Y Traeth Mawr (‘the great stretch of sand’) was the name given to an area of sand and salt marshland separating the old Merionethshire from the old Caernarvonshire (or, in Mabinogi terms, the commotes of Ardudwy and Eifionydd). Situated at the estuary of the River Glaslyn, it was regularly flooded by the sea and was notoriously dangerous to cross. Between 1808 and 1812, at the instigation of William Alexander Madocks, an embankment, known locally as ‘the Cob’, was built to exclude the sea from a large portion of the Traeth Mawr. Today the Cob carries the A497 from Porthmadog to Minffordd, a cycle path and the Ffestiniog railway.
On the North Wales coast between Aberdesach and Pontllyfni is a headland called Trwyn Maen Dylan (‘the Headland of Dylan’s stone’), and on the beach below is a large stone (sometimes submerged) known as Maen Dylan (‘Dylan’s Stone’). This stone has become associated with Dylan Eil Ton (‘Dylan Son of Wave’), as it is situated very close to that part of the old cantref of Arfon where some of the events of ‘The Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi’ are believed to be set.
Dylan was not a well-known boy’s name in Wales until popularised by the poet Dylan Thomas. It is generally assumed that his well-educated father, David John Thomas, took it from his reading of The Mabinogion.
Caer Aranrhod (generally known as Caer Arianrhod) is the name given to a group of rocks in the sea about a mile off the coast of Dinas Dinlle, a village on the North Wales coast about six miles from Caernarfon. The rocks are visible only at low tide.
Dinas Dinlle, the site of an Iron-Age fort, is referred to later on in the story as Dinas Dinlleu, spelt in such a way as to suggest a connection with Lleu Llaw Gyffes, Arianrhod’s rejected son.
Caer Arianrhod is also the name given in Welsh to the constellation of the northern sky known as Corona Borealis. This constellation has also been associated with the Greek goddess Ariadne.
Lleu Llaw Gyffes means ‘the fair-haired one with the skilful hand’. The name Lleu is thought to be connected with the Celtic god Lug (the Roman Lugus; the Irish Lugh) who is associated with the Roman god Mercury. He is sometimes depicted in a three-headed form. Variations of the god’s name are to be seen in various place-names, including Lyon, Leiden, Laon and Caerliwelydd (the Welsh name for Carlisle). Lughnasa, the festival of Lug took place on the first of August and continues to be celebrated in Ireland. There are believed to be parallels between Lughnasa and the English and Welsh feast-days, Lammas and Calan Awst.
There are about 600 species of Oak trees and shrubs belonging to the genus Quercus. The common oak (Quercus robur), sometimes known as the English oak, is very widespread in Britain, and is said to have been the predominant tree of Europe since prehistoric times.
The oak (like the ash and the hawthorn) has played an important part in Celtic mythology, legend and folklore. It is believed to have magical properties and has been considered one of the gateways to the Otherworld. It can be seen that the ‘oak’ features prominently in the englyn that Gwydion sings to Lleu during the period he is transformed into an eagle.
Broom is the name given to a large number of shrubs which belong mainly to the genera Chamaecytisus, Cytisus and Genista. One of the most well-known is the common broom (Cytisus scoparius) which is widespread throughout northern Europe. The majority of broom species have yellow flowers.
Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) is a perennial herb which is widespread throughout Europe and Western Asia. It grows traditionally in damp meadows which explains its alternative name, queen of the meadow, and its Welsh equivalent, brenhines y weirglodd. It is believed by some to have been one of the sacred herbs of the Iron Age priestly order known as druids.
The name Blodeuedd is taken from the Welsh word blodau, meaning flowers. Later on, she is given the name Blodeuwedd ('face of flowers'*) and this is the name by which this character is generally known.
* Blodeuwedd is often translated into English as 'Flower-face', which has a tendency to sound either amusing or derogatory!
Mur Castell (‘Castle Wall’), now known as Tomen y Mur (‘The Mound of the Wall’), is situated near Trawsfynydd in Gwynedd. Originally the site of a Roman fort, it later became the location of a medieval castle, possibly built by William Rufus in the eleventh century. The castle was of the typical motte-and-bailey variety, the motte (or mound) being built within the enclosure of the original Roman walls.
Here we have another example of a placename supposedly linked to Lleu (see also Dinas Dinlleu in the bookmark for page 55). Today, we speak of the Nantlle valley (Dyffryn Nantlle), which is situated to the east of Penygroes and Talysarn in Gwynedd. One of the villages in Dyffryn Nantlle is called Nantlle. It is the location of a lake known as Llyn Nantlle Uchaf (‘Upper Nantlle lake'), there having once also been a Llyn Nantlle isaf (‘Lower Nantlle lake'). During the 19th and early 20th centuries, slate was mined in the Nantlle valley, and the scars left by the industry are still to be seen on the landscape.
There is a lake about three miles from Tomen y Mur (see bookmark for page 59), to the east of the village of Ffestiniog, known as Llyn y Morynion (‘the Lake of the Maidens’).
Click here for more information on Llyn y Morynion (Welsh-language webpage).
Although blodeuwedd would probably not be recognized as a word for ‘owl’ by modern speakers of Welsh (who would say tylluan or gwdihŵ), it is listed in the Rev. D. Silvan Evans’s 19th century dictionary of the Welsh language.
Blodeuedd’s story in The ‘Fourth Branch’ was the inspiration for Blodeuwedd, a play by the Welsh playwright Saunders Lewis, and also for The Owl Service, the novel by Alan Garner which was made into a film.
The stone known as Llech Gronw (‘Gronw’s Stone’) can be found today on the land of a farmstead called ‘Bryn Saeth’ (‘The Hill of the Arrow’) in Cwm Cynfal (The Cynfal Valley), not far from Blaenau Ffestiniog in Gwynedd. It is said that it was found lying on the banks of the Bryn Saeth River, a tributary of the River Cynfal. It is also said that a small mound on the land belonging to a house called ‘Llech Goronwy’ is the grave of Gronw Pebr.
Read more about Gronw Pebr's grave here (Welsh-language webpage).
Click here to see a picture of 'Llech Gronw'.
There are parallels between this story and the poem ‘Perceval, the Story of the Grail’, by the 12th century troubadour Chrétien de Troyes. In the context of The Mabinogion, therefore, ‘Peredur son of Efrog’ is described as one of the 'three romances' (the other two being ‘The Lady of the Well’ and ‘Gereint son of Erbin’). However, the stories of Peredur and Perceval are by no means identical, and it is not clear whether one influenced the other, or whether they emerged independently from similar sources. The debate about which came first has been somewhat acrimonious and has been given the name the Mabinogionfrage (‘the Mabinogion question’). Whatever the truth, in ‘Peredur, son of Efrog’, we are certainly aware of Anglo-Norman influences which are quite different from the Celtic and Romano-British influences that pervade many of the other stories in The Mabinogion.
Efrog is the Welsh name for York.
The ‘North’ may be equated with what is sometimes described as ‘The Old North’ (Yr Hen Ogledd). This is the term given to those parts of northern England and southern Scotland where a Brythonic-based language was spoken in the early medieval period between approximately 500 and 800. Brythonic was the language of the ancient Celtic people of Britain which evolved into four separate languages: Welsh, Breton, Cornish and Cumbric.
As we learn later in this story, ‘Arthur’s court’ is based in Caerllion ar Wysg (Caerleon on Usk), situated on the River Usk in southeast Wales, not far from Newport. In the more ancient story, 'How Culhwch Won Olwen', King Arthur's Court is said to be at Celli Wig ('Forest Grove') in Cornwall. We are therefore seeing the influence of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century Historia Regum Britanniae (‘History of the Kings of Britain', translated into Welsh under the title Brut y Brenhinedd), which named Caerleon as Arthur’s court.
Gwenhwyfar was the wife of King Arthur who (according to the Arthurian romances) was unfaithful to her husband with the knight Sir Lancelot. The name Gwenhwyfar translates as ‘fair phantom’, which corresponds to Findabair, who appears in the Irish story Táin Bó Cúailnge (‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley'). In French Arthurian tales, she is known as Guenièvre, and in English versions, as Guinevere. The name Jennifer is said to derive from Gwynnever, the Cornish version of the name.
Cai appears in four of the other tales of The Mabinogion: ‘The Lady of the Well’, ‘Geraint son of Erbin’, ‘How Culhwch won Olwen’ and ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’. He is also referred to in the Welsh Triads and in the poem ‘Pa gur’ which is preserved in the 13th century Black Book of Carmarthen (Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin).
In Arthurian literature he is a widespread though peripheral figure, usually portrayed as Sir Kay, one of the Knights of the Round Table, and often linked to Bedivere (Bedwyr). As in The Mabinogion, he is sometimes presented as a rather fiery, cantankerous individual.