Chapter VIII: Myths and Tales of the Cymry
The absence in early Celtic literature of any world-myth, or any philosophic
account of the origin and constitution of things, was noticed at the opening of
our third chapter. In Gaelic literature there is, as far as I know, nothing
which even pretends to represent early Celtic thought on this subject. It is
otherwise in Wales. Here there has existed for a considerable time a body of
teaching purporting to contain a portion, at any rate, of that ancient Druidic
thought which, as Caesar tells us, was communicated only to the initiated, and
never written down. This teaching is principally to be found in two volumes
entitled "Barddas," a compilation made from materials in his
possession by a Welsh bard and scholar named Llewellyn Sion, of Glamorgan,
towards the end of the sixteenth century, and edited, with a translation, by J.
A. Williams ap Ithel for the Welsh MS. Society. Modern Celtic scholars pour
contempt on the pretensions of works like this to enshrine any really antique
thought. Thus Mr. Ivor B. John: "All idea of a bardic esoteric doctrine
involving pre-Christian mythic philosophy must be utterly discarded." And
again: "The nonsense talked upon the subject is largely due to the
uncritical invention of pseudo-antiquaries of the sixteenth to seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries." ["The Mabinogion," pp.45 and 54] Still the
bardic Order was certainly at one tune in possession of such a doctrine. That
Order had a fairly continuous existence in Wales. And though no critical thinker
would build with any confidence a theory of pre-Christian doctrine on a document of the sixteenth
century, it does not seem wise to scout altogether the possibility that some
fragments of antique lore may have lingered even so late as that in bardic
At any rate, "Barddas" is a work of considerable philosophic
interest, and even if it represents nothing but a certain current of Cymric
thought in the sixteenth century it is not unworthy of attention by the student
of things Celtic. Purely Druidic it does not even profess to be, for Christian
personages and episodes from Christian history figure largely in it. But we come
occasionally upon a strain of thought which, whatever else it may be, is
certainly not Christian, and speaks of an independent philosophic system.
In this system two primary existences are contemplated, God and Cythrawl, who
stand respectively for the principle of energy tending towards life, and the
principle of destruction tending towards nothingness. Cythrawl is realised in
Annwn, [pronounced "Annoon." It was the word used in the early
literature for Hades or Fairyland] which may be rendered, the Abyss, or Chaos.
In the beginning there was nothing but God and Annwn. Organised life began by
the Word - God pronounced His ineffable Name and the "Manred" was
formed. The Manred was the primal substance of the universe. It was conceived as
a multitude of minute indivisible particles - atoms, in fact - each being a
microcosm, for God is complete in each of them, while at the same time each is a
part of God, the Whole. The totality of being as it now exists is represented by
three concentric circles. The innermost of them, where life sprang from Annwn,
is called "Abred," and is the stage of struggle and evolution - the
contest of life with Cythrawl. The next is the circle of "Gwynfyd," or Purity, in which life is manifested as
a pure, rejoicing force, having attained its triumph over evil. The last and
outermost circle is called "Ceugant," or Infinity. Here all predicates
fail us, and this circle, represented graphically not by a bounding line, but by
divergent rays, is inhabited by God alone. The following extract from "Barddas," in which the
alleged bardic teaching is conveyed in catechism form, will serve to show the
order of ideas in which the writer's mind moved:
"Q. Whence didst thou proceed?
"A. I came from the Great World, having my beginning in Annwn.
"Q. Where art thou now? and how camest thou to what thou art?
"A. I am in the Little World, whither I came having traversed the circle
of Abred, and now I am a Man, at its termination and extreme limits.
"Q. What wert thou before thou didst become a man, in the circle of
"A. I was in Annwn the least possible that was capable of life and the
nearest possible to absolute death; and I came in every form and through every form capable of a body and life to the state of man along the circle of Abred,
where my condition was severe and grievous during the age of ages, ever since I
was parted in Annwn from the dead, by the gift of God, and His great generosity,
and His unlimited and endless love.
"Q. Through how many different forms didst thou come, and what happened
"A. Through every form capable of life, in water, in earth, in air. And
there happened unto me every severity, every hardship, every evil, and every
suffering, and but little was the goodness or Gwynfyd before I became a man. . .
. Gwynfyd cannot be obtained without seeing and knowing everything, but it is
not possible to see or to know everything without suffering everything. . . .
And there can be no full and perfect love that does not produce those things
which are necessary to lead to the knowledge that causes Gwynfyd."
Every being, we are told, shall attain to the circle of Gwynfyd at last.
["Barddas," vol. i , pp. 224 sqq.]
There is much here that reminds us of Gnostic or Oriental thought. It is
certainly very unlike Christian orthodoxy of the sixteenth century. As a product
of the Cymric mind of that period the reader may take it for what it is worth,
without troubling himself either with antiquarian theories or with their
Let us now turn to the really ancient work, which is not philosophic, but
creative and imaginative, produced by British bards and fabulists of the Middle
Ages. But before we go on to set forth what we shall find in this literature we
must delay a moment to discuss one thing which we shall not.
The Arthurian Saga
For the majority of modern readers who have hot made any special study of the
subject, the mention of early British legend will inevitably call up the glories
of the Arthurian Saga - they will think of the fabled palace at Caerleon-on-Usk,
the Knights of the Round Table riding forth on chivalrous adventure, the Quest
of the Grail, the guilty love of Lancelot, flower of knighthood, for the queen,
the last great battle by the northern sea, the voyage of Arthur, sorely wounded,
but immortal, to the mystic valley of Avalon. But as a matter of fact they will
find in the native literature of medieval Wales little or nothing of all this -
no Round Table, no Lancelot, no Grail-Quest, no Isle of Avalon, until the Welsh
learned about them from abroad; and though there was indeed an Arthur in this
literature, he is a wholly different being from the Arthur of what we now call
the Arthurian Saga.
The earliest extant mention of Arthur is to be found in the work of the
British historian Nennius, who wrote his "Historia Britonum" about the
year 800. He derives his authority from various sources - ancient monuments and
writings of Britain and of Ireland (in connexion with the latter country he
records the legend of Partholan), Roman annals, and chronicles of saints,
especially St. Germanus. He presents a fantastically Romanised and Christianised
view of British history, deriving the Britons from a Trojan and Roman ancestry.
His account of Arthur, however, is both sober and brief. Arthur, who, according
to Nennius, lived in the sixth century, was not a king; his ancestry was less
noble than that of many other British chiefs, who, nevertheless less, for his great talents as a military Imperator, or dux
bellorum, chose him for their leader against the Saxons, whom he defeated in
twelve battles, the last being at Mount Badon. Arthur's office was doubtless a
relic of Roman military organisation, and there is no reason to doubt his
historical existence, however impenetrable may be the veil which now obscures
his valiant and often triumphant battlings for order and civilisation in that
Geoffrey of Monmouth
Next we have Geoffrey of Monmouth, Bishop of St. Asaph, who wrote his "Historia
Regum Britaniniae" in South Wales in the early part of the twelfth century.
This work is an audacious attempt to make sober history out of a mass of
mythical or legendary matter mainly derived, if we are to believe the author,
from an ancient book brought by his uncle Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, from
Brittany. The mention of Brittany in this connexion is, as we shall see, very
significant. Geoffrey wrote expressly to commemorate the exploits of Arthur, who
now appears as a king, son of Uther Pendragon and of Igerna, wife of Gorlois,
Duke of Cornwall, to whom Uther gained access in the shape of her husband
through the magic arts of Merlin. He places the beginning of Arthur's reign in
the year 505, recounts his wars against the Saxons, and says he ultimately
conquered not only all Britain, but Ireland, Norway, Gaul, and Dacia, and
successfully resisted a demand for tribute and homage irom the Romans. He held
his court at Caerleon-on-Usk. While he was away on the Continent carrying on his
struggle with Rome his nephew Modred usurped his crown and wedded his wife
Guanhumara. Arthur, on this, returned, and after defeating the traitor at
Winchester slew him in a last battle in Cornwall, where Arthur himself was sorely wounded
(A.D. 542). The queen retired to a convent at Caerleon. Before his death
Arthur conferred his kingdom on his kinsman Constantine, and was then carried
off mysteriously to "the isle of Avalon" to be cured, and "the
rest is silence." Arthur's magic sword "Caliburn" (Welsh Caladvwlch;
see p. 224, note) is mentioned by Geoffrey and described as having been made in
Avalon, a word which seems to imply some kind of fairyland, a Land of the Dead,
and may be related to the Norse Valhall. It was not until later times
that Avalon came to be identified with an actual site in Britain (Glastonbury).
In Geoffrey's narrative there is nothing about the Holy Grail, or Lancelot, or
the Round Table, and except for the allusion to Avalon the mystical element of
the Arthurian saga is absent. Like Nennius, Geoffrey finds a fantastic classical
origin for the Britons. His so-called history is perfectly worthless as a record
of fact, but it has proved a veritable mine for poets and chroniclers, and has
the distinction of having furnished the subject for the earliest English tragic
drama, "Gorboduc," as well as for Shakespeare's "King Lear"; and its author may be described as the father - at least on its
quasi-historical side - of the Arthurian saga, which he made up partly out of
records of the historical dux bellorum of Nennius and partly out of
poetical amplifications of these records made in Brittany by the descendants of
exiles from Wales, many of whom fled there at the very time when Arthur was
waging his wars against the heathen Saxons. Geoffrey's book had a wonderful
success. It was speedily translated into French by Wace, who wrote "Li
Romans de Brut" about 1155, with added details from Breton sources, and
translated from Wace's French into Anglo-Saxon by Layamon, who thus anticipated
Malory's adaptations of late French prose romances. Except a few scholars who
protested unavailingly, no one doubted its strict historical truth, and it had
the important effect of giving to early British history a new dignity in the
estimation of Continental and of English princes. To sit upon the throne of
Arthur was regarded as in itself a glory by Plantagenet monarchs who had not a
trace of Arthur's or of any British blood.
The Saga in Brittany: Marie de France
The Breton sources must next be considered. Unfortunately, not a line of
ancient Breton literature has come down to us, and for our knowledge of it we
must rely on the appearances it makes in the work of French writers. One of the
earliest of these is the Anglo-Norman poetess who called herself Marie de
France, and who wrote about 1150 and afterwards. She wrote, among other things,
a number of "Lais" or tales, which she explicitly and repeatedly tells
us were translated or adapted from Breton sources. Sometimes she claims to have
rendered a writer's original exactly:
"Les contes que jo sai verais
Little is actually said about Arthur in these tales, but the events of them
are placed in his time -- en cel tems tint Artus la terre - and the
allusions, which include a mention of the Round Table, evidently imply a general
knowledge of the subject among those to whom these Breton "Lais" were
addressed. Lancelot is not mentioned, but there is a "Lai" about one
Lanval, who is beloved by Arthur's queen, but rejects her because he has a fairy
mistress in the "isle d'Avalon" Gawain is mentioned, and an episode is told in the "Lai de Chevrefoil" about
Tristan and Iseult, whose maid, "Brangien," is referred to in a way
which assumes that the audience knew the part she had played on Iseult's bridal
night. In short, we have evidence here of the existence in Brittany of a
well-diffused and well-developed body of chivalric legend gathered about the
personality of Arthur. The legends are so well known that mere allusions to
characters and episodes in them are as well understood as references to
Tennyson's "Idylls" would be among us to-day. The "Lais" of
Marie de France therefore point strongly to Brittany as the true cradle of the
Arthurian saga, on its chivalrous and romantic side. They do not, however,
mention the Grail.
Dunt Ii Bretun unt fait Ies lais
Vos conterai assez briefment;
Et ceif [sauf] di cest commencement
Selunc la letter è l'escriture."
Chrestien de Troyes
Lastly, and chiefly, we have the work of the French poet Chrestien de Troyes,
who began in 1165 to translate Breton "Lais," like Marie de France,
and who practically brought the Arthurian saga into the poetic literature of
Europe, and gave it its main outline and character. He wrote a "Tristan"
(now lost). He (if not Walter Map) introduced Lancelot of the Lake into the
story; he wrote a Conte del Graal, in which the Grail legend and
Perceval make their first appearance, though he left the story unfinished, and
does not tell us what the "Grail" really was. [strange as it may seem
to us, the character of this object was by no means fixed from the beginning. In
the poem of Wolfram son Eschenbach it is a stone endowed with magical
properties. The word is derived by the early fabulists from gréable,
something pleasant to possess and enjoy, and out of which one could have à
son gré, whatever he chose of good things. The Grail legend will be dealt
with later in connexion with the Welsh tale "Peredur."] He also wrote
a long conte d'aventure entitled "Erec," containing the story
of Geraint and Enid. These are the earliest poems we possess in which the Arthur of chivalric legend comes prominently forward.
What were the sources of Chrestien? No doubt they were largely Breton. Troyes
is in Champagne, which had been united to Blois in 1019 by Eudes, Count of Blois,
and reunited again after a period of dispossession by Count Theobald de Blois in
1128. Marie, Countess of Champagne, was Chrestien's patroness. And there were
close connexions between the ruling princes of Blois and of Brittany. Alain II.,
a Duke of Brittany, had in the tenth century married a sister of the Count de
Blois, and in the first quarter of the thirteenth century Jean I. of Brittany
married Blanche de Champagne, while their daughter Alix married Jean de
Chastillon, Count of Blois, in 1254. It is highly probable, therefore, that
through minstrels who attended their Breton lords at the court of Blois, from
the middle of the tenth century onward, a great many Breton "Lais" and
legends found their way into French literature during the eleventh, twelfth, and
thirteenth Centuries. But it is also certain that the Breton legends themselves
had been strongly affected by French influences, and that to the Matière de
France, as it was called by medieval writers [distinguished by these from
the other great storehouse of poetic legend, the Matière de Bretagne --
i.e., the Arthurian saga.] - i.e., the legends of Charlemagne and his
Paladins - we owe the Table Round and the chivalric institutions ascribed to
Arthur's court at Caerleo-on-Usk.
It must not be forgotten that (as Miss Jessie L. Weston has emphasised in her
invaluable studies on the Arthurian saga) Gautier de Denain the earliest of the
continuators or re-workers of Chrestien de Troyes, mentions as his authority for
stories of Gawain one Bleheris, a poet "born and bred in Wales."
This forgotten bard is believed to be identical with famosus ille fabulator,
Bledhericus, mentioned by Giraldus Cambrensis, and with the Bréris quoted
by Thomas of Brittany as an authority for the Tristan story.
Conclusion as to the Origin of the Arthurian Saga
In the absence, however, of any information as to when, or exactly what,
Bleheris wrote, the opinion must, I think, hold the field that the Arthurian
saga, as we have it now, is not of Welsh, nor even of pure Breton origin. The
Welsh exiles who colonised part of Brittany about the sixth century must have
brought with them many stories of the historical Arthur. They must also have
brought legends of the Celtic deity Artaius, a god to whom altars have been
found in France. These personages ultimately blended into one, even as in
Ireland the Christian St. Brigit blended with the pagan goddess Brigindo. We thus get a mythical figure combining something of the exaltation of a
god with a definite habitation on earth and a place in history. An Arthur saga
thus arose, which in its Breton (though not its Welsh) form was greatly enriched
by material drawn in from the legends of Charlemagne and his peers, while both
in Brittany and in Wales it became a centre round which clustered a mass of
floating legendary matter relating to various Celtic personages, human and
divine. Chrestien de Troyes, working on Breton material, ultimately gave it the
form in which it conquered the world, and in which it became in the twelfth and
the thirteenth centuries what the Faust legend was in later times, the accepted
vehicle for the ideals and aspirations of an epoch.
The Saga in Wales
From the Continent, and especially from Brittany, the story of Arthur came
back into Wales transformed and glorified. The late Dr. Heinrich Zimmer, in one
of his luminous studies of the subject, remarks that "In Welsh literature
we have definite evidence that the South-Welsh prince, Rhys ap Tewdwr, who had
been in Brittany, brought from thence in the year 1070 the knowledge of Arthur's
Round Table to Wales, where of course it had been hitherto unknown."
[Cultur der Gegenwart," i. ix.] And many Breton lords are known to have
followed the banner of William the Conqueror into England. [a list of them is
given in Lobineau's " Histoire de Bretagne."] The introducers of the
saga into Wales found, however, a considerable body of Arthurian matter of a
very different character already in existence there. Besides the traditions of
the historical Arthur, the dux bellorum of Nennius, there was the Celtic
deity, Artaius. It is probably a reminiscence of this deity whom we meet with
under the name of Arthur in the only genuine Welsh Arthurian story we possess,
the story of Kilhwch and Olwen in the "Mabinogion." Much of the
Arthurian saga derived from Chrestien and other Continental writers was
translated and adapted in Wales as in other European countries, but as a matter
of fact it made a later and a lesser impression in Wales than almost anywhere
else. it conflicted with existing Welsh traditions, both historical and
mythological; it was full of matter entirely foreign to the Welsh spirit, and it
remained always in Wales something alien and unassimilated. Into Ireland it
never entered at all.
These few introductory remarks do not, of course, profess to contain a
discussion of the Arthurian saga -- a vast subject with myriad ramifications,
historical, mythological, mystical, and what not - but are merely intended to indicate
the relation of that saga to genuine Celtic literature and to explain why we
shall hear so little of it in the following accounts of Cymric myths and
legends. It was a great spiritual myth which, arising from the composite source
above described, overran all the Continent, as its hero was supposed to have
done in armed conquest, but it cannot be regarded as a special possession of the
Celtic race, nor is it at present extant, except in the form of translation or
adaptation, in any Celtic tongue.
Gaelic and Cymric Legend Compared
The myths and legends of the Celtic race which have come down to us in the
Welsh language are in some respects of a different character from those which we
possess in Gaelic. The Welsh material is nothing like as full as the Gaelic, nor
so early. The tales of the "Mabinogion" are mainly drawn from the
fourteenth-century manuscript entitled "The Red Book of Hergest." One
of them, the romance of Taliesin, came from another source, a manuscript of the
seventeenth century. The four oldest tales in the "Mabinogion" are
supposed by scholars to have taken their present shape in the tenth or eleventh
century, while several Irish tales, like the story of Etain and Midir or the
Death of Conary, go back to the seventh or eighth. It will be remembered that
the story of the invasion of Partholan was known to Nennius, who wrote about the
year 800. As one might therefore expect, the mythological elements in the Welsh
romances are usually much more confused and harder to decipher than in the
earlier of the Irish tales. The mythic interest has grown less, the story
interest greater; the object of the bard is less to hand down a sacred text
than to entertain a prince's court. We must remember also that the influence of the
Continental romances of chivalry is clearly perceptible in the Welsh tales;
and, in fact, comes eventually to govern them completely.
Gaelic and Continental Romance
In many respects the Irish Celt anticipated the ideas of these romances. The
lofty courtesy shown to each other by enemies, [see, e.g., pp.243 snd
218, note] the fantastic pride which forbade a warrior to take advantage
of a wounded adversary, [see p.233, and a similar case in the author's
"High Deeds of Finn," p. 82] the extreme punctilio with which the
duties or observances proper to each man's caste or station were observed [see
p.232, and the tale of the recovery of the " Tain," p. 234] - all this
tone of thought and feeling which would seem so strange to us if we met an
instance of it in classical literature would seem quite familiar and natural in
Continental romances of the twelfth and later centuries. Centuries earlier than
that it was a marked feature in Gaelic literature. Yet in the Irish romances,
whether Ultonian or Ossianic, the element which has since been considered the
most essential motive in a romantic tale is almost entirely lacking. This is the
element of love, or rather of woman-worship. The Continental fabulist felt that
he could do nothing without this motive of action. But the "lady-love"
of the English, French, or German knight, whose favour he wore, for whose grace
he endured infinite hardship and peril, does not meet us in Gaelic literature.
It would have seemed absurd to the Irish Celt to make the plot of a serious
story hinge on the kind of passion with which the medieval Dulcinea inspired her
faithful knight. In the two most famous and popular of Gaelic love-tales,
the tale of Deirdre and "The Pursuit of Dermot and Grania," the
women are the wooers, and the men are most reluctant to commit what they know to
be the folly of yielding to them. Now this romantic, chivalric kind of love,
which idealised woman into a goddess, and made the service of his lady a sacred
duty to the knight, though it never reached in Wales the height which it did in
Continental and English romances, is yet clearly discernible there. We can trace
it in "Kilhwch and Olwen," which is comparatively an ancient tale. it
is well developed in later stories like "Peredur" and "The Lady
of the Fountain." It is a symptom of the extent to which, in comparison
with the Irish, Welsh literature had lost its pure Celtic strain and become
affected-I do not, of course, say to its loss - by foreign influences.
Gaelic and Cymric Mythology: Nudd
The oldest of the Welsh tales, those called "The Four Branches of the
Mabinogi" ["Pwyll King cf Dyfed," "Bran and Branwen,"
"Math Son of Mathonwy," and "Manawyddan Son of Llyr."] are
the richest in mythological elements, but these occur in more or less
recognisable form throughout nearly all the medieval tales, and even, after many
transmutations, in Malory. We can dearly discern certain mythological figures
common to all Celtica. We meet, for instance, a personage called Nudd or Lludd,
evidently a solar deity. A temple dating from Roman times, and dedicated to him
under the name of Nodens, has been discovered at Lydney, by the Severn. On a
bronze plaque found near the spot is a representation of the god. He is
encircled by a halo and accompanied by flying spirits and by Tritons. We are
reminded of the Danaan deities and their dose connexion with the
sea; and when we find that in Welsh legend an epithet is attached to Nudd,
meaning "of the Silver Hand" (though no extant Welsh legend tells the
meaning of the epithet), we have no difficulty in identifying this Nudd with
Nuada of the Silver Hand, who led the Danaans in the battle of
Moytura. Under his name Lludd he is said to have had a temple on the site of St.
Paul's in London, the entrance to which, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, was
called in the British tongue Parth Lludd, which the Saxons translated Ludes
Geat, our present Ludgate.
Llyr and Manawyddan
Again, when we find a mythological personage named Llyr, with a son named
Manawyddan, p laying a prominent part in Welsh legend, we may safely connect
them with the Irish Lir and his son Mananan, gods of the sea. Llyr-cester, now
Leicester, was a centre of the worship of Llyr.
LIew Llaw Gyffes
Finally, we may point to a character in the "Mabinogi," or tale,
entitled "Math Son of Mathonwy." The name of this character is given
as Llew Llaw Gyffes, which the Welsh fabulist interprets as "The Lion of
the Sure Hand," and a tale, which we shall recount later on, is told to
account for the name. But when we find that this hero exhibits characteristics
which point to his being a solar deity, such as an amazingly rapid growth from
childhood into manhood, and when we are told, moreover, by Professor Rhys that
Gyffes originally meant, not" steady "or" sure," but "
long," ["Hibbert Lecturces," pp.:237 -- 240] it becomes evident
that we have here a dim and broken reminiscence of the deity whom the Gaels
called Lugh of the Long Arm, [see pp. 83, 109, &c. Lugh, of course, = Lux, Light. The
Celtic words Lamh and Llaw were used indifferently for hand or
arm] Lugh Lamh Fada. The misunderstood name survived, and round the
misunderstanding legendary matter floating in the popular mind crystallised
itself in a new story.
These correspondences might be pursued in much further detail. It is enough
here to point to their existence as evidence of the original community of Gaelic
and Cymric mythology.[Mr. Squire, in his "Mythology of the British
Islands," 1905 has brought together in a clear and attractive form the most
recent results of studies on this subject] We are, in each literature, in the
same circle of mythological ideas. In Wales, however, these ideas are harder to
discern; the figures and their relationships in the Welsh Olympus are less
accurately defined and more fluctuating. It would seem as if a number of
different tribes embodied what were fundamentally the same conceptions under
different names and wove different legends about them. The bardic literature, as
we have it now, bears evidence some-times of the prominence of one of these
tribal cults, sometimes of another. To reduce these varying accounts to unity is
altogether impossible. Still, we can do some thing to afford the reader a clue
to the maze.
The Houses of Don and of Llyr
Two great divine houses or families are discernible-that of Don, a
mother-goddess (representing the Gaelic Dana), whose husband is Beli, the Irish
Bilé god of Death, and whose descendants are the Children of Light; and the
House of Llyr, the Gaelic Lir, who here represents, not a Danaan deity, but
something more like the Irish Fomorians. As in the case of the Irish myth, the
two families are allied by intermarriage -- Penardun, a daughter of
Don, is wedded to Llyr. Don herself has a brother, Math, whose name signifies
wealth or treasure (cf. Greek Pluton, ploutos), and they
descend from a figure indistinctly characterised, called Mathonwy.
The House of Arthur
Into the pantheon of deities represented in the four ancient Mabinogi there
came, at a later time, from some other tribal source, another group headed by
Arthur, the god Artaius. He takes the place of Gwydion son of Don, and the other
deities of his circle fall more or less accurately into the places of others of
the earlier circle. The accompanying genealogical plans are intended to help the
reader to a general view of the relationships and attributes of these
personages. It must be borne in mind, however, that these tabular arrangements
necessarily involve an appearance of precision and consistency which is not
reflected in the fluctuating character of the actual myths taken as a whole.
Still, as a sketch-map of a very intricate and obscure region, they may help the
reader who enters it for the first time to find his bearings in it, and that is
the only purpose they propose to serve.
Gwyn ap Nudd
The deity named Gwyn ap Nudd is said, like Finn in Gaelic legend, [Finn and
Gwyn are respectively the Gaelic and Cymric forms of the same name, meaning fair
or white] to have impressed himself more deeply and lastingly on the Welsh
popular imagination than any of the other divinities. A mighty warrior and
huntsman, he glories in the crash of breaking spears, and, like Odin, assembles
the souls of dead heroes in his shadowy kingdom, for although he belongs to the kindred of the Light-gods, Hades is his special domain. The combat
between him and Gwythur ap Greidawl (Victor, son of Scorcher) for Creudylad,
daughter of Lludd, which is to be renewed every May-day till time shall end,
represents evidently the contest between winter and summer for the flowery and
fertile earth. " Later," writes Mr. Charles Squire, " he came to
be considered as King of the Tylwyth Teg, the Welsh fairies, and his name
as such has hardly yet died out of his last haunt, the romantic vale of Neath. .
. . He is the Wild Huntsman of Wales and the West of England, and it is his pack
which is sometimes heard at chase in waste places by night."
["Mythology of the British Islands," p. 225] He figures as a god of
war and death in a wonderful poem from the "Black Book of Caermarthen," where he is represented as discoursing with a prince named
Gwyddneu Garanhir, who had come to ask his protection. I quote a few stanzas:
the poem will be found in full in Mr. Squire's excellent volume:
"I come from battle and conflict
With a shield in my hand;
Broken is my helmet by the thrusting of spears.
Round-hoofed is my horse, the torment of battle,
Fairy am I called, Gwyn the son of Nudd,
The lover of Crewrdilad, the daughter of Lludd
" I have been in the place where Gwendolen was slain,
The son of Ceidaw, the pillar of song,
Where the ravens screamed over blood.
"I have been in the place where Bran was killed,
The son of Iweridd, of far-extending fame,
Where the ravens of the battlefield screamed.
"I have been where Llacheu was slain,
The son of Arthur, extolled in songs,
When the ravens screamed over blood.
"I have been where Mewrig was killed,
The son of Carreian, of honourable fame,
When the ravens screamed over flesh.
"I have been where Gwallawg was killed,
The son of Goholeth, the accomplished,
The resister of Lloegyr, [Saxon Britain] the son of Lleynawg.
"I have been where the soldiers of Britain were slain,
From the east to the north:
I am the escort of the grave.
I have been where the soldiers of Britain were slain,
From the east to the south:
I am alive, they in death."
Myrddin, or Merlin
A deity named Myrddin holds in Arthur's mythological cycle the place of the
Sky- and Sun-god, Nudd. One of the Welsh Triads tells us that Britain, before it
was inhabited, was called Clas Myrddin, Myrddin's Enclosure. One is
reminded of the Irish fashion of calling any favoured spot a "cattle-fold
of the sun" - the name is applied by Deirdre to her beloved Scottish home
in Glen Etive. Professor Rhys suggests that Myrddin was the deity specially
worshipped at Stonehenge, which, according to British tradition as reported by
Geoffrey of Monmouth, was erected by "Merlin," the enchanter who
represents the form into which Myrddin had dwindled under Christian influences.
We are told that the abode of Merlin was a house of glass, or a bush of
whitethorn laden with bloom, or a sort of smoke or mist in the air, or "a
close neither of iron nor steel nor timber nor of stone, but of the air without any other thing, by enchantment so strong that it may never be undone
while the world endureth." [Rhys, "Hibbert Lectures," quoting
from the ancient saga of Merlin published by the English Text Society, p.693]
Finally he descended upon Bardsey Island, "off the extreme westernmost
point of Carnarvonshire … into it he went with nine attendant bards, taking
with him the 'Thirteen Treasures of Britain,' thenceforth lost to men."
Professor Rhys points out that a Greek traveller named Demetrius, who is
described as having visited Britain in the first Century A.D., mentions an
island in the west where" Kronos" was supposed to be imprisoned with
his attendant deities, and Briareus keeping watch over him as he slept,
"for sleep was the bond forged for him." Doubtless we have here a
version, Hellenised as was the wont of classical writers on barbaric myths, of a
British story of the descent of the Sun-god into the western sea, and his
imprisonment there by the powers of darkness, with the possessions and magical
potencies belonging to Light and Life. ["Mythology of the British
Islands," pp.325, 326; and Rhys, "Hibbert Lectures," p.
Nynniaw and Peibaw
The two personages called Nynniaw and Peibaw who in the genealogical table
play a very slight part in Cymric mythology, but one story in which they appear
is interesting in itself and has an excellent moral. They are represented [in
the "Iolo MSS.," collected by Edward Williams] as two brothers, Kings
of Britain, who were walking together one starlight night. "See what a fine
far-spreading field I have," said Nynniaw. "Where is it?" asked
Peibaw. "There aloft and as far as you can see," said Nynniaw,
pointing to the sky. "But look at all my cattle grazing in your
field," said Peibaw.
"Where are they?" said Nynniaw. "All the golden stars,"
said Peibaw, "with the moon for their shepherd."
"They shall not graze on my field," cried Nynniaw.
"I say they shall," returned Peibaw. "They shall not."
"They shall." And so they went on: first they quarrelled with each
other, and then went to war, and armies were destroyed and lands laid waste,
till at last the two brothers were turned into oxen as a punishment for their
stupidity and quarrelsomeness.
We now come to the work in which the chief treasures of Cymric myth and
legend were collected by Lady Charlotte Guest sixty years ago, and given to the
world in a translation which is one of the masterpieces of English literature.
The title of this work, the "Mabinogion," is the plural form of the
word Mabinogi, which means a story belonging to the equipment of an
apprentice-bard, such a story as every bard had necessarily to learn as part of
his training, whatever more he might afterwards add to his répertoire. Strictly
speaking, the Mabinogi in the volume are only the four tales given first
in Mr. Alfred Nutt's edition, which were entitled the "Four Branches of the
Mabinogi," and which form a connected whole. They are among the oldest
relics of Welsh mythological saga.
Pwyll, Head of Hades
The first of them is the story of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, and relates how
that prince got his title of Pen Annwn, or "Head of
Hades" - Annwn being the term under which we identify in Welsh literature
the Celtic Land of the Dead, or Fairyland. It is a story with a mythological
basis, but breathing the purest spirit of chivalric honour and nobility.
PwyIl, it is said, was hunting one day in the woods of Glyn Cuch when he saw
a pack of hounds, not his own, running down a stag. These hounds were snow-white
in colour, with red ears. If Pwyll had had any experience in these matters he
would have known at once what kind of hunt was up, for these are the colours of
Faery - the red-haired man, the red-eared hound are always associated with
magic. [see, e.g. pp. 111, 272] Pwyll, however, drove off the strange
hounds, and was setting his own on the quarry when a horseman of noble
appearance came up and reproached him for his discourtesy. Pwyll offered to make
amends, and the story now develops into the familiar theme of the Rescue of
Fairyland. The stranger's name is Arawn, a king in Annwn. He is being harried
and dispossessed by a rival, Havgan, and he seeks the aid of Pwyll, whom he begs
to meet Havgan in single combat a year hence. Meanwhile he will put his own
shape on Pwyll, who is to rule in his kingdom till the eventful day, while Arawn
will go in Pwyll's shape to govern Dyfed. He instructs Pwyll how to deal with
the foe. Havgan must be laid low with a single stroke-if another is given to him
he immediately revives again as strong as ever.
Pwyll agreed to follow up the adventure, and accordingly went in Arawn's
shape to the kingdom of Annwn. Here he was placed in an unforeseen difficulty.
The beautiful wife of Arawn greeted him as her husband. But when the time came
for them to retire to rest he set his face to the wall and said no word to her,
nor touched her at all until the morning broke. Then they rose up, and Pwyll
went to the hunt, and ruled his kingdom, and did all things as if he were
monarch of the land. And whatever affection he showed to the queen public during the day, he passed every night even as this first.
At last the day of battle came, and, like the chieftains in Gaelic story,
Pwyll and Havgan met each other in the midst of a river-ford. They fought, and
at the first clash Havgan was hurled a spear's length over the crupper of his
horse and fell mortally wounded. [we see here that we have got far from
primitive Celtic legend. The heroes fight Like medieval knights on horseback,
tilting at each other with spears, not in chariots or on foot, and not
with the strange weapons which figure in Gaelic battle-tales] "For the love
of heaven," said he, "slay me and complete thy work." "I
may yet repent that," said Pwyll. "Slay thee who may, I will
not." Then Havgan knew that his end was come, and bade his nobles bear him
off; and Pwyll with all his army overran the two kingdoms of Annwn, and made
himself master of all the land, and took homage from its princes and lords.
Then he rode off alone to keep his tryst in Glyn Cuch with Arawn as they had
appointed. Arawn thanked him for all he had done, and added: "When thou
comest thyself to thine own dominions thou wilt see what I have done for
thee." They exchanged shapes once more, and each rode in his own likeness
to take possession of his own land.
At the court of Annwn the day was spent in joy and feasting, though none but
Arawn himself knew that anything unusual had taken place. When night came Arawn
kissed and caressed his wife as of old, and she pondered much as to what might
be the cause of his change towards her, and of his previous change a year and a
day before. And as she was thinking over these things Arawn spoke to her twice
or thrice, but got no answer. He then asked her why she was silent. "I
tell thee," she said, "that for a year I have not spoken so much in
this place." "Did not we speak continually?" he said. "Nay," said she, "but for a year back there has been neither converse
nor tenderness between us." "Good heaven!" thought Arawn,
"a man as faithful and firm in his friendship as any have I found for a
friend." Then he told his queen what had passed. "Thou hast indeed
laid hold of a faithful friend," she said.
And Pwyll when he came back to his own land called his lords together and
asked them how they thought he had sped in his kingship during the past year.
"Lord," said they, "thy wisdom was never so great, and thou wast
never so kind and free in bestowing thy gifts, and thy justice was never more
worthily seen than in this year." Pwyll then told them the story of his
adventure. "Verily, lord," said they, "render thanks unto heaven
that thou hast such a fellowship, and withhold not from us the rule which we
have enjoyed for this year past." "I take heaven to witness that I
will not withhold it," said Pwyll.
So the two kings made strong the friendship that was between them, and sent
each other rich gifts of horses and hounds and jewels; and in memory of the
adventure Pwyll bore thenceforward the title of "Lord of Annwn."
The Wedding of PwyII and Rhiannon
Near to the castle of Narberth, where Pwyll had his court, there was a mound
called the Mound of Arberth, of which it was believed that whoever sat upon it
would have a strange adventure either he would receive blows and wounds or he
would see a wonder. One day when all his lords were assembled at Narberth for a
feast Pwyll declared that he would sit on the mound and see what would befall.
He did so, and after a little while saw approaching him along the road that led to the mound a lady clad in garments that shone
like gold, and sitting on a pure white horse. "is there any among
you," said Pwyll to his men, "who knows that lady?" "There
is not," said they. "Then go to meet her and learn who she is."
But as they rode towards the lady she moved away from them, and however fast
they rode she still kept an even distance between her and them, yet never seemed
to exceed the quiet pace with which she had first approached.
Several times did Pwyll seek to have the lady overtaken and questioned, but
all was in vain - none could draw near to her.
Next day Pwyll ascended the mound again, and once more the fair lady on her
white steed drew near. This time Pwyll himself pursued her, but she flitted away
before him as she had done before his servants, till at last he cried: "O
maiden, for the sake of him thou best lovest, stay for me." "I will
stay gladly," said she, "and it were better for thy horse had thou
asked it long since."
Pwyll then questioned her as to the cause of her coming, and she said "I
am Rhiannon, the daughter of Hevydd Hen, [Hen, "the Ancient"; an
epithet generally implying a hoary antiquity associated with mythological
tradition] and they sought to give me to a husband against my will. But no
husband would I have, and that because of my love for thee; neither will I yet
have one if thou reject me." "By heaven!" said Pwyll, "if
I might choose among all the ladies and damsels of the world, thee would I
They then agree that in a twelvemonth from that day Pwyll is to come and
claim her at the palace of Hevydd Hen.
Pwyll kept his tryst, with a following of a hundred knights, and found a splendid feast prepared for him, and he sat by his lady,
with her father on the other side. As they feasted and talked there entered a
tall, auburn-haired youth of royal bearing, clad in satin, who saluted Pwyll and
his knights. Pwyll invited him to sit down. "Nay, I am a suitor to
thee," said the youth; "to crave a boon am I come."
"Whatever thou wilt thou shalt have," said Pwyll unsuspiciously, if it
be in my power." "Ah," cried Rhiannon, wherefore didst thou give
that answer?" "Hath he not given it before all these nobles?"
said the youth; "and now the boon I crave is to have thy bride Rhiannon,
and the feast and the banquet that are tn this place." Pwyll was silent.
"Be silent as long as thou wilt," said Rhiannon. "Never did man
make worse use of his wits than thou hast done." She tells him that the
auburn-haired young man is Gwawl, son of Clud, and is the suitor to escape from
whom she had fled to Pwyll.
Pwyll is bound in honour by his word, and Rhiannon explains that the banquet
cannot be given to Gwawl, for it is not in Pwyll's power, but that she herself
will be his bride in a twelvemonth; Gwawl is to come and claim her then, and a
new bridal feast will be prepared for him. Meantime she concerts a plan with
Pwyll, and gives him a certain magical bag, which he is to make use of when the
time shall come.
A year passed away, Gwawl appeared according to the compact, and a great
feast was again set forth, in which he, and not Pwyll, had the place of honour.
As the company were making merry, however, a beggar clad in rags and shod with
clumsy old shoes came into the hall, carrying a bag, as beggars are wont to do.
He humbly craved a boon of Gwawl. It was merely that full of his bag of food
might be given him from the banquet. Gwawl cheerfully consented, and an attendant went to fill the
bag. But however much they put into it it never got fuller - by degrees all the
good things on the tables had gone in; and at last Gwawl cried: "My soul,
will thy bag never be full?"
"It will not, I declare to heaven," answered Pwyll - for he, of
course, was the disguised beggar man - "unless some man wealthy in lands
and treasure shall get into the bag and stamp it down with his feet, and
declare, 'Enough has been put herein."' Rhiannon urged Gwawl to check the
voracity of the bag. He put his two feet into it; Pwyll immediately drew up the
sides of the bag over Gwawl's head and tied it up. Then he blew his horn, and
the knights he had with him, who were concealed outside, rushed in, and captured
and bound the followers of Gwawl. "What is in the bag?" they cried,
and others answered, "A badger," and so they played the game of
"Badger in the Bag," striking it and kicking it about the hall.
At last a voice was heard from it. "Lord," cried Gwawl, "if
thou wouldst but hear me, I merit not to be slain in a bag." "He
speaks truth," said Hevydd Hen.
So an agreement was come to that Gwawl should provide means for Pwyll to
satisfy all the suitors and minstrels who should come to the wedding, and
abandon Rhiannon, and never seek to have revenge for what had been done to him.
This was confirmed by sureties, and Gwawl and his men were released and went to
their own territory. And Pwyll wedded Rhiannon, and dispensed gifts royally to
all and sundry; and at last the pair, when the feasting was done, journeyed down
to the palace of Narberth in Dyfed, where Rhiannon gave rich gifts, a bracelet
and a ring or a precious atone to all the lords and ladies of her new country, and they ruled the land in peace both that year and the
next. But the reader will find that we have not yet done with Gwawl.
The Penance of Rhiannon
Now Pwyll was still without an heir to the throne, and his nobles urged him
to take another wile. "Grant us a year longer," said he, "and if
there be no heir after that it shall be as you wish." Before the year's end
a son was born to them in Narberth. But although six women sat up to watch the
mother and the infant, it happened towards the morning that they all fell
asleep, and Rhiannon also slept, and when the women awoke, behold, the boy was
gone! "We shall be burnt for this," said the women, and in their
terror they concocted a horrible plot: they killed a cub of a staghound that had
just been littered, and laid the bones by Rhiannon, and smeared her face and
hands with blood as she slept, and when she woke and asked for her child they
said she had devoured it in the night, and had overcome them with furious
strength when they would have prevented her - and for all she could say or do
the six women persisted in this story.
When the story was told to Pwyll he would not put away Rhiannon, as his
nobles now again begged him to do, but a penance was imposed on her - namely,
that she was to sit every day by the horse-block at the gate of the castle and
tell the tale to every stranger who came, and offer to carry them on her back
into the castle. And this she did for part of a year.
The Finding of Pryderi [prounounced "Pry-dair׳y"]
Now at this time there lived a man named Teirnyon of Gwent Is Coed, who had
the most beautiful mare in the world, but there was this misfortune attending her, that although she
foaled on the night of every first of May, none ever knew what became of the
colts. At last Teirnyon resolved to get at the truth of the matter, and the next
night on which the mare should foal he armed himself and watched in the stable.
So the mare foaled, and the colt stood up, and Teirnyon was admiring its size
and beauty when a great noise was heard outside, and a long, clawed arm came
through the window of the stable and laid hold of the colt. Teirnyon immediately
smote at the arm with his sword, and severed it at the elbow, so that it fell
inside with the colt, and a great wailing and tumult was heard outside. He
rushed out, leaving the door open behind him, but could see nothing because of
the darkness of the night, and he followed the noise a little way. Then he came
back, and behold, at the door he found an infant in swaddling clothes and
wrapped in a mantle of satin. He took up the child and brought it to where his
wife lay sleeping. She had no children, and she loved the child when she saw it,
and next day pretended to her women that she had borne it as her own. And they
called its name Gwri of the Golden Hair, for its hair was yellow as gold; and it
grew so mightily that in two years it was as big and strong as a child of six;
and ere long the colt that had been foaled on the same night was broken in and
given him to ride.
While these things were going on Teirnyon heard the tale of Rhiannon and her
punishment. And as the lad grew up he scanned his face closely and saw that he
had the features of Pwyll Prince of Dyfed. This he told to his wife, and they
agreed that the child should be taken to Narberth, and Rhiannon released from
As they drew near to the castle, Teirnyon and two knights and the child
riding on his colt, there was Rhiannon sitting by the horse-block. "Chieftains," said she, "
go not further thus; I will bear every one of you into the palace, and this is
my penance for slaying my own son and devouring him." But they would not be
carried, and went in. Pwyll rejoiced to see Teirnyon, and made a feast for him.
Afterwards Teirnyon declared to Pwyll and Rhiannon the adventure of the man and
the colt, and how they had found the boy. "And behold, here is thy son,
lady," said Teirnyon, "and whoever told that lie concerning thee has
done wrong. All who sat at table recognised the lad at once as the child of
Pwyll, and Rhiannon cried "I declare to heaven that if this be true there
is an end to my trouble." And a chief named Pendaran said: "Well hast
thou named thy son Pryderi [trouble], and well becomes him the name of Pryderi
son of Pwyll, Lord of Annwn." It was agreed that his name should be Pryderi, and so he was called thenceforth.
Teirnyon rode home, overwhelmed with thanks and love and gladness; and Pwyll
offered him rich gifts of horses and jewels and dogs, but he would take none of
them. And Pryderi was trained up, as befitted a king's son, in all noble ways
and accomplishments, and when his father Pwyll died he reigned in his stead over
the Seven Cantrevs of Dyfed. And he added to them many other fair dominions, and
at last he took to wife Kicva, daughter of Gwynn Gohoyw, who came of the lineage
of Prince Casnar of Britain.
The Tale of Bran and Branwen
Bendigeid Vran, or "Bran the Blessed," by which latter name we
shall designate him here, when he had been made King of the Isle of the Mighty
(Britain), was one time in his court at Harlech. And he had with him his brother
Manawyddan son of LIyr, and his sister
Branwen, and the two sons, Nissyen and Evnissyen, that Penardun his
mother bore to Eurosswyd. Now Nissyen was a youth of gentle nature, and would
make peace among his kindred and cause them to be friends when their wrath was
at its highest; but Evnissyen loved nothing so much as to turn peace into
contention and strife.
One afternoon, as Bran son of Llyr sat on the rock of Harlech looking out to
sea, he beheld thirteen ships coming rapidly from Ireland before a fair wind.
They were gaily furnished, bright flags flying from the masts, and on the
foremost ship, when they came near, a man could be seen holding up a shield with
the point upwards in sign of peace. [evidently this was the triangular Norman
shield, not the round or oval Celtic one. It has already been noticed that in
these Welsh tales the knights when they fight tilt at each other with spears]
When the strangers landed they saluted Bran and explained their business.
Matholwch, [the reader may pronounce this "Matholaw."] King of
Ireland, was with them; his were the ships, and he had come to ask for the hand
in marriage of Bran's sister, Branwen, so that Ireland and Britain might be
leagued together and both become more powerful. "Now Branwen was one of the
three chief ladies of the island, and she was the fairest damsel in the
The Irish were hospitably entertained, and after taking counsel with his
lords Bran agreed to give his sister to Matholwch. The place of the wedding was
fixed at Aberffraw, and the company assembled for the feast in tents because no
house could hold the giant form of Bran. They caroused and made merry in peace
and amity, and Branwen became the bride of the Irish king.
Next day Evnissyen came by chance to where the horses of Matholwch were ranged, and he asked whose they were. "They are
the horses of Matholwch, who is married to thy sister." "And is it
thus," said he, "they have done with a maiden such as she, and,
moreover, my sister, bestowing her without my consent? They could offer me no
greater insult." Thereupon he rushed among the horses and cut off their
lips at the teeth, and their ears to their heads, and their tails close to the
body, and where he could seize the eyelids he cut them off to the bone.
When Matholwch heard what had been done he was both angered and bewildered,
and bade his people put to sea. Bran sent messengers to learn what had happened,
and when he had been informed he sent Manawyddan and two others to make
atonement. Matholwch should have sound horses for every one that was injured,
and in addition a staff of silver as large and as tall as himself, and a plate
of gold the size of his face. "And let him come and meet me," he
added, "and we will make peace in any way he may desire." But
as for Evnissyen, he was the son of Bran's mother, and therefore Bran could not
put him to death as he deserved.
The Magic Cauldron
Matholwch accepted these terms, but not very cheerfully, and Bran now offered
another treasure, namely, a magic cauldron which had the property that if a
slain man were cast into it he would come forth well and sound, only he would
not be able to speak. Matholwch and Bran then talked about the cauldron, which
originally, it seems, came from Ireland. There was a lake in that country near
to a mound (doubtless a fairy mound) which was called the Lake of the Cauldron.
Here Matholwch had once met a tall and ill-looking fellow with a wife bigger
than himself, and the cauldron strapped on his back. They took service with Matholwch. At the end of a
period of six weeks the wife gave birth to a son, who was a warrior fully armed.
We are apparently to understand that this happened every six weeks, or by the
end of the year the strange pair, who seem to be a war-god and goddess, had
several children, whose continual bickering and the outrages they committed
throughout the land made them hated. At last, to get rid of them, Matholwch had
a house of iron made, and enticed them into it. He then barred the door and
heaped coals about the chamber, and blew them into a white heat, hoping to roast
the whole family to death. As soon, however, as the iron walls had grown
white-hot and soft the man and his wife burst through them and got away,
but the children remained behind and were destroyed. Bran then took up the
story. The man, who was called Llassar Llaesgyvnewid, and his wife Kymideu
Kymeinvoll, come across to Britain, where Bran took them in, and in return for
his kindness they gave him the cauldron. And since then they had filled the land
with their descendants, who prospered everywhere and dwelt in strong fortified
burgs and had the best weapons that ever were seen.
So Matholwch received the cauldron along with his bride, and sailed back to
Ireland, where Branwen entertained the lords and ladies of the land, and gave to
each, as he or she took leave, "either a clasp or a ring or a royal jewel
to keep, such as it was honourable to be seen departing with." And when the
year was out Branwen bore a son to Matholwch, whose name was called Gwern.
The Punishment of Branwen
There occurs now an unintelligible place in the story. In the second year, it
appears, and not till then, the men of Ireland grew indignant over the insult to their king committed by
Evnissyen, and took revenge for it by having Branwen degraded to the position of
a cook, and they caused the butcher every day to give her a blow on the cars.
They also forbade all ships and ferry-boats to cross to Cambria, and any who
came thence into Ireland were imprisoned so that news of Branwen's ill-treatment
might not come to the ears of Bran. But Branwen reared up a young starling in a
corner of her kneading-trough, and one day she tied a letter under its wing and
taught it what to do. it flew away towards Britain, and finding Bran at Caer
Seiont in Arvon, it lit on his shoulder, ruffling its feathers, and the letter
was found and read. Bran immediately prepared a great hosting for Ireland, and
sailed thither with a fleet of ships, leaving his land of Britain under his son
Caradawc and six other chiefs.
The invasion of Bran
Soon there came messengers to Matholwch telling him of a wondrous sight they
had seen; a wood was growing on the sea, and beside the wood a mountain with a
high ridge in the middle of it, and two lakes, one at each side. And wood and
mountain moved towards the shore of Ireland. Branwen is called up to explain, if
she could, what this meant. She tells them the wood is the masts and yards of
the fleet of Britain, and the mountain is Bran, her brother, coming into shoal
water, "for no ship can contain him"; the ridge is his nose, the
lakes his two eyes. [compare the description of Mac Cecht in the tale of the
Hostel of De Derga, p.173]
The King of Ireland and his lords at once took counsel together how they
might meet this danger; and the plan they agreed upon was as follows: A huge
hall should be built, big enough to hold Bran - this, it was hoped, would
placate him - there should be a great feast made there for himself and his men,
and Matholwch should give over the kingdom of Ireland to him and do homage. All
this was done by Branwen's advice. But the Irish added a crafty device of their
own From two brackets on each of the hundred pillars in the hall should be hung
two leather bags, with an armed warrior in each of them ready to fall upon the
guests when the moment should arrive.
Evnissyen, however, wandered into the hall before the rest of the host, and
scanning the arrangements "with fierce and savage looks," he saw the
bags which hung from the pillars. "What is in this bag?" said he to
one of the Irish. "Meal, good soul," said the Irishman. Evnissyen laid
his hand on the bag, and felt about with his fingers till he came to the head of
the man within it. Then "he squeezed the head till he felt his fingers meet
together in the brain through the bone." He went to the next bag, and asked
the same question. " Meal," said the Irish attendant, but Evnissyen
crushed this warrior's head also, and thus he did with all the two hundred bags,
even in the case of one warrior whose head was covered with an iron helm.
Then the feasting began, and peace and concord reigned, and Matholwch laid
down the sovranty of Ireland, which was conferred on the boy Gwern. And they all
fondled and caressed the fair child till he came to Evnissyen, who suddenly
seized him and flung him into the blazing fire on the hearth. Branwen would have
leaped after him, but Bran held her back. Then there was arming apace, and
tumult and shouting, and the irish and British hosts closed in battle and fought until the fall of
Death of Evnissyen
But at night the Irish heated the magic cauldron and threw into it the bodies
of their dead, who came out next day as good as ever, but dumb. When Evnissyen
saw this he was smitten with remorse for having brought the men of Britain into
such a strait: "Evil betide me if I find not a deliverance therefrom."
So he hid himself among the Irish dead, and was flung into the cauldron with the
rest at the end of the second day, when he stretched himself out so that he rent
the cauldron into four pieces, and his own heart burst with the effort, and he
The Wonderful Head
In the end, all the Irishmen were slain, and all but seven of the British
besides Bran, who was wounded in the foot with a poisoned arrow. Among the seven
were Pryderi and Manawyddan. Bran then commanded them to cut off his head.
"And take it with you, he said, "to London, and there bury it in the
White Mount [where the Tower of London now stands] looking towards France, and
no foreigner shall invade the land while it is there. On the way the Head will
talk to you, and be as pleasant company as ever in life. In Harlech ye will be
feasting seven years and the birds of Rhiannon will sing to you. And at Gwales
in Penvro ye will be feasting fourscore years, and the Head will talk to you and
be uncorrupted till ye open the door looking towards Cornwall. After that ye may
no longer tarry, but set forth to London and bury the Head."
Then the seven cut off the head of Bran and went forth, and Branwen with them, to do his bidding. But when Branwen came to
land at Aber Alaw she cried, "Woe is me that I was ever born; two islands
have been destroyed because of me." And she uttered a loud groan, and her
heart broke. They made her a tour-sided grave on the banks of the Alaw, and the
place was called Ynys Branwen to this day. [these stories, in Ireland and
in Wales, always attach themselves to actual burial-places. In 1813 a funeral
urn containing ashes and half-burnt bones was found in the spot traditionally
supposed to be Branwen'e sepulchre]
The seven found that in the absence of Bran, Caswallan son of Beli had
conquered Britain and slain the six captains of Caradawc. By magic art he had
thrown on Caradawc the Veil of Illusion, and Caradawc saw only the sword which
slew and slew, but not him who wielded it, and his heart broke for grief at the
They then went to Harlech and remained there seven years listening to the
singing of the birds of Rhiannon - " all the songs they had ever heard were
unpleasant compared thereto." Then they went to Gwales in Penvro and found
a fair and spacious ball overlooking the ocean. When they entered it they forgot
all the sorrow of the past and all that had befallen them, and remained there
fourscore years in joy and mirth, the wondrous Head talking to them as if it
were alive. And bards call this "the Entertaining of the Noble Head."
Three doors were in the hall, and one of them which looked to Cornwall and to
Aber Henvelyn was closed, but the other two were open. At the end of the time,
Heilyn son of Gwyn said, "Evil betide me if I do not open the door to see
if what was said is true." And he opened it, and at once remembrance and
sorrow fell upon them, and they set forth at once for London and buried the Head
in the White Mount, where it remained until Arthur dug it up, for he would not have the land defended but by the
strong arm. And this was "the Third Fatal Disclosure "in Britain.
So ends this wild tale, which is evidently full of mythological elements, the
key to which has long been lost. The touches of Northern ferocity which occur in
it have made some critics suspect the influence of Norse or Icelandic literature
in giving it its present form. The character of Evnissyen would certainly lend
countenance to this conjecture. The typical mischief-maker of course occurs in
purely Celtic sagas, but not commonly in combination with the heroic strain
shown in Evnissyen's end, nor does the Irish "poison-tongue" ascend to
anything like the same height of daimonic malignity.
The Tale of Pryderi and Manawyddan
After the events of the previous tales Pryderi and Manawyddan retired to the
dominions of the former, and Manawyddan took to wife Rhiannon, the mother of his
friend. There they lived happily and prosperously till one day, while they were
at the Gorsedd, or Mound, near Narberth, a peal of thunder was heard and a thick
mist fell so that nothing could be seen all round. When the mist cleared away,
behold, the land was bare before them-neither houses nor people nor cattle nor
crops were to be seen, but all was desert and uninhabited. The palace of
Narberth was still standing, hut it was empty and desolate-none remained except
Pryderi and Manawyddan and their wives, Kicva and Rhiannon.
Two years they lived on the provisions they had, and on the prey they killed,
and on wild honey; and then they began to be weary. "Let us go into
Lloegyr," [Saxon Britain] then said Manawyddan, "and seek out some craft to support
ourselves." So they went to Hereford and settled there, and Manawyddan and
Pryderi began to make saddles and housings, and Manawyddan decorated them with
blue enamel as he had learned from a great craftsman, Llasar Llaesgywydd. After
a time, however, the other saddlers of Hereford, finding that no man would
purchase any but the work of Manawyddan, conspired to kill them. And Pryderi
would have fought with them, but Manawyddan held it better to with-draw
elsewhere, and so they did.
They settled then in another city, where they made shields such as never were
seen, and here, too, in the end, the rival craftsmen drove them out. And this
happened also in another town where they made shoes and at last they resolved to
go back to Dyfed. Then they gathered their dogs about them and lived by hunting
One day they started a wild white boar, and chased him in vain until he led
them up to a vast and lofty castle, all newly built in a place where they had
never seen a building before. The boar ran into the castle, the dogs followed
him, and Pryderi, against the counsel of Manawyddan, who knew there was magic
afoot, went in to seek for the dogs.
He found in the centre of the court a marble fountain beside which stood a
golden bowl on a marble slab, and being struck by the rich workmanship of the
bowl, he laid hold of it to examine it, when he could neither withdraw his hand
nor utter a single sound, but he remained there, transfixed and dumb, beside the
Manawyddan went back to Narberth and told the story to Rhiannon. "An
evil companion hast thou been," said she, "and a good companion hast
Next day she went herself to explore the castle. She found Pryderi still
clinging to the bowl and unable to speak. She also, then, laid hold of the bowl,
when the same fate befell her, and immediately afterwards came a peal of
thunder, and a heavy mist fell, and when it cleared off the castle had vanished
with all that it con tamed, including the two spell-bound wanderers.
Manawvddan then went back to Narberth, where only Kicva, Pryderi's wife, now
remained. And when she saw none but herself and Manawyddan in the place,
"she sorrowed so that she cared not whether she lived or died." When
Manawyddan saw this he said to her, "Thou art in the wrong if through fear
of me thou grievest thus. I declare to thee were I in the dawn of youth I would
keep my faith unto Pryderi, and unto thee also will I keep it" "
Heaven reward thee," she said, " and that is what I deemed of
thee." And thereupon she took courage and was glad.
Kicva and Manawyddan then again tried to support themselves by shoemaking in
Lloegyr, but the same hostility drove them back to Dyfed. This time, however,
Manawyddan took back with him a load of wheat, and he sowed it, and he prepared
three crofts for a wheat crop. Thus the time passed till the fields were ripe.
And he looked at one of the crofts and said, "I will reap this
to-morrow." But on the morrow when he went out in the grey dawn he found
nothing there but bare straw-every ear had been cut off from the stalk and
Next day it was the same with the second croft. But on the following night he
armed himself and sat up to watch the third croft to see who was plundering him.
At midnight, as he watched, he heard a loud noise, and behold, a mighty host of
mice came pouring into the croft, and they climbed up each on a stalk and
nibbled off the ears and made away with them. He chased them In anger, but they fled
far faster than he could run, all save one which was slower in its movements,
and this he barely managed to overtake, and he bound it into his glove and took
it home to Narberth, and told Kicva what had happened. "To-morrow," he
said, "I will hang the robber I have caught," but Kicva thought it
beneath his dignity to take vengeance on a mouse.
Next day he went up to the Mound of Narberth and set up two forks for a
gallows on the highest part ot the hill. As he was doing this a poor scholar
came towards him, and he was the first person Manawyddan had seen in Dyfed,
except his own companions, since the enchantment began.
The scholar asked him what he was about and begged him to let go the
mouse-" Ill doth it become a man of thy rank to touch such a reptile as
this." "I will not let it go, by Heaven," said Manawyddan, and by
that he abode, although the scholar offered him a pound of moncy to let it go
free. "I care not," said the scholar "except that I would not see
a man of rank touching such a reptile," and with that he went his way.
As Manawyddan was placing the cross-beam on the two forks of his gallows, a
priest came towards him riding on a horse with trappings, and the same
conversation ensued. The priest offered three pounds for the mouse's life, but
Manawyddan refused to take any price for it. "Willingly, lord, do thy good
pleasure," said the priest, and he too, went his way.
Then Manawyddan put a noose about the mouse's neck and was about to draw it
up when he saw coming towards him a bishop with a great retinue of
sumpter-horses and attendants. And he stayed his work and asked the bishop's
blessing. " Heaven's blessing be unto thee," said the bishop;
"what work art thou upon?" "Hanging a thief," replied Manawyddan. The bishop
offered seven pounds "rather than see a man of thy rank destroying so vile
a reptile." Manawyddan refused. Four-and-twenty pounds was then offered,
and then as much again, then all the bishop's horses and baggage-all in vain.
"Since for this thou wilt not" said the bishop, "do it at
whatever price thou wilt'." "I will do so," said Manawyddan;
"I will that Rhiannon and Pryderi be free." "That thou shalt
have," said the (pretended) bishop. Then Manawyddan demands that the
enchantment and illusion be taken off for ever from the seven Cantrevs of Dyfed,
and finally insists that the bishop shall tell him who the mouse is and why the
enchantment was laid on the country. "I am Llwyd son of Kilcoed,"
replies the enchanter, "and the mouse is my wife; but that she is pregnant
thou hadst never overtaken her." He goes on with an explanation which takes
us back to the first Mabinogi of the Wedding of Rhiannon. The charm was
cast on the land to avenge the ill that was done Llwyd's friend, Gwawl son of
Clud, with whom Pryderi's father and his knights had played "Badger in the
Bag" at the court of Hevydd Hen. The mice were the lords and ladies of
The enchanter is then made to promise that no further vengeance shall be
taken on Pryderi, Rhiannon, or Manawyddan, and the two spell-bound captives
having been restored, the mouse is released. "Then Llwyd struck her
with a magic wand, and she was changed into a young woman, the fairest ever
seen." And on looking round Manawyddan saw all the land tilled and peopled
as in its best state, and full of herds and dwellings. "What bondage,"
he asks, "has there been upon Pryderi and Rhiannon?" "Pryderi has
had the knockers of the gate of my palace about his neck, and Rhiannon has had the collars of the asses after they have been carrying
hay about her neck." And such had been their bondage.
The Tale of Math Son of Mathonwy
The previous tale was one of magic and illusion in which the mythological
element is but faint. In that which we have now to consider we are, however, in
a distinctly mythological region. The central motive of the tale shows us the
Powers of Light contending with those of the Under-world for the prized
possessions of the latter, in this case a herd of magic swine. We are introduced
in the beginning of the story to the deity, Math, of whom the bard tells us that
he was unable to exist unless his feet lay in the lap of a maiden, except when
the land was disturbed by war. [this is a distorted reminiscence of the practice
which seems to have obtained in the courts of Welsh princes, that a high officer
should hold the king's feet in his lap while he sat at meat] Math is represented
as lord of Gwynedd, while Pryderi rules over the one-and-twenty cantrevs of the
south. With Math were his nephews Gwydion and Gilvaethwy sons of Don, who went
the circuit of the land in his stead, while Math lay with his feet in the lap of
the fairest maiden of the land and time, Goewin daughter of Pebin of Dol Pebin
Gwydion and the Swine of Pryderi
Gilvaethwy fell sick of love for Goewin, and confided the secret to his
brother Gwydion, who undertook to help him to his desire. So he went to Math one
day, and asked his leave to go to Pryderi and beg from him the gift, for Math,
of a herd of swine which had been bestowed on him by Arawn King of Annwn.
"They are beasts," he said, "such as never were known in this island before . . . their flesh is better than the flesh of oxen."
Math bade him go, and he and Gilvaethwy started with ten companions for Dyfed.
They came to Pryderi's palace in the guise of bards, and Gwydion, after being
entertained at a feast, was asked to tell a tale to the court. After delighting
every one with his discourse he begged for a gift of the swine. But Pryderi was
under a compact with his people neither to sell nor give them until they had
produced double their number in the land. "Thou mayest exchange them,
though," said Gwydion, and thereupon he made by magic arts an illusion of
twelve horses magnificently caparisoned, and twelve hounds, and gave them to
Pryderi and made off with the swine as fast as possible, " for," said
he to his companions, "the illusion will not last but from one hour to the
The intended result came to pass - Pryderi invaded the land to recover his
swine, Math went to meet him in arms, and Gilvaethwy seized his opportunity and
made Goewin his wife, although she was unwilling.
Death of Pryderi
The war was decided by a single combat between Gwydion and Pryderi. "And
by force of strength and fierceness, and by the magic and charms of Gwydion,
Pryderi was slain. And at Maen Tyriawc, above Melenryd, was he buried, and there
is his grave.
The Penance of Gwydion and Gilvaethwy
When Math came back he found what Gilvaethwy had done, and he took Goewin to
be his queen, but Gwydion and Gilvaethwy went into outlawry, and dwelt on the
borders of the land. At last they came and submitted themselves for punishment to Math. "Ye cannot compensate
me my shame, setting aside the death of Pryderi," he said, "but since
ye come hither to be at my will, I shall begin your punishment forthwith."
So he turned them both into deer, and bade them come hither again in a
They came at the appointed time, bringing with them a young fawn. And the
fawn was brought into human shape and baptized, and Gwydion and Gilvaethwy were
changed into two wild swine. At the next year's end they came back with a young
one who was treated as the fawn before him, and the brothers were made into
wolves. Another year passed; they came back again with a young wolf as before,
and this time their penance was deemed complete, and their human nature was
restored to them, and Math gave orders to have them washed and anointed, and
nobly clad as was befitting.
The Children of Arianrod: Dylan
The question then arose of appointing another virgin foot-holder, and Gwydion
suggests his sister, Arianrod. She attends for the purpose, and Math asks her if
she is a virgin. "I know not, lord, other than that I am," she says.
But she failed in a magical test imposed by Math, and gave birth to two sons.
One of these was named Dylan, "Son of the Wave," evidently a Cymric
sea-deity. So soon as he was baptized "he plunged into the sea and swam as
well as the best fish that was therein. . . . Beneath him no wave ever
broke." A wild sea-poetry hangs about his name in Welsh legend. On his
death, which took place, it is said, at the hand of his uncle Govannon, all the
waves of Britain and Ireland wept for him. The roar of the incoming tide at the
mouth of the river Conway is still called the "death-groan of Dylan."
LIew Llaw Gyffes
The other infant was seized by Gwydion and brought up under his protection.
Like other solar heroes, he grew very rapidly; when he was four he was as big
as if he were eight, and the comeliest youth that ever was seen. One day Gwydion
took him to visit his mother Arianrod. She hated the children who had exposed
her false pretensions, and upbraided Gwydion for bringing the boy into her
sight. "What is his name? "she asked.
"Verily," said Gwydion, " he has not yet a name. "Then I
lay this destiny upon him," said Arianrod, "that he shall never have a
name till one is given him by me." On this Gwydion went forth in wrath, and
remained in his castle of Caer Dathyl that night.
Though the fact does not appear in this tale, it must be remembered that
Gwydion is, in the older mythology, the father of Arianrod's children.
How Llew Got his Name
He was resolved to have a name for his son. Next day he went to the strand
below Caer Arianrod, bringing the boy with him. Here he sat down by the beach,
and in his character of a master of magic he made himself look like a shoemaker,
and the boy like an apprentice, and he began to make shoes out of sedges and
seaweed, to which he gave the semblance of Cordovan leather. Word was brought to
Arianrod of the wonderful shoes that were being made by a strange cobbler, and
she sent her measure for a pair. Gwydion made them too large. She sent it again,
and he made them too small. Then she came herself to be fitted. While this was
going on, a wren came and lit on the boat's mast, and the boy, taking up a bow,
shot an arrow that transfixed the leg between the sinew and the bone. Arianrod admired the brilliant shot. "Verily," she
said, "with a steady hand (Ilaw gyffes) did the lion (llew) hit
it." " No thanks to thee," cried Gwydion, "now he has got a
name. Llew LIaw Gyffes shall he be called henceforward."
We have seen that the name really means the same thing as the Gaelic Lugh
Lamfada, Lugh (Light) of the Long Arm; so that we have here an instance of a
legend growing up round a misunderstood name inherited from a half-forgotten
How Llew Took Arms
The shoes went back immediately to sedges and sea-weed again and Arianrod,
angry at being tricked, laid a new curse on the boy. "He shall never bear
arms till I invest him with them." But Gwydion, going to Caer Arianrod with
the boy in the semblance of two bards, makes by magic art the illusion of a
foray of armed men round the castle. Arianrod gives them weapons to help in the
defence, and thus again finds herself tricked by the superior craft of Gwydion.
The Flower-Wife of Llew
Next she said, "He shall never have a wife of the race that now inhabits
this earth." This raised a difficulty beyond the powers of even Gwydion,
and he went to Math, the supreme master of magic. "Well," said Math,
"we will seek, I and thou, to form a wife for him out of flowers."
"So they took the blossoms of the oak, and the blossoms of the broom, and
the blossoms of the meadow-sweet, and produced from them a maiden, the fairest
and most graceful that man ever saw. And they baptized her, and gave her the
name of Blodeuwedd, or Flower-face." They wedded her to Llew, and gave them
the cantrev of Dinodig to reign over, and there LIew and his bride dwelt for a season, happy, and
beloved by all.
Betrayal of Llew
But Blodeuwedd was not worthy of her beautiful name and origin. One day when
Llew was away on a visit with Math, a lord named Gronw Pebyr came a-hunting by
the palace of Llew, and Blodeuwedd loved him from the moment she looked upon
him. That night they slept together, and the next, and the next, and then they
planned how to be rid of Llew for ever. But Llew, like the Gothic solar hero
Siegfried, is invulnerable except under special circumstances, and Blodeuwedd
has to learn from him how he may be slain. This she does under pretence of care
for his welfare. The problem is a hard one. Llew can only be killed by a spear
which has been a year in making, and has only been worked on during the
Sacrifice of the Host on Sundays. Furthermore, he cannot be slain within a house
or without, on horseback or on foot. The only way, in fact, is that he should
stand with one foot on a dead buck and the other in a cauldron, which is to be
used for a bath and thatched with a roof-if he is wounded while in this position
with a spear made as directed the wound may be fatal, not otherwise. After a
year, during which Gronw wrought at the spear, Blodeuwedd begged Llew to show
her more fully what she must guard against, and he took up the required position
to please her. Gronw, lurking in a wood hard by, hurled the deadly spear, and
the head, which was poisoned, sank into Llew's body, but the shaft broke off.
Then Llew changed into an eagle, and with a loud scream he soared up into the
air and was no more seen, and Gronw took his castle and lands and added them to
These tidings at last reached Gwydion and Math, and Gwydion set out to find
Llew. He came to the house of a vassal of his, from whom he learned that a sow
that he had disappeared every day and could not be traced, but it came home duly
each night. Gwydion followed the sow, and it went far away to the brook since
called Nant y Llew, where it stopped under a tree and began feeding. Gwydion
looked to see what it ate, and found that it fed on putrid flesh that dropped
from an eagle sitting aloft on the tree, and it seemed to him that the eagle was
Llew. Gwydion sang to it, and brought it gradually down the tree till it came to
his knee, when he struck it with his magic wand and restored it to the shape of
Llew, but worn to skin and bone -" no one ever saw a more piteous
The Healing of Llew
When Llew was healed, he and Gwydion took vengeance on their foes. Blodeuwedd
was changed into an owl and bidden to shun the light of day, and Gronw was slain
by a cast of the spear of Llew that passed through a slab of stone to reach him,
and the slab with the hole through it made by the spear of Llew remains by the
bank of the river Cynvael in Ardudwy to this day. And Llew took possession, for
the second time, of his lands, and ruled them prosperously all his days.
The four preceding tales are called the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, and of
the collection called the " Mabinogion " they form the most ancient
and important part.
The Dream of Maxen Wledig
Following the order of the tales in the "Mabinogion," as presented
in Mr. Nutt's edition, we come next to one which is a pure work of invention,
with no mythical or legendary element at all. It recounts how Maxen Wledig, Emperor
of Rome, had a vivid dream, in which he was led into a strange country, where he
saw a king in an ivory chair carving chessmen with a steel file from a rod of
gold. By him, on a golden throne, was the fairest of maidens he had ever beheld.
Waking, he found himself in love with the dream maiden, and sent messengers far
and wide to discover, if they could, the country and people that had appeared to
him. They were found in Britain. Thither went Maxen, and wooed and wedded the
maiden. In his absence a usurper laid hold of his empire in Rome, but with the
aid of his British friends he reconquered his dominions, and many of them
settled there with him, while others went home to Britain. The latter took with
them foreign wives, but, it is said, cut out their tongues, lest they should
corrupt the speech of the Britons. Thus early and thus powerful was the devotion
to their tongue of the Cymry, of whom the mythical bard Taliesin prophesied:
"Their God they will praise,
Their speech they will keep,
Their land they will lose,
Except wild Walia."
The Story of Lludd and Llevelys
This tale is associated with the former one in the section entitled Romantic
British History. It tells how Llud son of Beli, and his brother Llevelys, ruled
respectiveIy over Britain and France, arid how Lludd sought his brother's aid to
stay the three plagues that were harassing the land. These three plagues were,
first, the presence of a demoniac race called the Coranians; secondly, a fearful
scream that was heard in every home in Britain on every May-eve, and scared the people out of their senses; thirdly, the unaccountable
disappearance of all provisions in the king's court every night, so that nothing
that was not consumed by the household could be found the next morning. Lludd
and Llevelys talked over these matters through a brazen tube, for the Coranians
could hear everything that was said if once the winds got hold of it - a
property also attributed to Math, son of Mathonwy. Llevelys destroyed the
Coranians by giving to Lludd a quantity of poisonous insects which were to be
bruised up and scattered over the people at an assembly. These insects would
slay the Coranians, hut the people of Britain would be immune to them. The
scream Llevelys explained as proceeding from two dragons, which fought each
other once a year. They were to be slain by being intoxicated with mead, which
was to be placed in a pit dug in the very centre of Britain, which was found on
measurement to be at Oxford. The provisions, said Llevelys, were taken away by a
giant wizard, for whom Lludd watched as directed, and overcame him in combat,
and made him his faithful vassal thenceforward. Thus Lludd and LIevelys freed
the island from its three plagues.
Tales of Arthur
We next come to five Arthurian tales, one of which, the tale of Kilhwch and
Olwen, is the only native Arthurian legend which has come down to us in Welsh
literature. The rest, as we have seen, are more or less reflections from the
Arthurian literature as developed by foreign hands on the Continent.
Kilhwch and Olwen
Kilhwch was son to Kilydd and his wife Goleuddydd, and is said to have been
cousin to Arthur. His mother having died, Kilydd took another wife, and she, jealous of her stepson, laid
on him a quest which promised to be long and dangerous. "I declare,"
she said, "that it is thy destiny " - the Gael would have said geis
- "not to be suited with a wife till thou obtain Olwen daughter
of Yspaddaden Penkawr." ["Hawthorn, King of the Giants."] And
Kilhwch reddened at the name, and "love of the maiden diffused itself
through all his frame." By his father's advice he set out to Arthur's Court
to learn how and where he might find and woo her.
A brilliant passage then describes the youth in the flower of his beauty, on
a noble steed caparisoned with gold, and accompanied by two brindled
white-breasted greyhounds with collars of rubies, setting forth on his journey
to King Arthur. "And the blade of grass bent not beneath him, so light was
his courser's tread."
Kilhwch at Arthur's Court
After some difficulties with the Porter and with Arthur's seneschal, Kai, who
did not wish to admit the lad while the company were sitting at meat, Kilhwch
was brought into the presence of the King, and declared his name and his desire.
"I seek this boon," he said, "from thee and likewise at the hands
of thy warriors," and he then enumerates an immense list full of
mythological personages and details - Bedwyr, Gwyn ap Nudd, Kai, Manawyddan,
[the gods of the family of Don are thus conceived as servitors to Arthur, who
in this story is evidently the god Artaius] Geraint, and many others,
including "Morvran son of Tegid, whom no one struck at in the battle of
Camlan by reason of his ugliness; all thought he was a devil," and
"Sandde Bryd Angel, whom no one touched with a spear in the battle of
Camlan because of his beauty; all thought he was a ministering angel."
The list extends to many scores of names and includes many women, as, for
instance, "Creiddylad the daughter of Lludd of the Silver Hand-she was the
most splendid maiden in the three islands of the Mighty, and for her Gwythyr the
son of Greidawi and Gwyn the son of Nudd fight every first of May till
doom," and the two Iseults and Arthur's Queen, Gwenhwyvar. "All these
did Kilydd's son Kilhwch adjure to obtain his boon."
Arthur, however, had never heard of Olwen nor of her kindred. He promised to
seek for her, but at the end of a year no tidings of her could be found, and
Kilhwch declared that he would depart and leave Arthur shamed. Kai and Bedwyr,
with the guide Kynddelig, are at last bidden to go forth on the quest.
Servitors of Arthur
These personages are very different from those who are called by the same
names in Malory or Tennyson. Kai, it is said, could go nine days under water. He
could render himself at will as tall as a forest tree. So hot was his physical
constitution that nothing he bore in his hand could get wetted in the heaviest
rain. "Very subtle was Kai." As for Bedwyr - the later Sir Bedivere -
we are told that none equalled him in swiftness and that, though one-armed, he
was a match for any three warriors on the field of battle; his lance made a
wound equal to those of nine. Besides these three there went also on the quest
Gwrhyr, who knew all tongues, and Gwalchmai son of Arthur's sister Gwyar, and
Menw, who could make the party invisible by magic spells.
The party journeyed till
at last they came to a great castle before which was
a flock of sheep kept by a shepherd who had by him a mastiff big as a horse. The breath of this
shepherd, we are told, could burn up a tree. "He let no occasion pass
without doing some hurt or harm." However, he received the party well, told
them that he was Custennin, brother of Yspaddaden whose castle stood before
them, and brought them home to his wife. The wife turned out to be a sister of
Kilhwch's mother Goleuddydd, and she was rejoiced at seeing her nephew, but
sorrowful at the thought that he had come in search of Olwen, "for none
ever returned from that quest alive." Custennin and his family, it appears,
have suffered much at the hands of Yspaddaden - all their sons but one being
slain, because Yspaddaden envied his brother his share of their patrimony. So
they associated themselves with the heroes in their quest.
Olwen of the White Track
Next day Olwen came down to the herdsman's house as usual, for she was wont
to wash her hair there every Saturday, and each time she did so she left all her
rings in the vessel and never sent for them again. She is described in one of
those pictorial passages in which the Celtic passion for beauty has found such
"The maiden was clothed in a robe of flame-coloured silk, and about her
neck was a collar of ruddy gold on which were precious emeralds and rubies. More
yellow was her head than the flower of the broom, and her skin was whiter than
the foam of the wave, and fairer were her hands and her fingers than the
blossoms of the wood-anemone amidst the spray of the meadow fountain. The eye of
the trained hawk, the glance of the three-mewed falcon, was not brighter than
Her bosom was more snowy than the breast of the white swan, her cheek was
redder than the reddest roses. Whoso beheld her was filled with her love. Four
white trefoils sprang up wherever she trod. And therefore was she called
Olwen." [She of the White Track." Compare the description of Etain,
Kilhwch and she conversed together and loved each other, and she bade him go
and ask her of her father and deny him nothing that he might demand. She had
pledged her faith not to wed without his will, for his life would only last till
the time of her espousals.
Next day the party went to the castle and saw Yspaddaden. He put them off
with various excuses, and as they left flung after them a poisoned dart. Bedwyr
caught it and flung it back, wounding him in the knee, and Yspaddaden cursed him
in language of extraordinary vigour; the words seem to crackle and spit like
flame. Thrice over this happened, and at last Yspaddaden declared what must be
done to win Olwen.
The Tasks of Kilhwch
A long series of tasks follows. A vast hill is to be ploughed, sown, and
reaped in one day; only Amathaon son of Don can do it, and he will not.
Govannon, the smith, is to rid the ploughshare at each headland, and he will not
do it. The two dun oxen of Gwlwlyd are to draw the plough, and he will not lend
them. Honey nine times sweeter than that of the bee must be got to make bragget
for the wedding feast. A magic cauldron, a magic basket out of which comes any
meat that a man desires, a magic horn, the sword of Gwrnach the Giant
all these must be won; and many other secret and difficult things, some forty
in all, before Kilhwch can call Olwen his own. The most difficult quest is that
of obtaining the comb and scissors that are between the two ears of Twrch
Trwyth, a king transformed into a monstrous boar. To hunt the boar a number of
other quests must be accomplished - the whelp of Greid son of Eri is to be won,
and a certain leash to hold him, and a certain collar for the leash, and a chain
for the collar, and Mabon son of Modron for the huntsman and the horse of Gweddw
to carry Mabon, and Gwyn son of Nudd to help, "whom God placed over the
brood of devils in Annwn ... he will never be spared them, " and so
forth to an extent which makes the famous eric of the sons of Turenn seem
trifling by comparison. "Difficulties shalt thou meet with, and nights
without sleep, in seeking this [bride price], and if thou obtain it not, neither
shalt thou have my daughter." Kilhwch has one answer for every demand
"It will be easy for me to accomplish this, although thou mayest think that
it will not be easy. And I shall gain thy daughter and thou shalt lose thy
So they depart on their way to fulfil the tasks, and on their way home they
fall in with Gwrnach the Giant, whose sword Kai, pretending to be a
sword-polisher, obtains by a stratagem. On reaching Arthur's Court again, and
telling the King what they have to do, he promises his aid. First of the marvels
they accomplished was the discovery and liberation of Mabon son of Modron,
"who was taken from his mother when three nights old, and it is not known
where he is now, nor whether he is living or dead." Gwrhyr inquires of him
from the Ousel of Cilgwri, who is so old that a smith's anvil on which he was
wont to peck has been worn to the size of a nut, yet he has never heard of
Mabon. But he takes them to a beast older still, the Stag of Redynvre, and so
on to the Owl of Cwm Cawlwyd and the Eagle of Gwern Abwy, and the Salmon of Llyn
Llyw, the oldest of living things, and at last they find Mabon imprisoned in the
stone dungeon of Gloucester, and with Arthur's help they release him, and so the
second task is fulfilled. In one way or another, by stratagem, or valour, or
magic art, every achievement is accomplished, including the last and most
perilous one, that of obtaining "the blood of the black witch Orddu,
daughter of the white witch Orwen, of Penn Nart Govid on the confines of
Hell." The combat here is very like that of Finn in the cave of Keshcorran,
but Arthur at last cleaves the hag in twain, and Kaw of North Britain takes her
So then they set forth for the castle of Yspaddaden again, and he
acknowledges defeat. Goreu son of Custennin cuts off his head, and that night
Olwen became the happy bride of Kilhwch, and the hosts of Arthur dispersed,
every man to his own land.
The Dream of Rhonabwy
Rhonabwy was a man-at-arms under Madawc son of Maredudd, whose brother
Iorwerth rose in rebellion against him; and Rhonabwy went with the troops of
Madawc to put him down. Going with a few companions into a mean hut to rest for
the night, he lies down to sleep on a yellow calf-skin by the fire, while his
friends lie on filthy couches of straw and twigs. On the calf-skin he has a
wonderful dream. He sees before him the court and camp of Arthur -- here the quasi-historical
king, neither the legendary deity of the former tale nor the Arthur of the
French chivalrous romances -- as he moves towards Mount Badon for his great
battle with the heathen. A character named Iddawc is
his guide to the King, who smiles at Rhonabwy and his friends, and asks:
"Where, lddawc, didst thou find these little men?" "I found
them, lord, up yonder on the road." "It pitieth me," said Arthur,
"that men of such stature as these should have the island in their keeping,
after the men that guarded it of yore." Rhonabwy has his attention directed
to a stone in the King's ring. "It is one of the properties of that stone
to enable thee to remember that which thou seest here to-night, and hadst thou
not seen the Stone, thou wouldst never have been able to remember aught
The different heroes and companions that compose Arthur's army are minutely
described, with all the brilliant colour and delicate detail so beloved by the
Celtic fabulist. The chief incident narrated is a game of chess that takes place
between Arthur and the knight Owain son of Urien. While the game goes on, first
the knights of Arthur harry and disturb the Ravens of Owain, but Arthur, when
Owain complains, only says: "Play thy game." Afterwards the Ravens
have the better of it, and it is Owain's turn to bid Arthur attend to his game.
Then Arthur took the golden chessmen and crushed them to dust in his hand, and
besought Owain to quiet his Ravens, which was done, and peace reigned again.
Rhonabwy, it is said, slept three days and nights on the calf-skin before
awaking from his wondrous dream. An epilogue declares that no bard is expected
to know this tale by heart and without a book, "because of the various
colours that were upon the horses, and the many wondrous colours of the arms and
of the panoply, and of the precious scarfs~ and of the virtue-bearing
stones." The "Dream of Rhonabwy" is rather a gorgeous vision of
the past than a story in the ordinary sense of the word.
The Lady of the Fountain
We have here a Welsh reproduction of the Conte entitled "Le
Chevalier au lion" of Chrestien de Troyes. The principal personage in the
tale is Owain son of Urien, who appears in a character as foreign to the spirit
of Celtic legend as it was familiar on the Continent, that of knight-errant.
The Adventure of Kymon
We are told in the introduction that Kymon, a knight of Arthur's Court, had a
strange and unfortunate adventure. Riding forth in search of some deed of
chivalry to do, he came to a splendid castle, where he was hospitably received
by four-and-twenty damsels, of whom "the least lovely was more lovely than
Gwenhwyvar, the wife of Arthur, when she has appeared loveliest at the Offering
on the Day of the Nativity, or at the feast of Easter." With them was a
noble lord, who, after Kymon had eaten, asked of his business. Kymon explained
that he was seeking for his match in combat. The lord of the castle smiled, and
bade him proceed as follows: He should take the road up the valley and through
a forest till he came to a glade with a mound in the midst of it. On the mound
he would see a black man of huge stature with one foot and one eye, bearing a
mighty iron club. He was wood-ward of that forest, and would have thousands of
wild animals, stags, serpents, and what not, feeding around him. He would show
Kymon what he was in quest of.
Kymon followed the instructions, and the black man directed him to where he
should find a fountain under a great tree; by the side of it would be a silver
bowl on a slab of marble. Kymon was to take the bowl and
throw a bowlful of water on the slab, when a terrific storm of hail and
thunder would follow - then there would break forth an enchanting music of
singing birds - then would appear a knight in black armour riding on a
coal-black horse, with a black pennon upon his lance. "And if thou dost not
find trouble in that adventure, thou needst not seek it during the rest of thy
The Character of Welsh Romance
Here let us pause for a moment to point out how clearly we are in the region
of medieval romance, and how far from that of Celtic mythology. Perhaps the
Celtic "Land of Youth" may have remotely suggested those regions of
beauty and mystery into which the Arthurian knight rides in quest of adventure.
But the scenery, the motives, the incidents, are altogether different. And how
beautiful they are-how steeped in the magic light of romance The colours live
and glow, the forest murmurs in our ears, the breath of that springtime of our
modern world is about us, as we follow the lonely rider down the grassy track
into an unknown world of peril and delight. While in some respects the
Continental tales are greater than the Welsh, more thoughtful, more profound,
they do not approach them in the exquisite artistry with which the exterior
aspect of things is rendered, the atmosphere of enchantment maintained, and the
reader led, with ever-quickening interest, from point to point in the
development of the tale. Nor are these Welsh tales a whit behind in the noble
and chivalrous spirit which breathes through them. A finer school of character
and of manners could hardly be found in literature. How strange that for many
centuries this treasure beyond all price should have lain unnoticed in
our midst! And how deep must be our gratitude to the nameless bards whose
thought created it, and to the nobly inspired hand which first made it a
possession for all the English-speaking world!
Defeat of Kymon
But to resume our story. Kymon did as he was bidden, the Black Knight
appeared, silently they set lance in rest and charged. Kymon was flung to earth,
while his enemy, not bestowing one glance upon him, passed the shaft of his
lance through the rein of Kymon's horse and rode off with it in the direction
whence he had come. Kymon went back afoot to the castle, where none asked him
how he had sped, but they gave him a new horse, "a dark bay palfrey with
nostrils as red as scarlet," on which he rode home to Caerleon.
Owain and the Black Knight
Owain was, of course, fired by the tale of Kymon, and next morning at the
dawn of day he rode forth to seek for the same adventure. All passed as it had
done in Kymon's case, but Owain wounded the Black Knight so sorely that he
turned his horse and fled, Owain pursuing him hotly. They came to a "vast
and resplendent castle." Across the drawbridge they rode, the outer
portcullis of which fell as the Black Knight passed it. But so close at his
heels was Owain that the portcullis fell behind him, cutting his horse in two
behind the saddle, and he himself remained imprisoned between the outer gate of
the drawbridge and the inner. While he was in this predicament a maiden came to
him and gave him a ring. When he wore it with the stone reversed and clenched in
his hand he would become invisible, and when the servants of the lord of the
castle came for him he was to elude them and follow her.
This she did knowing apparently who he was, "for as a friend thou art
the most sincere, and as a lover the most devoted."
Owain did as he was bidden, and the maiden concealed him. In that night a
great lamentation was heard in the castle - its lord had died of the wound which
Owain had given him. Soon afterwards Owain got sight of the mistress of the
castle, and love of her took entire possession of him. Luned, the maiden who had
rescued him, wooed her for him, and he became her husband, and lord of the
Castle of the Fountain and all the dominions of the Black Knight. And he then
defended the fountain with lance and sword as his forerunner had done, and made
his defeated antagonists ransom themselves for great sums, which he bestowed
among his barons and knights. Thus he abode for three years.
The Search for Owain
After this time Arthur, with his nephew Gwalchmai and with Kymon for guide,
rode forth at the head of a host to search for tidings of Owain. They came to
the fountain, and here they met Owain, neither knowing the other as their helms
were down. And first Kai was overthrown, and then Gwalchmai and Owain fought,
and after a while Gwalchmai was unhelmed. Owain said, "My lord Gwalchmai, I
did not know thee; take my sword and my arms." Said Gwalchmai,
"Thou, Owain, art the victor; take thou my sword." Arthur ended the
contention in courtesy by taking the swords of both and then they all rode to
the Castle of the Fountain, where Owain entertained them with great joy. And he
went back with Arthur to Caerleon, promising to his countess that he would
remain there but three months and then return.
Owain Forgets his Lady
But at the Court of Arthur he forgot his love and his duty, and remained
there three years. At the end of that time a noble lady came riding upon a horse
caparisoned with gold, and she sought out Owain and took the ring from his hand.
"Thus," she said, "shall be treated the deceiver, the traitor,
the faithless, the disgraced, and the beardless." Then she turned her
horse's head and departed. And Owain, overwhelmed with shame and remorse, fled
from the sight of men and lived in a desolate country with wild beasts till his
body wasted and his hair grew long and his clothing rotted away.
Owain and the Lion
In this guise, when near to death from exposure and want, he was taken in by
a certain widowed countess and her maidens, and restored to strength by magic
balsams; and although they besought him to remain with them, he rode forth
again, seeking for lonely and desert lands. Here he found a lion in battle with
a great serpent. Owain slew the serpent, and the lion followed him and played
about him as if it had been a greyhound that he had reared. And it fed him by
catching deer, part of which Owain cooked for himself, giving the rest to his
lion to devour; and the beast kept watch over him by night.
Release of Luned
Owain next finds an imprisoned damsel, whose sighs he hears, though he cannot
see her nor she him. Being questioned, she told him that her name was Luned -
she was the handmaid of a countess whose husband had left her, "and he was
the friend I loved best in the world." Two of the pages of the countess had
traduced him, and because she defended him she was condemned to be burned if before a
year was out he (namely) Owain son of Urien, had not appeared to deliver her.
And the year would end to-morrow. On the next day Owain met the two youths
leading Luned to execution and did battle with them. With the help of the lion
he overcame them, rescued Luned, and returned to the Castle of the Fountain,
where he was reconciled with his love. And he took her with him to Arthur's
Court, and she was his wife there as long as she lived. Lastly comes an
adventure in which, still aided by the lion, he vanquishes a black giant and
releases four-and-twenty noble ladies, and the giant vows to give up his evil
ways and keep a hospice for wayfarers as long as he should live.
And thenceforth Owain dwelt at Arthur's Court, greatly beloved, as the head
of his household, until he went away with his followers; and these were the
army of three hundred ravens which Kenverchyn [there is no other mention of this
Kenverchyn or of now Owain got his raven-army, also referred to in "The
Dream of Rhonabwy." We have here evidently a piete of antique mythology
embedded in a more modern fabric] had left him. And wherever Owain went with
these he was victorious. And this is the tale of the Lady of the Fountain."
The Tale of Enid and Geraint
In this tale, which appears to be based on the "Erec" of Chrestien
de Troyes, the main interest is neither mythological nor adventurous, but
sentimental. How Geraint found and wooed his love as the daughter of a great
lord fallen on evil days; how he jousted for her with Edeyrn, son of Nudd - a
Cymric deity transformed into the "Knight of the Sparrowhawk"; how,
lapped in love of her, he grew careless of his fame and his duty; how he
misunderstood the words she murmured over him as she deemed him sleeping, and doubted her faith; how
despitefully he treated her; and in how many a bitter test she proved her love
and loyalty - all these things have been made so familiar to English readers in
Tennyson's "Enid" that they need not detain us here. Tennyson, in this
instance, has followed his original very closely.
Legends of the Grail: The Tate of Peredur
The Tale of Peredur is one of great interest and significance in connexion
with the origin of the Grail legend. Peredur corresponds to the Perceval of
Chrestien de Troyes, to whom we owe the earliest extant poem on the Grail; but
that writer left his Grail story unfinished, and we never learn from him what
exactly the Grail was or what gave it its importance. When we turn for light to
" Peredur," which undoubtedly represents a more ancient form of the
legend, we find ourselves baffled. For "Peredur" may be described as
the Grail story without the Grail. [like the Breton Tale of " Peronnik the
Fool," translated in "Le Foyer Breton," by Emile Souvestre. The
syllable Per which occurs in all forms of the hero's name means in Welsh
and Cornish a bowl or vessel (Irish coire -see p.35, note). No
satisfactory derivation has in any case been found of the latter part of the
name] The strange personages, objects, and incidents which form the usual
setting for the entry upon the scene of this mystic treasure are all here; we
breath the very atmosphere of the Grail Castle; but of the Grail itself there
is no word. The story is concerned simply with the vengeance taken by the hero
for the slaying of a kinsman, and for this end only are the mysteries of the
Castle of Wonders displayed to him.
We learn at the opening of the tale that Peredur was in the significant
position of being a seventh son. To be a seventh son was, in this world of
mystical romance, equivalent to being marked out by destiny for fortunes high and strange. His
father, Evrawc, an earl of the North, and his six brothers had fallen in fight.
Peredur's mother, therefore, fearing a similar fate for her youngest child,
brought him up in a forest, keeping from him all knowledge of chivalry or
warfare and of such things as war-horses or weapons. Here he grew up a simple
rustic in manner and in knowledge, but of an amazing bodily strength and
He Goes Forth in Quest of Adventures
One day he saw three knights on the borders of the forest. They were all of
Arthur's Court - Gwalchmai, Geneir, and Owain. Entranced by the sight, he asked
his mother what these beings were. "They are angels, my son," said
she. "By my faith," said Peredur, "I will go and become an angel
with them." He goes to meet them, and soon learns what they are. Owain
courteously explains to him the use of a saddle, a shield, a sword, all the
accoutrements of warfare; and Peredur that evening picked out a bony piebald
draught-horse, and dressed him up in a saddle and trappings made of twigs, and
imitated from those he had seen. Seeing that he was bent on going forth to deeds
of chivalry, his mother gave him her blessing and sundry instructions, and bade
him seek the Court of Arthur; "there there are the best, and the boldest,
and the most beautiful of men."
His First Feat of Arms
Peredur mounted his Rosinante, took for weapons a handful of sharp-pointed
stakes, and rode forth to Arthur's Court. Here the steward, Kai, rudely repulsed
him for his rustic appearance, but a dwarf and dwarfess, who had been a year at
the Court without speaking one word to any one there, cried: "Goodly Peredur, son
of Evrawc; the welcome of Heaven be unto thee, flower of knights and light of
chivalry." Kai chastised the dwarfs for breaking silence by lauding such a
fellow as Peredur, and when the latter demanded to be brought to Arthur, bade
him first go and overcome a stranger knight who had just challenged the whole
Court by throwing a goblet of wine into the face of Gwenhwyvar, and whom all
shrank from meeting. Peredur went out promptly to where the ruffian knight was
swaggering up and down, awaiting an opponent, and in the combat that ensued
pierced his skull with one of his sharp stakes and slew him. Owain then came out
and found Peredur dragging his fallen enemy about. "What art thou doing
there?" said Owain. "This iron coat, said Peredur, "will never
come off from him; not by my efforts at any rate." So Owain showed him how
to unfasten the armour, and Peredur took it, and the knight's weapons and horse,
and rode forth to seek what further adventures might befall.
Here we have the character of der reine Thor, the valiant and
pure-hearted simpleton, clearly and vividly drawn.
Peredur on leaving Arthur's Court had many encounters in which he triumphed
with ease, sending the beaten knights to Caerleon-on-Usk with the message that
he had overthrown them for the honour of Arthur and in his service, but that he,
Peredur, would never come to the Court again till he had avenged the insult to
the dwarfs upon Kai, who was accordingly reproved by Arthur and was greatly
The Castle of Wonders
We now come into what the reader will immediately recognise as the atmosphere
of the Grail legend. Peredur came to a castle beside a lake, where he found a venerable man with
attendants about him who were fishing in the lake. As Peredur approached, the
aged man rose and went into the castle, and Peredur saw that he was lame.
Peredur entered, and was hospitably received in a great hall. The aged man asked
him, when they had done their meal, if he knew how to fight with the sword, and
promised to teach him all knightly accomplishments, and the manners and customs
of different countries, and courtesy and gentleness and noble bearing." And
he added: "I am thy uncle, thy mother's brother." Finally, he bade him
ride forth, and remember, whatever he saw that might cause him wonder, not to
ask the meaning of it if no one had the courtesy to inform him. This is the test
of obedience and self-restraint on which the rest of the adventure turns.
On next riding forth, Peredur came to a vast desert wood, beyond which he
found a great castle, the Castle of Wonders. He entered it by the open door, and
found a stately, hoary-headed man sitting in a great hall with many pages about
him, who received Peredur honourably. At meat Peredur sat beside the lord of the
castle, who asked him, when they had done, if he could fight with a sword.
"Were I to receive instruction," said Peredur, "I think I
could." The lord then gave Peredur a sword, and bade him strike at a great
iron staple that was in the floor. Peredur did so, and cut the staple in
two, but the sword also flew into two parts. "Place the two parts
together," said the lord. Peredur did so, and they became one again, both
sword and staple. A second time this was done with the same result. The third
time neither sword nor staple would reunite.
"Thou hast arrived," said the lord, "at two-thirds of thy
strength." He then declared that he also was Peredur's uncle, and brother to the flsher-lord with whom Peredur had lodged
on the previous night. As they discoursed, two youths entered the hall bearing a
spear of mighty size, from the point of which three streams of blood dropped
upon the ground, and all the company when they saw this began wailing and
lamenting with a great outcry, but the lord took no notice and did not break off
his discourse with Peredur. Next there came in two maidens carrying between them
a large salver, on which, amid a profusion of blood, lay a man's head. Thereupon
the wailing and lamenting began even more loudly than before. But at last they
fell silent, and Peredur was led off to his chamber. Mindful of the injunction
of the fisher-lord, he had shown no surprise at what he saw, nor had he asked
the meaning of it. He then rode forth again in quest of other adventures, which
he had in bewildering abundance, and which have no particular relation to the
main theme. The mystery of the castle is not revealed till the last pages of the
story. The head in the silver dish was that of a cousin of Peredur's. The lance
was the weapon with which he was slain, and with which also the uncle of
Peredur, the fisher-lord, had been lamed. Peredur had been shown these things to
incite him to avenge the wrong, and to prove his fitness for the task. The
"nine sorceresses of Gloucester " are said to have been those who
worked these evils on the relatives of Peredur. On learning these matters
Peredur, with the help of Arthur, attacked the sorceresses, who were slain every
one, and the vengeance was accomplished.
The Conte del Graal
The tale of Chrestien de Troyes called the "Conte del Graal" or
"Perceval le Gallois" launched the story in European literature. it
was written about the year 1180.
It agrees in the introductory portion with "Peredur," the hero
being here called Perceval. He is trained in knightly accomplishments by an aged
knight named Gonemans, who warns him against talking overmuch and asking
questions. When he comes to the Castle of Wonders the objects brought into the
hall are a blood-dripping lance, a "graal" accompanied by two
double-branched candlesticks, the light of which is put out by the shining of
the graal, a silver plate and sword, the last of which is given to Perceval. The
bleeding head of the Welsh story does not appear, nor are we told what the graal
was. Next day when Perceval rode forth he met a maiden who upbraided him
fiercely for not having asked the meaning of what he saw - had he done so the
lame king (who is here identical with the lord of the Castle of Wonders) would
have been made whole again. Perceval's sin in quitting his mother against her
wish was the reason why he was withholden from asking the question which would
have broken the spell. This is a very crude piece of invention, for it was
manifestly Peredur's destiny to take arms and achieve the adventure of the
Grail, and he committed no sin in doing so. Later on in the story Perceval is
met by a damsel of hideous appearance, who curses him for his omission to ask
concerning the lance and the other wonders - had he done so the king would have
been restored and would have ruled his land in peace, but now maidens will be
put to shame, knights will be slain, widows and orphans will be made.
This conception of the question episode seems to me radically different from
that which was adopted in the Welsh version. It is characteristic of Peredur
that he always does as he is told by proper authority. The question was a test
of obedience and self-restraint, and he succeeded in the ordeal. In fairy literature one is often punished for
curiosity, but never for discretion and reserve. The Welsh tale here preserves,
I think, the original form of the story. But the French writers mistook the
omission to ask questions for a failure on the part of the hero, and invented a
shallow and incongruous theory of the episode and its consequences. Strange to
say, however, the French view found its way into later versions of the Welsh
tale, and such a version is that which we have in the "Mabinogion."
Peredur, towards the end of the story, meets with a hideous damsel, the terrors
of whose aspect are vividly described, and who rebukes him violently for not
having asked the meaning of the marvels at the castle: "Hadst thou done so
the king would have been restored to health, and his dominions to peace. Whereas
from henceforth he will have to endure battles and conflicts) and his knights
will perish, and wives will be widowed, and maidens will be left portionless,
and all this is because of thee." I regard this loathly damsel as an
obvious interpolation in the Welsh tale. She came into it straight out of the
pages of Chrestien. That she did not originally belong to the story of Peredur
seems evident from the fact that in this tale the lame lord who bids Peredur
refrain from asking questions is, according to the damsel, the very person who
would have benefited by his doing so. As a matter of fact, Peredur never does
ask the question, and it plays no part in the conclusion of the story.
Chrestien's unfinished tale tells us some further adventures of Perceval and
of his friend and fellow-knight, Gauvain, but never explains the significance of
the mysterious objects seen at the castle. His continuators, of whom Gautier was
the first, tell us that the Graal was the Cup of the Last Supper and the lance
that which had pierced the side of Christ at the Crucifixion; and that
Peredur ultimately makes his way back to the castle, asks the necessary
question, and succeeds his uncle as lord of the castle and guardian of its
Wolfram von Eschenbach
In the story as given by Wofram von
Eschenbach, who wrote about the year 1200
- some twenty years later than Chrestien de Troyes, with whose work he was
acquainted - we meet with a new and unique conception of the Grail. He says of
the knights of the Grail Castle:
"Si lebent von einem steine
It was originally brought down from heaven by flight of angels and deposited
in Anjou, as the worthiest region for its reception. Its power is sustained by a
dove which every Good Friday comes from heaven and lays on the Grail a
consecrated Host. It is preserved in the Castle of Munsalväsche [Montsalvat]
and guarded by four hundred knights, who are all, except their king, vowed to
virginity. The king may marry, and is indeed, in order to maintain the
succession, commanded to do so by the Grail, which conveys its messages to
mankind by writing which appears upon it and which fades away when deciphered.
In the time of Parzival the king is Anfortas. He cannot die in presence of the
Grail, but he suffers from a wound which, because he received it in the cause of
worldly pride and in seeking after illicit love, the influence of the Grail cannot heal until the
destined deliverer shall break the spell. This Parzival should have done by
asking the question, "What aileth thee, uncle?" The French version
makes Perceval fail in curiosity - Wolfram conceives the failure as one in
sympathy. He fails, at any rate, and next morning finds the castle empty and his
horse standing ready for him at the gate; as he departs he is mocked by
servitors who appear at the windows of the towers. After many adventures, which
are quite unlike those either in Chrestien's "Conte del Graal" or in
"Peredur," Parzival, who has wedded the maiden Condwirarmur, finds his
way back to the Grail Castle - which no one can reach except those destined and
chosen to do so by the Grail itself - breaks the spell, and rules over the Grail
dominions, his son Loherangrain becoming the Knight of the Swan, who goes abroad
righting wrongs, and who, like all the Grail knights, is forbidden to reveal his
name and origin to the outside world. Wolfram tells us that he had the substance
of the tale from the Provencal poet Kyot or Guiot -- "Kyot, der meister wol
bekannt " - who in his turn - but this probably is a mere piece of romantic
invention - professed to have found it in an Arabic book in Toledo, written by a
heathen named Flegetanis.
Des geslähte ist vil reine …
Es heizet lapsit [lapis] exillis,
Der stein ist ouch genannt der Gral.
[they are nourished by a stone of most noble nature. It is called lapsit
exillis; the stone is also called the Grail." The term lapsit
exillis appears to be a corruption for lapis ex celis, "the
stone from heaven."
The Continuators of Chrestien
What exactly may have been the material before Chrestien de Troyes we cannot
tell, but his various co-workers and continuators, notably Manessier, all dwell
on the Christian character of the objects shown to Perceval in the castle, and
the question arises, flow did they come to acquire this character? The Welsh
story, certainly the most archaic form of the legend, shows that they did not
have it from the beginning. An indication in one of the French continuations to Chrestien's
"Conte" may serve to put us on the track. Gautier, the author of this
continuation, tells us of an attempt on the part of Gauvain [Sir Gawain) to
achieve the adventure of the Grail. He partially succeeds, and this half-success
has the effect of restoring the lands about the castle, which were desert and
untilled, to blooming fertility. The Grail therefore, besides its other
characters, had a talismanic power in promoting increase, wealth, and
The Grail a Talisman of Abundance
The character of a cornucopia, a symbol and agent of abundance and vitality,
clings closely to the Grail in all versions of the legend. Even in the loftiest
and most spiritual of these, the "Parzival " of Wolfram von
Eschenbach, this quality is very strongly marked. A sick or wounded man who
looked on it could not die within the week, nor could its servitors grow old:
"though one looked on it for two hundred years, his hair would never turn
grey." The Grail knights lived from it, apparently by its turning into all
manner of food and drink the bread which was presented to it by pages. Each man
had of it food according to his pleasure, à son gré -- from this word gré, gréable,
the name Gral , which originated in the French versions, was supposed to be
derived. [the true derivation is from the Low Latin cratella, a small
vessel or chalice] It was the satisfaction of all desires. In Wolfram's poem the
Grail, though connected with the Eucharist, was, as we have seen, a stone, not a
cup. lt thus appears as a relic of ancient tone-worship. It is remarkable that a
similar Stone of Abundance occurs also in the Welsh " Peredur," though
nor as one of the mysteries of the castle. It was guarded by a black serpent, which Peredur slew, and he gave the stone to
his friend Etlyn.
The Celtic Cauldron of Abundance
Now the reader has by this time become well acquainted with an object having
the character of a talisman of abundance and rejuvenation in Celtic myth. As the
Cauldron of the Dagda it came into Ireland with the Danaans from their
mysterious fairy-land. In Welsh legend Bran the Blessed got it from Ireland,
whither it returned again as part of Branwen's dowry. In a strange and mystic
poem by Taliesin it is represented as part of the spoils of Hades, or Annwn,
brought thence by Arthur, in a tragic adventure not otherwise recorded. It is
described by Taliesin as lodged in Caer Pedryvan, the Four-square Castle of
Pwyll; the fire that heated it was fanned by the breath of nine maidens, its
edge was rimmed with pearls, and it would not cook the food of a coward or man
[a similar selective action is ascribed to the Grail by Wolfram. It can only
be lifted by a pure maiden when carried into the hall, and a heathen cannot see
it or be benefited by it. The same idea is also strongly marked in the story
narrating the early history of the Grail by Robert de Borron, about 1210: the
impure and sinful cannot benefit by it. Borron, however, does not touch upon the
Perceval or "quest" portion of the story at all]
"Am I not a candidate for fame, to be heard in song
More remotely still the cauldron represents the Sun, which appears in the
earliest Aryo-Indian myths as a golden vessel which pours forth light and heat
and fertility. The lance is the lightning-weapon of the Thunder God, Indra,
appearing in Norse mythology as the hammer of Thor. The quest for these objects
represents the ideas of the restoration by some divine champion of the wholesome
order of the seasons, disturbed by some temporary derangement such as those
which to this day bring famine and desolation to India.
In Caer Pedryvan, four times revolving?
The first word from the cauldron, when was it spoken?
By the breath of nine maidens it was gently warmed.
Is it not the cauldron of the chief of Annwn? What is its fashion?
A rim of pearls is round its edge.
It will not cook the food of a coward or one forsworn.
A sword flashing bright will be raised to him,
And left in the hand of Lleminawg.
And before the door of the gate of Uffern [Hades] the lamp was burning.
When we went with Arthur - a splendid labour --
Except seven, none returned from Caer Vedwyd.
[Caer Vedwyd means the Castle of Revelry. I follow the version of this poem
given by Squire in his "Mythology of the British lslands," where it
may be read in full]
Now in the Welsh "Peredur" we have clearly an outline of the
original Celtic tale, but the Grail does not appear in it. We may conjecture,
however, from Gautier's continuation of Chrestien's poem that a talisman of
abundance figured in early Continental, probably Breton, versions of the legend.
In one version at least - that on which Wolfram based his "Parzival "
- this talisman was a stone. But usually it would have been, not a stone, but a
cauldron or vessel of some kind endowed with the usual attributes of the magic
cauldron of Celtic myth. This vessel was associated with a blood-dripping lance.
Here were the suggestive elements from which some unknown singer, in a flash of
inspiration, transformed the ancient talc of vengeance and redemption into the
mystical romance which at once took possession of the heart and soul of
Christendom. The magic cauldron became the cup of the Eucharist, the lance
was invested with a more tremendous guilt than that of the death of Peredur's
fokinsman. [the combination of objects at the Grail Castle is very significant.
They were a sword, a spear, and a vessel, or, in some versions, a stone. These
are the magical treasures brought by the Danaans into Ireland - a sword, I
spear, a cauldron, and a stone. See pp. 105, 106] Celtic poetry, German
mysticism, Christian chivalry, and ideas of magic which still cling to the rude
stone monuments of Western Europe - all these combined to make the story of the
Grail, and to endow it with the strange attraction which has led to its
re-creation by artist after artist for seven hundred years. And who, even now,
can say that its course is run at last, and the towers of Montsalvat dissolved
into the mist from which they sprang?
The Tale of Taliesin
Alone of the tales in the collection called by Lady Charlotte Guest the
"Mabinogion," the story of the birth and adventures of the mythical
bard Taliesin, the Amergin of Cymric legend, is not found in the
fourteenth-century manuscript entitled "The Red Book of Hergest." It
is taken from a manuscript of the late sixteenth or seventeenth century, and
never appears to have enjoyed much popularity in Wales. Much of the very obscure
poetry attributed to Taliesin is to be found in it, and this is much older than
the prose. The object of the tale, indeed, as Mr. Nutt has pointed out in his
edition of the "Mabinogion," is rather to provide a sort of framework
for stringing together scattered pieces of verse supposed to be the work of
Taliesin than to tell a connected story about him and his doings.
The story of the birth of the hero is the most interesting thing in the tale.
There lived, it was said, "in the time of Arthur of the Round Table,"
[the Round Table finds no mention in Cymric legend earlier than the fifteenth
century] a man named Tegid VoeI of Penllyn, whose wife was named Ceridwen. They have a son named
Avagddu, who was the most ill-favoured man in the world. To compensate for his
lack of beauty, his mother resolved to make him a sage. So, according to the art
of the books of Feryllt, [Vergil, in his medieval character of magician] she had
recourse to the great Celtic source of magical influence - a cauldron. She began
to boil a "cauldron of inspiration and science for her son, that his
reception might be honourable because of his knowledge of the mysteries of the
future state of the world." The cauldron might not cease to boil for a year
and a day, and only in three drops of it were to be found the magical grace of
She put Gwion Bach the son of Gwreang of Lanfair to stir the cauldron, and a
blind man named Morda to keep the fire going, and she made incantations over it
and put in magical herbs from time to time as Feryllt's book directed. But one
day towards the end of the year three drops of the magic liquor flew out of the
cauldron and lighted on the finger of Gwion. Like Finn mac Cumhal on a similar
occasion, he put his finger in his mouth, and immediately became gifted with
supernatural insight. He saw that he had got what was intended for Avagddu, and
he saw also that Ceridwen would destroy him for it if she could. So he fled to
his own land, and the cauldron, deprived of the sacred drops, now contained
nothing but poison, the power of which burst the vessel, and the liquor ran into
a stream hard by and poisoned the horses of Gwyddno Garanhir which drank of the
water. Whence the stream is called the Poison of the Horses of Gwyddno from that
Ceridwen now came on the scene and saw that her year's labour was lost. In
her rage she smote Morda with a billet of firewood and struck out his eye, and she then pursued after
Gwion Bach. He saw her and changed himself into a hare. She became a greyhound.
He leaped into a river and became a fish, and she chased him as an otter. He
became a bird and she a hawk. Then he turned himself into a grain of wheat and
dropped among the other grains on a threshing-floor, and she became a black hen
and swallowed him. Nine months afterwards she bore him as an infant; and she
would have killed him, but could not on account of his beauty, "so she
wrapped him in a leathern bag, and cast him into the sea to the mercy of
The Luck of Elphin
Now Gwyddno, of the poisoned horses, had a salmon weir on the strand between
Dyvi and Aberystwyth. And his son Elphin, a needy and luckless lad, one day
fished out the leathern bag as it stuck on the weir. They opened it, and found
the infant within. "Behold a radiant brow! "[Taliesin] said Gwyddno.
"Taliesin be he called," said Elphin. And they brought the child home
very carefully and reared it as their own. And this was Taliesin, prime bard of
the Cymry; and the first of the poems he made was a lay of praise to Elphin and
promise of good fortune for the future. And this was fulfilled, for Elphin grew
in riches and honour day after day, and in love and favour with King Arthur.
But one day as men praised King Arthur and all his belongings above measure,
Elphin boasted that he had a wife as virtuous as any at Arthur's Court and a
bard more skilful than any of the King's; and they flung him into prison until
they should see if he could make good his boast. And as he lay there with a
silver chain about his feet, a graceless fellow named Rhun was sent to court the wife of
Elphin and to bring back proofs of her folly; and it was said that neither maid
nor matron with whom Rhun conversed but was evil-spoken of.
Taliesin then bade his mistress conceal herself, and she gave her raiment and
jewels to one of the kitchen-maids, who received Rhun as if she were mistress of
the household. And after supper Rhun plied the maid with drink, and she became
intoxicated and fell in a deep sleep; whereupon Rhun cut off one of her fingers,
on which was the signet-ring of Elphin that he had sent his wife a little while
before. Rhun brought the finger and the ring on it to Arthur's Court.
Next day Elphin was fetched out of prison and shown the finger and the ring.
Whereupon he said: "With thy leave, mighty king, I cannot deny the ring,
but the finger it is on was never my wife's. For this is the little finger, and
the ring fits tightly on it, but my wife could barely keep it on her thumb. And
my wife, moreover, is wont to pare her nails every Saturday night, but this nail
hath not been pared for a month. And thirdly, the hand to which this finger
belonged was kneading rye-dough within three days past, but my wife has never
kneaded rye-dough since my wife she has been."
Then the King was angry because his test had failed, and he ordered Elphin
back to prison till he could prove what he had affirmed about his bard.
Taliesin, Prime Bard of Britain
Then Taliesin went to court, and one high day when the King's bards and
minstrels should sing and play before him, Taliesin, as they passed him sitting
quietly in a corner, pouted his lips and played "Blerwm, blerwm" with his
finger on his mouth. And when the bards came to perform before the King, lo! a
spell was on them, and they could do nothing but bow before him and play
"Blerwrn, blerwm" with their fingers on their lips. And the chief of
them, Heinin, said "O king, we be not drunken with wine, but are dumb
through the influence of the spirit that sits in yon corner under the form of a
child." Then Taliesin was brought forth, and they asked him who he was and
whence he came. And he sang as follows:
"Primary chief bard am I to Elphin,
[I have somewhat abridged this curious poem. The connexion with ideas of
transmigration, as in the legend of Tuan mac Carell (see pp.97 - 101), is
obviously Tuan's last stage, it may he recalled, was a fish, and Taliesin was
taken in a salmon-weir.]
And my original country is the region of the summer stars;
Idno and Heinin called me Merddin,
At length every being will call me Taliesin.
"I was with my Lord in the highest sphere,
On the fall of Lucifer into the depth of hell;
I have borne a banner before Alexander;
I know the names of the stars from north to south.
"I was in Canaan when Absalom was slain,
I was in the court of Don before the birth of Gwydion.
I was at the place of the crucifixion of the merciful Son of God
I have been three periods in the prison of Arianrod.
"I have been in Asia with Noah in the ark,
I have seen the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
I have been in India when Roma was built.
I am now come here to the remnant of Troia
[alluding to the imaginary Trojan ancestry of the Britons]
"I have been with my Lord in the ass's manger,
I strengthened Moses through the waters of Jordan;
I have been in the firmament with Mary Magdalene;
I have obtained the Muse from the cauldron of Ceridwen.
"I shall be until the day of doom on the face of the earth;
And it is not known whether my body is flesh or fish.
"Then was I for nine months
in the womb of the witch Ceridwen;
I was originally little Gwion,
And at length I am Taliesin."
While Taliesin sang a great storm of wind arose, and the castle shook with
the force of it. Then the King bade Elphin be brought in before him, and when he
came, at the music of Taliesin's voice and harp the chains fell open of
themselves and he was free. And many other poems concerning secret things of the
past and future did Taliesin sing before the King and his lords, and he foretold
the coming ot the Saxon into the land, and his oppression of the Cymry, and
foretold also his passing away when the day of his destiny should come.
Here we end this long survey of the legendary literature of the Celt. The
material is very abundant, and it is, of course, not practicable in a volume of
this size to do more than trace the main current of the development of the
legendary literature down to the time when the mythical and legendary element
entirely faded out and free literary invention took its place. The reader of
these pages will, however, it is hoped, have gained a general conception of the
subject which will enable him to understand the significance of such tales as we
have not been able to touch on here, and to fit them into their proper places in
one or other of the great cycles of Celtic legend. It will be noticed that we
have not entered upon the vast region of Celtic folk-lore. Folk-lore has not been regarded as falling within the scope of the
present work. Folk-lore may sometimes represent degraded mythology, and
sometimes mythology in the making. in either case, it is its special
characteristic that it belongs to and issues from a class whose daily life lies
close to the earth, toilers in the field and in the forest, who render with
simple directness, in tales or charms, their impressions of natural or
supernatural forces with which their own lives are environed. Mythology, in the
proper sense of the word, appears only where the intellect and the imagination
have reached a point of development above that which is ordinarily possible to
the peasant mind-when men have begun to co-ordinate their scattered impressions
and have felt the impulse to shape them into poetic creations embodying
universal ideas. It is not, of course, pretended that a hard-and-fast line can
always be drawn between mythology and folk-lore; still, the distinction seems to
me a valid one, and I have tried to observe it in these pages.
After the two historical chapters with which our study has begun, the object
of the book has been literary rather than scientific. I have, however,
endeavoured to give, as the opportunity arose, such results of recent critical
work on the relics of Celtic myth and legend as may at least serve to indicate
to the reader the nature of the critical problems connected therewith. I hope
that this may have added somewhat to the value of the work for students, while
not impairing its interest for the general reader. Furthermore, I may claim that
the book is in this sense scientific, that as far as possible it avoids any adaptation
of its material for the popular taste. Such adaptation, when done for an avowed
artistic purpose, is of course entirely legitimate; if it were not, we should
have to condemn half the great poetry of the world. But here the object has been to present the myths and
legends of the Celt as they actually are. Crudities have not been refined away,
things painful or monstrous have not been suppressed, except in some few
instances, where it has been necessary to bear in mind that this volume appeals
to a wider audience than that of scientific students alone. The reader may, I
think, rely upon it that he has here a substantially fair and not over-idealised
account of the Celtic outlook upon life and the world at a time when the Celt
still had a free, independent, natural life, working out his conceptions in the
Celtic tongue, and taking no more from foreign sources than he could assimilate
and make his own. The legendary literature thus presented is the oldest
non-classical literature of Europe. This alone is sufficient, I think, to give
it a strong claim on our attention. As to what other claims it may have, many
pages might be filled with quotations from the discerning praises given to it by
critics not of Celtic nationality, from Matthew Arnold downwards. But here let
it speak for itself. It will tell us, I believe, that, as Maeldan said of one of
the marvels he met with in his voyage into Fairyland: "What we see here was
a work of mighty men."