Baby Names from Books: Welsh classics
Welsh names can be divisive. Some people love them for their look, sound and cultural associations, while others run screaming from the unfamiliar spelling and pronunciation.
In this post we’ll look at some of the oldest Welsh literary names, and I hope you’ll find them surprisingly usable.
The Four Branches of the Mabinogi are a group of four stories in the collection of medieval tales now known as the Mabinogion. We don’t know when or by whom they were first told and written, but they survive in manuscripts from the fourteenth century. Most of the other tales are about Arthur and his knights, but the Four Branches tell of kings and rulers who weren’t well known outside Wales. As you’d expect in any good medieval story, they contain plenty of monsters, magic and mischief.
They also contain plenty of interesting names. Some have obscure origins (leading to many theories about them), but others have clear and often fitting meanings. For example, the First Branch tells how Prince Pwyll (meaning “sense, wisdom”) starts out foolish but grows into a wise ruler.
There are several episodes explaining how a character got his name. Take Pwyll’s son, for instance. When he returns to his parents after being abducted, his mother says that he has given her a great deal of anxiety. From then on, his name is Pryderi (“anxiety”).
If it’s historic names you’re after, you won’t find them here. The names in these tales weren’t used in medieval Wales outside of literature. It’s only in modern times that parents have turned to the early tales for naming inspiration, so while these names have strong Welsh cultural ties, they’re not traditional.
Nowadays, some of them have spread beyond Wales. Dylan and Rhiannon have been hugely popular thanks to pop culture, while modern fantasy authors like Alan Garner and Lloyd Alexander have reworked the old stories and brought the characters and their names to a wider audience.
But there are still more waiting to be discovered. Here are ten names from the Four Branches that won’t raise too many eyebrows or leave you tongue-tied.
Dylan Son of the Wave is a minor character: just about all he does is get born and swim out to sea. Despite this, his name is the success story of the Mabinogi, thanks to the poet Dylan Thomas and later singer Bob Dylan, who chose his surname to honour Thomas. It’s been in the US and UK top 100 for boys for decades, and it’s rising for girls in the States too. Thomas used the pronunciation “dill-un” when he was broadcasting in English, but in Welsh it’s more like “dull-an”.
Rhiannon’s an interesting character. She doesn’t accept the man she’s supposed to marry, but instead goes out and chooses her own husband – and makes him work to win her.
Thanks to the Fleetwood Mac song, Rhiannon was big on both sides of the Atlantic in the late 70s, 80s and 90s. It’s now in low but steady use, perhaps settling down as a modern classic. Meanwhile, spinoffs like Rhianna and Rihanna peaked in popularity when the singer Rihanna shot to fame in 2007, then fell fast.
Arawn is the king of Annwfn, the otherworld. Lloyd Alexander in his Chronicles of Prydain novels presents him as an evil dark lord, which is grossly unfair to the original. In the First Branch, Arawn is a decent sort. He swaps places with Prince Pwyll for a year – a bit like a foreign exchange – and does a good job of ruling in his place. It’s a rare name, but it’s close enough to names like Aaron that it doesn’t seem too strange. If we’re being strict, the second syllable rhymes with “brown”, but unless you’re in Wales, you can probably get away with pronouncing it your own way.
A brother and sister whose names mean “raven” and “white raven,” their story is a sad one. Branwen (called Bronwen in some sources) marries a king who treats her badly. Her brothers come to help, but things go wrong and there’s a battle with few survivors. On the plus side, Bran’s severed head lives to entertain his friends for years to come. Despite the trendy Br- sound and the Game of Thrones character called Bran, neither name is well used. There were just 12 Brans and 6 Branwens in the US last year.
The name of Branwen’s son, Gwern has an unusual sound – no Gw- names ranked for boys in the US last year – but it’s straightforward to pronounce. It means “alder tree”, so it’s a hidden nature name. It’s used occasionally in the UK, and is the name of a young character in the Welsh-language soap opera Pobol y Cwm.
He’s an enchanter, storyteller, mischief-maker, and all-round dubious character. If parents are using Loki as a name, why not Gwydion too? It’s very close in sound to Gideon, and could make a good alternative for those worried by Gideon’s rise through the charts (and not fussed about a biblical connection).
He’s a king with magical powers, a strong sense of justice, and an usual disability: he can’t live unless his feet are on a maiden’s lap. Math’s origins are unknown, but if it doesn’t sound too much like a school subject, it makes a solid, simple name. It could also be an alternative short form of Matthew or Matthias.
Pronounced “tally-essin”, Taliesin was a legendary bard of the dark ages. He crops up in lots of tales and poetry collections, and he makes a brief appearance in the Second Branch. The name isn’t unheard of in the UK. It’s ranked every year since at least 1996, and it sometimes appears as an offbeat middle name in birth announcements in The Times and Telegraph newspapers. It’s also well known as the name of the home of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, now a National Historic Landmark.
A minor but upright character, Teyrnon rescues a baby from a monster, raises him and returns him to his parents. It’s a rare name, but it has potential as an -n ending boys’ name and an alternative to the Irish name Tiernan. In fact, they come from the same root, meaning “lord.”