The Children of Llŷr

Viking chess

The Plant Llŷr, the Children of Llŷr, are the last of the Three Great Families of Welsh myth for us to consider. They teach us about leadership, and about human society under the rule of the Gods.

They stand between the impersonal systems and technologies of the Plant Dôn on the one hand, and the individual journey of the spirit exemplified by the Plant Annwn on the other, holding them in balance so that neither dominates to the detriment of the other. In this way, a healthy community can be maintained.

Though they are Kings, and a Queen, we do not need to be royalty to learn from them. We may or may not have a formal position of leadership in our community; each of us is, after all, “master of our fate, the captain of our soul”.

The members of the Plant Llŷr appear in the the Second and Third Branches of the Mabinogi. They are:

  • Brân the Blessed – in Welsh, Bendigeidfran. Brân means ‘crow’, thus: ‘The Blessed Crow’. Brân is the High King of the Island of the Mighty (another name for Prydain, or Britain).
  • Branwen, his sister – the ‘White Crow’, or the ‘Holy Crow’.
  • Manawydan, their brother, next in line to the throne. Manawydan is the only one of the Children of Llŷr to appear in the Third Branch as well as the Second.

As with our discussions of the other great families, the Children of Dôn and the Children of Annwn, you’ll need to be familiar with the relevant tale, in this case the Second Branch, already; I don’t have space to recap.

In Welsh society, from the days of prehistory, through the Laws of Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good) in the 10th century, until the suppression of Welsh law by the English crown in the 16th century, the pre-eminent function of Welsh justice was to find a fair and reasonable solution in which the legitimate interests of all parties, and of society as a whole, were honourably respected.

This is important, because it did not measure an individual against an inflexible law. It was not based on retribution. It took into account the relationships involved. When a crime occurred, the law considered not only the victim as an individual, but also the clan to which the victim belonged, and the victim’s standing in society. Likewise, the accused was not simply an individual; he or she was also a member of a family and a clan which had a responsibility to self-police its members. Both criminal and victim were members of clans amongst other clans, who collectively formed the tribe and nation which the King ruled.

As we have discussed previously, a clan-based society with no effective justice leads to feuds and vendettas which endure across generations, with revenge becoming the driving motive, and peaceful co-existence (let alone cooperation) becoming impossible. This is a route to savagery and poverty; a people cannot be great under such conditions.

The critical insight is that we must be able to live together in peace; not just now but in the future. There is no point in harsh judgements which leave one side angry and vengeful; likewise, there can be no valid solution which leaves one side humiliated.

The story of the Children of Llŷr teaches us about leadership under complex conditions. It recognises that whether we are High King of Britain, or just you and me trying to live our ordinary lives as best we can, we cannot impose solutions; we can only seek to find solutions which, as best as possible, satisfy all parties concerned. However, it also teaches that there are limits to this.

In the Second Branch, the British are approached by the Irish. The Irish High King, Matholwch, wishes to marry Branwen. It is a reasonable request, and would benefit both kingdoms by strengthening the ties between them.

Brân receives the Irish with dignity and honour. They peacefully negotiate the terms of the marriage, and gifts are exchanged.

Then the agreement is threatened: Efnisien, half-brother to the Plant Llŷr by the same mother but different father, gravely insults the Irish. War is a likely outcome, but Brân is able to placate the Irish through diplomacy and more gifts. The Irish are able to forgive the insult, as they accept it was neither the act nor the wish of Brân.

Branwen marries Matholwch and moves with him to Ireland, where they have a son. Over time, malicious factions in the Irish court convince Matholwch to reject Branwen; she is humiliated, and beaten daily.

Branwen endures it all. It is interesting to compare her situation with Blodeuwedd, who fought back to obtain her own happiness. Branwen does not fight back, because she is a queen. She acts not solely in her own interests, but in the interests of her nation: the Britons. Instead of resisting, which in her situation would be futile, she patiently trains a starling to carry a message across the Irish Sea to Brân. Then she waits for her brother to come for her.

Brân, when he receives the message, immediately musters his warriors for war. Diplomacy is not considered. Why not? Because, as King, Brân must think of the needs of the people, not just now but in the future. If the British accept the mistreatment of their Queen, or accept any kind of payment of gift in recompense, they have put a price on their collective honour. Never again will other nations regard them with respect.

Brân’s actions during the campaign show that this is not about his personal or family pride. He carries his Druids and Bards across the Irish Sea. When his warriors are stopped by the river Shannon, which they cannot cross, Brân lowers his body into the water so that the warriors can use him as a bridge, their muddy boots marching across his back and his fine clothes.

Eventually, the Irish are defeated, with great loss of life on both sides – although the Irish suffer far more; they are almost annihilated as a people. The British have lost most of their warriors but, back in Britain, their families are safe, under the protection of the warriors left behind. Their children and grandchildren will grow up as warriors in their turn, with the great tale of their forebears preserved and repeated by the Bards, so that they strive to be even greater in turn. Other nations will have learned that the British will tolerate no insult, and will treat them accordingly, with respect and honour.

Brân himself is mortally wounded. As we have discussed, he orders his surviving comrades to cut off his head and take it London, to be buried there. He tells them that on this errand they will spend seven years in Harlech and eighty years in Gwales, and that their journey from there to London will be a slow one. It isn’t stated anywhere, but I suspect that the journey lasted a century, a year, and a day. Why so long? We’ll come back to that below.

As for Branwen, she returns with the seven companions and the severed head to Wales. They land on Ynys Môn – Anglesey – where Branwen, rather abruptly, dies of sorrow because of all the ruin caused on her account.

The version of the Second Branch that has come down to us  seems to have been written by a scribe who missed one of the central themes. After a great trauma, there needs to be time for healing and regeneration – and it is part of a leader’s duty to ensure that this happens, regardless of personal consequences.

Branwen dies because there could be no healing while she lived. Imagine her returning to a Britain full of widows: women whose men died for her sake. For so long as she lived, every one of those women would be thinking “My man died for you. I lost my husband, my children lost their father, for you. Why are you here, and not him?” There could be no healing, no peace, and the hurt would infect the people of Britain for generations. Instead, Branwen acts as a Queen. She takes the sorrow and the grief of the women of Britain upon herself, and dies of grief as a result – but her death frees the women of Britain to move on, and to raise their children in pride and honour.

With Brân dead, his brother Manawydan should become the next High King, under the matrilinear rules of Celtic sovereignty. However, Brân’s command to take his head to London means that Manawydan is removed from his people for over a century. In his absence, the Kingship is retained by Caswallawn, who usurped the role while Brân and Manawydan were in Ireland.

In this manner, Brân’s final act as king is to ensure that the Britons can move on, under the rule of a King who has no responsibility for, and no connection with, the catastrophic expedition to Ireland. King and people alike can take pride in the heroism and honour of their warriors, but there is no need for recriminations over the scale of the loss – as there would have been if Manawydan had taken the throne, or indeed Brân’s son Caradog (who died during Caswallawn’s coup d’etat).

So far, we have discussed Brân and Branwen. Manawydan shows a different aspect of leadership: one so significant that he has an entire branch of the Mabinogi named after him.

There is so much that can be said about Manawydan. At every point, he manifests restraint, and a consideration of the bigger picture. He takes great care over the welfare of those for whom he has responsibility, but he also considers the bigger picture.

Manwydan is the rightful king after Brân’s death. He could lawfully seek to seize the crown back from Caswallawn, and some urge him to do so. Manawydan knows, though, that this is the wrong thing for Britain which, by now, is at peace, prosperous, and recovered from the losses of the Irish expedition. The people are settled under Caswallawn’s rule. Manawydan understands this. Rather than begin a civil war for what would really be about his own pride and ambition, Manawydan gives up his claim. More: he publicly pays allegiance to Caswallawn. Thus, he removes all grounds for factionalism, and ensures that peace will prevail.

Having done his duty to the people of Britain, Manawydan retires to Demetia with Pryderi, where he marries Rhiannon. Peace does not come to him here; he is entangled in precisely the kind of inter-generational vendetta we discussed above: the revenge of Llwyd ap Cil Coed upon Pryderi for the wrong done to Gwawl ap Clud by Pryderi’s father, Pwyll.

Manawydan, Rhiannon, Pryderi, and Cigfa are forced to move Lloegr to make a living. Thanks primarily to Manawydan’s skills, they succeed: indeed, they prosper. However, time after time, they succeed so well that their local competitors, whose trade they have taken, conspire to kill them. Pryderi would fight back, and kill them in turn. Is this not self-defence? Is this not justified resistance to oppression and insult, as was Brân’s assault on Ireland?

No, it is not. Brân was defending his kingdom and people so that they might live, unmolested by arms or insult, in their own place. Manawydan understands that he and his companions are living and working in other’s communities, not their own. They have no roots there, no lasting place there. They can make a living elsewhere just as well. So, it is better for all to just move on; set up shop in a new place and prosper there for as long as it is possible. No feuds are created; no deaths are caused that will bring future vengeance. No-one’s honour is violated.

Is it cowardly to leave without a fight? It is not, because who really cares? The townsfolk had a not-unreasonable (from their perspective) complaint. Once Manawydan and his group leave, they will be forgotten. Manawydan and his group had no stake or investment in those towns; they lose nothing by moving on. There is no lasting enmity; there is no need for either group to think about, or care about, the other ever again. Peace endures.

Returning to Demetia, the friends endure more trials. Rhiannon and Pwyll are trapped in a mysterious castle. Manawydan and Cigfa, remaining free, find that the corn they depend on for survival is being stolen.

Manawydan uses his skills to identify the thieves: the warriors and servants, and even the wife, of Llwyd ap Cil Coed. This is a delicate situation: Llwyd is acting to avenge his friend. By any account, Gwawl ap Clud was ill-used and humiliated during the events of the Second Branch; Llwyd is not acting illegitimately. By the rules of honour, Manawydan – who has captured Gwawl’s pregnant wife in the act of stealing the corn – has a legitimate right in turn (by the standards of the time) to hang her as a thief. However, Manawydan understands that this would merely pass the feud on to the next generation again, and who knows how that would turn out? Instead, he finds an honourable solution. No-one dies; all are reconciled. The feud is ended, and all can live in peace without having to look over their shoulder.

We can now see that the stories of the Plant Llŷr are not simply fairy tales, or legends to be re-told without thought. They depict for us principles which apply to our time just as they applied to the time of the ancient Britons and the mediaeval Welsh. Indeed they are relevant to all times, because they deal with the human situation.

None of us is purely an individual; we exist in a social context, and we must deal with the social mores and customs in which we live just as we must live by our personal moral code. We have a duty to ourselves and our people to defend our interests: but we must find a way to do this that does not undermine the legitimate interests of others. We must understand that our decisions and our behaviour have consequences, both in this life, and as part of the soul’s journey and, in this understanding, break the chains of negative feedback. Balance must be maintained; the ruler must be the source of peace and well-being for those to whom he has a responsibility and a connection. If we can live by this measure, we will be making the world better.

Image credits: Hnefatafl by Craig A Rodway on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons licence.

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