As a boy in Birmingham, JRR Tolkien was entranced by the strange long names written on the railway cars he saw heading west. It turned out that these trains were going to Wales, and the fascination with Welsh language and lore stayed with Tolkien and is easily visible behind the elves of LOTR.
I think it is fair to say that very few Americans have been similarly inspired by the mystique of the Welsh. Even though Welsh survives and is much more widely used than Irish, it is the latter, and to some extent the Scots, who have become our paradigmatic Celts—who knows the Welsh version of leprechauns, or St. Patrick’s Day, or shamrocks? Where are the “Kiss me, I’m Welsh” buttons? Asked to name one thing about the Welsh, what would most Americans say? Welsh rabbit, maybe, though few would get the joke (an English slur, that the Welsh are too poor to afford meat, even rabbit, so this is their substitute); I don’t know who is responsible for the bizarre and absurd corruption to “rarebit.” I don’t think the English stereotypes about Welsh people—poor, left-wing coal miners who love to sing and are prone to theft and cheating—have made the Atlantic crossing.*
So it’s no surprise that people have few preconceptions about the great classic of Welsh literature, the collection of legends and tales known as the Mabinogion. Some folktale patterns are immediately recognizable, as are elements of Celtic or medieval culture, such as fosterage (the custom of having high-class children raised in the house of a friend or relative rather than the parents). But there is also a sense of pervasive foreignness, which I can best convey by telling one of the stories.
One day Pwyll, prince of Dyfedd,, asked his advisors about a certain mound or barrow near his palace. He was told that it had special properties (not surprising—these are still liminal places in Ireland), that whoever went up to the top would either suffer a grievous injury or see something remarkable. Pwyll, still adjusting to quotidian princely life after returning from his sabbatical as king of the other world, decides to give it a shot. He ascends and sits there surveying his realm until he sees a beautiful, swankily-clad woman riding up on a magnificent horse, at what appears to be about two miles an hour. He tells one of his henchmen to run after her and ask for her number, but the man reports that, though he was sure he was outpacing her, she kept getting farther and farther away. So he returns to his lookout, having posted a man with a horse. Up come the fair damsel again, Pwyll gives the signal, and man #2 lights out after her. Same result—she never speeds up, but gets farther and farther ahead. Finally, Pwyll calls for his own steed, and the next time the woman goes by, he gives chase in person.
He too finds himself unable to chase her down despite her leisurely pace. In despair he calls out”Lady, please stop so I can talk to you!” She stops and says “It would have been kinder to your horse if you had asked me sooner.” (She is a very lippy woman of mystery.) She tells him that she, Rhiannon, has been strolling by in order to meet him, for she is betrothed toGwawl, a man she doesn’t like, and hopes Pwyll can help her out. He can take a hint, and asks to set a date. Her social calendar seems to be quite full, for they end up arranging to meet in a year and a day, at her father’s place.
Fast forward to the promised wedding feast, where everyone is having a good time until a stranger appears and asks Pwyll for a favor. P., not wanting to be ungracious on such a festive occasion, says “If it is in my power to grant, you shall have it.” Rhiannon yells “You dork, what did you say that for? Pwyll, meet Gwawl. Gwawl, Pwyll.” And of course what Gwawl wants is Rhiannon, and of course Pwyll is honor-bound to give her up, but oddly, the feast is not in his power to give (having been laid on by R’s family), so Gwawl will have to wait until her next opening, which happens to be in a year and a day.
Rhiannon, who is clearly the brains of this partnership, has devised a plan that will keep her from having Rhiannon, though, is not resigned to becoming Mrs. Gwawl, and she explains her plan to Pwyll, handing him a special bag (she is clearly the brains of this partnership). When Gwawl arrives for the day that is to make him the happiest of men, Pwyll turns up disguised as a beggar and desires a boon. Gwawl says he’ll do it if it’s reasonable watch and learn, Mr. P), and Pwyll asks that he be given enough food to fill his little bag. Gwawl can hardly refuse this request, but however much food they put in, the bag is never full (it’s a magic bag, ya know). Finally P says the only solution is for a big manly nobleman to step in and stomp down the food, declaring the bag full; Gwawl volunteers (OK, so none of these guys are very bright), steps in the bag, and Pwyll pulls it over him and ties the string.
Pwyll now summons his retainers. Each one asks, “whatcha got in the bag?” and when he replies, “It’s a badger I’ve caught,” the guy kicks it or hits it with a stick. And this, we are told, is the origin of the game Badger in the Bag. I’m sure this was a more exciting factoid for the original audience, but a footnote in my edition helpfully explains that Badger in the Bag was apparently a game where a person or animal is placed in a bag and kicked or beaten with a stick. Thanks…nobody ever said that medieval people didn’t know how to have fun.
Anyway, they let Gwawl out of the bag after making him promise to behave and leave them alone, a promise that he keeps for about 3 episodes. Pwyll and Rhiannon get married and live happily ever after until she has a baby and things get weird again.
My two favorite things about this story are the fact that Rhiannon is the only smart person and she knows it, and the convoluted windup leading to the (to us) utterly pointless onomastic explanation about Badger in the Bag.
*Growing up, I would not have recognized surnames such as Jones, Thomas, or Griffith as belonging to a particular ethnic group.