I've been reading the first branch of the Mabinogion, which details the journeys of Pwyll, lord of Dyfed. While hunting, he meets Arawn, king of Annwfn, who strikes a deal with him: The two will switch places for a year. At the end of the year, Pwyll will battle - and kill Hafgan, the other king of Annwfn, in Arawn's stead.

Both Arawn and Hafgan seem to posses magical powers - as evidenced by Arawn's hunting dogs and his ability to cast enchantments to change a person's appearance - while it does not seem that Pwyll had any special powers.

In the footnotes, an explanation for Pwyll's victory is given:

We see here that, rather like the Gawain, Pwyll is able to defeat the Annuvian king by following a prescribed form of behaviour, one that in many ways might seem somewhat counter-intuitive. The denouement of this act, as it were, is Pwyll's refusal to finish what he started and give Hafgan the mortal blow. The underlying implication of this act is that had Pwyll given in to his enemy's entreaty, he would have somehow failed to defeat him. Here, the natural laws of the Otherworld seem diametrically opposed to those of the mortal world, where destroying an enemy in this way would have been simple common sense.

Given that Hafgan would (seemingly) have had the advantage over Pwyll, why did Arawn choose to swap? Wouldn't he have known of the rules of the Otherworld (Annwfn), given that he was one of its kings, and been able to use that to kill Hafgan?

  • I'll answer this when I get back, but I'm excited that you're reading the Mabinogion.
    – user62
    May 6, 2015 at 18:55
  • @Christofian It's absolutely fabulous. Part of me is tempted to learn Welsh just to try to read the original, because there are cases where translation misses some of the points. But it's great; I just finished the first branch,
    – HDE 226868
    May 6, 2015 at 21:10

1 Answer 1


You're right that Arawn didn't explain his actions, but if he did you should consider it a red herring. The most important part of this story is that the hero and the "otherworld" character swap places. From the footnotes of your online translation:

As this point the plot begins to take the form of another stereotyped narrative mytheme, equally familiar throughout the Celtic world. The Otherworld Sojourn, as we might call this scenario, could take a number of forms: but always followed the same basic gist: the mortal protagonist is lured to an Otherworldly domain, where they subsequently abide for a period of time. This occurs at the instigation of one or more of the Otherworld beings, and often follows a Chase of the White Stag introduction, or some variant thereof.

The purpose of Pwyll's sorjourn in the Indigenous Underworld is to rid Arawn of his 'oppression': the rival king Hafgan ('Summer-Bright') with whom he is locked in a ongoing and irreconcilable conflict. A further example of mortal interventions in Otherworldly conflicts of this kind in the Celtic world include Arthur's adjudication of the seasonal dual between Gwynn ap Nudd and Gwerthyfyr ap Greidawl for the hand of Creiyldyd, on the Calends of May. In this and other respects, the plot of The Sickness of CuChulain and The Only Jealosy of Emer follows this First Branch episode even closer: complete with the 'Chase of the White Stag' entrée. This narrative can be summarised thus:

[it compares the story with another story]

Like Pwyll, CúChulainn finds himself indebted to Otherworld powers as a result of abusing magical animals on a hunting expedition. Like Pwyll also, this encounter carries the appearance of having been contrived and instigated by the Otherworld agency. The measured responses of Arawn ('I know who you are...'), the location and timing of their encounter, and its favourable outcome for the Annuvian king suggest that the event was no coincidence. Like Cú Chulainn, Pwyll was in effect drawn and entrapped by the otherworld powers involved. And both were required to visit Underworld regions where they were obliged to lend their assistance as mortal warriors in the magical protagonists' struggles for power. Interestingly as well, the Irish Manawydan - Manannan mac Lír - features in this same story as the one time spouse of the heroine involved. (As we shall see in subsequent chapters, Pwyll and Manawydan become linked in a similar way).

This is the most relevant section:

That the denizens of the Indigenous Underworld should be so in need of the military prowess of mortal warriors is another motif not unfamiliar within the Celtic world and beyond. The well known myth of the aversion of faery-folk to iron is an example of the ambiguous power-relationship between themselves and the mortal world. The Indigenous Underworld, however, while being mysteriously vulnerable in certain respects, was clearly a source of danger when it came to magical initiatives. The trade-off of these respective strengths and weaknesses is a frequent theme in fairy tales and popular magical tales from around the world. It was within this tradition that the narrative of much of the Mabinogi would have been understood.

The narratives produced by animistic belief systems often focus on the acquisition of power, in its elemental-magical form. The struggle for possession of this substance of power is typically waged by any variety of means: trickery and cunning prevailing as frequently as any other stratagem. In this episode Pwyll is consummately manipulated by the Underworld agent who thereby obtains his power, which becomes harnessed to the latter's own agenda in the arena of Annuvian politics. Through an act of impulsive foolishness (significantly, as we shall see, involving the dog and the stag), the ironically-named Pwyll (see p ##-##) had inadvertedly placed himself in a chain of events, which would ultimately result in a mysterious fusion between Dyfed and Annwn.

This story is about the somewhat coercive relationship between the "otherworld" and the real world. I think it's just as important to the story that Arawn (the otherworlder) takes Pwyll's (the human's) place in the real world: both the otherworld and the real world have their strengths and weaknesses, and this story is about travelling between the two, and about man's relationship with spirits.

The purpose of god's and spirits isn't to do everything themselves, but (in this story) to coerce and trick mortals into doing things for them. A specific logical reason why Arawn needs Pwyll doesn't exist, because the point of this story is that it's an example of the interactions between the spirit and real world, and not that "Arawn needed Pwyll because Pwyll is really stealthy."

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