BULFINCH'S MYTHOLOGY: THE AGE OF CHIVALRY OR LEGENDS OF KING ARTHUR
CHAPTER XXXII. TALIESIN
Gwyddno Garanhir was sovereign of Gwaelod, a territory bordering on the sea. And he
possessed a weir upon the strand between Dyvi and Aberstwyth, near to his own castle, and
the value of an hundred pounds was taken in that weir every May eve, And Gwyddno had an
only son named Elphin, the most helpless of youths, and the most needy. And it grieved his
father sore, for he thought he was born in an evil hour. By the advice of his council his
father had granted him the drawing of the weir that year, to see if good luck would ever
befall him, and to give him something wherewith to begin the world. And this was on the
twenty-ninth of April.
The next day, when Elphin went to look, there was nothing in the weir but a leather bag
upon a pole of the weir. Then said the wier-ward unto Elphin, "All thy ill-luck
aforetime was nothing to this; and now thou hast destroyed the virtues of the weir, which
always yielded the value of an hundred pounds every May eve; and to-night there is nothing
but this leathern skin in it." "How now," said Elphin, "there may be
therein the value of a hundred pounds." Well! they took up the leathern bag, and he
who opened it saw the forehead of an infant, the fairest that was ever seen; and he said,
"Behold a radiant brow!" (in the Welsh language, taliesin.) "Taliesin be he
called," said Elphin. And he lifted the bag in his arms, and, lamenting his bad luck,
placed the boy sorrowfully behind him. And he made his horse amble gently, that before had
been trotting, and he carried him as softly as if he had been sitting in the easiest chair
in the world. And presently the boy made a Consolation and praise to Elphin; and the
Consolation was as you may here see:-
"Fair Elphin, cease to lament!
This was the first poem that Taliesin ever sung, being to console Elphin in his grief
for that the produce of the weir was lost and, what was worse, that all the world would
consider that it was through his fault and ill-luck. Then Elphin asked him what he was,
whether man or spirit. And he sung thus:-
Never in Gwyddno's weir
Was there such good luck as this night.
Being sad will not avail;
Better to trust in God than to forebode ill;
Weak and small as I am,
On the foaming beach of the ocean,
In the day of trouble I shall be
Of more service to thee than three hundred salmon."
"I have been formed a comely person;
Then came Elphin to the house of Gwyddno, his father, and Taliesin with him. Gwyddno
asked him if he had had a good haul at the weir, and he told him that he had got that
which was better than fish. "What was that?" said Gwyddno. "A bard,"
said Elphin. Then said Gwyddno, "Alas! what will he profit thee?" And Taliesin
himself replied and said, "He will profit him more than the weir ever profited
thee." Asked Gwyddno, "Art thou able to speak, and thou so little?" And
Taliesin answered him, "I am better able to speak than thou to question me,"
"Let me hear what thou canst say," quoth Gwyddno. Then Taliesin sang:-
Although I am but little, I am highly gifted;
Into a dark leathern bag I was thrown,
And on a boundless sea I was set adrift.
From seas and from mountains
God brings wealth to the fortunate man."
"Three times have I been born, I know by meditation;
Elphin gave his haul to his wife, and she nursed him tenderly and lovingly.
Thenceforward Elphin increased in riches more and more, day by day, and in love and favor
with the king; and there abode Taliesin until he was thirteen years old, when
of Gwyddno, went by a Christmas invitation to his uncle, Maelgan Gwynedd, who held open
court at Christmas-tide in the castle of Dyganwy, for all the number of lords of both
degrees, both spiritual and temporal, with a vast and thronged host of knights and
squires. And one arose and said, "Is there in the whole world a king so great as
Maelgan, or one on whom Heaven has bestowed so many gifts as upon him,- form, and beauty,
and meekness, and strength, besides all the powers of the soul?" And together with
these they said that Heaven had given one gift that exceeded all the others, which was the
beauty, and grace, and wisdom, and modesty of his queen, whose virtues surpassed those of
all the ladies and noble maidens throughout the whole kingdom. And with this they put
questions one to another, Who had braver men? Who had fairer or swifter horses or
greyhounds? Who had more skilful or wiser bards than Maelgan?
All the sciences of the world are collected in my breast,
For I know what has been, and what hereafter will occur."
When they had all made an end of their praising the king and his gifts, it befell that
Elphin spoke on this wise: "Of a truth, none but a king may vie with a king; but were
he not a king, I would say that my wife was as virtuous as any lady in the kingdom, and
also that I have a bard who is more skilful than all the king's bards." In a short
space some of his fellows told the king all the boastings of Elphin; and the king ordered
him to be thrown into a strong prison until he might show the truth as to the virtues of
his wife and the wisdom of his bard.
Now when Elphin had been put in a tower of the castle with a thick chain about his feet
(it is said that it was a silver chain, as he was of royal blood), the king, as the story
relates, sent his son Rhun to inquire into the demeanor of Elphin's wife. Now Rhun was the
most graceless man in the world, and there was neither wife nor maiden with whom he held
converse but was evil spoken of. While Rhun went in haste towards Elphin's dwelling, being
fully minded to bring disgrace upon his wife, Taliesin told his mistress how that the king
had placed his master in durance in prison, and how that Rhun was coming in haste to
strive to bring disgrace upon her. Wherefore he caused his mistress to array one of the
maids of the kitchen in her apparel; which the noble lady gladly did, and she loaded her
hands with the best rings that she and her husband possessed.
In this guise Taliesin caused his mistress to put the maiden to sit at the board in her
room at supper; and he made her to seem as her mistress, and the mistress to seem as the
maid. And when they were in due time seated at their supper, in the manner that has been
said, Rhun suddenly arrived at Elphin's dwelling, and was received with joy, for the
servants knew him; and they brought him to the room of their mistress, in the semblance of
whom the maid rose up from supper and welcomed him gladly. And afterwards she sat down to
supper again, and Rhun with her. Then Rhun began jesting with the maid, who still kept the
semblance of the mistress. And verily this story shows that the maiden became so
intoxicated that she fell asleep; and the story relates that it was a powder that Rhun put
into the drink that made her sleep so soundly that she never felt it when he cut off from
her hand her little finger, whereon was the signet ring of Elphin, which he had sent to
his wife as a token a short time before. And Rhun returned to the king with the finger and
the ring as a proof, to show that he had cut it off from her hand without her awaking from
her sleep of intemperance.
The king rejoiced greatly at these tidings, and he sent for his
councillors, to whom he
told the whole story from the beginning. And he caused Elphin to be brought out of prison,
and he chided him because of his boast. And he spake on this wise: "Elphin, be it
known to thee beyond a doubt, that it is but folly for a man to trust in the virtues of
his wife further than he can see her; and that thou mayest be certain of thy wife's
vileness, behold her finger, with thy signet ring upon it, which was cut from her hand
last night, while she slept the sleep of intoxication." Then thus spake
"With thy leave, mighty king, I cannot deny my ring, for it is known of many; but
verily I assert that the finger around which it is was never attached to the hand of my
wife; for in truth and certainty there are three notable things pertaining to it, none of
which ever belonged to any of my wife's fingers. The first of the three is, that it is
certainly known to me that this ring would never remain upon her thumb, whereas you can
plainly see that it is hard to draw it over the joint of the little finger of the hand
whence this was cut. The second thing is, that my wife has never let pass one Saturday
since I have known her, without paring her nails before going to bed, and you can see
fully that the nail of this little finger has not been pared for a month. The third is,
truly, that the hand whence this finger came was kneading rye dough within three days
before the finger was cut therefrom, and I can assure your highness that my wife has never
kneaded rye dough since my wife she has been."
The king was mightily wroth with Elphin for so stoutly withstanding him, respecting the
goodness of his wife; wherefore he ordered him to his prison a second time, saying that he
should not be loosed thence until he had proved the truth of his boast, as well concerning
the wisdom of his bard as the virtues of his wife.
In the meantime his wife and Taliesin remained joyful at Elphin's dwelling. And
Taliesin showed his mistress how that Elphin was in prison because of them; but he bade
her be glad, for that he would go to Maelgan's court to free his master. So he took leave
of his mistress, and came to the court of Maelgan, who was going to sit in his hall, and
dine in his royal state, as it was the custom in those days for kings and princes to do at
every chief feast. As soon as Taliesin entered the hall, he placed himself in a quiet
corner, near the place where the bards and the minstrels were wont to come, in doing their
service and duty to the king, as is the custom at the high festivals, when the bounty is
proclaimed. So, when the bards and the heralds came to cry largess, and to proclaim the
power of the king, and his strength, at the moment when they passed by the corner wherein
he was crouching, Taliesin pouted out his lips after them, and played, "Blerwm,
blerwm!" with his finger upon his lips. Neither took they much notice of him as they
went by, but proceeded forward till they came before the king, unto whom they made their
obeisance with their bodies, as they were wont, without speaking a single word, but
pouting out their lips, and making mouths at the king, playing "Blerwm,
upon their lips with their fingers, as they had seen the boy do. This sight caused the
king to wonder, and to deem within himself that they were drunk with many liquors.
Wherefore he commanded one of his lords, who served at the board, to go to them and desire
them to collect their wits, and to consider where they stood, and what it was fitting for
them to do. And this lord did so gladly. But they ceased not from their folly any more
than before. Whereupon he sent to them a second time, and a third, desiring them to go
forth from the hall. And the last the king ordered one of his squires to give a blow to
the chief of them, named Heinin Vardd; and the squire took a broom and struck him on the
head, so that he fell back in his seat.
Then he arose, and went on his knees, and besought leave of the king's grace to show
that this their fault was not through want of knowledge, neither through drunkenness, but
by the influence of some spirit that was in the hall. And he spoke on this wise: "O
honorable king, be it known to your grace that not from the strength of drink, or of too
much liquor, are we dumb, but through the influence of a spirit that sits in the corner
yonder, in the form of a child." Forthwith the king commanded the squire to fetch
him; and he went to the nook where Taliesin sat, and brought him before the king, who
asked him what he was, and whence he came. And be answered the king in verse:-
"Primary chief bard am I to Elphin,
When the king and his nobles had heard the song, they wondered much, for they had never
heard the like from a boy so young as he. And when the king knew that he was the bard of
Elphin, he bade Heinin, his first and wisest bard, to answer Taliesin, and to strive with
him. But when he came, he could do no other than play "Blerwm!" on his lips; and
when he sent for the others of the four and twenty bards, they all did likewise, and could
do no other. And Maelgan asked the boy Taliesin what was his errand, and he answered him
And my native country is the region of the summer stars;
I have been in Asia with Noah in the ark,
I have seen the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah,
I was in India when Rome was built,
I have now come here to the remnant of Troia."
"Elphin, the son of Gwyddno,
Then he sang to them a riddle:-
Is in the land of Artro,
Secured by thirteen locks,
For praising his instructor.
Therefore I, Taliesin,
Chief of the bards of the west,
Will loosen Elphin
Out of a golden fetter."
"Discover thou what is
While he was thus singing his verse, there arose a mighty storm of wind, so that the
king and all his nobles thought that the castle would fall upon their heads. And the king
caused them to fetch Elphin in haste from his dungeon, and placed him before Taliesin. And
it is said that immediately he sung a verse, so that the chains opened from about his
The strong creature from before the flood,
Without flesh, without bone,
Without vein, without blood,
Without head, without feet;
It will neither be older nor younger
Than at the beginning.
Behold how the sea whitens
When first it comes,
When it comes from the south,
When it strikes on coasts.
It is in the field, it is in the wood,
But the eye cannot perceive it.
One Being has prepared it,
By a tremendous blast,
To wreak vengeance
On Maelgan Gwynedd."
After that Taliesin brought Elphin's wife before them, and showed that she had not one
finger wanting. And in this manner did he set his master free from prison, and protect the
innocence of his mistress, and silence the bards so that not one of them dared to say a
word, Right glad was Elphin, right glad was Taliesin.