Of Bridges and Leaders: A Branch from the Mabinogion

Here begins an old tale from the Second Branch of the Mabinogion, told on the Island of the Mighty — Prydein or Britain.  It starts small, like many tales that grow at length to something greater.  This particular story begins with a bird …

starlingA flutter of wings, a small dark shadow overhead.  You look up.  With a Welsh name like Bran, which means Raven, you’ve grown used to such encounters.  Like calls to like, after all.  The bird, a starling, circles you,  its breast heaving with the double strain, it turns out, of a hasty sea journey and the urgent message it has for you.  It alights on the windowsill of your chamber.  Claws scuttle on the stone, as it gazes at you expectantly.  The charcoal feathers shift and settle.  As king of Britain, you’ve learned to listen.

The bird chirps its news.  The message, it seems, comes from your sister Branwen …

BranwenSome years past, Branwen married Matholwch, the king of Ireland.  A canny match. True, their wedding didn’t come off without a hitch, but then what wedding does? Efnisien, your difficult half-brother, arrived in the middle of the betrothal feast and made a stink at not being consulted.  More than peeved, he acted, mutilating some of Matholwch’s prize horses. Ah, brothers-in-law. Men on both sides lunge for their weapons. From feast to fight on the same day.

Quickly you hit on a fitting response: a gift from the royal treasury.  A conciliatory gift, a magic cauldron you give Matholwch that has the power to revive fallen warriors.  The Irish king, appeased by the marvelous gift, looks calmer.  His jaw unclenches.  At a gesture, swords are sheathed.  Spears grounded.  Blood cools, as the court bard strikes up a soothing song.  Crisis avoided.

Over the months and those first years, messages come. Time for a child and heir born to the royal couple, your nephew Gwern — check.  Time for the memory of the wedding embarrassment of an unruly relative to die down — check.  Time for healing …

A sharp squawk brings you back to the present.  The starling’s news is dark.  The shadow of Efnisien’s deed, it appears, still pricks the Irish pride and honor.  The Irish king, your brother-in-law, is mistreating Branwen, in spite of the fine heir she has provided him. He beats her daily and has banished her to the kitchens.  Nothing for it, you know, but to set out with a troop of warriors to resolve the problem — personally.  You summon men from all 154 cantrefs (districts) of Wales.  With you travel your brothers Manawydan and Efnisien.  You will not be ignored.

You cross the Irish Sea, and even before you beach your boats and stand on the eastern shore of Ireland, word of your coming has spread.  The Irish, determined to slow if not halt your advance, have taken out some of their own key bridges.

Your great stature makes you a giant among your subjects.  Literally. Leaning across each river and valley as you come to it, you lay your own body down for your men to cross over.  As you do, you say the words, “A fo ben, bid bont” — “He who would be a leader, let him be a bridge.”

[Part Two]

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Images:  starlingBranwen.

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