Lludd and the three plagues

March 30, 2020 2 Comments

Lludd, son of Beli Mawr (‘Lud’ in English) is king of the Island of Britain, and a wise and successful ruler.  From his capital, Caer Lludd (London), he takes care of his subjects, housing them well and supplying them with ample food and drink.  One of his brothers, Llefelys, is king of France. 

So begins the tale of Lludd and Llefelys, one of the shortest and least known of the Mabinogion stories, probably composed in the 12th or 13th century; it first appears as a insertion in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fantastical History of the kings of Britain.  It’s set in a mythical, pre-invasion golden age, when all the peoples of Britain lived under a united rule.

All goes well for Lludd’s and his kingdom until the Island is struck by a series of three plagues (gormesoedd – oppressions).  The first is an invasion by a people called the Coraniaid.  They’re a mysterious lot, the Coraniaid, half-human and half-virus, equipped with a mysterious, Alexa-like ability to eavesdrop:

So great was their knowledge that there was no conversation anywhere in the Island that they did not know about, however softly it was spoken, provided the wind carried it.  Because of that no harm could be done to them.

Arthur Rackham, The allies’ fairy book (1916)

The second plague is invisible, a terrifying Scream, heard every May eve, that causes physical weakness, miscarriage, madness and environmental disaster.  And the third is also unseen, a strange agent that causes all the food prepared in the king’s court to disappear unless it’s eaten immediately.

Not unnaturally Lludd becomes ‘greatly troubled and anxious’ by the three plagues, especially the two unseen ones.  He sets off across the sea to seek advice from his brother and chief medical adviser, Llefelys, in France, taking great care to keep the equivalent of his mobile phone on silent to escape the attention of the all-hearing Coraniaid.  When the two meet they speak through ‘a long horn of bronze’, again to escape being overheard.  But ‘whatever one said to the other through the horn, only hateful, hostile words were heard by the other’.  The cause of this trolling, it turns out, is a real troll, a vicious demon, who has to be driven away by pouring disinfecting wine into the horn to wash it clean.

Llefelys, whose scientific modelling techniques are clearly spot-on, gives his brother sound advice on how to defeat each plague in turn, and Lludd returns to Britain with his prescriptions.  First, as instructed, he takes a batch of insects Llefelys had given him, crushes them, and adds water.  Then he summons all the people together, including the Coraniaid, and sprinkles the antivirus solution over everyone.  Miraculously the Coraniaid perish, while the Britons are unharmed.  (Cannily, Llefelys has given his brother some spare insects, so that, should the plague surge back, he can use the antivirus again.)

The Scream, Llefelys had told Lludd, is uttered by one of two fighting dragons, who need to be captured.  The place to do this is the centre of the Island – curiously this turns out to be Oxford – where Lludd digs a pit, pours into it the best artisanal ale he can find, and covers it with brocaded silk.  The two dragons fight.  When they’re exhausted, they fall into the pit, in the shape of two little pigs.  Then they drink the strong ale and fall asleep.  Lludd disposes of them by wrapping them in a sheet and burying them in a stone cist at Dinas Emrys, in the heart of Eryri.

Dinas Emrys (Thomas Pennant, Tours in Wales, 1778)

Llefelys’s explanation of the disappearing food and drink was that a powerful magician was able to put to sleep all those guarding them.  So Lludd prepares a special feast and stands vigil over it through the night.  As he begins to feel drowsy he jumps, as instructed, into a tub of cold water to reawaken his senses.  Eventually a giant appears, holding an enormous shopping bag to carry away the stolen provisions, and the two have a fierce fight.  Lludd emerges the victor.  Mercifully he spares the giant’s life on the promise that he will compensate Lludd for his losses and never repeat his ‘panic buying’.

And so the three plagues are overcome, and, in the happiest of endings, Lludd is left to rule the Island of Britain in peace and prosperity until the end of his life.

Sioned Davies, in the introduction to her translation of the Mabinogion, is understandably rude about the literary quality of Lludd and Llefelys.  The storytelling is simple and crude, there’s no dialogue, and the author fails to make the most of the magical material at hand.  Unlike other Mabinogion tales this one seems to owe comparatively little to older oral tradition (though some of its themes have parallels in Irish literature). 

But there’s something very strange and appealing about the three plague stories, especially the first.  The ‘plagues’ are in part metaphorical, standing for human or superhuman agents – it’s been said on the basis of the related Triad 36 that they mirror three historical invasions of the Island, by Romans, Picts and Saxons.  But they also contain powerful traces of something more literal – mass disease and infection, from which whole populations need to be saved.  The Coraniaid in particular – the name, sinisterly similar to ‘coronavirus’, could be related to corrach or dwarf – have the features of an invisible and deadly virus.

There’s plenty of evidence for the continuing appeal of the story of Lludd and Llefelys.  In 2011 Horatio Clare chose it as the model for his short novel The prince’s pen, one of Seren’s ‘New tales from the Mabinogion’ series.  Among the themes suggested to him by the medieval text are empire, surveillance, political rebellion and religious conflict.  Maybe if were repeating the exercise today, another theme might come to the fore.

Paul Bowen, The Mabinogion: the curing of the second plague (University of South Wales)

Visual artists, too, have taken up the Lludd story.  Two paintings from 1974 (are they linked, maybe, through the Bro Myrddin National Eisteddfod?) are inspired by Lludd’s plagues.  Selwyn Jones-Hughes, born in Dolgellau in 1943, was educated at arts schools in Liverpool and London and went on to teach art in St Helens, Wigan and Liverpool.  His painting Coranieid, now in Bangor, is an abstract composition, of a piece with other works made by him around this time.  The second painting is by Paul Bowen, later best known as a sculptor.  He was born in Colwyn Bay in 1951, and was trained in Chester and Newport; he was living in Sheffield in 1974 (he later emigrated to the US).  His painting, The Mabinogion: the curing of the second plague, now in the University of South Wales art collection, shows the two dragon/pigs falling into the alcohol trap, with Lludd himself standing by. 

Selwyn Jones-Hughes, Coranieid (Storiel/Bangor University)

Lludd’s mythological English twin, Lud, doesn’t seem to have survived so well.  In 1586, at a time when antiquarians like William Camden, Ralph Holinshed and John Stow were becoming curious about the deep origins of Britain, a sculpture group was carved (very competently), and set on Ludgate, the western entrance to London (according to Holinshed, it replaced an earlier Lud group).  It consisted of King Lud and his two sons (Androgeus and Tenvantius according to Geoffrey of Monmouth).  When the gate was demolished in 1760 they were moved, and you can see them now in the courtyard of the church of St Dunstan-in-the-West on Fleet Street.  Over the centuries they’ve been badly damaged, and they’re in need of restoration.  Lud is a model of primitive nobility, with a fine head of flowing, curly hair and a full moustache.  He stands, in an elegant pose, taller than his two adult sons on either side of him, and wears a tunic, cloak and calf-length boots.  It’s a fair representation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s description, ‘a warlike man, and very magnificent in his feasts and public entertainments’.

Lud and his sons (St Dunstan-in-the-West, London)

A play entitled King Lud was performed, probably in the Rose Theatre, by a company called Sussex’s Men, on 18 January 1593/4, according to an entry in the diary of Philip Henslowe.  Nothing else is known about the play.  It had few performances. On 3 February the Privy Council issued a ban on performing plays, probably because of fears about the spread of plague.

Since Elizabethan times poor Lud has had a lean time of it, until recently.  Iain Sinclair, London’s leading mythographer, named his first important book Lud heat: a book of the dead hamlets (1975), and Peter Ackroyd, whose novel Hawksmoor, owes much to the example of Lud heat, gives attention to Lud in his book London: a biography (2000). 

Lud’s obscurity might be because he’s a rather featureless character in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account, compared with Lludd the plague-killer in the story of Lludd and Llefelys. The poet David Jones, as a London Welshman, is able to link both traditions and all three names at the beginning of ‘The Lady of the Pool’ section of his great poem The anathemata. A ship’s captain comes home, to the Pool of London and the Tower of London:

Did he meet Lud at the Fleet Gate? did he count the top-trees in the anchored forest of Llefelys
under the White Mount?

Quotations from The Mabinogion, translated with an introduction and notes by Sioned Davies, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007.

Comments (2)

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  1. Jean Williams says:

    Diolch. What a story! Cheered me up this morning here in Ynystawe. Sioned gave a talk to CASW a few years ago on visual art and the Mabinogion. Good to read and see your images. Cyfarchion cynnes.

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