Enchanted Poetic Vengeance in The Mabinogion
Vengeance in The Mabinogion has a tendency to involve some form of enchantment. Contrasting this with The Tain, where time and time again vengeance involves a stone to the skull or spear up your backside during actual combat, The Mabinogion has numerous tales of revenge or villainous intent revolving around magic. It is, perhaps, the most effective use for enchantment in The Mabinogion, because it provides insight into how the ancient Welsh viewed the function of vengeance, not just as bloody retribution, but also as a “teaching moment” for morals or empathy.
In the Third Branch of The Mabinogion, Pryderi is the King of Dyfed and the son of Rhiannon. When Dyfed is magically emptied of all living people and livestock except Pryderi and his immediate family (The Mabinogion 37), he and his mother’s new husband, Manawydan, head for England to try and support themselves. After much back and forth, they return to Dyfed, where Pryderi ends up following a white boar to a caer. Once inside the caer, he touches a golden bowl that has chains that extend into the sky and becomes stuck fast, frozen (The Mabinogion 40). When Manawydan returns to the castle alone, Rhiannon chides him for not coming back with Pryderi. She goes in search of her son, and joins him in his predicament inside the caer. The caer than vanishes, along with Rhiannon and Pryderi, leaving Manawydan and Pryderi’s wife Cigfa to fend for themselves. They return to England for a time, then come back to Dyfed with some wheat to plant and try and prosper in their hollow kingdom. After planting the wheat in three different fields, Manawydan notices that each time he is about to harvest the wheat it is all destroyed. He stands vigil at the third field and notices mice trashing his wheat. He captures one, and in a well-played moment of subterfuge threatens to hang it for its crimes. He is petitioned three times by a scholar, a priest, and a bishop, to free the mouse, however he refuses. Finally, he tells the bishop he will free the mouse on the condition that Pryderi and Rhiannon are returned and Dyfed is freed from its enchantment. He also tacks on that no retribution is to be taken against Dyfed for his actions (The Mabinogion 45). Of course, the bishop is revealed to be an enchanter seeking vengeance for Gwawl, who was put in a bag and beaten by Rhiannon’s husband Pwyll years before. The magnitude of this vengeance, decades after the fact and not even against the people directly responsible for the beating, seems over the top and extreme in its complexity, however it is important to note that no one died. For all the years of torment suffered by Pryderi and his family, there was no bloodshed. This tale is long, and it involves many dead ends and what seem to be pointless details, however this structure strengthens the impression of the state of limbo that the characters are constantly faced with in their empty kingdom. The point of this enchanted vengeance is not pain, death, or torture. Instead, they are unable to move forward, unable to thrive, only able to exist. By using enchantment, their punishment is a prolonged purgatory state from which there is no escape. Any attempt to escape (such as the various trips to England) are met with forces that drive them back to the gray, dead land of Dyfed.
In the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion, enchantment abounds. We first encounter enchanted vengeance when Math punishes his sons for raping his foot-holder and virgin, Goewin. His method of punishing them is to turn them into different pairs of animals, one male and one female, every year (The Mabinogion 53). The first year, they are a stag and a doe, and Gilfaethwy gives birth to a fawn. The next year, they are a sow and a boar, and Gwydion gives birth to a piglet. The last year, they are wolves, and Gilfaethwy whelps a pup. The symbolic implied rape between the brothers is part of the poetic justice behind this enchantment. They have been reduced animals, which is what their behavior had already reduced them to. Each brother takes his turn as the victim, with Gilfaethwy taking double-duty, which is only fair as he was the one who raped Goewin, Gwydion was the enabler.
In the same tale, we see that Gwydion takes vengeance on Blodeuwedd for her attempt on Lleu’s life by transforming her into an owl, so that all the other birds will shun her and she will be relegated to the night for all of eternity (The Mabinogion 63). At first, this seems arbitrary, as the punishment does not tie into the crime. But on further analysis, we are reminded that Blodeuwedd is a woman who was formed out of oak, meadowsweet, and broom flowers to be the bride of Lleu (The Mabinogion 58). To exile her into darkness is a cruel fate for a creature of her nature, she has gone from the ultimate fertility figure to a predatory hunter, a woman designed to provide companionship is then shunned and reviled.
The Mabinogion has many examples of enchantment. We have women made of flowers, mysterious foal-stealing claws, magic cauldrons, and tyngeds. However vengeance is where these enchantments shine in the elegance of their construction and the chilling thoroughness of their execution.