Let it be so,' and they began to play gwydbwyll. There was never such a game as that. Whenever Arianrhod made a good move, Goewin and Cigfa would cheer and the owl would cry out in triumph, but whenever Lleu made a good move, the swallow in the bag would sing and the mule would snort. No one knows how long Arianrhod and Lleu played that game, but at last Lleu won.

He said, 'I have won. Fulfill your promise.'

Arianrhod said, 'I will, gladly.' She clapped her hands once, and the mule became Gilfaethwy. He was as dirty as he had been when he was a mule, and his arms and legs were marked with scratches. Arianrhod clapped a second time, and the golden cage broke in two, and the swallow became Gwydion. He appeared exactly as he had when he played the harp before Cigfa. Arianrhod clapped a third time, and the hall around them faded into nothing. Three men, three women and one white owl stood at a crossroads in the early morning.

But Lleu did not recognise the crossroads, and he said to Arianrhod, 'You have broken your promise. This land you have brought us to is not Gwynedd.'

Arianrhod answered, 'Between me and God, I have kept my promise,' and she laughed.

Gilfaethwy said angrily, 'Why do you laugh? First you and your women led us into the woods, and then you changed us into animals, and then you brought us to a place where we have never been.' But Goewin touched the wand that Arianrhod had given her, and Gilfaethwy said no more.

Then came an old man, cowled in white, and he greeted them all in a language they did not understand. And they greeted him in their own tongue, and he answered in the same tongue, 'Good morning to you, travelers.'

Lleu said, 'We have been lost on the road. Can you tell me where we are?'

The man said, 'Why, you are in Arfon, in Gwynedd, and that road leads south as far as Deheubarth.'

With that, Gwydion began to understand, and he said to the man, 'Who rules in Gwynedd?' Cigfa, too, understood, and she asked, 'Who rules in Ceredigion?'

'Llywelyn son of Iorwerth is lord of Gwynedd,' the man answered, 'and the region of Ceredigion is shared between Maelgwn son of Rhys and Owain son of Gruffudd son of Rhys.'

And Lleu answered, 'Now, will you tell me why you wear white robes?'

The man said, 'Why, because I am a brother of the Abbey of Strata Florida.' And none of them knew what that meant, because they had never met monks before. But Arianrhod laughed again, saying, 'Now, Lleu, you shall never be king of Gwynedd, nor shall my brothers ever aid you in your rule.' And the owl Blodeuwedd flew off into the woods, but Lleu did not chase her, for he hated her so that he never wanted to see her again.

This is what happened then: Lleu and Gilfaethwy travelled to Mabudrud in Carmarthen to join the armies of Llywelyn, and Gwydion travelled with them, and he played the harp and sang to the lords of Wales. And Gilfaethwy died in battle, but Gwydion and Lleu lived long and became well known, although they used other names rather than their own. Goewin and Cigfa became Christians, and they entered a house of nuns in Powys; and what became of Arianrhod is not known. But anyone who walks in the woods of Gwynedd or Ceredigion at night may hear a strange song, like the fairest piping that has ever been heard, and it is the voice of Blodeuwedd, still calling to this very day.

So ends this branch of the Mabinogi.