Tragic heroines are a little different from their male counterparts. Typically, the tragic heroine does not suffer her fate due to her own fatal flaws. It is far more common that their downfall comes at the hands of the men in their lives, either by the men’s fatal flaws or by their treachery. Sometimes, however, the tragic circumstances can resolve themselves for the better, as you will see with our story about Rhiannon.
Sad to say… it is also common for the tragedy-laden ladies to wind up as the ill-fated lover, destined to fall for someone forbidden to her. Despite the taboo, the lovers carry out their affair anyway, which predictably leads to events that cause the death of one or both of the lovers. Sometimes this death is a voluntary choice (think Juliet from Romeo and Juliet).
One day it was that Pwyll, lord of Dyved, was having a feast at his chief court of Arberth. Afterwards, Pwyll decided to take a walk up to Gorsedd Arberth, a hill that overlooked his court. Several of his men accompanied him and one told of a legend surrounding the hill, that if any of the royal line should sit upon the hill they would either behold a great wonder or else, they would receive sharp blows. Pwyll decided to try his luck, being of royal blood himself. He felt secure enough that he would not be attacked in any way, what with his men with him.
So it was that Pwyll and his men were sitting upon Gorsedd Arberth, when they saw a richly dressed woman approaching on the road, riding a cream-colored horse. Pwyll sent one of his men to see who she was, but by the time they reached the road, the woman had already passed and the man was unable to catch up to her. They all returned to the court, slightly puzzled to say the least.
The next day Pwyll and his men returned to the hilltop. With them, they brought the fastest horse in Pwyll’s stables. Once again the noblewoman on her cream horse appeared and passed the hill. One of Pwyll’s men took the horse and tried to reach her, but he, too, was unable to catch her. No matter how fast or slow he seemed to go, she always stayed far ahead of him. Again Pwyll and his men returned to court, though Pwyll was determined now to meet the mysterious woman.
The next night Pwyll again went to the top of Gorsedd Arberth, this time taking his own horse. When the woman again appeared, he rode out himself to catch her. He was having no luck catching up to her. In frustration, Pwyll called out for the woman to stop. Wonder of wonders, she did so and promptly chastised him for not asking her to stop sooner, saying it would have been better for his horse. Pwyll asked her who she was and what errand she was about and she answered that her name was Rhiannon and she was hoping to see Pwyll. She confessed that she loved him and was distraught that she was promised to another. She would refuse to marry this other, if Pwyll would agree to marry her. Puzzled and pleased, Pwyll agreed. They arranged to meet one another a year to the day, in the court of Rhiannon’s father.
The year passed swiftly and soon it was time for Pwyll to go meet Rhiannon. He, along with several of his warriors, travelled to the court of Rhiannon’s father. They were expected and Pwyll’s arrival was rejoiced. There was a great feast prepared and the group dined and drank and caroused through the day. At one point, a tall youth approached Pwyll. Pwyll invited him to sit down, but the youth declined, saying that he had come as a supplicant. He wished to ask a favour of Pwyll. Being in a generous and good mood, Pwyll responded that the youth should ask for what he wished and if it was within Pwyll’s power, it would be granted.
Turns out, the man was Gwawl, the person to whom Rhiannon had been previously promised and his request was that he should still be the one to marry Rhiannon. Needless to say, she is rather unhappy with him. She tells Gwawl that he must wait a year to the day to marry her. Then, in secret, she gave to Pwyll a bag and told him to return in a year, dressed as a shabby beggar and gave him a plan by which he might win her back.
The year passed and Pwyll returned again to the court of Rhiannon’s father, where a feast for Gwawl was in full swing. Dressed as scruffy as he could be, Pwyll approached Gwawl and asked for a favour to be granted. Feeling generous, Gwawl agreed that he would grant a favour if he found it reasonable. Pwyll asked for nothing more than enough food to fill his bag. However, it was a magic bag and could hold a great deal. Finally, Gwawl asked if the bag would *ever* be full. Pwyll replied that it would be full only if a nobleman of good standing pressed the food down with both feet and say ‘Enough has been put inside.’ Rhiannon persuaded Gwawl that he was the one who should do this and so he put both feet in the bag to press down the food. No sooner than he had, than Pwyll closed him up inside it. Drawing out a hunting horn, Pwyll blew it, summoning his men who were hiding nearby. Pwyll’s men took prisoner those who had arrived with Gwawl, and each man, upon entering the court, paused a moment to strike the bag.
Now, there were many men who had come with Pwyll and soon enough Gwawl cried out from inside the bag, asking Pwyll to not let him suffer such an ignoble death as being kicked to death inside a bag. Rhiannon said that he should free Gwawl, under the conditions that he give up his claim to Rhiannon, that he give presents on the behalf of Pwyll to any supplicants that came asking and to swear that he would seek no revenge. All this Gwawl agreed to, so Pwyll freed him. So it was that Pwyll and Rhiannon were wed.
They returned home to Dyved and ruled well for the first two years. The land was prosperous and the people happy. However, by the third year, Pwyll’s subjects were starting to get a little discontent. Though Pwyll had been married, he still remained childless. His advisers took him aside and urged him to put aside Rhiannon and to take a new wife, that he might have an heir. Pwyll said he would wait another year, for it had not really been all that long, but if he still had no heir at the end of the year, then he would do as they suggested and take a new wife.
Thankfully, before the year was up, Rhiannon born Pwyll a son. On the night of his birth, several women were brought in to tend to Rhiannon and her new baby. Unfortunately, everyone fell asleep as the night wore on and when morning came, the babe was nowhere to be found. In a panic, the women who were supposed to be tending Rhiannon concocted a plan. They killed a puppy and smeared its blood on Rhiannon, then accused her of killing the child. Again, Pwyll was asked to put aside his wife. He did not believe that she had committed the atrocity she was accused of, but, rather than arguing against the women who accused her, Rhiannon accepted a punishment. She was condemned to seven years of sitting by the mounting-block at the city’s entrance and telling her story to all those who entered. She was also required to offer to carry guests and strangers to court on her back, though it was very few who accepted.
Rhiannon spent the years carrying out her sentence. During this time, it came to the ears of one Teirnon, that Rhiannon had been accused of killing her son and he recalled a time, years ago, when he had been helping a mare to birth a foal. After the colt had been born, there was a loud commotion and a giant claw reached through the barn and tried to steal the colt. Teirnon managed to cut off the claw and save the colt. He burst outside to find the intruder, but found no one. Returning to the barn, Teirnon was surprised to find a baby boy wrapped in rich swaddling. He and his wife adopted the foundling boy. Paying closer heed to the stories, Teirnon wondered if the boy were Rhiannon’s. He took him to court, where it soon became quite obvious that the child was indeed Pwyll and Rhiannon’s missing son. By this time, the boy, named Gwri, was four years old, though he seemed in both height and learning to be much older. Rhiannon was released from her unjust and unwarranted punishment. Pwyll and Rhiannon rejoiced at having their son returned. For returning their son, whom they renamed Pryderi, Pwyll assured Teirnon that he and his wife would always be well cared for. So it is that, despite her tragic circumstances, this did end well for Rhiannon after all.
*Cambell, Joseph, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1972
*Frankel, Valerie, From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine’s Journey through Myth and Legend, 2010
*Gantz, Jeffery, The Mabinogion, 1976
*Murdock, Maureen, The Heroine’s Journey, 1990
*Schmidt, Victoria, Story Structure Architect, 2005
*Schmidt, Victoria, 45 Master Characters, 2007
*Volger, Christopher, Writer’s Journey, 1992
Can you see the elements of the heroine’s journey in the myth of Rhiannon? What other mythic heroines come to mind?
Want to learn more about the goddess Rhiannon? Go here.
Next up: The Mythic Feminine, Part 8: Legendary Heroine: Hua Mulan (Chinese)