Old painting of a king with his subjects

British Legends: The Mabinogion – The Dream of Macsen Wledig

The Dream of Macsen Wledig from the Mabinogion tells the story of how the Emperor of Rome experienced a dream in which he travelled to Wales, then met and became obsessed with a beautiful maiden named Elen. It is a story telling of a mythical past with legendary heroes involved in extraordinary adventures, that many people feel resonates today. The tales were created from traditional and existing works, using both written and oral sources, and were not original works. They were often reworked to reflect current issues, and are seen by many as an interpretation of a mythical past age while also providing an interpretation of the present. Presented here is a retelling of ‘The Dream of Macsen Wledig’ from The Mabinogion Vol. 2 by Sir Owen Morgan Edwards and Lady Charlotte Schreiber. 

Macsen Wledig

Macsen Wledig was an emperor of Rome who had thirty-two vassal kings in his retinue. One day, he proposed that they all join him for a day of hunting. The next day, bright and early, he set off leading the party into the countryside to a beautiful valley that a river flowed through on its way to Rome. It was a hot, sunny morning, and the party hunted throughout the valley until midday. With the sun at its height, Macsen Wledig suddenly began to feel very tired and ordered the party to take a break while he slept by the river. 

The Dream of Macsen Wledig

His servants made a shelter for him out of shields, made a place on the ground for him to rest his head. Then they left him in peace and he lay down, and as he fell asleep a strange dream came to him. He found himself following the river along the valley, and eventually reaching its source at the foot of a mountain that was as high as the sky. He travelled on over the mountain, and on the other side found himself travelling through a fair country which he deemed the most beautiful in the world. Travelling on, he came across the wellspring of a river and followed it towards the sea where it grew into the widest river he had ever seen. 

The City by the Sea

Standing majestically at the mouth of the river was a fair city that was enclosed by the walls of a massive castle. Its tower and turrets reached high into the sky, and many flags and banners of all colours and designs fluttered gaily in the breeze. Below the castle wall in the mouth of the river lay a great fleet of ships. The greatest and fairest of these had planks of gold and silver, and a bridge of white whale bone spanned the distance from the harbour side to the ship. Macsen Wledig found himself walking slowly over the bridge to stand on the ship. As soon as he was on board, the bridge of bone raised itself and the ship set sail towards the distant horizon to an unknown destination. After many days, the ship came to a beautiful island and lay at anchor. 

The Fairest Island in the World

In his dream, Macsen Wledig went ashore and explored the island; travelling through its forests and valleys and crossing mountains and moors from coast to coast. Never before had he seen its like, and he thought it the fairest and most beautiful island in the world. Eventually, he came to a place in the mouth of a river where a majestic castle looked out over the sea. He went down to the castle and entered through its gates. Inside, he found the fairest hall he had ever seen. The walls were studded with gems of all kinds that glittered and shimmered in the sun, and the roof was of gold and gleamed gloriously. 

Old painting of two kings beside a large chess board

A Game of Chess Source

Inside the Golden Hall

Stepping inside the hall, Macsen Wledig saw many fine pieces of furniture and rich decorations wherever he looked. On the far side of the hall, he saw two young men engaged in a game of chess on a wonderfully ornate chessboard. Sitting in a chair of ivory by a pillar of stone was a man with a rugged face and wild hair. On his head, he wore a diadem of gold and on his fingers were rings of precious metals set with gemstones. Golden bracelets adorned his wrists and arms, and around his throat he wore a torc of gold. Although the man was seated, it was clear he had a powerful physique and bearing, and he was engaged in the task of carving chess pieces. 

Sitting before this strange man on a chair of burnished gold was a maiden whose beauty was more dazzling than the sun, and Macsen Wledig was almost blinded by her radiance. In his dream, she rose from her chair and he rose from his and they threw their arms around each other.  Then they sat down together, and their faces drew closer, and they sat together cheek to cheek and were poised to kiss. 

In the Waking World

Outside the dream in the real world time had passed. The servants and liege lords were waiting, and grew anxious for their Emperor to awaken. They clashed spears upon their shields and set the dogs barking and the horses neighing. As Macsen Wledig was about to kiss the beautiful maiden, he woke suddenly to the din and his servant said, “Come, Lord, let us return to Rome for the hour has come to eat.” 

Dazed and disappointed, he agreed and the party returned to Rome. But Macsen Wledig was not himself, and he fell into a brooding silence. He refused all food and drink and took to his bed. When he slept, his dreams were full of the maiden in the golden hall. He shut himself away from the court and his body began to waste away. His mind was consumed with desire for the woman who was in his dreams but not in his reality, and if she did exist in the waking world he had no idea of where he could find her. At last his chief advisor grew concerned and went to him saying, “Lord, the people are turning against you!” 

“Why are they turning against me?” he replied. 

“Because they cannot talk to you about their needs and problems and gain your judgments as it should be with their Lord.  They say you are ill beyond repair and look for another to take your place.” 

Macsen Wledig said, “Bring me my counsellors and wise men and I will tell them why I am sick and sorrowful. I shall set the problem before them and see if they can cure me.”  So his advisors arrived, and he told them exactly what he had experienced in his dream and then said, “And now I am in love with someone who I know not. She may be real and she may be unreal, but I am mortally stricken so tell, what am I to do?” 

They left him and went and consulted amongst themselves for a long time. Finally, they returned and the chief advisor told him, “This is what we have decided. We advise you to seek for this maiden who haunts your dreams and find her whereabouts.  Therefore, send out messengers to all parts of the world for one year and one day. They can either find and bring her back, or bring back information concerning her whereabouts to you. It may also be that the hope of these messengers bringing back good news and the unknown hour of their return will be sustaining for you through this period.” 

Macsen Wledig consented to this, and sent out messengers to all parts of the earth to return within a year and a day. It was with agony and turmoil that he waited that time, but none returned early with good news and after the time was up all had returned bearing no tidings or even a hint of the fair and beautiful maiden. He fell into deeper despair, and at last his chief advisor said to him, “Lord, may I suggest you return to the place where you had the dream in the hope that we may be given some hint or clue.” 

He consented to this and led them to the river in the valley and the place where he fell asleep. “This is the place I slept and dreamed of her I seek. See, I followed the river back westwards to its source and over the mountain as high as the sky and beyond,” he told them. 

“Lord, let thirteen messengers be sent forth with your directions to find and bring back the maiden of your dreams,” said his chief adviser. 

Thirteen Messengers

Macsen Wledig then gave the thirteen messengers the directions and sent them forth to bring back the maiden of his dreams. As directed, they followed the river westwards to its source and saw the great mountain as high as the sky and travelled over and beyond it. When they had passed over the mountain, they came upon a fair country with a river flowing through it to the sea and they knew they were on the right track. They followed the river down to the sea, and at its mouth found a great and fair city with many high towers with many coloured flags fluttering, and saw a great fleet anchored off the shore.

Illuminated manuscript showing a ship

British Library – Illuminated Manuscript Egerton 2 British Library, Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts
Source

One ship was greater and more beautiful than all of the others, and a bridge of white whale bone spanned across the sea to the ship. They walked down the bridge and boarded the ship. No sooner had they done so, the ship set sail and moved off towards the horizon. They sailed across the sea, and eventually they came to the island of Britain where they disembarked and crossed the land to the great mountain of Snowdon that is known by the people around it as Yr Wyddfa.

The Lady of the Golden Hall

From the summit of Yr Wyddfa, they looked out and saw a plain before the sea and the island of Anglesey. They saw a fair castle at the mouth of a river, and they went down to the castle. Behind its wall they saw a golden hall and entered. Inside the hall, two youths with auburn hair played a game of chess on a golden table. They were both dressed in black satin in the fashion Macsen Wledig had described. By a pillar of stone on a seat of ivory sat a man with a rugged face and wild hair carving chess pieces. Sat on a chair of burnished gold, they saw a fair and beautiful maiden the like they had never seen before. Believing they had found she whom they sought, the messengers fell to their knees before her and their leader said, “Hail, Empress of Rome!”

“Who are these that mock me?  They have the look of honourable noblemen and carry the signs of envoys. Why do you mock me?” she replied.

“Lady, we do not mock you!” said their leader, “We are the envoys and messengers of the great Macsen Wledig, Emperor of Rome. He has seen you in a dream and now his mind and body are consumed with images and love for you day and night. We are tasked with giving you this choice. Either come with us to him, or we will return to him and guide him to you, for more than anything in the world the Emperor wants you for his wife!”

“I will not insult you by calling you liars and I will not believe you until I see him here before me to ask such a thing. If the Emperor Macsen Wledig loves me truly and wants me so much to be his wife, it will be no hardship for him to come here himself and tell me!” she replied

The messengers bowed and took their leave and returned to Rome. Macsen Wledig was glad to see them and delighted with the news they bore. Immediately he mustered his army and marched overland and sailed over the sea to the island of Britain. There he defeated Beli, the son of Manogan, and his sons, and conquered the island. He travelled overland coming at last to the great mountain Yr Wyddfa. He knew when he saw the mountain that beyond lay the fair castle with the golden hall where his beloved dwelt.

The Marriage of Macsen Wledig and Elen

Entering the golden hall, he saw the same two young men, with auburn hair dressed in satin exactly as in his dream, playing a game of chess. Their names were Adeon and Kynan, the sons of Eudav. Sitting on an ivory chair was a man with a rugged face and wild hair, and his name was Eudav, the son of Caradawc. Sat on a chair of gold was the fair and beautiful maiden he had fallen in love with who haunted his every moment. Her name was Elen.

“Hail, Empress of Rome!” he cried and threw his arms around her neck. That very evening they were married and at last, his dream had come true. In the morning Elen asked her husband for her bridal gift. He told her to name anything she wanted and it would be given. She asked her husband to give the island of Britain from the Irish Sea to the Channel, along with the three islands nearby, to her father that he may rule them on behalf of the Empress Elen of Rome. Macsen Wledig gave it gladly. She also asked for three castles of magnificent construction to be built for her at whatever site she may choose on the island of Britain. This was also given, and the largest and highest castle was built at Arvon. Earth was brought from Rome to be placed in this castle for the comfort and health of her husband. She chose Caer Leon and Carmarthen as the other sites, and magnificent castles were constructed in those places. Elen, wishing to unite the country, also asked him to build roads linking all the castles together throughout Britain so that armies could march quickly and easily from one to the other to defend the country at times of need. The roads were built, and she was given the name ‘Elen Luyddawc’ or ‘Elen of the Hosts’ by her people.

Painting of an army marching over a hill

British Library, Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts Source

Rome Rebels

Macsen Wledig lived in Britain with his wife for seven years, not returning to Rome in all of that time. It came to pass that one day one of Rome’s lords stepped forward and took the throne for himself. He sent a letter to Macsen Wledig which said, “If thou comest, and if thou ever comest to Rome,” with no other message upon it. Macsen Wledig sent a letter in reply simply stating, “If I come to Rome, and if I come” in answer to this. Quickly, he mobilized his army and crossed the sea and marched on Rome. With him, he took Elen the Empress of Rome, and when they reached that city his host laid siege to it for one year but they could not take Rome. 

Then word came to Macsen Wledig of a small host of warriors who had arrived. Elen looked out to see who they were, and she saw the banners of her brothers from Britain led by Kynan and Adeon. Although they were small in number, the warriors were fierce and well trained in the arts of war. Macsen Wledig was delighted to see them and welcomed them warmly. 

Kynan and Adeon went to observe how the forces of Macsen Wledig were attacking the city, and came up with a different strategy. By the cover of night, they measured the walls and then sent their carpenters into the woods to fell trees to make ladders to scale the ramparts. They also observed the patterns of the fighting, seeing that at midday both emperors would take meals. Kynan and Adeon then waited for the emperors to take their meals, then ordered their small army to attack the city using their ladders to scale the walls. In this way, the British host succeeded in surprising the defenders and entering the city while their leaders were eating. They killed the new emperor and many others in three days of fighting. Some of the British troops guarded the gates to prevent escape, and also to prevent the entry of Macsen Wledig’s troops until they had defeated the defenders in the city completely. 

Outside the city, Macsen Wledig was unaware of how things now fared. He spoke to his wife, asking why her brothers had not conquered the city.  She replied, “Lord, my brothers are the wisest in the world in arts of war.  Go to the gates and ask them for the city and if they have it they will gladly give it!” 

So Macsen Wledig and his wife went to the gates of Rome and asked her brothers for the city. They told him, “Be sure, none have taken this city that only the men of Britain could give it!”

The gates were opened, and Macsen Wledig and his wife were welcomed to fanfares and great applause and crowned Emperor and Empress of Rome. Then Macsen Wledig said to Kynan and Adeon, “Loyal Lords and brothers-in-law, now I am truly once again Emperor of Rome and have the whole empire in my hands. I give you this host to conquer any land in any region for yourselves!” 

Concluding the Dream of Macsen Wledig

Kynan and Adeon took the host and conquered many lands, and they did this until they and the young men who came with them grew old and grey. Eventually and they came to the fair land of Amorica, where they killed the men and married the women. Kyan spoke to Adeon saying, “Would you stay in this land, or would you return once more to Britain?” and Adeon chose to go back to Britain with half the army, but Kynan decided to stay in Amorica with the other half. Together they decided that they would “cut out the tongues of the women,” or silence the women from speaking in their native tongue so that they would not corrupt their own language. From the silencing of the native Amorican tongue of the women, the men of Amorica came to be regarded as Britons and this is how ‘The Dream of Macsen Wledig’ concludes.

Interpretations of Dreams

As a dream, the story of ‘The Dream of Macsen Wledig’ is very much open to interpretation. The stories in the Mabinogion were often reworked to reflect the issues of the day. Does it carry any relevance for the modern world, and just who is doing the dreaming? 

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I am currently working on a Lost Worlds project which looks at mythical and legendary lands around the world and will be published in due course. I have two web sites dedicated to myths, legends and folklore. These are Under the influence!, including myths, legends, folklore and tales from around the world, and Folkrealm Studies, website dedicated to the study of mythology, legend and folklore. Follow me on Twitter here.