“It is not the trappings that make the prince,” he said gently, “nor, indeed, the sword that makes the warrior.”– Gwydion (The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander)
Prince Gwydion, the legendary war leader of the Sons of Don, is the kind and wise father-figure of young Taran in Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles. At first, hero-obsessed Taran is disappointed at Gwydion’s humble appearance: the mighty war leader is shaggy, middle-aged, and travel-stained, rather than the young and flashy figure Taran had imagined (and wants to become). Almost immediately, though, Gwydion’s quiet regality and dignity impress Taran deeply, and the young assistant pig-keeper learns much from the great prince on their travels together.
Like Taran, I also grew to love the strong and noble warrior. His lessons–as important to the impulsive Taran as they were to me–emphasize patience over foolish “courage,” mercy and diplomacy over violence, and the true weight of heroism.
Gwydion, with his lovely name and wise heart, became an important symbol for me of Christian leadership. Like Aslan or Gandalf, he still remains a much beloved role model.
So imagine my horror when I discovered the original Gwydion of the medieval Welsh tale the ‘Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi‘ to be a selfish, scheming, murdering, raping, trickster.
Dear Mr. Alexander, whatever were you thinking?
Like Taran’s Gwydion, the Gwydion of the Fourth Branch is also a prince and war leader. His uncle, Math, is king of Wales and a great magician. Gwydion himself is said to be a remarkable enchanter and the best storyteller in the world. Despite his nefarious deeds, he also raises his sister’s abandoned child, rights wrongs with his amazing magical illusions, helps create a woman out of flowers, and sings his wounded nephew back to health and human-form.
Mabinogi-Gwydion is a figure of mystery and wonder, as well as despicable crimes. Perhaps that is why I am so fascinated with him and with Mr. Alexander’s treatment of him. Gwydion’s gifts give him an incredible capacity for Tolkienian Enchantment–if he didn’t act so reprehensibly, his magical and artistic talents might place him in an ideal position to initiate the kind of mystical communion that we find at the end of the Second Branch of the Mabinogi. Throughout medieval Welsh poetry, Gwydion is referenced as an enigmatic figure of great magic–sometimes he even seems to embody the Enchantment of prehistoric Wales.
That’s why I feel so conflicted. The legendary Gwydion often misuses his gifts to deceive others, but sometimes his actions awaken in me a hope for his powers to enact his receptive, rather than acquisitive, desires. Gwydion is a figure, for me, of heart-breaking potential for perilous, Enchanting wonder. He is achingly close to being a textbook example of a Tolkienian Elvish sub-creator.
So, Mr. Alexander, even though I am confused by your decision to embrace Gwydion (of all people) as your gentle hero, I am grateful. The beauty of your Gwydion brought me to discover his source, and even gave me hope that the legendary Gwydion is redeemable.
I think that the Gwydion of Prydain would approve of mercy being offered to his namesake.