Brother of Branwen, and of Bran the Blessed (Bendigeidfran) the King of Britain. Second husband of Rhiannon, close friend of Pryderi, and by his gift, ruler of Dyfed. A canny, adaptable character who can transgress his class code, yet remain noble towards a vulnerable woman. Manawydan leads the Third Branch, and resolves the old Dyfed feud.
In the Second Branch Manawydan is repeatedly seen as part of the top royal councils.
In the Third Branch Pryderi his friend gifts him the resources of Dyfed, and his own mother Rhiannon as his queen. Manwayddan then proceeds to become the hero of the Third Branch, rescuing the Dyfed royals and the people of Dyfed from malign enchantment.
The Third Branch is commonly titled with his name.
In the Second Branch Manawydan is in the highest level of politics, trusted by his brother the king of Britain, privy to all councils. Since the king of Britain is childless, Manawydan is his heir.
He is listed as part of the formal reception of the Irish king Matholwch and his ships at Harlech. He is again listed as part of the council at Aberffraw which gave his sister Branwen in marriage to Matholwch. He is sent as one of three royal messengers to Matholwch, to offer recompense for the great insult done to him by Manawydan’s half brother Efnisien.
In Ireland it appears that peaceful agreement has been achieved by giving the Irish kingship to Manawydan’s nephew, his sister’s son with Matholwch. The child walks towards Manawydan trustingly as he does to Bendigeidfran, and their half brother Efnisien. But then Manawydan sees the child horribly killed in front of him by Efnisien, and war becomes unstoppable in its terrible course.
Manawydan is one of the Irish War’s only Seven Survivors. They spend seven years lulled by the birds of Rhiannon at Harlech. He is then the voice of knowledge which warns the other six not to open the magical door in the great hall of Gwales. When one man does so, it ends their long eighty year idyll of enchantment (87 years in all).
Pryderi of Dyfed is also one of the Seven; he and Manawydan had become a good friends. Their names are linked in the Llyfr Taliesin.
When the Seven emerge from enchantment Manawydan finds the throne of Britain has been usurped by his nephew Caswallon. But he is unwilling to start another war to claim his rights.
In the Triads he is called one of the three humble chieftains of Britain because he does not insist on his birthright.
At the start of the Third Branch Manwyddan’s nephew Caswallon has usurped the throne of Britain. Manawydan accepts exile rather than start another war.
Pryderi invites him to Dyfed, gifts him the land of Dyfed for his own use; and the widowed queen mother Rhiannon as his wife. Rhiannon and Manwydan find each other congenial, and become fast friends with Pryderi’s young wife Cigfa too.
There is an implication of Rhiannon bearing sovereignty, as in a matrilineal or sovereignty goddess tradition. If so the trasnmission is unclear for it is Pryderi who makes the gift, not Rhiannon.
It is often assumed that Pryderi gifts his land to Manwydan outright, but this is not so. He clearly refers to ownership remaining his in name, while Manawydan and Rhiannon are to have the enjoyment of it. This too contradicts Rhiannon as the holder of sovereignty unless she is a human queen priestess, representing a sovereignty goddess tradition. It is Pryderi who does homage as the lord of Dyfed to Caswallon, king of Britain, so he clearly holds the formal political lordship.
This formal homage protects Dyfed and Manawydan from Caswallon’s enmity. It resembles other Welsh kings who made strategic vows of homage to English kings, such as Hywel Dda whose reign was renowned for its peace.
The four friends sit the Gorssedd Arberth which causes a magical blight on Dyfed, the Devastation of Dyfed. The land is emptied of all other people, all animals in flocks and herds, all except wild life. After a period of hunting lifestyle, the four Dyfed royals journey to three cities in the east, in regions now under English rule, but then in the Welsh borderlands, such as Hereford.
Manwaydan takes the lead of the little group, proposing they become craftspeople. They are extremely successful at it, making first saddles, then shields, then shoes, in the three cities respectively. In the Triads Manawydan is called one of the Three Golden Shoemakers.
Their skill and business success however, excites dangerous envy among the local craftspeople. Pryderi is contemptuous wanting to kill them. Manawydan counsels restraint, and so they merely move on to another city. After the third try they return to Dyfed.
Again living as hunters, Manawydan and his friend Pryderi follow a magical white boar which leads them to a newly built tower. Like a properly brave hero, Pryderi enters it to reclaim his valuable hounds, but he becomes trapped by a magical hanging golden bowl. Manwydan does nothing to help him but merely returns to Rhiannon to report, who rebukes his disloyalty to his friend.
She tracks her son to the tower, follows him in and also becomes trapped by the golden bowl. They are voiceless and paralysed, then the whole tower disappears.
From now on the Third Branch centres on Manawydan.
First he responds to Cigfa’s very realistic despair for she is now living unprotected with a man not her blood relative, nor is he her husband. She naturally expects rape, and a ruined life as a respectable woman. Manawydan reassures her at length, that he will respect her.
He gives three reasons.
He would not have acted otherwise if he were younger, which strongly implies this gentle behaviour is essential to his nature. He will keep faith with his friend Pryderi. He will honour Cigfa for her own sake.
Manawydan does not mention keeping faith with his wife the queen Rhiannon. He may see this as part of his loyalty to Pryderi, not Rhiannon direct, as it would be Pryderi’s task to avenge any insult to his mother. In formal terms the central relationship is between the two men.
Alternatively Manwydan may not see a duty to be monogamous. Older Celtic forms of marriage allowed him several types of marriage, which might make Rhiannon his chief and lifelong, but not his only wife.
Alternatively this may just be a literary device which favours three points, something dear to both prose and poetic texts in Celtic traditions.
Manawydan pretty much rebukes Cigfa for her fear, telling her that she is wrong to think like this. His lack of respect here for her very realistic terror is clumsy. It resembles gentler men today who object to a woman seeing them as a potential threat. But from the woman’s view, practically any man can be a threat in such a situation, until he proves he is not.
In raising the issue of her safety Cigfa represents the conservative code of respectability. She acts similarly later, twice, when Manawydan proposes to act in a way unbecoming to a lord, in her view.
Having lost their hunting dogs in the tower of the golden bowl, Manawydan and Cigfa first try again to live as shoemakers,which Cigfa finds unsuitable to their status. The same happens as before, as self interest prompts danger from other shoemakers. Cigfa expresses the same noble contempt as Pryderi before her (cf. the Triads naming Manawydan one of the Golden Shoemakers.)
Manwydan now takes to farming, using seed corn brought from their stay elsewhere. He tills and sows three fields of wheat near Arberth, the source point of the Devastation still in force. The wheat grew well but at harvest time he found the stalks in one field bare of ears. The same happened to the second field the following day so like Teyrnon facing the loss of his new foals, Manwydan sits vigil at night.
He discovers a horde of mice stealing the corn. He catches one who is fat and slow.
Manwydan now acts strangely, vowing to execute the mouse as a thief. Cigfa pleads with him again for acting unsuitably, but Manawydan is adamant. The mouse, who is a pregnant female, is trapped in his glove amd he builds a gibbet for it out of forks, on Gorssedd Arberth. The oddity and the location both suggest this is a magical challenge, and the challenge is answered.
First a poor scholar, then a priest, then a bishop, each in turn attempt to pay him to release the pregnant mouse. Each offers more moneythan the last, all of which Manawydan refuses. Finally Manawydan demands the freedom of Pryderi and Rhiannon, and the lifting of the Devastation of Dyfed, and the ‘bishop’ agrees.
The ‘bishop’ must also explain. He adnits he is Llwyd ap Cilcoed, and the mouse is his shapechanged wife. Llwyd is acting out of frienship for Rhiannon’s rejected suitor Gwawl, in revenge. Manwydan carefully exacts his promise there will be no more of it.
When Pryderi and Rhiannon return they report they had been living in strange servitude, which had connections to beasts of burden and hammers.
Manawydan is also mentioned in Culhwch ac Olwen in Arthur’s band; with Pryderi in Llyfr Taliesin; and in a Llyfr du Caerfyrddin poem.
Manawydan ap Llyr’s name is very similar to the Irish Manannán mac Lir, including the father’s name (patronymic) but otherwise there is little resemblance.
The Irish Manannán mac Lir is a sea deity which Manawydan is not; and while both are at times merchants, Manawydan is a multi-skilled craftsman selling his own handmade excellent products. Nor is the Irish Manannan a farmer. The Irish Manannan is a wonder worker in his own right, for example shape shifting, and using a cloak of forgetfulness. Manawydan’s aim around magic is the protection of his family, but he is clever negotiator, rather than himself being a magician.
Manawydan’s character is strikingly restrained, and does not follow the warrior tradition.
Having loyally supported his brother Bran in a disastrous war, he declines to fight his nephew for the British throne. He will not fight aggressive English craftsmen who hound his family out of town due to envy of his skills. Rhiannon actually reproaches him for not doing anything to help her beloved son when Pryderi disappears into magical absence. He is careful to reassure the young girl Cigfa she is safe in his care during Pryderi’s absence. His great achievements of freeing Rhiannon and Pryderi, and lifting blight from the land, are done by methodical negotiation, not heroics or dangerous adventures.
Most modern authors believe Manawydan’s pacifism, practical resourcefulness, respect for women, and ‘reasonable man’ persona, is the personal ideal of the author of the Branches. This makes peace and restraint a central theme of the Four Branches. Alternatively Manawydan plays out a polarity with the noble ideal, or knight’s code.
The name Manawydan includes the Welsh name Manaw, the Isle of Man, so Manawydan and Manannan may both derive from a Manx tradition, which diverged later on. Alternatively Manawydan may derive from Manau, a kingdom of the Old North. That kingdom may possibly have been settled by Manx people, or vice versa, which would account for these place names, and the Mabinogi hero name being similar.
Alternate spelling Manawyddan.
The name of Manwydan’s father is Llyr, but there is little information about him in the Welsh canon, other than his three children, Manawydan, Bedigeidran and their sister Branwen.
In addition to appearing in the Second and Third Branches, Manawydan is named in two Triads, in a poem in Llyfr Caerfyrddin, and as one of Arthur’s men in Culhwch ac Olwen.
(First published 20/07/2014: Shan Morgain)