Category Archive '“Battle of the Trees”'

25 May 2010

“One of the Three Futile Battles”

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Mark Williams, a junior research fellow at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, serves up the newly discovered text of a Fifth Branch of the Mabinogi.

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi – Pwyll, Branwen, Manawydan and Math – are the greatest works of medieval Welsh prose. They are based on a rich vein of orally-transmitted folklore and mythological material, but were synthesised in the early 12th century by a redactor of genius. They take the form of four roughly chronological and interlinked short-stories, termed ‘branches’, which are set in a pre-Christian, pre-Roman Britain which resembles an idealised version of the redactor’s own high medieval era. His humane, sober style contrasts fascinatingly with the violence and shape-shifting which loom so large in the four tales. Translations into English are numerous; the most recent is that of Sioned Davies (Davies, The Mabinogion (Oxford, 2007)), which is particularly good at drawing attention to the techniques of the oral storyteller discernable in the text.

But the existence of the ‘fifth branch of the Mabinogi’, Amaethon uab Don, was unsuspected until very recently, when a hitherto-unknown medieval Welsh manuscript was discovered in the library of Judas College, Oxford. The MS itself is of a decidedly heterogenous character. It contains a series of verse prayers, a version of the ladymass, and a partial collection of legal triads. Unusually, a significant amount of agricultural material is also found in the MS, in the form of a list of activities to be performed by the farmer according to the months, and a tract on the diseases of livestock. Amaethon uab Don is the only narrative text contained within the MS. It is tempting to connect the agricultural bias of the MS with elements of the story, which, as noted below, shows an overriding concern with fertility and the natural world, as its presiding character Amaethon suggests. (Amaethon from British *Ambactonos, ‘Divine Ploughman’.) …

Before the rediscovery of the MS, the sketchy lineaments of our tale were known from three other sources. These, when placed together, point to the existence of a tale recounting a battle between Arawn, lord of Annwn, the Welsh otherworld, and the sons of Dôn, Gwydion the enchanter and Amaethon the Ploughman. Arawn plays an important part in the first branch, and Gwydion is the central character in the fourth. This skirmish, termed ‘One of the Three Futile Battles of the Island of Britain’ in one of our three sources, was brought about because Amaethon stole a hound, a roebuck and a plover from Arawn’s kingdom. When Arawn and his armies clash with those of Gwydion and Amaethon, neither side may achieve victory because each contains a kind of palladium, a warrior who may not be defeated as long as their name remains unknown. Gwydion discovers the name of the magical warrior on Arawn’s side by means of three extempore verses, which are preserved in a version rather different to that in our text. He also enchants the nearby trees, so that they acquire human form and become warriors attacking the forces of Annwn. The totemistic warrior on the side of the sons of Dôn is revealed at the last to be a woman, named Achren.

The inspiration for the pastiche can be found in the Cad Goddeu.

Hat tip to Thor Ewing.


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