Skene's Four Ancient Books of Wales


   Prior to the twelfth century there are not many poems which claim to belong to the literature of that period, besides those attributed to Taliessin, Aneurin, Llywarch Hen, and Myrddin. The Black Book of Caermarthen contains a few attributed to Cuhelyn, Elaeth, and Meigant; and the Red Book of Hergest, one to Tyssilio, son of Brochwael Yscythrog; but the number of such poems is so small, that, if the poems attributed to the bards of the sixth century really belong to that period, there is an interval of several centuries, during which such a literature either never existed or has perished, till the twelfth century, from which period a mass of poetic literature existed in Wales, and has been preserved to us. Of the genuine character of that poetry there seems to be no doubt.
   In order, then, to estimate rightly the place which the poems attributed to the bards of the sixth century ought truly to occupy in the literature of Wales, it will be necessary to form a just conception of the character of her later literature subsequent to the twelfth century, as well as to grasp the leading facts of her history during the previous centuries in their true aspect.
   In the eleventh century two events happened which seem to have had a material influence on the literature of Wales. The one was the return of Rhys ap Tewdwr, the true heir to the throne of South Wales, in 1077, and the other was the landing of Gruffyd ap Cynan, the true heir to the throne of North Wales, in 1080.
   On the death of Edwal, the last of the direct line of the Welsh kings, in 994, leaving an only son in minority; and of Meredith, Prince of South Wales, in 994, leaving an only daughter, the government of both provinces of Wales fell into the hands of usurpers. Cynan, who represented the North Wales line, fled to Ireland in 1041, where he married a daughter of the Danish king of Dublin, and after two fruitless attempts to recover his inheritance by the assistance of the Irish, died in Ireland, leaving a son Gruffyd. Rhys ap Tewdwr, the representative of the South Wales line, took refuge in Armorica, whence he returned in 1077; and, laying claim to the throne of South Wales, was unanimously elected by the people. Gruffyd ap Cynan invaded Anglesea with a body of troops obtained in Ireland, and having been joined by Rhys ap Tewdwr, their combined forces defeated the army of Trahaearn, then King of Wales, their opponent, at the battle of Carno in 1080, where that prince was slain, and Rhys ap Tewdwr and Gruffyd ap Cynan were confirmed on the thrones of their ancestors.
   The return of these two princes to Wales--the one from Ireland, where he had been born and must have been familiar with the Irish school of poetry, and the other from Armorica, where he probably became acquainted with Armoric traditions, created a new era in Welsh literature, and a great outburst of literary energy took place, which in North Wales manifested itself in a very remarkable revival of poetry, while in South Wales it took more the shape of prose literature between 1080 and 1400, Stephens enumerates no fewer than seventy-nine bards, many of whose works are preserved, and the Red Book of Hergest, concludes with a body of poetry transcribed apparently by Lewis Glyn Cothi, and attributed to bards, forty-five in number, who lived in a period ranging from 1100 to 1450. One of the earliest of these bards was Cynddelw, commonly called Prydydd Mawr, or the great bard. He was bard to Madog ap Meredyth, Prince of Powis, who died in 1159, and two elegies on his death, by Cynddelw, are contained in the Black Book of Caermarthen. There is every reason to believe that the latter part at least of this MS. was transcribed by him.
   The influence produced upon Welsh literature by the return of Rhys ap Tewdwr to South Wales was of a different description; and it is probably from this period that the introduction into Wales of Armoric traditions may be dated. The appearance of the History of the Britons, by Geoffrey of Monmouth, was the first open manifestation of it. This work, which is written in Latin, at once attained great popularity, and made the fabulous history which it contained, with the romantic tales of Uthyr Pendragon, and Arthur with his Round Table, familiar to the whole world. There is prefixed to this history an epistle-dedicatory to Robert, Earl of Gloucester, son of Henry I. It must therefore have been compiled prior to his death in 1147. In this epistle he states that Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, a man of great eloquence and learned in foreign histories, gave him a very ancient book in the British tongue (quondam Britannici sermonis librum vetustissimum), giving an account of the Kings of Britain from Brutus to Cadwaladyr, and that he had, it the Archdeacon's request, translated it into Latin; and he concludes his history by committing to his contemporary, Caradoc of Llancarvan, the history of the subsequent Kings in Wales, as he does that of the Kings of the Saxons to William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon, whom he advises to be silent concerning the Kings of the Britons, since they have not the book written in the British tongue (librum Britannici sermonis), which Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, brought out of Britanny (Britannia), and which being a true history, he has thus taken care to translate. William of Malmesbury's history is likewise dedicated to Robert, Earl of Gloucester, and is brought down to the 28th year of Henry I., or 1125, in which year it appears to have been written. Henry of Huntingdon's history of the English is dedicated to Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln, and the first part terminates with the death of Henry I. in 1135, in which year it appears to have been written. Geoffrey must therefore have finished his translation, if his account be true, or compiled his work, if it is original, before these dates; but as in his epistle-dedicatory he invites his patron to correct his work, so as to make it more polished, it is possible that there may have been editions prior to the one finally given forth as the completed work, which this epistle and postscript accompanied.
   That there was such a person as Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, seems now admitted; but whether the talc of the Welsh book, brought from Britanny and translated into Latin, is a reality or one of those fictions occasionally prefixed to original works, is a question of very great difficulty; and it will be necessary to inquire whether any light is thrown upon it by the, Welsh versions termed Brut y Brenhinoedd, or the History of the Kings. Two of these versions are printed in the Myvyrian Archæology. The second is obviously a translation from the Latin edition, as we now have it, to which it closely adheres, and is there termed Brut Geoffrey ap Arthur. The first is said to be taken from the Red Book of Hergest; the narrative is shorter and simpler; the epistle-dedicatory is not prefixed to it, and it contains at the end of it this postscript, "I, Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, did turn this book out of Welsh (Cymraeg) into Latin; and in my old age I turned it a second time out of Latin into Welsh." The editor considers this version to be the original Welsh book brought by Walter the Archdeacon from Britanny; and conjecturing that it belongs to in earlier period, and may have been written by Tyssilio, son of Brochwael, who is said to have written a history and to have lived in the seventh century, he has without any authority termed it Brut Tyssilio. It is the text from which the Rev. Peter Roberts translated his English version termed The Chronicle of the Kings of Britain, translated from the Welsh copy attributed to Tyssilio, and published in 1811.
   Now, though the text of the so-called Brut Tyssilio is distinctly stated both by the editor of the Myvyrian Archæology and by Roberts to be taken from the Red Book of Hergest, no such text is to be found there. The text of the Brut y Brenhinoedd in the Red Book is the same as the second version termed Brut G. ap Arthur. There are two later MSS. in the library of Jesus College, containing a text similar to that of the Brut Tyssilio, and from which it was probably taken. They are exactly alike, but the one bears to have belonged to David Powell of Aberystwith in 1610, and is a MS. of that period, and the other to have been written by Hugh Jones, keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, in 1695, and seems to be a copy of it. Another copy is said to be preserved in the library at Downing in North Wales, having this note attached to it:--"Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, translated this part of the Chronicle from Latin into Welsh, and Edward Kyffin copied it for John Trevor of Trevalin, A.D. 1577;" and a copy is likewise contained in the Book of Basingwerk, the property of Thomas T. Griffith, Esq., Wrexham, which appears to be in the handwriting of Guttyn Owain and to have been written in 1461. This is the oldest known transcript of this version of the Brut.
   In the British Museum (MS. Cott., Cleop. B. v.) there is a copy of the Brut which differs from this, but approaches more nearly to it than to the Brut G. ap Arthur. It has been written about the end of the thirteenth century, and it has the epistle-dedicatory, in which the book given by Walter is termed Llyvyr Cymraec, but in the postscript it is stated that the Cymraec book which Walter gave him had been translated by him from Latin into Cymraec, and again by Geoffrey from Cymraec into Latin. The text in the Red Book is, as I mentioned, closely allied to Geoffrey's Latin version, but there is no epistle-dedicatory, and the postscript here again varies from the others. It states that the book Walter had was a Breton book (llyfr Brvtvn) which he translated from Breton into Cymraeg (o Brytanec yg Kymraec), and which Geoffrey translated into Latin. The only other MSS. which have been accessible to me are those at Hengwrt. There are several copies, some complete and some imperfect, but only one that has the postscript. It is the same text, or nearly so, as that in the Red Book, but varies in the postscript. It states Walter's book to have been a Cymraec book, which he translated from Cymraec to Latin, and which Geoffrey likewise translated from Cymraec to Latin, and again from Latin to Cymraec.
   There are thus three different Welsh texts--one represented by the first text in the Myvyrian Archæology, by the two late copies in Jesus College, the Downing MS., and the Book of Basingwerk; a second by the Cottonian MS. in the British Museum; and a third by the second text in the Myvyrian Archæology, by the text in the Red Book of Hergest and the Hengwrt MS.; but all differ in the account given of the original MS. By one it is said to have been Latin, by another Cymraec, and by a third Breton. So far we may extricate some facts:--All the MSS. of the first text agree that it was a translation by Walter the Archdeacon from Latin to Welsh; on the authority of the Hengwrt MS., we may pronounce the third to be a translation into Welsh, by Geoffrey of Monmouth, of his Latin edition; the second text probably represents an intermediate stage of the work; all seem to imply that Walter's book was at all events in Latin before it reached Geoffrey; but whether the original was in, Breton, in Cymraec, or in Latin, or whether there ever was an original, there is certainly no text, either in Welsh or in Latin, which now represents it; and all of these texts must be placed in the first part of the twelfth century.
   The MSS. containing the Welsh versions usually have a translation into Welsh of the history of Troy, by Dares Phrygius, prefixed to it. Those which represent the first and second texts have a chronicle termed Brut y Saeson, annexed to it, which is expressly said by the Cotton MS. to be the work of Caradauc of Llancarvan, and gives a chronicle of events in the history of Wales, interspersed with notices of the Saxon history; but the text in the Red Book is followed by a chronicle containing the Welsh events only, and to which, in a later hand, the title Brut y Tywysogion has been attached.
   The Red Book of Hergest likewise contains the text of several prose tales and romances connected with the early history of Wales. They are eleven in number, and have been published, with an English translation, by Lady Charlotte Guest, in 1849, under the title of The Mabinogion, from the, Llyfr Coch o Hergest, and other ancient Welsh manuscripts, with an English translation and notes. It is justly remarked in the preface of this collection that "some have the character of chivalric romances, and others bear the impress of a far higher antiquity, both as regards the manners they depict and the style of language in which they are composed." So greatly do these Mabinogion differ in character, that they may be considered as forming two distinct classes; one of which generally celebrates heroes of the Arthurian cycle, while the other refers to persons and events of an earlier period, and it is not difficult to assign each tale to one or other of these two classes:--
   To the older class belong--

The Tale of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed.
The Tale of Branwen, daughter of Llyr.
The Tale of Manawyddan, the son of Llyr.
The Tale of Math, son of Mathonwy.
The Contention of Llud and Llevelys.
The Story of Kilhwch and Olwen.
The Dream of Rhonabwy.
To the second class belong--
The Tale of the Lady of the Fountain.
The Story of Peredur, son of Evrawc.
The Story of Geraint, son of Erbin.
The Dream of Macsen Guledig.
   Though the whole of these tales have been published under the title of Mabinogion, that name is applied in the Red Book solely to the first four, which form, in fact, one romance. The name of Arthur only occurs in the last two of this class, and it is in his earliest aspect. They are probably older than the Bruts as the substance of the tale called the Contention of Llud and Llevelys occurs in the earliest form of the Brut, and is omitted in the later.
   The tales included in the second class certainly belong to the full-blown Arthurian Romance.
   As early as the date of the Black Book of Caermarthen, some of the Welsh traditions appear under the form of short triads, and that MS. contains a fragment of what were probably the earliest--the Triads of the Horses. A MS. in the Hengwrt collection, which has apparently been written as far back as the year 1300, contains two sets of triads, one termed Trioedd arbenic--Chief or excellent Triads which are religious; and. another, called Trioedd Arthur ac gwyr--Triads of Arthur and his warriors. And in the Red Book of Hergest are two sets of triads, one called Trioedd ynys Brydain, or Triads of the Island of Britain, which contain these Triads of Arthur, with many others; and the other an enlarged edition of the Triads of the Horses. They are both published in the Myvyrian Archæology (vol. ii. p. 1); and to these may be added the Bonhed y Seint, or Genealogies of the Saints, which are usually found along with them.
   Such is a sketch of the literature of Wales subsequent to the twelfth century, of which we know something of the history; but a branch of its literature still remains to be noticed which has exercised a powerful influence upon the history of the country, the true source and history of which, however, is wrapped in obscurity and encompassed with doubt.
   One, of the editors of the Myvyrian Archæology, and a chief contributor of its contents, was Edward Williams, of Flimstone in Glamorgan. He maintained that there had existed at an early period, when bardism flourished as an institution of the country, four chairs or schools of bards, and that one of these chairs still remained--the chair of Glamorgan--of which he was himself the bardic president, and he adopted the bardic title of Iolo Morganwg. He declared that the succession of bards and bardic presidents could be traced back to 1300; that the traditions of bardism had been handed down by them in the chair of Glamorgan; that Llywelyn Sion, who was bardic president in 1580, and died in 1616, had reduced this system to writing under the title of the "Book of bardism, or the Druidism of the Bards of the Isle of Britain," which he professed to have compiled from old books in the collection of MSS. at Raglan Castle. Iolo Morganwg published, in 1794, his Poems, Lyric and Pastoral, in which he gave to the world some account of this system, and a work which he had prepared for the press, termed Cyfrinach Beirdd ynys Prydain, in the Welsh language and from the MS. of Llywelyn Sion, was published after his death by his son in 1829. A further instalment, termed Barddas, was printed, with a translation, for the Welsh, MS. Society in 1862.
   Among the contributions made by him to the documents printed in the Myvyrian Archæology, were the so-called Historical Triads (vol. ii. p. 5 7) which have been so much founded upon in writing Welsh history, and the Triads called the Wisdom of Catoc, (vol. iii. p. 1), and the Triads of the Bards of Britain and Institutes of the Bards of Dyfnwal Moelmud (vol. iii. pp. 199 and 283). A volume of documents prepared by him as an additional volume of the Myvyrian Archæology, was printed after his death, with a translation, for the Welsh MS. Society, in 1848, termed The Iolo Manuscripts.
   But the most important document which issued from him, and which has exercised the greatest influence on the popular views of Welsh literature, was the prose tale or Mabinogi, termed Hanes Taliessin, and containing the so-called personal history of that bard. A fragment of the Welsh text was given in the first volume of the Myvyrian Archæology; but the whole tale, with a translation, was published by Dr. Owen Pughe, in 1833, in the Cambrian Quarterly Magazine (vol. v. p. 198). In his introductory remarks he states that the compiler, Hopkin Thomas Philip, wrote this piece about the year 1370. He lived in Morganwg or Glamorgan. The same tale was published by Lady Charlotte Guest in 1849, in the third volume of her Mabinogion; and she states that her copy was made up from two fragments--the one contained in a MS. of the library of the Welsh school in London, written in a modern hand, and dated in 1758; the other from a MS. belonging to Iolo Morganwg. The fragment in the Welsh school library was probably that printed in. the Myvyrian Archæology; and the MS. belonging to Iolo Morganwg, that used by Dr. Owen Pughe, as the latter states in his introductory remarks, "Of the narrative part but one version exists." Iolo Morganwg himself states that the romance entitled Hanes Taliessin--i.e. the history of Taliessin--was "written so late at least as the fourteenth, or rather the fifteenth, century," and that he used the expression fifteenth century in the loose sense of the century from 1500 to 1600 is plain, as he likewise states that Hopkin Thomas Philip flourished about 1560. This is the same Hopkin Thomas Philip who, Dr. Owen Pughe says, wrote it about 1370; but there is no real difference between them as to his true age, for in his Cambrian Biography, published in 1803, thirty years before, Dr. Owen Pughe, then Mr. William Owen, has the following: "Hopcin Thomas Phylip, a poet who flourished between A.D. 1590 and 1630." At that time, therefore, the compilation of the Hanes Taliessin was not placed further back than the end of the sixteenth or beginning of the seventeenth century. The prose narrative contains a number of poems stated to have been composed by Taliessin in connection with the events of his life, but these will be noticed when we come to deal with the poetry attributed to that bard.
   It is a peculiarity attaching to almost all of the documents which have emanated from the chair of Glamorgan, in other words, from Iolo Morganwg, that they are not to be found in any of the Welsh MSS. contained in other collections, and that they must be accepted on his authority alone. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to say that they must be viewed with some suspicion, and that very careful discrimination is required in the use of them.