Efnisien isn’t nice. He is the kind of character who “would provoke conflict between two brothers, [even] while they were at their most amicable.” (Will Parker’s translation). He bears grudges, mutilates horses, and kills men by crushing their skulls in the fingers of his massive hands. And yet, almost everything that happens in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi happens because of him, from the initial provocation of Math to the ultimate destruction of the cauldron, which brings the conflict to an end. Even his most shockingly barbaric action – throwing Branwen’s beloved son, Gwern, into the fire – may be more significant than it appears:
“It seems most likely that the significance of Gwern was more pronounced in this bardic tradition. The place of the alder (gwern) was prominent in Cad Goddeu (‘The Battle of the Trees’), and a later bardic riddle identified Bran by ‘the high sprigs of Alder’ in his hand’. This riddle, and the Battle of the Trees, lies close to the esoteric core of the Mabinogi as a whole” — Will Parker
My time on Anglesey brought me face to face with Efnisien. In fact, the title of this blog post is taken from a t-shirt worn by one of the priests of the ADO. At first it felt strange to spend so much time with a character who seemed less important, a mere half-sibling of the House of Llŷr, and so violent too, but with the guidance of the order I began to understand his significance. Even so, it has taken me years to find his voice.
Yesterday evening, walking home, a long trail of thoughts led me back to a Jacobean tragedy I read at school, ‘The Duchess of Malfi’. It’s famously gory (spoiler: everybody dies) and, in a way, it has its own Efnisien: Bosola, the malcontent. Bosola, as I remember him, comes from a poor background, but somehow finds his way to a priviledged education where he rubs shoulders with wealthy and influential peers. Once his time as a student is over, Bosola finds he has no place in their world, but cannot comfortably return to his own; he becomes an outsider in both, finding the problems in each and picking away at them until something happens.
Bosola has been on my mind recently. Politics has taken an ugly, populist turn, with everyone accusing one another of abandoning “the working class” and no-one doing anything to help them. Questions and analyses are attacked and disregarded as “elitist.” What would Bosola do, I wonder, with his working class roots and his elitist education?
It hit me as I walked home: what Bosola would do is what Efnisien would do. Efnisien speaks to me through Bosola, and this is how I hear him – because I am the malcontent, caught between my background and my educated peers, and I am not comfortable with either of these worlds. So I chafe, and provoke, and argue – but, until now, I have done it without understanding why.
The strength of the outsider is a lesson so clichéd that I never really bothered learning it. Though I have always felt caught between worlds – always too much of one thing and not enough of another, anywhere I go – I never saw it as a strength. I only wanted to belong. It strikes me as appropriate, as someone who has venerated the House of Llŷr for so long, that the half-sibling on their periphery should be the one to teach me how to make the most of not belonging.
Efnisien is a dangerous influence but a powerful ally.