Arawn is a King of Annwn, the Welsh name for the mythological Otherworld (also called Annwfn or Annuvin). Arawn’s personality, motivations, and magical abilities tend to shift depending on the story and the storyteller. He has appeared in a variety of media ranging from Old Welsh poetry, to children’s fantasy stories, to LARP guidebooks.
Arawn’s earliest and arguably most important appearance is in the First Branch of The Mabinogian. Pwyll, hero of the First Branch, goes hunting and makes the mistake of driving a pack of mysterious white dogs away from a killed stag, allowing his own dogs to feast on the stag instead. Arawn appears, displeased, explaining that the white dogs were his and that Pywll owes him compensation for stealing the spoils of Arawn’s hunt. As just repayment, Arawn offers to magically swap bodies with Pwyll so that the latter can slay Hafgan, Arawn’s rival king of Annwn, in combat.
Pwyll agrees to switch bodies, poses as King of Annwn for a year, and ultimately kills Hafgan. During the intervening year he refuses the sexual advances of Arawn’s beautiful wife (who, of course, thinks that he is still Arawn). When Arawn hears that Pwyll slept chastely with his wife for so long, he becomes Pwyll’s lifelong friend. In the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogian, Arwan sends a gift of pigs to Pwyll’s son, Pryderi, as a sign of his enduring friendship to Pwyll’s family. King Arawn ushers a mystical tone into The Mabinogian, as Pwyll’s adventure in Annwn marks the first magical encounter in the Four Branches.
The varying depictions of Arawn over time reflect the varying depictions of his Otherworld realm, Annwn. While the Welsh word for “Otherworld” is sometimes translated as “Underworld,” Annwn doesn’t always line up with a more traditional Land of the Dead. The Welsh Otherworld, especially as it appears in The Mabinogian, is an amorphous and mythical parallel realm where heroes undergo magical trials and/or learn lessons before returning to the world that we know. As the centuries have passed, the concept of Annwn has adapted and shifted. Sometimes the Otherworld becomes conflated with a more Roman idea of the Underworld; here, Arawn takes on a role closer to Pluto, ruler of the dead’s souls in the Roman Underworld. In the era after Christianity came to Wales, Annwn starts to look more like Hell. In the Arthurian medieval poem “The Spoils of Annwn,” for instance, residents of a fortress of glass in the mythical Annwn retain the trademark silence of the dead, while the poem “Cad Goddeu” describes Arawn’s army as demon-like creatures. The Otherworld and its king morph to fit the narrative needs and morality of each story in which they appear.
By the time Lloyd Alexander adapted Arawn into the villainous and shapeshifting Death Lord for his popular children’s fantasy series The Chronicles of Prydain (later adapted into the movie The Black Cauldron), Arawn’s character had come a long way from the magical but mostly friendly Otherworld king who just wanted his hounds to enjoy their well-earned stag.
After Pwyll successfully slays Hafgan and Arawn re-swaps their bodies in the First Branch of The Mabinogion, Arawn’s wife, who remains unnamed, notices a change in his bedtime behavior following a year of forced sexual abstinence. Arawn admits to his wife that a stranger has inhabited his body for a year. His wife gives the following reply to this explanation for why her husband has refused to sleep with her or speak to her in bed for the past twelve months:
“I confess to God…you struck a firm bargain for your friend to have fought off the temptations of the flesh and kept his word to you.”
And that’s the only reply The Mabinogion gives her.
King of the Dead by Kristin Hall plays with the difference between various interpretations of Arawn’s character while also examining the effect of his Mabinogion body swap on Arawn and his wife. Finding themselves on the misty shore of a Welsh lake after suffering a horrible accident in their American hometown, Adam and his wife Mina await a visit from Arawn himself. They examine their troubled marriage, which in a way echoes Arawn’s own. But do they wait in the Land of the Dead, or have they simply sojourned to the Otherworld? And what future do they have together in this new land?
ARAWN by Kristin Hall
Directed by Alessandro McLaughlin
Staged Reading on November 13, 2019 at The EXIT Theatre
Kristin Hall is an actor, singer, and writer who’s thrilled to be joining the Olympians Festival for the first time this year. A North Carolina native still new to the Bay Area theatre community, she has written plays during her long arc westward for audiences in North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and now California. She wrote her first play for a playwriting contest in sixth grade and has never looked back. (No really, she’s never looked back at that play. But she’s pretty sure that her parents have a copy in a box in their garage somewhere.) Since moving to California she has performed with Broadway by the Bay, Silicon Valley Shakespeare, Berkeley Playhouse, PianoFight, and Palo Alto Players, among others. During daylight hours, she works at the Intel Museum in Santa Clara and writes grants and communications material as a freelancer for nonprofits. She fell in love with Wales while visiting in 2018 and would gladly move there if doing so was at all feasible. She currently lives in San Jose with her husband Bill and their 12-pound dog Fiona, who believes herself to be a terrifying hound worthy of a Welsh myth.