The Mabinogion is a name given to a collection of medieval Welsh tales drawn from the rich mythology of Celtic Britain. The earliest manuscripts date from around 1325, but it is certain that the tales on which they were based have roots that go back centuries before this time to an age in which Welsh and Roman elements blended to form a unique oral tradition. I have recently begun reading these tales, and it has been a refreshing experience in the literal sense of the word: they are unlike any other myths I have encountered. They conjure up a strange, almost hallucinatory dream-world, where heroism and great deeds exist alongside magic and surreal alternative realities. Consider this strange yet transfixing passage from a tale called Peredur Son of Evrawg:
Peredur rode on towards a river valley whose edges were forested, with level meadows on both sides of the river; on the one bank there was a flock of white sheep, and on the other a flock of black sheep. When a white sheep bleated a black sheep would cross the river and turn white, and when a black sheep bleated a white sheep would cross the river and turn black. On the bank of the river he saw a tall tree: from roots to crown one half was aflame and the other green with leaves. Beyond that a young lord sat on a mound with two white-breasted brindled greyhounds on leashes lying alongside, and Peredur was certain he had never seen such a royal-looking lad.
The imagery and narrative style are quite unlike anything we might find in the literary traditions of Greece, Rome, or the Middle East. They are more surreal and hypnotic than even the Scandinavian myths. We will relate one of the tales here, a story called The Dream of Maxen. The protagonist of this story, Maxen, takes his modified name from a Roman emperor of late antiquity (Maxentius, who ruled from 306 to 312), and must have been inspired by the continuous contact of the Roman and Celtic cultures in Britain during that period. A version of the tale is also found in the Historiae of Geoffrey of Monmouth, and early English chronicler. This is the story as it is told in The Mabigonion.
Maxen was emperor of Rome and was better-suited to that job than any other leader of his time. One day he told his men that he wanted to go hunting. So the next day he and some of his retinue did just that; he was with thirty-two other nobles, and it gave him great pleasure that he was lord and master over all of them. As the day became hotter, the emperor decided to sleep for a bit; so his men made a makeshift shade for him by planting their spears in the ground and setting their shields over these. Underneath the emperor lay down and drifted off into sleep.
He experienced a strange dream during this sleep. In the dream he traveled through a long valley and then ascended to reach the highest mountain in the world. After this he crossed a long and flat plateau; in this region were sparkling rivers and beautiful flora. He finally reached the mouth of a large river and then a great walled fortress. There was an open gate to this fortress, and Maxen entered this gate to see what was inside. He then entered a massive hall, adorned with gold and marble; he saw two young boys playing a game of gwyddbwyll (a Celtic board game in which one side tries to capture the other side’s king). The hall was filled with rich couches and silver tables; everything was covered with “luminous stones” and precious metals.
Maxen saw other strange sights in the hall: there was a white-haired man sitting in a chair of ivory, decorated with strange and wonderful embellishments. Then he saw a beautiful girl sitting on a chair of red gold, dressed in all sorts of exotic and fine jewelry and accessories. She wore “shifts of white silk with red gold fastenings across the breast, and a gold brocade surcoat and mantle, the latter fastened by a brooch of red gold, a hairband with rubies and gems and pearls and imperial stones in alternation, and a belt of red gold.” She rose to greet the emperor and he embraced her with desire. At this point, he awakened from his dream. But he could not remove the image from his mind that he had seen in the great hall: he desired this girl passionately, and was convinced that she must exist. Soon he could not think of anything else. So he sent messengers and scouts to various parts of the world to see if, in fact, the images he had seen were based on some reality.
And eventually his men were able to locate the place of his dream: they found out that the place was located in Britain. His messengers entered the same weird hall, saw the two lads playing gwyddbwyll, the mysterious woman seated in the red chair, and the other strange scenes in this place. They told the woman that they had been sent by the emperor of Rome to fetch her and bring her to Rome to be his empress. But she responded by saying that if Maxen wanted her, he would have to come in person himself and claim her.
So the messengers returned the Rome and told Maxen what they had found. They offered to take him to the location of the great hall. “Lord,” they said, “we will guide you by land and sea to the woman you love; we know her name and her relatives and her birth.” And so they did this, and the group returned to Britain after many adventures and obstacles. He entered the great hall, found the girl, and that night slept with her. Then as gifts she asked for the island of Britain for her father, and various other territories for other members of her family. The emperor spent seven years away from Rome with her; and it was a custom that after spending a long amount of time away from Rome, the emperor could not return to the city. A new emperor was elected, and he sent Maxen a letter that he should not dare return to the city.
This Maxen refused to do. He resolved to retake the city by conquest and re-establish himself there. He made his way back to Italy with a small band of great fighters led by the brothers of Elen of the Hosts. These men were fighters better than any alive. Among these men were Kynan and Avaon, brothers of Elen of the Hosts. Maxen’s efforts to retake Rome had reached stalemate; the two emperors were evenly matched and no progress was being made. The two brothers began to plan some stratagems that would enable Maxen to retake the city by force. They did this by scaling the walls of Rome at an unexpected time and place. So Maxen was restored to his throne, and this was accomplished by the valor and cunning of the men of Britain.
The two brothers then set off on their own expeditions of conquest, subduing many peoples and cities. Eventually one of the brothers, Avaon, decided to go back to Britain with some of his men. The strange final words of The Dream of Maxen are these:
Avaon and many of his men decided to go home, but Kynan and another group stayed, and they determined to cut out the tongues of the women, lest their own British language be contaminated. Because the women were silent and the men could speak, the men of Brittany were called Bryttanyeid, and there have often come and still do come men of that language from Brittany. This tale is called the Dream of the Ruler Maxen, and this is its end.
 Translations by Jeffrey Gantz.
 This grisly ending is apparently meant to provide a mythological basis for the Welsh name for Brittany (Llydaw), which is taken to come from Lled-taw, or “half-silent.”
Read more in Thirty-Seven:
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