‘Once again I see Brân’s head, unlit, decaying, mouthing silent words at me.’
From Lorna Smithers
‘Although the road was long they came to London and buried the head on the White Hill.’
The Second Branch
I’m trapped in traffic on Tower Hill. A busy day done. A long drive home. I unbutton my collar and loosen my tie because I’m stifling in the heat of the midsummer sun.
Crowds of people are filing from Tower Gateway into the Underground. Like me they’re going down, only they’ll come back up far from the capital, far from the underworld, and turn on televisions able to bear ads without being plagued by huge black ravens of guilt.
My neck is cramped and sticky-wet. I think of all the people beheaded on Tower Hill, the blood-stained axe cutting through bone and sinew, blood dripping from necks, terrified I’ll be next. Arthur has reinstalled the chopping block. The heads of traitors are impaled on stakes on London Bridge with ravens circling above them.
Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table moved into the White Tower six months ago. He wants it rebranding, all traces of Brân, its ancient guardian, removed. When he came to my agency with a price that could not be refused our Creative Director leapt at the chance.
That night on my way home I saw Brân’s head. It was a rush-hour dusk, late winter, the capital lighting up. At first I thought it was part of a light show, levitating over the Tower of London with a stony ridge for a nose, lake-like eyes reflecting a million headlights, raven-black hair and beard, pale wax-like flesh lit from within.
Yet the people on the Double Decker buses showed no sign of surprise or awe as the tour guide spoke through a megaphone about the Tower, its guardian, his ravens. The processions continued regardless. The drivers did not lift their sight from the next set of traffic lights, the streams of number plates and brake lights.
It was not on the evening news. I’d worked in advertising long enough to know such an expensive display would have received mass media coverage. The apparition was seen only by me. As my company formed strategies to erase Brân, I made it a priority to learn his story:
Brân was one of the god-kings of Prydain. He owned a cauldron, gifted to him by a giant and giantess from the depths of Annwn, which brought the dead back to life at the cost of being unable to speak.
Brân gave the cauldron to Matholwch, King of Ireland, who married his sister, Branwen. Matholwch’s mistreatment of Branwen led to a war in which Matholwch used the cauldron to resurrect his dead warriors.
Brân’s army triumphed narrowly. Fatally wounded, Brân ordered the survivors to cut off his head and bear it back across the sea. After feasting with it in Harlech and on the island of Gwales they bore it to London and buried it beneath the White Hill (Tower Hill) to protect Prydain from oppression. Arthur dug it up and these lands have been besieged by conflict since.
Brân’s story troubled me because when my partner, Heilyn, returned from Afghanistan he was tongue-tied. Refusing to speak, he ate little and rarely moved from our bedroom where he watched talk shows, soaps, old war films. I feared he’d become one of the speechless dead.
When eventually he began talking, he found it easier to tell me about how his squadron were attacked on patrol, their capture, the beheading of their commander, and their dramatic helicopter rescue, than what happened on the island where they convalesced.
“We were half-drunk, admittedly, but all of us saw it: in the centre of the room, our commander’s head. It grew to gigantic proportions, then blood started pouring from its eyes and nose, from its ears and mouth, filling the room. I feared we were drowning in his blood, the blood of our comrades, of the enemy, of the civilians, the dead of all the world.”
Heilyn couldn’t return to the army. Because they’ve cut his benefits I have to bring in a wage. If my agency wins the bid to Arthur that would more than cover the mortgage. I could cut down my hours.
But I can’t go through with it… Brân’s head… the heads on London Bridge… I don’t want to be responsible for erasing Brân and supporting Arthur’s recruitment drive for his new crusades.
Every night I dream about processions of young men marching into the Underground and being taken by tube to fortresses surrounded by barbed wire where their heads are shaved, they’re stripped, deprived of their names, then thrown by uniformed men into enormous cauldrons.
Within the cauldrons are endless levels of gruelling tasks: slippery mud-slick obstacle courses, lines of targets without end, cardboard cut-outs of infidels, inflatable giants with beards and turbans floating like bosses at the end of a video game laughing maniacally.
They have to master shooting them down with guns then with hawk-like drones whilst watching the devastation on a flat screen. The final test is showing a willingness to drop the Mother of all Bombs.
Those who complete every level (many die in the cauldrons, which are lined with skulls staring from the bottom as a reminder of the price of failure) emerge reborn with a knightly name, fully armed, aboard a metal-clad warhorse, yet unable to speak.
This is why I daren’t use the Underground.
I know the source of these dreams. Two years ago I visited an exhibition of Celtic art at Prydain’s Museum. Not my kind of thing, but copy writers have to keep their fingers on the pulse-beat of culture.
To my surprise I was mesmerised by an antlered deity on the Gundestrup Cauldron holding a serpent in one hand and a torque in the other, surrounded by wild creatures: a hound, a deer, a bull, a man riding on a salmon, others less identifiable but all strangely alive.
He appeared again (somehow I knew it was him) on another plate with a hound beside him presiding over a cauldron. Before my eyes the scene came to life! Dead warriors, battered, war-torn, carrying dented shields, leaning on their spears, limped toward him. He picked them up and plunged them headfirst into the cauldron to be reborn. They rode free on otherworldly horses with horns and feathers and statuettes of wild things on their heads led by a serpent.
That’s how it’s supposed to work! I found out in Gaul the deity is known as Cernunnos, and here in Prydain as Gwyn ap Nudd. He is the Head of Annwn, the keeper of the Cauldron of Rebirth, to which he takes the souls of the dead to be reborn.
Arthur stole the cauldron and, like Matholwch, is misusing it in this world. Only he’s throwing in living men to be rebirthed as soulless crusaders. That’s why he wants Brân and Gwyn’s stories erased.
I can’t follow through on the bid. I’d prefer to lose my head than lose my soul. The radio is muttering about an accident and build-up of traffic on the M25. The dials on my dashboard shuddering on red indicate my engine is overheating and I’m running out of fuel. The scent of artificial pine is failing to drown my sweat.
The pine tree swinging to and fro on a string beneath my rear view window reminds me of backpacking with Heilyn in Celyddon; its pine bowers and birdsong, our tent and boyish smiles. A distant dreamtime before we settled down, got a mortgage, civil partnership, and full-time jobs.
A raven lands scratchy-clawed on my bonnet, taps on my windscreen with its wise black beak, then flies toward the Tower. Once again I see Brân’s head, unlit, decaying, mouthing silent words at me.
Whatever happens I’m going down. I stop the engine, switch on the hazard lights, abandon my car on Tower Hill, and join the procession to the Underground. Once I’m below I do not seek out a train. I’ve seen a door. Beside it stands Heilyn in his combat gear. My armour has always been this shirt, trousers with ironed-in creases, shiny shoes, and my polished smile (which I exchange for a real smile for him).
Like the weary warriors on that panel we bear our burdens: a broken rifle and shabby briefcase containing the copy Arthur will never receive, down the dark tunnel, beyond where Brân’s head was buried to where the cauldron of the Head of Annwn still lies outside time to be reborn with antlers on our heads and stars in our hair, galloping free after the fiery serpent to turn Arthur’s reign upside down.
Lorna Smithers is an awenydd, Brythonic polytheist, and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd recovering lost stories from the land and myths of forgotten gods and dreaming new ones. She is the author of Enchanting the Shadowlands and The Broken Cauldron, and has edited and co-edited A Beautiful Resistance. She performs poetry and gives talks and workshops in her home county of Lancashire and occasionally further far afield. She blogs at Signposts in the Mist.