Forget the seven kingdoms of Westeros. North Wales has its own set of gutsy fantasy capers: the Mabinogion. This is our guide to where you can find them.
But first, what is the Mabinogion? It’s a little-known medieval Welsh literary masterpiece – a collection of eleven epic tales set in a country – Wales – struggling to retain its independence.
The stories explore themes of honour, love, revenge, excessive boozing and betrayal. Dragons and magical swords also feature here and there. They are supernatural, fantastical and sometimes ridiculous, but always totally engrossing.
For anyone who loves Wales, what’s really interesting are the landscapes described in the Mabinogion stories. They are recognisably set in and around the western coast of Wales Many of the settings are as visible today as they would have been to our medieval forebears.
Here’s our guide to where to find the mighty Mabinogion in North Wales.
Cardigan Bay – the land that was lost to a night on the beer
Most of us know the sense of doom and regret that can follow a heavy night on the pop, but this story takes it to another level. Seithenyn was the keeper of the sea defences of Cantre’r Gwaelod – fertile lowlands which lay between the Llŷn Peninsula and the county of Ceredigion in Mid Wales. Seithenyn also liked his beer and got totally blotted at the king’s daughter’s wedding one night. He neglected his sea-defences, a storm came in and the lands of Cantre’r Gwaelod were lost to the sea forever. The big deep blue of Cardigan Bay is what now lies in its place. Let it be a lesson to us all.
Cadair Idris – the mountain that can make you mad
The name of one of our most iconic peaks – Cadair Idris – translates as Idris’s Chair. It is a reference to the mythical giant who once used the mountain as his throne. There are numerous stories and legends associated with the mountain and Idris: think giants, curses, warriors and supposedly impossible tasks. Frankly, the stories can get confusing. One message is very clear though. It is said that anyone who sleeps on the slopes of Cadair Idris will awaken either as a madman, a poet or, possibly, never wake again. Our advice is enjoy the mountain by day, but do your shut-eye in one of our Dolgellau holiday cottages. Just to be on the safe side.
The Stone of Goronwy and Llyn Morwynion, Ffestiniog
Warrior Gronw conspired with his lover, Blodeuwedd, wife of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, to kill her husband. Not a straightforward conspiracy because Lleu could only be killed if certain conditions were met. Blodeuwedd tricks him into revealing what these conditions are. To cut a long story short, Gronw winds up lancing Lleu’s side with a spear as he bathes. Bathing a little eccentrically, that is, with one foot on a goat and the other on a cauldron. The lovers make their escape. But no! Lleu is not dead! After a brief spell living as an eagle he comes back to exact his revenge on Gronw. Lleu spears his rival in the ribs – right through a shield-stone Gronw holds up to protect himself. Gronw dies. Blodeuwedd is subsequently cursed, her maidens drowned in a lake, and she is turned into an owl. You can see Gronw’s shield stone – complete with spear hole – at Bryn Saeth, Cwm Cynfal, Blaenau Ffestiniog. The lake where Blodeuwedd’s maidens were drowned – and where she became an owl – is not far away at Llyn y Morynion – Lake of the Maidens.
Branwen’s Grave, Anglesey
Branwen plays a starring role in one of our epic tales as the sister of Bran (no, not Brian) the Blessed – the giant king of Britain. Bran marries his sis off to Matholwch, king of Ireland in a diplomatic move intended to foster good relations between the two kingdoms. Unfortunately, and perhaps predictably, it doesn’t end too well. After a series of gory incidents involving mutilated horses, severed heads and a magical cauldron, Branwen returns to Wales to die of a broken heart. According to tradition, she is buried near the village of Llanddeusant on Anglesey, where there’s a Bronze Age burial mound called Bedd Branwen (Branwen’s grave). You can see its stone circle today near the village of Treffynon, Anglesey.
Harlech – home to a talking head
Bran the Blessed (see above) might have been the giant king of Britain, but that didn’t stop him from meeting a fairly sticky, though somewhat unusually chatty, end. An ill-judged match between his sister Branwen and the king of Ireland led to a rather bloody battle in which Bran was mortally wounded by a poisoned spear in his foot. Sensing he was about to expire, Bran ordered his soldiers to cut off his head. His soldiers brought his head back to Harlech where it continued to talk to them for seven years. No one knows whether he berated them or not. When the head eventually fell silent the soldiers took it a very long way away to bury it at the site of what is now the Tower of London. Facing France so as to ward off invasion. Or maybe just because it was facing away from Harlech.
If you’re looking for accommodation in the area you may like our list of Top 5 Holiday Cottages in Harlech