The first book, or branch, of the Mabinogion, a retelling of the old Welsh legends.

Publication year: 1974
Page count: 179
Format: print, paperback
Publisher: Del Ray

The short book is split into to two books which are almost individual stories. In the first one, Descent into the Abyss, our hero Pwyll King of Dyved, encounters Death and exchanges places with him. In the second one, Rhiannon of the Birds, Pwyll finds himself a bride.

In the first story Pwyll meets Arawn, the King of Abyss. Pwyll had been hunting and had taken as his the deer that Arawn’s dogs had killed. So, Arawn suggests that Pwyll should kill Arawn’s greatest enemy, the god Havgan who could threaten the world of men as well. Pwyll is doubtful but agrees. So, Arawn and Pwyll exchange places; Arawn makes them look like each other so that no-one should know. Pwyll rides to the Underworld on Arawn’s gray horse and encounters monsters whom he has to fight. He also encounters the Goddess whom the Old Tribes worship and falls in love with her. He also has to face the temptation of Arawn’s young queen before he can fight Havgan.

The second story starts six years after Pwyll has returned to Dyved. The country has had one bad year and the Druids are worried. Pwyll hadn’t done the ritual of marrying a White Mare, as a substitute for the Mother Goddess, and the Druids think that Pwyll has so brought the gods’ wrath on Dyved. Worse still, Pwyll is unmarried. Pwyll agrees to go to the dreaded mount Gosedd Arberth where only kings can go and return alive. Also, the king can only return alive if the gods have smiled on he and shown him a vision.

So, Pwyll and his ninety-nine True Companions go to the mountain. They are touched by a weird sleepiness and in his sleep Pwyll dreams of the Fairy woman Rhiannon who is a part of the Goddess. Pwyll falls in love with her on first sight and Rhiannon agrees to marry him if Pwyll can stop her father who wants her to marry a man she doesn’t like. After a year and a day, Pwyll and his Companions start a journey to the Fairy world to claim Rhiannon. However, all of this happens in a dream and the High Druid wants to kill Pwyll while he sleeps.

The stories are told very much in the myth/fairy tale way. Pwyll is the archetypal hero who embodies the male virtues of the time: brave, loyal, keeps his word, and thinks that women are beneath him. He’s also stubborn and it takes several tries until he learns a lesson. He keeps his word even when a saner man would not. In a way, Rhiannon or the Goddess is Pwyll’s counterpoint: she’s calm, clever, merciful. She’s also extremely beautiful in the way that women in fairy tales are.

One of the themes of the book is culture clash. One is, of course, between the Fairy folk and humans. The fairies make it clear that they don’t care for Pwyll as a suitor. But in the human world Dyved is just one kingdom among many and in the second story it’s mentioned that their closest neighbor has a warrior king who wouldn’t mind conquering Dyved if Dvyed’s king is seen as weak. Also, in Dyved there are the Old Tribes whose ways and power are going away, and the rising New Tribes. The spiritual leaders of the New Tribes are the all-male Druids who are trying to wrest power from the Goddess whom the Old Tribe still worships. In fact, the High Druid says this in the second story. Pwyll resents the Druids but has to deal with them.

The Old Tribes are said not to have the institution of marriage. Women would lay with the men they wanted and a man’s heir was his sister’s son. Yet, even Death is married, the Fairies have marriage and the bride has a to be a virgin (which might be seen a counterpoint to the Old Tribe ways), and there’s an ancient tradition where a king married a woman who represents the land. So, marriage doesn’t seem to be a really new idea. Linked to this is are the roles of women. The High Druid seems to think that women among Old Tribes have a lot of power and wants to stop that. Yet, the roles of men and women are very rigid in both tribes and the underworld: men are warriors and women are beautiful and kind. The New Tribes also seem to have casual domestic abuse.

Even though the book is short, there’s time for the characters to talk about philosophy. In the first book, Pwyll and Arawn talk about the gods. There’s apparently only one god and all the others are a reflection of that one being. Yet, the gods can and will do battle with each other because they also reflect what the humans (or men rather) think about them. In the second book, the Druids’ want to steal the power from the Goddess worship and the High Druid at least wants to lower all women to nothing more than walking wombs.

The role of women in the book is quite old-fashioned. While the Goddess and Rhiannon both seem to have great powers, they can’t use them to save themselves; they have to have a male agent to work on their behalf. This is, however, in the nature of fairy tales where the men are the heroes and women tempters or maidens to be rescued.

Edited to add: It’s also in the original tales from around 13th century and Walton kept those attitudes and values in her story.

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