Well, it’s come to an end. This is the fourth and last post exploring my upcoming album Four Branches: Tales of the Mabinogi in Song.
The branches have ended, but in many different translations of the Mabinogion you will find several different stories following the Four Branches. Some of them are called Independent Native Tales or the Five Romances or whatnot.
One of these miscellaneous stories is entitled How Culhwch Won Olwen. This is a downright epic story.
Culhwch is this guy who is in love with Olwen, the daughter of a giant named Ysbaddaden. The giant tells Culhwch that the only way he’ll get his daughter’s hand in marriage is if he completes all these impossible tasks.
It’s almost a Hercules story in a way. The giant gives ol’ Culhwch a huge list of tasks he needs to complete, and each time the giant says “You must do this,” Culhwch pretty much laughs and shrugs and tells the giant “Easy peasy!” The giant tells him “Oh, you may think it’s easy, but you also have to do this! And that!“
And the list of tasks is so incredibly long and absurd. Reading it, I had a headache by the time Culhwch headed out for adventure. In the song, I obviously shrink the list considerably and focus on what I think were the main tasks.
He first must obtain a pair of shears and a comb from between the ears of Twrch Trwyth, a dangerous, hellish boar. And a long series of impossible situations make it so that it’s nearly impossible to get the boar. Among the long, tedious list is the fact that there’s only one hound that can hunt the boar, a dog named Drudwyn. But whoops, only one man can handle the dog, the man named Mabon, but whoops, no one knows where this guy is. Some people say Mabon is very similar to Pryderi, as he’s been lost since birth. The list goes on to say they need a specific collar, a specific leash, all these specific people…it’s impossible tasks all the way down, pretty much.
Culhwch gets his cousin, this guy you probably never heard of by the name of…um King freakin’ Arthur, to lend him pretty much an army. The author does us an injustice and names off every single person he takes with. It takes up literally pages of just names. It almost puts The Wheel of Time to shame with its name dropping.
Anyway, Culhwch gathers a great big army and they go off looking for Mabon.
They ask the oldest animals in the world, being a bird, a stag, owl, eagle, and salmon, they finally discover where Mabon is, and they rescue him. Then, they get the hound Drudwyn (and all the superfluous stuff that they needed to get, too). They pursue the boar, who rampages across the country and destroys a lot of stuff and murders a ton of people, but they finally corner it and get the shears and comb. The giant has them cut his hair and then kill him, and they win Olwen at last. Ends on a strange note, to be honest. But the story is full of things that made me go “Ha! Wait, what?“
This is a very basic retelling of the tale. If you read the actual story, be prepared to stumble over pages of Welsh names and tedious banter between giant and mortals. My song How Culhwch Won Olwen condenses it down into a Disneyfied version safe enough to consume! It’s an epic story, so I felt I needed an “epic” feel to it.
Admittedly, this song wasn’t going to be on the album…I just had no love for it until I sat down with my instruments and began piecing it together. Now I absolutely love it.
The last song on the album, The Awen, tells the greatest story of Welsh mythology, in my opinion.
It’s the story of Ceridwen and Taliesin.
This goddess named Ceridwen creates a brew, called the Awen, to give to her son in order for him to gain the knowledge and inspiration of all there is, was, and ever will be. But the servant she has stirring the cauldron, Gwion Bach, accidentally takes the Awen for himself and becomes enlightened (think Celtic Buddha). Ceridwen gives chase in anger, giving way to a shapeshifting pursuit. Gwion Bach finally turns into a grain of wheat, and Ceridwen turns into a hen and eats him.
She gives birth to him nine months later, and throws him into a coracle into the sea. He is found later by a stranger and is given the name “Taliesin” meaning Shining Brow, and even as a newborn infant he recites the greatest poetry ever. He is the greatest Bard of the Island of the Mighty.
The song isn’t exactly a retelling of the story as it is kind of a chant, a devotional in a way. I didn’t write it with the intention of telling a story. In truth, the three verses were written years apart from each other. The first rendition of the song included only the last verse: Taliesin, you drank the Awen. Share it with me…share it with me. This almost has a prayer-like quality to me. We’re asking Taliesin to bestow upon us the inspiration of the Awen.
It was about a year later that I wrote the first verse: Ceridwen, light the fires. Boil the cauldron, invoke, inspire. Brew the Awen, brew it well. You have a story to tell. This highlights Ceridwen as creatrix of the Awen, the goddess of inspiration and wisdom.
The middle verse came way later and highlights the shapeshifting chase: The hare, the hound, the salmon and otter, the wren, the falcon. The grain of wheat, the black-crested hen. Run, boy, run.
This bit in the story has been said to have symbolized an initiatory process (indeed, it was an initiation of sorts for young Gwion Bach), and the four classical elements can be seen implemented in it, as well (Earth: the hare and hound, Water: The salmon and otter, Air: the wren and falcon, Fire: the grain of wheat–the seed of life–and the hen). Lots of imagery and symbolism in this story. It’s no wonder why it’s such a central theme in Druidry and Bardistry.
So in the end, you can hear elements of the story being told in the song, but it is by no means a comprehensive retelling. It’s, in my opinion, the best way to end the album, on a hopeful and inspiring note.
Why did I want to create an album telling the stories of the Mabinogi? It was actually a very tough decision. I knew I wanted to create this album at some point, but I didn’t know if it would be my first try at making an album. It was actually a toss-up between this and two other ideas, and I would frequently switch gears over a few months’ time. “I’m going to make a Mabinogion album” I would tell myself. Then a few months later, “Why would I do that? I’m going to make a different album!” And a few months later, I’d change my mind again until one day I took a step back and said, “I’ll let the Awen flow where it wants to go.” And here we are.
It was songs like the ones on the Four Branches album that originally turned my attention to Welsh mythology and the Mabinogi. Stories are meant to inspire, meant to encourage exploration of not only the past and the world around you, but more importantly your Self. Stories like the Mabinogi seem to unlock something in my mind, opens the floodgates of dreamlike imagination and inspiration.
I always like to mention Damh the Bard’s song Oak, Broom, and Meadowsweet when I talk about such stories and songs because that was one of the first songs that really captured my imagination and flipped a switch in my mind. I thought, “Hey, this is a really fun story.” I saw lots of imagery in it, lots of symbolism, and I just had to figure out where it came from. That really was what turned me on to the Mabinogi in the first place.
If my album does the same for someone else, if a specific line gets stuck in someone’s head or makes them think “Huh, I wonder what all that was about,” and engages their curiosity and imagination, I think I’ve done my job.