Gwawl fab Clud is betrothed to Rhiannon when we first meet her; First Branch, episode 2. He is a good looking, courteous, wealthy, red haired northerner (Men of the North) but Rhiannon rejects him for Pwyll.
Gwawl is first mentioned by Rhiannon but not by name, as the man to whom she is unwillingly betrothed. She and Pwyll determine to break the betrothal.
At their wedding feast Gwawl arrives to ask for Rhiannon to be restored to him. He is carefully described as tall, princely, arrayed in the rich stuff of silk, and red haired. He greets Pwyll and the company with courtesy. But he declines to sit with them as he says he comes as a petitioner.
This appears to be a powerful tradition where the generosity of a ruler is tested. From tribal days, a ‘big man’ or chief, is crucially a (re)distributor of wealth. He or she routinely gives out rich gifts, and are judged accordngly so they gain status and dignity for being generous. Conversely they are painfully shamed if they are not. It was also good strategy to make a request at a time of rejoicing: a battle win, an alliance agreed, an heir born, or a wedding.
Gwawl uses this tradition against Pwyll who demonstrates a great, open generosity, agreeing to give what Gwawl asks. Rhiannon sharply rebukes Pwyll for a foolish answer, and she is proved right for Gwawl asks for Rhiannon herself. According to the noble code of honour, Pwyll must now give Rhiannon to Gwawl, which she orders him to do, and he does so with great reluctance.
At Gwawl’s wedding feast a year later, Rhiannon organises a plot to turn the table on him. She tells Pwyll to hide his men in the orchard, and to enter dressed as a beggar, in comic rag boots. Pwyll then repeats Gwawl’s role, asking a petition. Gwawl cautiously agrees to give anything reasonable. Pwyll asks only for a ‘small bag’ to be filled with food to which Gwawl agrees.
Gwawl is now trapped in the honour system in return for Rhiannon has enchanted the ‘small bag’ so it cannot be filled up. Gwawl’s failure to keep his given word will shame him, a great thing for a society run on reputation. Following Rhiannon’s earlier direction, Pwyll explains the bag can only be filled if a noble man, owner of lands, steps into it and declares it to be full. This subtly flatters Gwawl, yet even so Rhiannon has to persuade him to it.
Once he steps in the ‘small bag’ the magical flexibility of the bag allows Pwyll to stretch it over Gwawl completely, capsize him and tie the bag closed. Pwyll sounds his hunting horn so his teulu, his waiting company of fighting men enters, to surround the hall. They play a game of kicking and beating the prisoner Gwawl with their staves: this is said to be the first time the game of badger-in-the-bag is played.
Gwawl, strikingly, remains courteous even in humiliation. He calls to them that this is no way for him to die. Rhiannon’s father supports him and the game ends. But to be allowed to go free, Rhiannon decrees that he must pay off the rest of the petitioners, let her free of the betrothal with him, and vow never to take vengeance. Gwawl duly does so, and goes off to take a much needed bath.
We hear no more of Gwawl directly. But in the Third Branch, Episode 5, the magician who has visited devastation upon Dyfed under Rhiannon’s son’s rule, reveals himself to be a friend of Gwawl. His malign work is the vengeance which Gwawl himself had sworn not to take.
Gwawl fab Clud’s name suggests he came from the north of Britain. It has been translated as ‘Wall Son Of Wealth,’ and associated with hadrian’s wall. His wealth is clear, as he wore precious silk, and is described as princely. However the River Clyde could account for the Clud name used. The capital of the kingdom on that river was Allt Clud, a massive rock on the north bank. It is now named Dumbarton, meaning city of the Britons. (Map ref. Rock NS399745). The name Alt Clut is also found referring to the whole kingdom of Strathclyde, or Cumbria.
The northern British kingdoms, Hen Ogledd, were a vigorous part of the old British culture and economy, integrated with the Welsh kingdoms, Cornwall, Brittany through trade, marriages and alliances. But Saxon incursions cut divisions until in 937 the battle of Brunanburgh established Saxon dominance in the north.
Pron. GWOWL like ‘growl.’
(First published 20/07/2014: Shan Morgain)