Land of the Giants
In 'The History of the Kings Of Britain' Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us that the island of Britain was first called Albion and inhabited by none but a few giants. After the Trojan war Brutus sets sail from Greece and arrives at the deserted island of Leogecia. Here he finds a desolate city with a temple of Diana with a statue of the goddess which reputedly gave answers to those who consulted her. They set three fires to the three deities Jupiter, Mercury and Diana and offered sacrifices to each. Before the altar of the goddess, Brutus drank from a consecrated vessel filled with wine and the blood of a white hart and asked the goddess of his destiny. He laid down on the hart's skin that he had spread before the altar and fell asleep. During the night goddess presented herself to him and foretold of his future:
“Brutus! There lies beyond the Gallic bounds,
An Island which the western sea surrounds,
By giants once possessed, now few remain,
To bar thy entrance, or obstruct they reign,
To reach that happy shore thy sails employ
There fate decrees to raise a second Troy
And found an empire in thy royal line,
Which time shall ne'er destroy, nor bounds confine.”
After Brutus arrives on the coast of the promised land at Totnes he drives the giants into the caves and mountains and then divided the country among themselves. Brutus called the island Britain after himself. His campanion Corineus called that part of the island that fell to his share Corinea and his people Corineans, called in Latin Cornubia. Here he encountered more of the said giants which were in greater numbers here than the other provinces. Among the rest was one detestable monster called Goëmagot (Gogmagog) who was of such enormous stature that he pull up an oak as if it were a hazel wand. One day when Brutus was holding a festival in the port where they first landed they were attacked by this giant and twenty of his companions. They killed everyone but Goëmagot who Brutus wanted Corineus to fight in combat. During the fight the monster fell into the sea at a site called 'Lam Goëmagot', that is Goëmagot's Leap.
The site of this wrestling match is said to be Plymouth Hoe where chalk giants once appeared on the Hoe carved into the turf. In Richard Carew's Survey of Cornwall in 1602, he refers to there being two club wielding figures on the slopes of the Hoe, first recorded in 1495, one bigger than the other, which he calls Gog and Magog, bisecting the original name, although it seems the smaller figure should have been called Corineus and the larger figure Gogmagog if the figures represented the duel as told by Geoffrey of Monmouth. The chalk figures were unfortunately destroyed during the construction of the Royal Citadel in the reign of King Charles II.
|St Michael's Mount|
Thus, following the tradition of Brutus the Trojan set out in the 9th century Historia Brittonum, is Geoffrey's account for the foundation of Britain to which he elaborates in the giants of Cornwall. There is a strong possibility that Geoffrey's account is the inspiration behind the Cornish fairy tale 'Jack the Giant Killer', the tale of a plucky lad who slays a number of giants during King Arthur's reign. Although Jack and the Giant Killer did not appear in print until the early 18th century the oral tradition must have been in existence in the west country many years before.
Giants are very common throughout British folklore, often represented as the original inhabitants of the island before the civilising of the island and it is likely that the traditions existed before Geoffrey's time. Indeed, many of Arthur's retinue from the earliest stratum of the Arthurian legend, i.e. before Geoffrey, appear to be giants.
Gwenhwyfar's family of Giants
Gwenhwyfar first appears as Arthur's Queen in How Culhwch Won Olwen (c.1100). Shortly after, her abduction features in The Life of Gildas (Vita Gildae), written in the c.1130 by Caradog of Llancarfan for the monks of Glastonbury.
Subsequently the tale of the abduction of Gwenhwyfar became popular with the writers of Continental Arthurian Romance. However, it is significant that in Gwenhwyfar's first appearance in Arthurian literature she is listed amongst Arthur's companions Cei and Bedwyr, both characters from the earliest stratum of the Arthurian legend. From this we can hold with reasonable confidence that Gwenhwyfar is not an invention of the later continental writers but has her origins in Welsh vernacular tradition. 'Culhwch' also lists a certain Gwenhwyfach, said to be her sister.
The Triads of the Island of Britain (Trioedd Ynys Prydein) claim that the battle of Camlan was brought about because of a quarrel between Gwenhwyfar and Gwennhwyfach (Triad 84) , also listed as on of the Three Harmul Blows of the Island of Britain (Triad 53) when Gwenhwyfach struck upon Gwenhwyfar. The name Gwenhwyfach is unknown outside of Culhwch and these two Triads.
Gwenhwyvach = 'Gwen the Small' has led to the assumption that Gwenhwyvar should in
fact be translated as Gwenhy-Mawr = 'Gwen the Great', which could perhaps mutate to Gwenhwyvawr. This interpretation seems more likely due to scribal error, with 'White Fairy' probably the correct translation of her name. This has led to the interpretation of an additional line to a later version of Triad 56, 'Bad when little, worse when great' which is seen as portraying Gwenhwyfar as able to change in size and become gigantic in stature. However, there is another Triad (Triad 56) that links Arthur's queen to the giants. Here Arthur has Three Great Queens, all named Gwenhwyfar:
Gwenhwyfar daughter of Cywryd Gwent,
and Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gwythyr son of Greidiawl,
and Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gogfran the Giant.
A late tale recorded by Sion Dafydd Rhys, c.1600, preserves a tradition at a place called Bron Wrgan, on the frontier of the land of Shropshire, as the abode of giants who have imprisoned some brothers to Gwenhwyfar, the daughter of Gogyrfan the Giant (Gawr). Arthur saved them all, killing the giants, and taking the head of the biggest of them and throwing it into the middle of the river instead of a stone, in stepping across the river, to go to Castell y Cnwclas. And as he placed his foot on the head of the giant in stepping across the river Arthur said, 'May the head grow (tyfed yr iad) in the river instead of a stone'. And henceforth that river was called Afon Tyfediad.
There is Welsh tradition that Arthur married Gwenhwyfar as Castell y Cnwclas, now known as Knucklas Castle, by the village of Knucklas in Powys and the Afon Tyfediad is the River Teme, rising on Cilfaesty Hill, forming the boundary between Powys and Shropshire, England from Wales.
Arthur and the Giants in Celtic Mythology
Giants, or cewri, feature prominently in Welsh folklore and mythology. Among the most notable are
Brân the Blessed (Bendigeidfran = Blessed Raven) from the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, and Ysbaddaden Bencawr, chief giant and the father of Olwen, of the early Arthurian tale How Culhwch Won Olwen. In the latter tale Arthur features prominently as a giant-slayer in Welsh tradition. Furthermore, many features in the Celtic landscape preserve traditions of Giants, such as the mountain in southern Snowdonia known as Cadair Idris, the chair, or seat, of Idris the Giant who used the mountain as his chair while gazing at the stars. But it is a late tradition in which Idris appears as a giant in popular culture.
However, we find early references to Idris as an ancient chieftain in the Welsh Annals (Annals Cambriae) and the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of Tigernach, all of which commemorate his death around 632 AD, with both Irish annals referring to Idris as 'King of the Britons.' His realm was presumably around the Cadair Idris region which remained one of the least Romanised areas of North Wales. He was the ruler over the forts which guarded the Mawddach and the pass north to Llyn Tegid. The folklore surrounding the stone at Dol-y-feili, including Lech Idris and the now lost stone at Mynydd Hengae may have marked the tribal boundaries or at least a range of ancient trackways near Cadair Idris. Edward Lhuyd noted two pairs of of extra-ordinarily large skeletons found with hazel rods in the middle of 16th century by peat cutters in the bog at the base of the southern ascent of the mountain.
The giant-slaying runs like a sub-plot running throughout Culhwch with the main story generally based on the well-known scenario of 'The Giant's Daughter', variants of which are found across the world.
Arthur and his retinue are given forty impossible tasks (anoethau), by Ysbaddaden Chief-giant to achieve if Culhwch is obtain the hand of Olwen, the giant's daughter.
Yet the giant slaying in Culhwch appears to have an obsession with the removal of the beard's as if some kind of trophy. Essentially, the attainment of the majority of the these tasks is to ultimately obtain the comb and shears between the ears of the supernatural boar, the Twrch Trwyth, to groom the Chief-giant.
Culhwch sets off to obtain the last task first, 'The sword of Wrnach the Giant'. Cei beheads the giant and takes his sword. The Chief-giant tell them the sword is required to kill the Twrch Trwyth, but the boar is not killed; at the end of the tale he is last seen disappearing into the sea off the Cornish coast pursued by the two hounds Aned and Aethlem.
Another of the impossible tasks set by the Chief-giant is to make a leash from the beard of Dillus Farfawg (the Bearded), to hold the two whelps of the bitch Rhymhi. The Chief-giant tells them that 'And no use can be made of it unless it be twitched out of his beard while he is alive, and he be plucked with wooden tweezers. He will not allow any one to do that to him while he lives, but it will be useless if dead, for it will be brittle'.
Arthur is not present during the killing of the giant Dillus Farfawg, it is Cei who is again the giant slayer. As Cei and Bedwyr were sitting on top of Pumlumon on Carn Gwylathyr, they saw smoke rising to the south which was Dillus the Bearded singeing a wild boar. After eating Dillus fell asleep: 'When Cei knew for certain that he was asleep he dug a pit under his feet, the biggest in the world, and he struck him a blow mighty past telling, and pressed him down in the pit until they had entirely twitched out his beard with the tweezers; and after that they slew him outright'.
Finally, at the end of the tale, it is Goreu son of Custennin, Arthur's cousin, who beheads the Chief-giant and impales his head on a stake.
The Legend of Rhitta Gawr
The combination of Giants and beard-collecting surfaces again in the Legend of Ritho, or Rhitta, Gawr, a tale which features strongly in Welsh folklore yet does not appear before Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th century version although it no doubt existed in oral tradition before this time.
Arthur heard that a giant of monstrous size from the shores of Spain, and had forcibly taken away Helena, the niece of duke Hoel, and fled with her to the top of that which is now called Michael's Mount. The soldiers who pursued him were helpless against him. Arthur slayed the giant and commanded Bedver to cut of his head, and and give it to one of the armour-bearers, who was to carry it to the camp, and there expose it to public view.
Geoffrey's Mount Aravius is usually accepted as Yr Wyddfa, the summit of Mount Snowdon, (in Welsh 'Eryri' = 'the Abode of Eagles'), where a cairn was erected at the spot the giant lay called Gwyddha Rhita (Rhita’s cairn). A difficult phrase but the best translation of Yr Wyddfa is 'the important tumulus', or 'burial place' possibly from the giant's tomb, however this is a contentious issue. The burial mound was destroyed many centuries later to make room for a hotel. However, the 15th century bard Rhys Goch Eryri of Beddgelert apparently introduced the tale into its present form but located the burial mound on Carnedd Llewellyn. Once people realised it was not the highest summit in Wales, the story re-located to Yr Wyddfa.
John Rhys records a tale when Arthur and his men pursued their enemy into the upper reaches of Cwmllan (Camlan?), called Tregalan, on the southern slopes of Snowdon, the modern Watkin Path, where they were pushed up the bwlch, or pass, towards Cwm Dyli. When Arthur's army had reached the top of the pass, the enemy let fly a shower of arrows at them. Fatally wounded Arthur fell, and his body was buried on the mountain pass so that no enemy might march that way so long as Arthur's dust rested there. The pass is called Bwlch y Saethau, (the Pass of the Arrows) and the heap of stones called Carnedd Arthur, (Arthur's Cairn) which could still be seen on the top of the pass in 1850.
After Arthur's death on Bwlch y Saethau, his men ascended to the ridge of the Lliwed and then descended the precipitous cliff-face into a vast cave called Ogof Llanciau Eryri, (the Cave of the young Men of Snowdon) above Llyn Llydaw in Cwm Dyli. Arthur's warriors are said to lie sleeping in their armour in the cave waiting for the second coming of Arthur to restore the crown of Britain to the Kymry.
Rhys records the poem of a local bard, known as Glaslyn, which claims that near Arthur's Cairn on the shoulder of Snowdon lies the remains of the famous giant Ricca, recalling an older couplet in a poem by Rhys Goch Eryri:
On the ridge cold and vast,
There the Giant Ricca lies.
The Giant's cairn on the summit of Snowdon was demolished before the hotel was erected. Glaslyn the bard had not heard it called after Ricca's name, but he confirms that old people used to call it Carnedd y Cawr, 'the Giant's Cairn.'
Geoffrey's version of the tale has remained popular but a variant of the tale is recorded in a chapter on giants, compiled from oral tradition, by Sion Dafydd Rhys (John Davies of Brecon, 1534 - c.1619) in his defence of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia, which survives in the manuscript Peniarth MS 118, Llyfr Sion Dafydd Rhys (c.1600), Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales:
'In the land of Merioneth and close to Pen Aran in Penllyn and under the place called Bwlch y Groes, is a grave of great dimensions where they say Lytta or Ritta or Ricca or Rithonwy or Itto Gawr was buried; whose body some of the giants removed from Eryri to somewhere near Mynydd Aran Fawr in Penllyn. This Ricca Gawr was the one with whom Arthur had fought and had killed in Eryri. And this giant made for himself a robe of beards of the kings he had killed. And he sent to Arthur to order him to cut off his own beard and send it to him. And as Arthur was the chief of kings he would place his beard above the other beards as an honour to Arthur. And if he would not do that he begged Arthur to come and fight him; and the victorius of them to make a robe of the others beard.
Other accounts say that Itto Gawr called himself the king of Gwynedd and they fought on top of a hill called Bwlch y Groes between Mowddwy and Penllyn in Merioneth. After casting their weapons away, in the struggle they rolled to the plain to the place called Blaen Gynllwyd, after plucking each other beards. And in membrance of that the hill is called Rhiw y Barfau [near Towyn] And after that they fought with swords in the place where Arthur killed the giant in which place Itto's grave can be seen to this day at the foot of the slope.'
Arthur the Giant
As we have seen there is ample evidence for Arthur as a giant slayer but what of Arthur as a giant?
His in-laws, i.e. Gwenhwyfar's family, appear to be giants as we have seen above. Yet, apart from the many references to Arthur in the landscape that portray him as a being of huge size, a man capable of throwing enormous capstones from cromlechs as a discuss or quoit, throwing a massive boulder as a pebble from his shoe, and huge mountain features that are described as his chair, megalithic henges described as Arthur's Round Table, we find but one reference in medieval literature.
In the Mabinogion tale Rhonabwy's Dream (Breuddwyd Rhonabwy), Rhonabwy sleeps on a skin from a yellow calf, as a prelude to gaining otherworldly wisdom, which is where we began with Brutus at the temple of Diana. Significantly, the tale is found only within the 14th century Red Book of Hergest, among other prophetic works such as the Sybilline prophesies and The Seven Sages of Rome. The tale then is in essence the vision Rhonabwy experiences whilst sleeping on the yellow calf-skin.
In the tale Arthur shows concern at the size of the men now defending the island:
“Then came Iddawc and they that were with him, and stood before Arthur and saluted him.
"Heaven grant thee good," said Arthur. "And where, Iddawc, didst thou find these little men?"
"I found them, lord, up yonder on the road."
Then the Emperor smiled.
"Lord," said Iddawc, "wherefore dost thou laugh?"
"Iddawc," replied Arthur, "I laugh not; but it pitieth me that men of such stature as these should have this island in their keeping, after the men that guarded it of yore."
Notes & References
Rachel Bromwich and D Simon Evans, eds. Culhwch and Olwen: An Edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale, University of Wales Press, 1992.
Rachel Bromwich, ed. Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain, University of Wales Press; 3rd Edition, 2006.
Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, The Mabinogion, Dent 1949.Lewis Thorpe, trans. Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings Of Britain, Penguin, 1973.
John Rhys, Studies in the Arthurian Legend, 1891.
John Rhys, Celtic Folklore: Welsh & Manx, 1901
Chris Grooms, The Giants of Wales: Cewri Cymru, Edwin Mellen Press, 1993.
Sion Dafydd Rhys, The Giants of Wales and Their Dwellings, available online at Mary Jones, Celtic Literature Collective.
Robert Jones, Yr Wyddfa: The Complete Guide to Snowdon, Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 1992.
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