Opening Doors Onto the Past

A Story from the Mabinogion

Manawydan ap Llyr had surrendered himself to feasting, to pleasure and to forgetting. Year after year he and his six companions gratified their desires in the Great Hall of Gwales Castle in Penfro. Year after year they ate and drank, sang and danced. They had nothing to drink to and nothing to sing about and yet they continued with their empty celebrations. Pleasure without purpose and happiness without reason, these had preoccupied them for a magical and unreal lifetime.

The Great Hall had three doors. Through two of them the seven warriors would enter and leave freely. But one door, the greatest of the three (some say it was made of glass), the door that faced Aber Henfelen and looked out across to Cernyw, they had never opened.

But one day, a full eighty years in its crafting, one of the seven, Heilyn ap Gwyn, overcome by shame and driven by something more powerful than curiosity, could resist the glass door no longer. With Manawydan’s silent consent he grasped and turned its handle. As the great door swung on its ancient and protesting hinges the companions felt the breath of the real world on their faces. It was then that they remembered their grief, and with its remembrance, the reason why they had chosen to forget.

Memories flooded into Manawydan’s mind and threatened to burst out of his body. With them came the image of Bendigeidfran whose head they had promised to bury under Gwynfryn in Llundain. Bendigeidfran, that giant of a king, that greatest of warriors; Bendigeidfran who served in order to lead and led in order to serve; Bendigeidfran, his brother. How could it be that he was no longer? What catastrophe had overcome their nation to leave them rudderless? But the memories continued to return to Manawydan, like the tide rushing up the Hafren estuary.

With a grief that rose from unseen and unknown depths within his soul he remembered the tragic story. He recalled the marriage of Branwen, his sister to Matholwch, king of the Irish. He recalled the starling Branwen had tamed and sent back to Britain with news of her abuse at the hands of her husband. He saw again the vast army Bendigeidfran had amassed to answer to his sister’s pleas for help and their journey across the Irish sea, full of dread, yet driven through the storms by rage.

Upon landing in Ireland they had been lured into a trap by the Irish king. Matholwch managed to placate his brother-in-law with promises to mend his ways and to build him a vast house. In the party to celebrate the phoney peace the Irish sprung their ambush. The battle was joined and it was brutal. With horror Manawydan remembered the Irish army’s Cauldron of Rebirth into which they would place their dead and from which the undead would emerge to continue the battle. The British could not win against this army of the resurrected. And so Efnysien, a British soldier whose past was burdened with the need for atonement, smuggled himself into the pile of Irish corpses awaiting their rebirth and, being alive when placed into the cauldron destroyed its magic at the cost of his own life.

The Irish army, denied its supernatural weapon, was completely wiped out by the larger British forces, but the cost of the British victory was greater than sorrow could express. Bendigeidfran was dead and of his vast army, only seven survived. Even Branwen was lost, having killed herself on seeing the devastation that her cry for help had provoked. The seven survivors made their way back across the sea to Penfro and there they found a castle with a Great Hall in which there were three doors.

How foolish their drinking and singing appeared to them now. How could they raise a glass or a voice when their king remained unburied? The brave warriors cast glances at one another that were filled with a knowing and a telling of their grief. It was a different courage from the one they had so often obeyed on the battle-field that summoned them to action now. They left the castle that had housed them for long enough and headed east, bearing the head of a fallen king and the burdens of a remembered past.

Glossary

Aber Henfelen – The English Channel

Cernyw – Cornwall

Harfren – River Severn

Gwynfryn – the White Mound

Llundain – London

Penfro – Pembroke

 

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