Skene's Four Ancient Books of Wales
Such then being, so far as we can gather it from the scanty materials
afforded to us, the real position of the Cymric population, and the leading
features of their history prior to the twelfth century, as well as of their
literature subsequent to that period, the question before us is this, What
place, does this very peculiar body of ancient poetry really occupy? Are we to
regard them as ancient poems which have come down to us from an early period of
Cymric literature, and possessing from their antiquity in historic value
independently of their literary merit, if they have any? or are we to set them
aside as so beset with suspicion, and as evincing such evidence of fabrication
in a later age, as to render them valueless for all historic purposes?
ROMANCES BELONGING TO THE TWELFTH AND THIRTEENTH CENTURIES.
THESE SEEM TO FORM PORTIONS OF THE MABINOGI OF TALIESIN WHICH WAS COMPOSED By THOMAS AB EINION OFFEIRIAD.
PREDICTIVE, POEMS--TWELFTH AND SUCCEEDING CENTURIES.
Since the publication of that work, several papers have appeared in the Archæologia Cambrensis, in which he has given his more matured views of the poems, modifying somewhat this classification.
Mr. Nash deals with them in the two classes only, and on the whole considers the entire body of poetry connected with the name of Taliessin to belong to the twelfth and subsequent centuries.
It is with the poems attributed to Taliessin that the objections under the first proposition mainly deal. The great body of those included under the head of mythological poems bear his name, or are said to be composed by him, and to these the school of Owen Pughe and Edward Williams, of Davies and Herbert, has given a mystic sense, and has supposed that a species of Druidic superstition was handed down in them. Now, I go a certain length with them in this objection. I agree with them in thinking that these poems do not contain any such esoteric system of semi-pagan philosophy, and so far as their criticism goes to demolish the fancies of this school, I think it is well. founded. But there I stop. It does not follow that because the poems are not what Davies and Herbert represent them to be, that they are therefore not genuine. It does not follow that because a mistaken meaning has been applied to them, therefore they can have no rational meaning whatever. Like all poems of this description, they are full of obscure allusions and half-expressed sentiments, and where the real drift of the poem is not understood, it will of course have the aspect of meaningless verbiage, just as the ritual of a church, to one who does not know what it is intended to convey or to symbolise, appears mere mummery; but as soon as a clue is obtained to the real meaning of the poet, the allusions in the poem, however obscure they appear, become intelligible and consistent; and before the critic can justly urge this objection, he must be very sure that he has grasped the real meaning of the poet, as well as comprehended the true bearing and place in literature of the poems he is dealing with. That these poems are really intended to convey a definite meaning I do not doubt. They will be found to harmonise with the history and intellectual character of the place and period to which they belong, and the first work of the critic is to ascertain, on definite grounds, what that place and period really is.
The other ground given for doubting these poems is more tangible--viz. that they contain such allusions to the prose tales and romances of the middle ages as to show that they must have been written after these tales were composed, and here Mr. Nash makes a special case against the poems attributed to Taliessin. He states that a prose tale, containing the personal history of Taliessin and his transmigrations, was composed in the thirteenth century, and that a copy of this tale contained in the Red Book of Hergest has been published, with an English translation, by Lady Charlotte Guest, in her collection of Mabinogion. His prose tale is interspersed with poems said to have been sung by Taliessin, and Mr. Nash maintains that it is in the main the basis from which the greater part of the so-called poems of Taliessin has sprung, and that a large number, besides those contained in the Mabinogi of Taliessin, derive their inspiration from it.
It seems rather strange that so severe a critic am Mr. Nash, who will accept none of the poems which are the subject of his criticism as ancient or genuine, except upon the clearest evidence, should yet assume at once the genuineness and antiquity of the Mabinogi of Taliessin. It is beyond question, that the only text of it before him is written in much more modern Welsh than any of the poems it is supposed to have given birth to, and yet he makes no difficulty. It is further strange that in founding upon this prose tale as the very basis of his argument throughout, and his most formidable weapon, he should not have taken means to ascertain whether it really is in the Red Book of Hergest. No copy of this tale is to be found in the Red Book of Hergest at all, and as that valuable MS. contains all the other prose tales of that period, this of itself is an argument against its authenticity.
But, moreover, no copy of it is to be found in any known MS. prior to the eighteenth century. Owen Pughe, who published it in 1833, says explicitly that there was but one version of the prose narrative, and that version was furnished by Iolo Morganwg. Every notice regarding it upon which Mr. Nash founds emanates from him, and is not to be found elsewhere. Even if we accept the account given by Dr. Owen Pughe, his explicit statement is, that it was composed by Hopkin Thomas Philip, and it cannot be taken farther back than 1590 or 1600, long after every poem we are dealing with had been transcribed; but its history is so questionable as to lead to the suspicion that it had no earlier origin than the school which produced it, and it is quite as necessary for Mr. Nash, before be can legitimately found upon it, to bridge over the interval between Einion Offeiriad in the thirteenth century, if he lived then, or if he ever lived at all, and Dr. Owen Pughe in the nineteenth, as it is for the advocates of the authenticity of the poems to bridge over the interval between the sixth century and the Black Book of Caermarthen.
So much for the prose narrative. With regard to the poems imbedded in it, whether naturally or artificially, the text published by Dr. Pughe in 1833 contains eleven poems; that published by Lady Charlotte Guest in 1849, fourteen, but in the notes we are informed that four of these poems were added to her edition from the Myvyrian Archæology, and were not in the MSS. from which she printed. Now, of these eleven poems contained in the MSS. of the prose tale printed by Dr. Owen Pughe and Lady Charlotte Guest, not one is to be found in the Book of Taliessin; and of the four poems which she added from the Myvyrian Archæology, only two are in that Book.
At the time, therefore, when the Book of Taliessin was transcribed, the poems inserted in the prose tale had either not been written, or were known to be spurious, and not to belong to the body of poems at that time attributed to Taliessin. Moreover, several of these poems are said to have been in reality the work of Jonas Athraw o Fynyw, or Jonas, the Doctor or Divine of St. Davids, of whom, however, and thc true period in which he lived, we know really nothing, but one of these poems appears among the poems transcribed in the end of the Red Book of Hergest in the fifteenth century. The poems attributed to Jonas Athraw of St. David's are--
1. Hanes Taliessin, beginning "Prifardd Cyffredin."it is the last of these poems from which the well-known sentiment has been so often quoted, as a saying of Taliessin--
Eu nor a volantIndeed, it is generally considered that the history of Wales cannot be referred to with any propriety without quoting those lines.
None of these poems, however, appear in the Book of Taliessin; and a verse in this poem might have shown that it made no claim to being the genuine work of the bard whose name it bears:--
Joannes the DivineAnd called Taliessin it has been ever since, and it has been subjected by Mr. Nash, along with the other spurious poems, to one common criticism with those which are to be found in the Book of Taliessin, and the estimate formed of the spurious poems maintained equally to invalidate those professing to be genuine. These poems are all included in Mr. Stephens's third class; and the criticism, so far as based upon them, may now be set aside as having little or no bearing upon the real question.
Having thus disposed of the so-called Mabinogi, or romance of Taliessin, which plays so great and illegitimate a part in modern criticism, we must now advert to the allusions said to be made to the other prose tales really contained in the Red Book of Hergest, and usually called the Mabinogion, and which it is maintained show that the poems containing such allusions must have been written after these prose tales were composed. It is admitted that these allusions are made to the Mabinogion of the oldest class only, and they certainly possess a considerable antiquity. Here, the first feature in this proposition which startles us is, that if well founded, it inverts the usual sequence in the early literature of most countries, and supposes that prose tales were first composed, and poems afterwards written from them. We usually find the reverse of this. The literature of most countries commences with lays in which the traditions and knowledge of the people in the infancy of their society are handed down to succeeding generations; and then, as cultivation advances, and the intellect of the nation developes, it passes over into chronicles and prose romances. In Wales we must suppose the progress to be different. If the poems we are dealing with belong to a later age, none others have come down to us, and we must suppose that the fancies and dim imaginings of the people in their earlier stages first developed themselves in prose romances. The fallacy which leads to this is the assumption that these tales are so far fictions, invented romances, in which, though the names may be real, the incidents are fictitious, and thus that any allusion to them, however slight, or even any mention of the more names of the heroes of them, infallibly demonstrates a later composition of the poem which contains them. It is in this spirit that Mr. Stephens deals with them, and he sends ruthlessly every poem to a later age in which the mere name of Arthur occurs, as having been composed after the Arthurian romance was introduced from Britanny.
But these tales are, equally with the poems, founded to some extent upon older legends and traditions, and the germ of their narrative had a prior existence in the earlier oral tales of the people. It is true that there is a marked difference in character between the older legend and the romantic tale founded upon it. The former is part of a more primitive literature, running parallel to and in harmony with the history and progress of the people. Tales and incidents connected with their history were the subject of lays and poetic narratives, and the early philosophy of the people, the common-sense of the nation in the primitive meaning of the term, became crystallised into proverbs. Symbolical and figurative language was largely used. Revolutions and invasions were compared to convulsions of nature and the ravages of monsters; tyrants were denounced by obscure epithets, sentiments were conveyed in proverbs, and fragments of real history were encrusted in them, like the masses of primitive rock protruding through a later formation, or the boulders deposited upon its surface; while the oral transmission of this early poetic literature was secured by a complicated system of metre and an intricate rhyme which enabled the writer more readily to employ the right expressions. With a fixed and unalterable number of syllables in the line, a rhyme recurring in the middle of one line and the end of another, with one stanza commencing with the last word of the preceding stanza, or with certain words commencing with the same letter, it was difficult for the reciter to misplace a letter or sentence; the right word must be found, and the general sentiments expressed were retained in his mind by their taking the shape of proverbs.
This is what we should expect early poetry of this description to be, and this, to a great extent, characterises the poems with which we are dealing; but when the period arrives when prose tales or romances are preferred, the recollection of the real incidents alluded to, the real events symbolised, has passed away; the taste of the age soon requires social tales rather than historical romances, the incidents become trivial, the heroes dwindle down to ordinary mortals, the ancient warriors, to private lords of a district, the symbolic representations become real convulsions of nature and actual wild beasts, and what originally sprang from some great internal change or some external invasion, now becomes the hunt of a wild animal or a quest after some treasure. The names of the heroes of these legends are retained in the prose tales, but the events in which they figure are changed, and assume a totally different character and aspect.
This to a great extent characterises the Mabinogion, and if we find evidence in them of the characteristics of this stage in the literature, why are we to presume that the earlier stages had no existence? In point of fact, we do find traces of the earlier existence of the germs of these tales. Thus, in the tale of Llud and Llefelys, at the end of the narrative as printed by Lady Charlotte Guest, is this notice--"And this tale is called the Story of Llud and Llevelys, and thus it ends. "The expression in the original Welsh, however, is "Ar chwedyl hwnn aelwir Kyfranc Llud a Llevelys." The word "Kyfranc" does not mean a story, but a quarrel or contention, and the reason of this great alteration is, that there is not a trace throughout the whole tale of any quarrel or contention between the two brothers Llud and Llevelys; on the contrary, they are represented as a perfect model of two affectionate brothers, living in perfect harmony with and mutually aiding one another. The tale, as it stands, is as old as the first edition of the Bruts where the substance of it occurs, and there must apparently have been an earlier legend, the facts of which had been forgotten while the name was recollected and applied to the later tale. Now, one of the poems attributed to Taliessin (B. T. 54, Ymarwar Lludd Bychan) is condemned because it is supposed to contain an allusion to this tale. The whole of the allusion is simply this: "Before the reconciliation of Llud and Llefelys." But there cannot be a reconciliation without a previous contention, and it is obvious that the reference here is to the earlier legend. There is, however, one striking difference between the poem and the tale. In the prose tale one of the chief incidents is the invasion of a mysterious people called Corraniad, who use enchantments and possess magic powers; but when we refer to the poem, it is the real invasion of the Romans which forms the chief incident.
Another of the Mabinogion supposed to be referred to is that of Kilhwch and Olwen. The chief incident in this curious tale is the hunt of the Twrch Trwyt, or the Boar Trwyt. The poem called the Gorchan Cynvelyn is supposed to refer to it, but, like the other poem, the allusion is comprised in a few lines:--
Stalks like the collar of Twrch Trwyth,The allusion to the legend is plain enough, but the more fact of Arthur and his warriors being represented in the prose tale as finding the boar with seven young pigs in Ireland, and hunting him to Dyfed and through the whole of Wales, and then by the Severn into Cornwall, whence he was driven into the sea again, shows that this is a tale in which what were originally figurative and symbolical representations of real events have been converted into realities. Even in its present shape the legend is old, for in the Memorabilia of Nennius he mentions a stone bearing the mark of a dog upon it, and explains, "Quando venatus est, porcum Troit impressit Cabal, qui erat canis Arthuri militis, vestigium in lapide."
A poem in the Black Book of Caermarthen (No. 31) is also supposed to refer to it. This poem certainly mentions many of the characters in it, but not one syllable of the plot of the prose tale; neither Kilhwch and Olwen, the hero and heroine, nor the hunt of the boar, the chief incident, are once alluded to. The real allusions are to two of Arthur's battles, and the scenery is in the north--Try-weryd, Mynyd Eiddyn or Edinburgh, and Manauid or Manau Guotodin.
The other tales supposed to be alluded to, are the four which form what is strictly speaking the Mabinogi, and are all connected with one another. They are the following:--
The Tale of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed;The supposed allusions run through a considerable number of the poems attributed to Taliessin, and form an important group of these poems. Now there is this peculiarity in these four tales forming the Mabinogi proper, that they do not mainly refer to Wales as the country of the Cymry, but to the period when Mona and Arvon were possessed by a Gwyddel population, and it is the legendary kings of the Gwyddel who are the main actors in the tales. These are probably the oldest of the tales, but the previous remarks as to the form in which such legends appear in the prose tales are here equally applicable. The characters which appear in these tales are, in the first, Pwyll, prince of Dyfed, and Arawn, king of Annwfn or Hell; in the second, Bran and Manawyddan, the sons, and Branwen, the daughter, of Llyr, and Matholwch, king of Ireland; in the third, Manawyddan, son of Llyr, and Pryderi, son of Pwyll; and in the fourth, Math, son of Mathonwy, king of Arvon and Mona, Gwydyon ap Don, and Arianrod his sister, Llew Law Gyffes and Dylan eil Ton, her sons, the first of whom became king of Gwynedd, and Pryderi, son of Pwyll, king of Dyfed. Pwyll is only mentioned in one poem (B. T. 30), called Preiddeu Annwfn), and it bas no reference to the Mabinogi. Arawn is one of the three brothers, Llew, Arawn, and Urien, whom I have already noticed in the historical sketch, and whom we found obtaining lands conquered from the Saxons by Arthur. Arawn is said to have obtained the most northern portion, and from the expressions used he must have been seated almost beyond the limits of the Cymric population. This northern region must always have been viewed by the more southern population as a dreary and barren wilderness, and invested with superstitious attributes. Even as early as the time of Procopius, who flourished in the sixth century, he thus describes it:--
"In this isle of Britain men of ancient time built a long wall, cutting off a great portion of it, for the soil and the men, and all other things, are not alike on both sides; for on the eastern (southern) side of the wall there is a wholesomeness of air, in conformity with the seasons, moderately warm. in summer and cool in winter. Many men inhabit here, living much as other men. The trees, with their appropriate fruits, flourish in season, and their corn-lands are as productive as others, and the district appears sufficiently fertilised by streams. But on the western (northern) side all is different, insomuch indeed that it would be impossible for man to live there even half-an-hour. Vipers and serpents innumerable, with all other kinds of wild beasts, infest that place, and what is most strange, the natives affirm that if any one passing the wall should proceed to the other side, he would die immediately, unable to endure the unwholesomeness of the atmosphere. Death also, attacking such beasts as go thither, forthwith destroys them. But as I have arrived at this point of my history, it is incumbent on me to record a tradition very nearly allied to fable, which has never appeared to me true in all respects, though constantly spread abroad by men without number, who assert that themselves have been agents in the transaction, and also hearers of the words. I must not, however, pass it by altogether unnoticed, lest when thus writing concerning the island Brittia I should bring upon myself an imputation of ignorance of certain circumstances perpetually happening there. They say, then, that the souls of men departed are always conducted to this place."And when the Cymric population looked northwards to these mountain-barriers, shrouded often with mist, from whose bosom poured the wintry blasts, and from whose recesses issued those fearful bands of Pictish savages, we may well suppose that they regarded it with awe and terror, and could give Uffern itself no more terrible an epithet than to call it "A cold hell." Whether Arawn's territory really bore the name of Annwfn, as its opposite Dwfn certainly did enter into that of the Damilonii, who are placed in that part of Scotland by Ptolemy, we can only conjecture.
The oldest legends connect Manawyddan ap Llyr with Manau or Manauid. He is only mentioned in two poems. In one (B. B. 31) he is mentioned in connection with Arthur's battles in the north:--
Manawyddan, the son of Llyr,In the Other (B. T. 14 Kerdd am veib Llyr) the references are as follow:--
A battle against the sons of Llyr at Eber Henvelen.Of Gwydyon ap Don and Llew, the former is associated with in the legends connected with the settlements of the Gwyddyl, and the latter is one of the three brothers in the north. He was placed over Lothian, including part of the county occupied by Pictish tribes, and is the Lothus, king of the Picts, of Scottish tradition. Now throughout these poems we find allusion to a confederacy or union between Brython and Gwyddel, in connection with the names of Llew and Gwydyon.
In one poem (B. T. 14) we have:--
I have been in the battle of Godeu with Llew and Gwydion,In another (B. T. 1, and R. B. 23):--
Truly Llew and GwydyonAgain, in the Cad Goddeu--
Minstrels were singing,This was the alliance between the Brython represented by Llew, and the Gwyddel by Gwydyon, which resulted in the insurrection of Medraut, son of Llew, against Arthur with his combined army of Picts, Britons, and Saxons, and which arose from a section of the Britons in the north being drawn over to apostasy by the pagan Saxons and semi-pagan Picts.
These poems then contain, under figurative and symbolic language, allusions to real facts; but when we come to the Mabinogi all is changed. The heroes mentioned may be the same. The events are, of a totally different character. Bran goes to Ireland to resent a slap given by Matholwch to Branwen. There is no battle against the sons of Llyr at Eber Henvelen, but they gaze at it from a window after waking from an enchanted sleep. There is no slaughter of Mordwydtyllon. Math, son of Mathonwy, is there the leading figure, and Gwydion is a mere adventurer, stealing pigs and forcing Arianrod to acknowledge her son Llew by enchantments, while Arawn is placed under the earth as king of Annwfn, which represents the actual region of departed spirits.1
Mr. Nash, in his criticism on the Cad Godeu, quotes from the Myvyrian Archæology a fragment which he thus translates--
"ENGLYNION, OR VERSES ON THE CAD GODDEU.and maintains that this is a fragment of a story or romance called Cad Godeu, and that this real Cad Godeu must not be confounded with the Cad Godeu ascribed to Taliessin, which he adds is one of the very latest of these productions, and very inferior in style and spirit to the compositions worked up by Thomas ab Einion.
I am exactly of the opposite opinion. Mr. Nash, as usual, assumes the genuineness of the prose document; but there is no indication of where it came from. It exists in no known MS., and I doubt not came from the same workshop as the so-called compositions of Thomas ab Einion; but assuming it to be a fragment of a prose tale, it truly bears out the remarks I have made. The poem called "Cad Godeu" contains no description of a battle, but Godeu is repeatedly mentioned in other poems, and always in close connection with Reged, which takes us to the "Gogledd," as do also the names of Llew and Arawn. It describes in highly figurative language a hateful appearance in Britain, passing before the Guledig, "like horses in the middle-like fleets full of wealth--like a monster with great jaws--and a hundred heads--like a toad with black thighs and a hundred claws--like a speckled snake." The word breith, or "speckled," betrays its character. It was the exaltation Gwydion gave to the Brython--the alliance with the speckled race of the Picts--which filled the bard with these gloomy pictures, and this idea runs through the whole poem.
When we come to the prose tale, if it be one, it is a battle between Amathaon and Arawn, king of Annwfn, for a whelp and a white roebuck, and which was settled by the device of Gwydion guessing the name of a man.
Footnotes1. I do not here notice the poem (B. T. 16, Kadeir Kerrituen), as I consider it of later date, and to belong to a different period and class of poems.
2. The translation is Mr. Nash's.