Sunday, 21 May 2023

King Arthur’s Sister

 The Daughters of Anlawdd Wledig Part II

The Cousin from Brittany
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Utherpendragon and Igerna had two children, Arthur and Anna [viii.20].  When a large Germanic fleet returned to ravish the cities of Albany during the King’s illness, Loth of Lodonesia, “a valiant man, mature both in wisdom and age” was put in command of the British forces. As a reward for his prowess the King had given him his daughter and put him in charge of the kingdom while he was ill [viii.21].

A little later, after Utherpendragon has passed after being poisoned by the Saxons at Verulamium (St Albans), Geoffrey has the young King Arthur call upon his nephew Hoel(us), (or Howel) of Brittany for military assistance [ix.2]. Hoel arrived at Southampton with 15,000 armed warriors and with Arthur they marched to the town of Kaerluideoit which was besieged by the Saxons [ix.3]. In the History of the Kings of Britain both Hoel of Brittany and Cador, Duke of Cornwall, forget Cai and Bedwyr, stand out in military expertise and in supporting Arthur in the recovery of Britain from the Saxons and later in the Gallic campaign against the Romans, reflecting Geoffrey’s apparent admiration for these two kingdoms, particularly Brittany. Indeed, Hoel commands the British fourth division at the decisive battle of Saussy in the defeat of the Romans [x.6]. It is Hoel’s niece Helena that that is killed by the Giant of Mont-Saint-Michel. Arthur avenges her death and recalls his encounter with the giant Retho on Mount Arvaius (Snowdon) [x.3]. The tale of the beard collecting giant Retho is reminiscent of the fate of Dilius Farchog in Culhwch and Olwen but Geoffrey appears to have obtained his tale from an independent source.

Geoffrey states that Hoel was the son of Arthur’s sister, and therefore his nephew, and his father was Budicius (II), King of the Armorican Britons. [ix.2] This is a direct contradiction of Geoffrey’s previous statement, noted above, that Arthur’s sister Anna was married to Loth of Lodonesia [viii.22]. Geoffrey only gives Arthur one sister, which he named Anna, so we presume this must also be Anna but Geoffrey does not name Hoel’s mother.

There is considerable confusion here on Geoffrey’s part. Later he states that during the days of Aurelius Ambrosius, Loth had married the King’s own sister and had two sons by her, Gualguanus (Gawain) and Mordredus, who were Arthur’s nephews [ix.9]. This statement can only mean “the sister of Aurelius Ambrosius”. Thus, Hoel of Brittany is Arthur’s first cousin, not his nephew. This confusion continued in the chronicle tradition reappearing in Wace and Layamon, although most later sources recognised Hoel as Arthur's cousin.11

Aurelius is the brother of Utherpendragon, Arthur’s father, and second son of Constantine II [vi.5]. At the time of his father’s assassination he was considered too young for kingship and when Vortigern had the elder brother Constans killed, Aurelius was secreted away to Brittany with his younger brother Utherpendragon and raised by King Budicius (I) [vi.8]. The two surviving sons of Constantine would later return to Britain and subdue the Saxons; “but first they will burn Vortigern besieged in his tower” as Merlin predicted [viii.2].

In Geoffrey’s work Hoel figures prominently as Arthur’s close friend and ally throughout his life, yet he is completely unknown in pre-Galfridian tradition and was certainly introduced to the Arthurian story by Geoffrey. 

Rachel Bromwich sees a possible explanation for this is to be found in Geoffrey’s attitude to his source-material. Almost certainly of Breton stock himself, Geoffrey’s sympathies were always with the emigrant colony, as opposed to the native Welsh themselves. This is demonstrated by Geoffrey’s apparent admiration for Hoel’s military prowess and constant loyalty to Arthur in the recovery of Britain and the Gallic campaign, as noted above, in preference to heroes of Welsh Arthurian tradition such as Cai and Bedwyr.

Geoffrey decided to provide Arthur, the hero of his story, with a rival nephew who should be of Breton birth. He took a name that was frequent among Breton nobles and introduced (invented) Hoel(us) to the Arthurian tradition. For the father of this Duke of Brittany he used a traditional ruler of Breton Cornubia: Budic, a man who figures frequently in the ecclesiastical tradition, appearing in several Saints’ Lives and may even be historical.

According to Geoffrey Hoel’s mother was Arthur’s sister, yet he deliberately maintained silence as to her name; certainly no mention of Anlawdd Wledig here. As noted above, Geoffrey had already listed Arthur’s sister Anna as the mother of Mordredus and Gualguanus, Geoffrey’s name for Arthur’s nephew Gwalchmai. Yet, in Welsh tradition, as shown in one version of Bonedd y Saint, Gwyar is listed as the mother of Gwalchmai …. and one of the daughters of Anlawdd Wledig.12

In Culhwch and Olwen, Gwalchmai son of Gwyar is named as Arthur’s nephew, a member of his court and one of the ‘Six Helpers’ whom Arthur appointed to assist him in the quest for Olwen, as ‘he was the best of walkers and the best of riders. He was Arthur’s nephew, his sister’s son, and his cousin.’ In Culhwch and Olwen he is listed as Gwalchmai mab Gwyar, where Gwyar is assumed to be his mother who was Arthur’s sister.  The use of the matronymic is unusual, but not impossible, but most heroes listed in the Court List are designated by their patronymic. In De Rebus Gestis Anglorum (1125) William of Malmesbury maintains the same uncle-nephew relationship between Gwalchmai and Arthur:

“At this time was found in the province of Wales called R(h)os the tomb of Walwen, who was the not degenerate nephew of Arthur by his sister.”

Here William used the Norman form of the name ‘Walwen’ which corresponds to the Welsh Gwalchmai. The site of Walwen/Gwalchmai’s grave has been the subject of much debate. William adds that it “was found in the time of king William upon the sea-shore, fourteen feet in length” which seems to echo the entry in the Stanzas of the Graves which states the grave of Gwalchmai is in Peryddon. 

The location of Peryddon has been the subject of much discussion over the years as several rivers claim this name; it is said that Peryddon was an alternative name for a section of that great Welsh river the Dee. Geoffrey of Monmouth names a 'fluvium Perironis' which early Welsh translations render as Afon Peryddon. The 12th century Book of Llandaf makes reference to Aber Periron in the vicinity of Rockfield, about 2 miles from Monmouth, Geoffrey’s home town if we are to assign any relevance to his name. Geoffrey was of Breton stock and it is doubtful he was actually born at Monmouth, but he was certainly familiar with the geography of the area placing King Arthur’s court at nearby Caerleon.

The 10th century Armes Prydein (The Prophecy of Britain), a prophetic poem from the Book of Taliesin, records a stream named Aber Peryddon which had to be crossed when traversing into Wales. Perhaps the best candidate for the Peryddon may be at Rhos, Pembrokeshire, where a stream at Sandyhaven Pill runs down from Castell Gwalchmai (Walwyn's Castle) into Milford Haven, corresponding with William of Malmesbury’s account above.13

The name ‘Walwen’ corresponds to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Gualguanus’ whom Geoffrey presents as Arthur’s nephew by his sister Anna [ix.9]. It seems almost certain that Geoffrey knew of William of Malmesbury’s account, and maintained the relationship between Arthur and Gualguanus. The name Walwen/Gualguanus also corresponds to Gauvain of the French romances and to the English Gawain. Variants of the name appear on the Continent, such as the Breton name ‘Galvaginus’ on the Modena archivolt in Italy which depicts a pre-Galfridian version of Gwenhwyfar/Guinevere’s abduction, (at Modena depicted as Winlogee).

By giving Arthur’s sister Anna as the mother of Gualguanus, Geoffrey caused considerable confusion among Welsh sources. In the 14th century ‘Birth of Arthur’ an attempt was made to reconcile the native tradition with that of Geoffrey by replacing Anna as the name of Arthur’s sister with that of Gwyar:

‘Gwrleis and Eigyr had two daughters, Gwyar and Dioneta. Gwyar was (living as) a widow in her father’s court, and Hywel her son with her, after the death of Ymer Llydaw her husband. And Uthyr caused Lleu ap Cynfarch to marry her, and they had children: that is two sons, Gwalchmei and Medrawd, and three daughters, Gracia, Graeria, and Dioneta.’14

Arthur’s sister Anna is unknown before Geoffrey and therefore we could opt for Gwyar as the original name of the sister of Arthur and the mother of his nephew Gwalchmai. However, we must be cautious in forcing conclusions as Rachel Bromwich considers it probable that Gwalchmai was an addition to the story of Culhwch (in which he plays no essential part), and that he was introduced to the tale under the influence of Brut y Brenhinedd, where we find the Welsh counterpart of Gualguanus (Gawain) referred to constantly as Gwalchmai ap Gwyar.15 However, there is no suggestion that Geoffrey invented Gwalchmai; on the contrary, he is a figure of Welsh tradition from the earliest stratum of the Arthurian legend along with Cai and Bedwyr. (See: The Search for Lud for a discussion Gwyar’s origins).

As we have seen above, Geoffrey states that Hoel was the son of Arthur’s sister and his father was Budicius (II), King of the Armorican Britons. The Welsh versions of Geoffrey’s Historia, ignorant of either Hoel or his mother in any native source (as the relationship did not exist before Geoffrey), countered Geoffrey’s invention with the vague allusion to ‘a certain ruler of Brittany’ who had married a sister of Arthur.16

This ruler of Brittany consistently appears as ‘Emyr Llydaw’ the father of Hoel. We find 'emyr' is a generic noun meaning 'emperor, king, prince, leader’; perhaps borrowed from the Latin 'imperium'; ‘Llydaw’ being the regular Welsh name for Brittany or Armorica. ‘Emyr Llydaw’ therefore, literally means 'ruler of Brittany'.

Rachel Bromwich concludes that these instances point towards Emyr Llydaw being originally a generic term for any unspecified ruler of Brittany, but later came to be interpreted as a proper name denoting a particular person. This is exactly what we find in the Welsh versions of Geoffrey’s chronicle (Brutiau) where Emyr Llydaw has become a personal name, displacing Budicius but belonging distinctively to Welsh and not Breton tradition.17

Emyr Llydaw was a device used by many of the Breton saints in a similar function to that of Anlawdd Wledig to demonstrate a relationship to a hero of note or a royal line. Indeed, early versions of Bonedd y Saint name Emyr Llydaw as the grandfather of five Welsh saints, to which later versions complimented at least another three.

Evidently the term ‘Emyr Llydaw’ was known to the Welsh scribes long before Geoffrey wrote his Historia as we find it in Englynion y Beddau: The Stanzas of the Graves. Collected in the 13th century Black Book of Carmarthen, yet the earliest series of 73 stanzas has been dated to the 9th or 10th century. Further series of stanzas appear in later manuscripts; Red Book of Hergest, Peniarth MS98B, Wrexham MS1, but these need not concern us here.

A character named as ‘Beidawg the Red’ appears in three consecutive stanzas from the early series which Thomas Jones suggests, that although known to us only from the Stanzas of the Graves, indicates he was a significant figure who’s tale has been lost. Jones cites stanzas 37 and 38 which both begin ‘Pell y vysci’ (Long past and hidden the turmoil he caused) which he states are not formal grave stanzas and their source could have been a series of elegiac englynion from some lost story of Beidawg the Red who lies buried in Machawy.18

The third stanza here includes the earliest mention of Emyr Llydaw, his father.

36. The grave of Beidawg the Red in the region of Rhiw Lyfnaw,
the grave of Lluosgar in Ceri,
And at the Ford of Brydw the grave of Omni

37. Long past and hidden the turmoil he caused and his wealth,
the soil of Machawy covers him:
long [and] white the fingers of Beidawg the Red

38. Long past and hidden the turmoil he caused,
the soil of Machawy upon him,
Beidawg the Red, son of Emyr Llydaw

Machawy has been identified with the valley of the river of that name where it joins the Wye just to the east of the village of Erwood just a few miles north of Glasbury. This is the site where, according to the Welsh chronicle O Oes Gwrtheryn, a battle was fought when Gruffudd, the son of Llywelyn was victorious, and an English bishop (Leofgar of Hereford) was slain. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle (D Manuscript) records this for the year 1056. The Chronicle of John of Worcester adds that these events took place at `Clastbyrig? identified as Glasbury on the River Wye.20

John K Bollard notes that in all three instances the manuscript records the name as ‘Beidauc Rut’; the similarity of the name to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Budicius, King of the Armorican Britons and father of Hoel, will be immediately obvious. The inclusion of the name in the early series of Englynion y Beddau may suggests the possibility that ‘Emyr Llydaw’ had already developed into a proper name in early Welsh tradition.21

What does all this tell us about Geoffrey’s influence on Culhwch and Olwen? As we have seen, Culhwch is noted as Arthur’s cousin as their mothers are both daughters of Anlawdd Wledig. This character is generally regarded as a device introduced simply to provide heroes with a relationship to Arthur, such as St Illtud. Geoffrey was clearly unaware of this fictitious relationship and therefore did not include Anlawdd Wledig in his chronicle. Instead he used “Arthur’s sister” to effectively perform the same function. He admired the Bretons and introduced Hoel, Duke of Brittany, son of Budicius, as Arthur’s best general and ally displacing the traditional characters of Cai and Bedwyr. But when it came to the mother of Hoel, Geoffrey clearly became rather confused seemingly forgetting that he had initially mentioned only one sister of Arthur; Anna, mother of Gualguanus and Mordredus.

As an Arthurian character Emyr Llydaw displaces Budicius and finds his way into the lists in Breuddwyd Rhonabwy and Geraint ap Erbin, both dated after Geoffrey’s chronicle, but not in the earlier Culhwch and Olwen.22

Notes & References:
11. Geoffrey of Monmouth: History of the Kings of Britain, trans. Lewis Thorpe, Penguin Books, 1966, p.214 and p.333.
12. Rachel Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain, Fourth Edition, University of Wales Press, 2014, p.369.
13. John K Bollard & Anthony Griffiths, Englynion y Beddau: The Stanzas of the Graves, Gwas Carreg Gwalch, 2015, p.70.
14. Bromwich, TYP, p.370.
15. Bromwich, TYP, p.368.
16. Bromwich, TYP, p.399.
17. Bromwich, TYP, p.348.
18. Thomas Jones, The Black Book of Carmarthen, ‘Stanzas of the Graves’, Sir John Rhys Memorial Lecture, British Academy, 1967, p.104.
19. Jones, Stanzas of the Graves, p.125.
20. CBHC - Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales: Glasbury-On-Wye; Battle in Machawy Valley 
21. John K Bollard, Anthony Griffiths,  Englynion y Beddau: The Stanzas of the Graves, Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 2015.
22.   - Brynley Roberts, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia and Brut y Brenhinedd, in Arthur of the Welsh, p.111.

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Sunday, 14 May 2023

The Daughters of Anlawdd Wledig

Part I

Can we detect the influence of Geoffrey of Monmouth on the oldest Arthurian tale of Culhwch and Olwen? Arthurian texts composed before Geoffrey published his ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ (Historia regum Britanniae, c.1138) are generally considered to be free of his influence and texts written after this, when the Arthurian legend underwent monumental change, generally contain some detail introduced by Geoffrey. As we have seen in previous posts it is impossible to accurately date the medieval Welsh prose tale of ‘Culhwch’; composition dates range from the late-11th century to the mid-12th century; is it possible an Arthurian text composed after Geoffrey’s magnum opus could be free of his influence as most Celtic scholars claim?

The first detail in Culhwch and Olwen that may reveal Galfridian influence is Culhwch’s relationship to Arthur.

A Lad of Noble Birth
Culhwch was of noble birth, the son of Cilydd, son of Celiddon Wledig, and Goleuddydd daughter of Anlawd Wledig, king of Britain. Very early in the tale we are told that Culhwch is cousin to Arthur. His mother Goleuddydd fell ill and died of the sickness. His father remarried and Culhwch’s stepmother placed a destiny on him that he will not get a wife until he got Olwen daughter of Yspaddaden Bencawr, chief giant.

His father said to him, "It will be easy to get that, boy…… Arthur is your cousin. Go to Arthur, for the cutting of your hair, and ask him that as a boon to you."

Culhwch set off on his steed for Arthur’s court. After finally getting past the gatekeeper Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr, Culhwch rode in on his horse and addressed Arthur as “Penn Teyrned” (Chief of Lords) of this island and demanded his gift. Arthur told the lad he may have anything he names except for his weapons or his wife Gwenhwyfar.

When Arthur told him to name his gift Culhwch requested that he first trim his hair. Arthur took a gold comb and silver shears and combed his hair, and said that he knows that the “chieftain” sprung from his own blood and asked who he was. The barbering ritual is a recurring theme throughout the tale but at Arthur’s court it seems to mark Culwch’s coming of age; prior to this he is termed a lad or boy but after he is referred to as ‘chieftain’. The grooming session has also been seen as a form of male bonding between kinsmen.1

Culhwch told Arthur he is son of Cilydd son of Celiddon Wledig and Goleuddydd, the daughter of Anlawdd, was his mother. Arthur said this must be true and immediately recognised him as a kinsman, telling him to name his gift. Culhwch then requested Arthur get him Olwen daughter of Yspaddaden chief-giant and invoked her in the name of Arthur’s warriors. A long list follows, the so-called ‘Court List’ of around 260 characters but Arthur only calls on half a dozen of these to actually assist him in obtaining the giant’s daughter. And so the quest began.

In his ‘Historia’ Geoffrey of Monmouth claims that Arthur's mother's name was Ygerna, yet the Welsh redactors corrected this to ‘Eigr’ (or Eygyr) as the earlier form of the name in the Brut y Brenhinedd (the Welsh versions of Geoffrey’s chronicle). They also make Arthur’s own mother a daughter of Anlawdd Wledig confirming that he and Culhwch are indeed cousins.

Celtic scholars have questioned whether Eigr daughter of Anlawdd was a traditional figure; the name of Arthur’s mother is not attested in any pre-Galfridian source and this name looks suspiciously similar to the name used by Geoffrey for Arthur’s mother, ‘Ygerna’ (or Igerna). The Welsh version of Geoffrey’s chronicle known as the Dingestow Brut corrects her name to Eigr and claims she is a daughter of Anlawdd Wledig, sometimes recorded as ‘rex Britanniae’ (King of Britain). Anlawdd is a shadowy figure whose only role in extant Welsh texts and genealogies appears to be to act as a device which allows heroes such as Culhwch and Arthur to be cousins through the relationship of his four, or sometimes five daughters.2 

Arthur’s Other Cousin
Rachel Bromwich and D Simon Evans observe that Culhwch and Olwen is a story full of doublets, both in personae and in incidents. The prose tale in its final 14th century form as we have it would appear to be an assemblage of at least two variants of an ancient tradition of a supernatural boar hunt in which Arthur and his hound participated. 

The forty tasks demanded by Olwen’s father Ysbaddaden for his daughter’s hand contains several doublets such as the two boar hunts, the release of two prisoners and then there is Goreu, son of Custennin the Shepherd, who is like a double of Culhwch and perhaps the hero of a variant tale, although outside of the main story, as with Culhwch, he is almost unknown in Welsh tradition. Goreu, like Culhwch, is cousin to Arthur, his mother is also one of the five daughters of Anlawdd Wledig3 and therefore also cousin to Culhwch. 

When Custennin the Shepherd shows his wife a gold ring that Culhwch gave him, she reveals that he is her nephew as he is her sister’s son.4 As Culhwch’s mother was Goleuddydd daughter of Anlawd Wledig, her sister (Custennin’s wife and mother of Goreu) must also be a daughter of Anlawd Wledig. That Goreu is Arthur’s cousin is confirmed in Triad 52.5

Goreu's father, Custennin, is brother to Ysbaddaden who is therefore his uncle. Ysbaddaden has dispossessed Custennin of his lands and is responsible for the deaths of twenty-three of his sons; being the last remaining son Goreu was brought up in hiding from the giant. Goreu appears in the attack on the fortress of the giant Wrnach and is later named as one of the hunting party in pursuit of the Twrch Trwyth. Goreu is not heard of again until the end of the tale when he beheads Ysbaddaden (one might expect this to be be performed by Culhwch himself) and so avenging the deaths of his father and brothers.6

St Illtud

It appears that Arthur had further relatives through the daughters of Anlawdd Wledig. In addition to Culhwch and Goreu we find Saint Illtud was another cousin of Arthur. In the Life of St. Illtud, c.1140, Illtud was the son of ‘Bicanus’ a Breton prince, who’s parents wanted him to take up service in the church but he chose a military career and moved to Britain to become one of Arthur’s knights and was known as Illtud Farchog (Illtud the Knight). He later returned to the clerical life founding the celebrated monastery in what is now Llantwit Major in South Wales. His mother was Rieingulid, and she was of course one of the daughters of Anlawdd Wledig making him cousin to King Arthur.

Anlawdd Wledig appears to derive from the Lives and Genealogies of the Welsh Saints, indeed the Life of St Illtud provides the earliest known instance of his name as ‘Anlaud Britannie rex’. In one version of Bonedd y Saint, Gwyar is listed as the name as another of the daughters of Anlawdd Wledig making her son Gwalchmai (the origin of Gawain) another of Arthur’s cousins. In Culhwch and Olwen, Gwalchmai and his brother Gwalhafed (the origin of Galahad) are both named as sons of Gwyar.7

“[Arthur] ... calls Gwalchmai son of Gwyar, for he never returned home without the quest he might go to seek. He was the best on foot and the best on a horse. He was Arthur’s nephew, his sister’s son, and his cousin.”8

However, considerable confusion prevailed in Welsh sources when Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed Arthur’s sister as the mother of Gualguanus, Geoffrey’s name for Gwalchmai, making him Arthur’s nephew.9 

The daughters of Anlawdd Wledig appears to have been employed purely as a device to attach a relationship to Arthur, in these cases the cousins Culhwch, Goreu, Gwalchmai and Illtud. Ironically, Arthur did not have a genealogy until these relationships emerged in the 12th century, The Life of St Illtud being the first written around 1130-40, contemporary with Geoffrey of Monmouth but certainly free of his influence.

Brynley F Roberts sees Anlawdd Wledig as a function rather than a person: “He is an ‘empty’ character who is never given a narrative context but who exists merely so that his daughters may be the mothers of heroes who are all, therefore, cousins to Arthur. The Life of Illtud and Culhwch ac Olwen both use this convention to relate their heroes (Illtud, Culhwch, Gorau) to Arthur.10

Anlawdd Wledig is noticeably absent from the Triads of the Island of Britain (TYP), early Welsh poetry and tales. As noted above, he is first found in the Life of St Illtud, yet outside of the of the Lives and Genealogies of the Welsh Saints, Anlawdd is almost unknown. We can therefore conclude, that his name was borrowed, perhaps independently, from the ecclesiastical tradition to provide a fundamental link between Arthur and his cousins.

As we have seen, this tradition was known by the Welsh writers of the Brut, a hundred years after Geoffrey, but a hundred years before the Red or White Book versions of Culhwch and Olwen. Significantly, Geoffrey of Monmouth did not use the function of Anlawdd Wledig to furnish Arthur’s relationships, however, he did use a similar device.

Notes & References
1. Sarah Sheehan 'Giants, Boar-hunts, and Barbering: Masculinity in "Culhwch ac Olwen"' Arthuriana Vol.15 No.3 (Fall 20005) pp.3-25.
2. Rachel Bromwich, Ed & Trans, with Introduction and Commentary, Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads Of The Island Of Britain, University of Wales Press, Fourth Edition, 2014, pp.365-7.
3. Bromwich, TYP: p.366.
4. Patrick K Ford, Trans and editor, The Mabinogi and other Medieval Welsh Tales, Berkley, 1977, 30th Anniversary Edition, 2008, p.134.
5. Bromwich, TYP, p.146-152.
6. Rachel Bromwich and D. Simon Evans, editors, with introduction and notes, Culhwch And Olwen: An Edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale, University of Wales, 1992, pp.xxix – xxx.
7. Sioned Davies, Trans and editor, The Mabinogion, Oxford University Press, 2007, p.188.
8. Sioned Davies, The Mabinogion, p.190,  Patrick K Ford, The Mabinogi, p.132.
9. Bromwich, TYP: p.369.
10. Brynley F Roberts, Culhwch ac Olwen, The Triads, Saints’ Lives, Arthur of the Welsh, Wales University Press, p.95, fn.31.

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Tuesday, 11 April 2023

Geoffrey of Monmouth influence on the Arthurian Legend

“Culhwch and Olwen is an important tale in many respects. It is one of our earliest sources for information about the native Arthur, a repository of lore about characters from Celtic tradition, many of whom are otherwise unknown, and a mine of legal idioms of Celtic provenance. It is part myth, part folklore, and its language ranges from simple lists and catalogs to exuberant and alliterative passages in a high rhetorical style.”1

The date of the composition of Culhwch and Olwen has been accepted as the late 11th century for many years. Recently this dating has been challenged with a suggested date of the mid-12th century. Why does the date matter? The significance of these two dates means the text could have been composed either before (c.1100) Geoffrey of Monmouth produced his History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniae), c.1138, or shortly after (c.1150).

The impact that Geoffrey’s work had on the development of the Arthurian legend cannot be overstated, presenting a watershed moment. Texts produced before Geoffrey, and therefore considered free of his influence, are known as pre-Galfridian (from the Latin, Galfridus Monemutensis). The Arthur presented in later medieval texts, after Geoffrey, the knight in shining armour that the world is most familiar with, is a far cry and a world away from the man of earlier works before publication of the Historia Regum Britanniae (HRB).

However, at the time not everyone was convinced of Geoffrey’s claimed history of the kings of Britain; several contemporary historians accused him of making it all up and telling lies. It is difficult to substantiate many of Geoffrey’s claims; much of his work can be found in no other source which does indeed suggest that he used his creative talents to the full for much of his Arthurian story. However, there are still those today who use the HRB to reconstruct fanciful Arthurian histories and believe Geoffrey had in his possession a lost book

Before publication of Geoffrey’s Historia, Arthur was recorded as a soldier in the 9th century Historia Brittonum (aka Nennius), our earliest securely datable text in the argument for his historical existence, the battle leader (dux bellorum) of the armies of the kings of Britain, considered by most to be fighting Saxons in twelve victorious battles. However, around the same time Arthur was associated with supernatural marvels such as hunting the  giant boar Twrch Trwyth (or ‘porcum Troynt’ in the Historia Brittonum) and the ever-changing size of the grave of his son, Amr.

Arthur the soldier, rather than the boar hunter, is clearly the man that Geoffrey developed to become king and emperor, an international warlord and conqueror of much of northern Europe, even defeating the mighty Roman war machine in Gaul. After Geoffrey, the Arthurian legend was developed further in the Matter of Britain, Arthur largely relegated to the sidelines with his knights taking centre stage in stories including the Grail, The Lady of the Lake, Merlin, The Round Table, The Sword in the Stone and so on in a cycle of legends to become virtually unrecognisable from the soldier of the Historia Brittonum. As Thomas Green states:

“Geoffrey’s work, although titled a history and certainly a masterpiece by any standard, is highly inventive and cannot be considered to be in any way a reliable source of evidence for the history of the periods it describes or the existence of its subjects, as is now usually acknowledged. It is too late, too legendary, too untrustworthy and too full of evidence for it having been constructed and written with a strong and guiding authorial viewpoint, to have any value in these regards.”2

Significantly, it is the pre-Galfridian texts, those sources which were written before the Historia Regum Britanniae, that modern historians accept as reliable and useful in searching for the original Arthur. Green continues, “Allowing all this, there are, in fact, only four pieces of evidence which are generally agreed to possibly contain information of real historical value: the Annales Cambriae; the Historia Brittonum; the collection of heroic death-songs known as Y Gododdin; and the four or five occurrences of the name Arthur in sixth- and seventh-century contexts.”3

Clearly, these two branches of literature describe two very different Arthur’s; Geoffrey’s version, and the Arthur of native Welsh tradition. Geoffrey’s Arthur, he claimed, was based on historical material but thereafter developed into a figure of literature, whereas the earlier Arthur of Welsh tradition exhibited traits that had more in common with mythology than history.

From the 7th to 10th centuries, in Welsh tradition as portrayed in poetry and prose tales, Arthur is remembered as the great defender of the country, fighting witches, giants, magical boars, raiding the Otherworld. He is also a figure of immeasurable valour who great warriors are compared to in the early poems Y Goddodin (7th century), Marwnad Cynddylan (7th century) Geraint fab Erbin (9th century).4

In other early poems, ‘Pa gur yv y porthaur?’ (What man is the gatekeeper?) (10th century) and Preiddeu Annwn (9th century or earlier) Arthur is accompanied by gods from the Celtic pantheon, such as Gwynn ap Nudd, Lugh (Llwch Windy(?) Hand), Manawydan son of Llŷr, Mabon son of Mydron (listed in Pa gur as ‘Uthr Pendragon’s servant’). To this we can add the long list of heroes recalled by Culhwch (the so-called ‘Court List’) to invoke his boon which provides a valuable record of the nature of the early Arthurian context.5

Cei, Arthur’s constant companion from the very earliest accounts, is portrayed in Culhwch and Olwen as a semi-divine figure possessing superhuman abilities: “he could hold his breath under water for nine days and nine nights; a wound from Cei no doctor could heal; he could be as tall as the tallest tree in the forest when he wanted; whenever it was raining whatever he held in his hand would be dry; and when his companions were coldest he would be fuel to kindle their fire”. Clearly, these are not the abilities of a mere mortal.

As Patrick Ford reminds us, we should remember that despite its title, the tale of Culhwch and Olwen is essentially Arthurian and a collection of anecdotes about various heroes associated with Arthur’s court at Celliwig in Cornwall. This is a primitive court (Celliwig = ‘forest grove’) nothing like the grandiose setting we find in later Arthurian Romance of English, Continental and even Welsh tradition.6 It is worth noting is that although Geoffrey of Monmouth has Arthur’s conception and final battle, in which he is mortally wounded, both in Cornwall (perhaps he was familiar with a strand of the legend from south-west Britain?), he located Arthur’s court at Caerleon in south Wales. 

The HRB had huge influence on literature and oral tradition on Arthur in Wales, as elsewhere in Europe; the earliest Welsh versions of Geoffrey’s Historia, known as the Brut (collectively known as Brut y Brenhinedd = 'Chronicle of the Kings'), date from about the mid-13th century - hence, there is no evidence that Geoffrey’s history of the kings of Britain was translated into the vernacular until almost a century after its composition c.1138.

In accepting the later date proposed for the composition of Culhwch and Olwen by Rodway, i.e. c.1150, we find it is still earlier than the native Welsh tales The Dream of Rhonabwy and The Three Romances, also from the Mabinogion collection, which are all generally accepted as later than Geoffrey in date of composition (13th century) and all clearly display Galfridian influence.

If Idris Foster’s earlier date (c.1100) is accepted for the composition date of Culhwch and Olwen it can securely be considered free of Geoffrey’s influence but conversely, if Rodway’s later date is accepted we must consider the possibility of his influence on the text. Several points have been raised as portraying possible influence by Geoffrey. However, many commentators see the “crudity of tone” as representing the primitive pre-Galfridian concept of Arthur and his court. 

If the prose tale Culhwch and Olwen cannot be proven to predate the Historia Regum Britanniae is it possible to have a text post-dating it that is free of its influence? The tale is certainly independent of Galfridian influence in terms of content and represents Arthurian tradition before the great developments which are seen in Geoffrey’s work and in continental Arthurian literature.7

The editors of Culhwch and Olwen8 Bromwich and Evans have applied caution in seeing the tale as entirely free of Geoffrey’s influence and suspect several influences to have crept in to the text through the Brut, which as we have seen above, were written a hundred years before the Red and White book versions of the tale were composed.

JSP Tatlock, considered an authority on Geoffrey’s legendary history, argued for a post-Galfridian dating for Culhwch and Olwen and saw several elements of the tale deriving from it,9 such as: 

    • Arthur's weapons: sword, dagger, shield, lance and ship.

    • Arthur's wife: Gewnhyfwar 

    • The Gatekeepers recital: Arthur's invasion of Ireland / Conquest of Europe

    • The Three Realms of Ynys Prydein

In addition to to the above other possible influences have been mentioned:

    • Collecting Beards of Giants: Dillus Farfawg (CaO) = Ritho (HRB)

    • Appeal of the Irish Saints (CaO) = Appeal of Scottish bishops (HRB)

    • Arthur chases Modred to Cornwall (HRB) = Arthur chases Twrch Twyrth to Cornwall (CaO)

In the following posts we will examine each of these points in turn.

Notes & References:
1.  Patrick K Ford, translator and editor, Culhwch and Olwen, in The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales,  University of California Press, 1977 (30th Anniversary Edition, 2008), pp.119-157.
2. Thomas Green, Concepts of Arthur, Tempus, 2007, p.10.
3. Green, Concepts, p.12.
4. Patrick Sims-Williams, The Early Welsh Arthurian Poems, in Rachel Bromwich, A.O.H. Jarman, Brynley F. Roberts (editors) Arthur of the Welsh, University of Wales Press, Second Edition, 2008, pp.33-72, states that the “difficulty of dating the Arthurian poems is still as severe as Jackson described it in 1959. …… secular and religious poems in Welsh were being written down at least as early as the first half of the tenth century, but the earliest extant poetic codex, the Black Book of Carmarthen, is no older than the thirteenth century…… contemporary manuscript evidence for early Irish and Welsh texts consists almost exclusively of glosses and short prose notes;……  Consequently early Welsh poems preserved in later poetic codices have to be dated partly by linguistic comparison with the Old Welsh glosses — a perilous exercise in view of the difference in genre and transmission — and partly on the basis of internal evidence of content and authorship.”(p.35)
5. Ford, The Mabinogion, p.121.
6. Ibid.
7. D Edel, The Arthur of 'Culhwch and Olwen' as a figure of epic-heroic tradition. Reading Medieval Studies IX, 1983.
8. Rachel Bromwich and D Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen: The Oldest Arthurian Tale, University of Wales Press, 1992.
9. JSP Tatlock The Legendary History of Britain, University of California Press, 1950.

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Friday, 31 March 2023

Dating Culhwch: Manuscripts and Monarchs

The Date and Authorship of Culhwch and Olwen -Part II

"When one turns to observe the Welsh situation one is struck by the very different profile presented by the vernacular literature before approximately the end of the twelfth century. On the one hand there is a relatively substantial series of verse texts, assigned more or less securely to certain historical and chronological settings and beginning with the north-British compositions attributed to the sixth-century poets Aneirin and Taliesin; on the other hand, there is a total absence of narrative prose before the tales of Culhwch ac Olwen and the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, which are preserved in later manuscripts but are generally dated - very approximately it should be said - to the early and late eleventh century respectively." 1

Manuscript Dates

In the previous article Culhwch’s World: Giant Boars, Gatekeepers and Werewolves it was noted that the composition of the Medieval Welsh prose tale ‘Culhwch and Olwen’ consists of several archaic episodes brought together as an extended narrative in the well-known folklore theme of ‘The Giant’s Daughter’. Culhwch and Olwen is the longest and the earliest of the surviving native prose tales written in medieval Welsh preserved within the Red Book of Hergest (Llyfr Coch Hergest) and the White Book of Rhydderch (Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch). The closeness of the texts indicates that these variants represent a single recension.


The Red Book manuscript (Oxford, Jesus College, MS 111) was copied in the last quarter of the 14th century and contains a complete version of Culhwch and Olwen with a modernised text. The White Book manuscript was copied in the mid-14th century and contains a compendium of Welsh prose texts, now divided into two volumes, Peniarth MS 4 and Peniarth MS 5. The first volume contains the earliest copies of Middle Welsh tales collectively known as the Mabinogion in modern usage, consisting of 'The Four Branches’, 'The Dream of Macsen Wledig', 'Lludd and Llefelys', 'Peredur',  ‘Owain, or The Lady of the Fountain', 'Geraint and Enid' and an incomplete version of Culhwch and Olwen (here-on referred to as ‘CaO’).

Brynley Roberts argued that these stories are generally assumed to derive from traditional oral narratives recited by professional story-tellers to audiences in courts and aristocratic houses. However, he added that in their manuscript versions “none can be regarded simply as written, almost verbatim, copies of an orally performed text, and in every case, though to different degrees, they are literary compositions based on antecedent traditional narratives and reflecting some of their conventions”.2

Although the dating of these manuscripts is relatively secure within a margin, the dating of any work of literature can be problematic. The work may have been updated by copyists when the manuscript was rewritten, errors produced during copying are often evidence of this; accordingly, the work rarely shares the same date as the manuscript. But we must apply caution as some later poets have been known to use archaic language to purposefully mimic an ancient period or tone. 

As Proinsias Mac Cana states, "The criteria for dating these Middle Welsh tales are far from being clear-cut or decisive, and inevitably one must have regard to their relative as well as their absolute dating. In view of its older linguistic usage and vocabulary it is generally accepted that Culhwch ac Olwen was composed - in its extant form, as the provisio goes - some time before the Four Branches. Ifor William concluded that the latter were written c. 1060, but .... many scholars would prefer a less precise date, such as ‘the second half of the eleventh century’.....[one] assigns Culhwch to c. 1100. However, even if there is less than unanimity concerning the dating of the individual tales, there is, I think, universal agreement that Culhwch is the earliest of them in the form in which we have them."3

The French historian and Celtic linguist Joseph Loth argued for a composition date for CaO of the later 11th or early 12th century. In The Legendary History of Britain2 John (JSP) Tatlock claimed that Loth’s case was based on a weak argument, stating that on linguistic matters Loth rejected "several ancient-looking forms as without significance" and mentioned others such as the "archaizing of Welsh poetry in the 12th century" and offered only a single example which Tatlock considered convincingly of very early date.4

In their magisterial work Culhwch and Olwen: The Oldest Arthurian Tale5 Rachel Bromwich and D Simon Evans assert that all the evidence points to the last decades of the 11th century as the most likely date for the redaction of CaO in a form approaching that in which we now have it. Following Idris Foster they reaffirm the significance of the landing of Gruffydd ap Cynan at Porth Clais in the late 11th century in the dating of the prose tale.

Cantref of Cemais

A revival of interest in the countries past witnessed the cultivation of a new genre of prose which seemed to influence a cultural renaissance in Wales during the 9h -11th centuries. Bromwich and Evans claim this is reflected in CaO which shares a similar tone with more than one of the Lives of the Saints indicating a similar date, arguing that the language of CaO is archaic and belongs to the end of the Old Welsh (OW) period, showing a similar language to early poetry.6

Conceding that the text of CaO cannot be dated precisely, a composition date of c.1100 is certainly possible although it must be accepted that the tale has certainly received minor alterations and additions by later copyists since that date; as stated above, the version in the Red Book manuscript has been somewhat modernised in relative terms. There are even arguments for an earlier date, mid-11th century or even 10th century.7

This date of c.1100 has been accepted for the last hundred years or so without being seriously questioned. Recently this dating has been challenged and the early composition questioned, with the suggestion that these texts reached their current form in the late-12th or early-13th centuries, with revisions occurring up to the early-14th century.8

Simon Rodway of Aberystwyth University argues that the approximate date of 1100 has achieved “almost canonical status” perhaps, he adds, because it was the conclusion of Welsh and Celtic scholar Idris Foster of Oxford University who spent much of his professional life working on the text.9 Foster’s work forms the basis of the standard edition by Bromwich and Evans.10

St David's Cathedral

King William’s Visit to Wales
Rodway continues, claiming that the early date seems to have been influenced by historical events in Pembrokeshire in the second-half of the 11th century; it was Foster who initially suggested that two deliberate points in the text of CaO refer to events in 1081. In that year Gruffydd ap Cynan landed at Porth Clais and William the Conqueror made a well known pilgrimage to St David’s, an event that probably influenced the inclusion “Gwilenhin, king of France” in the text.

There are three kings of France listed in CaO: Iona king of France (otherwise unknown); Paris king of France, (whom the author claims ‘Caer Paris’ is named); and Gwilhenin king of France. The Breton Duke Alan Fyrgant (or Fergant) who both Loth and Tatlock identify as the 11th - 12th century Duke of Brittany Alan Fyrgant also appears in CaO as ‘Ysperni son of Fflergant, king of Armorica’.

Tatlock argues that there is every reason why Alan Fyrgant should have been known in Britain as his was son-in-law of William the Conqueror (Gwilhenin king of France) and ally of Henry I in 1106. The close association of the two seems to confirm that in CaO Gwilhenin is meant to represent William I. As Tatlock asserted, while some of the personal names used in CaO are merely traditional and some invented others are clearly historical.

Evidently Alan Fyrgant was well-known in Welsh tradition and is named in the Triads of the Island of Britain (Trioedd Ynys Prydein) in the Three Faithless / Disloyal War-Bands of the Island of Britain. This Triad records how the war band of Fyrgant deserted him during the night and left him to fight with only his servants at Camlan where he died. This may be an allusion to the so-claimed Breton retreat at the battle of Hastings. Significantly, neither Arthur or Modred, who both fell at Camlan according to the 10th century Welsh Annals (Annales Cambriae), appear in this Triad from the earliest series found in the Peniarth 16 manuscript.

The reference to Alan Fyrgant may be significant in dating of the composition of the Triad and although this could post date Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia, the absence of Modred certainly suggests it is free of Galfridian influence; the tangle of Modred, Gwenhyfar and Camlan is completely absent from pre-Galfridian sources.11

This supports Simon Rodway’s argument that a text that post dates Geoffrey can be free of his influence. However, Loth offered only one French word in CaO believing that the absence of French customs and manners indicated a date of no later than the beginning of the 12th century. Tatlock suggested to Loth’s single occurrence we could add the French names of France, Iona and Gwilenhin (Jehan, or Johan, and Guillaume). He also argued for the content and spirit of the text being relatively modern and less archaic than in the Four Branches, which Loth dates later.12

In CaO one of the tasks stipulated by the chief giant is that Culhwch must obtain the aid of Gwilenhin to hunt the boar Twrch Trwyth. Gwilenhin does indeed join the hunt but was killed by the boar at Aber Tywi. Who knows, perhaps the inclusion of an allusion to King William just to have him killed by the giant boar shows the author’s disdain for the Normans who were encroaching into Wales around this time.

In the same year that William visited St David’s, Gruffudd ap Cynan's returned from exile in Ireland landing at Porth Clais on his way to victory at the battle of Mynydd Carn. This is the exact same landing place as the giant boar Twrch Trwyth made on his arrival in Wales from Ireland in CaO.

Gruffudd ap Cynan was a descendant of the rulers of Gwynedd and seeing himself as the rightful heir had previously made an attempt to take the kingdom but was defeated by Trahaearn ap Caradog in 1075 and went into exile in Ireland. Gruffudd assembled an invasion force of Danes and Irishmen and sailed from Waterford in Ireland in 1081. He landed at Porth Clais and joined forces with Rhys ap Tewdwr, king of Deheubarth at St David’s making a pact to regain his territories.

The exact location of the battle of Mynydd Carn is unknown but is said to have taken place about a day's march north of St David's. Gruffydd and Rhys won the battle with Gruffudd taking control of Gwynedd and Rhys regained Deheubarth securing his position as the dominant Welsh ruler in South and West Wales. Gruffydd and Rhys would later take an active role in Welsh resistance to the Normans. King William acknowledged Rhys as ruler of Deheubarth, but he was required to pay the Norman monarch an annual tribute. Gruffudd was captured by Hugh the Fat of Chester and imprisoned for 12 years, but eventually escaped and reigned until 1137 becoming one of the most successful rulers of Gwynedd. 

Mynydd Carningli

Bromwich and Evans consider the route of the Trwch Twyrth through south Wales similar to that of Gruffudd after he landed at Porth Clais; after landing at Porth Clais the Twrch Trwyth made for the Preseli Hills, which is "about a day's march north of St David's".

However, as stated above, the site of the battlefield of Mynydd Carn remains undetermined, although all the sources appear to agree that the battlefield was located on high ground marked by a prominent cairn. The battlefields inventory states that “the location of the battle somewhere in northern Pembrokeshire within the Cantref of Cemais (possibly in the vicinity of the range of hills between the north Pembrokeshire coast and the Afon Gwaun represented by Mynydd Carningli, Mynydd Llanllawer and Mynydd Dinas).”13

Archaic Language
Gruffudd ap Cynan’s landing at Porth Clais in and the route to Mynydd Carn does seem remarkably similar to the route of the Twrch Trwyth, and may well have provided inspiration for the author of CaO, but this does not necessarily confirm a composition date around the end of the 11th century. Commentators have also noted archaic-looking features in the language of the text. Bromwich and Evans claim that the language of CaO belongs to the end of the Old Welsh period - considered to extend to the mid-12th century.

Brynley Roberts argues for the White Book version containing many linguistic and syntactic archaisms, which sits well with Welsh saga englynion and early court poetry suggesting that the final written version of the CaO does indeed belong to the same period as this poetry, that is around 1100. Roberts adds that “crudity of tone and archaic social and legal customs may be further evidence of an early date as none of the other mabinogion stories lacks so completely conventional signs of civilized relationships.”14

The orthography of the White Book version has certain ‘quirks’ as Rodway calls them, (largely removed from the Red Book version) but, he argues, there are very few Old Welsh orthographical features or errors as such that would suggest a misreading of an Old Welsh exemplar. However, Rodway concedes that the language of the text is certainly archaic when compared to other prose tales which postdate it. He continues, that when the language of the tale is compared to datable poetry it is apparent that it could have been composed as late as the second-half of the 12th century. 

Rodway reminds us that the orthographical revolution which marked the transition from Old Welsh to Middle Welsh was at least partly triggered by contact with the Old French orthography of the Norman-sponsored Cistercian abbeys such as Tintern (1131) and Whitland (1140) that were quickly adopted by the native princes.

Rodway contends that there is nothing in the language of the text of CaO which demands its date to be determined as the turn of the 11-12th centuries, indeed, he sees nothing in the language which would push it back conclusively to the 11th century and argues there are "convincing orthographical arguments" for pushing its date forward by some fifty years at least. Rodway believes that there is convincing orthographical evidence for a date in the second half of the 12th-century. If Rodway is correct and the tale was composed as late as the mid-12th century it would of course postdate Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae. However, even with an uncertain date it is significant that most scholars are in agreement that the text of CaO is free of Galfridian influence.15

The Historia Regum Britanniae, a work that traced the descent of the Britons back to Brutus the Trojan and changed Arthurian literature across Europe, was published around 1138 and immediately became what we would term today as “a bestseller”. Its influence on subsequent Arthurian literature in Wales and further afield was so prevalent that, as Rodway argues, there has been a reluctance to accept that an Arthurian text composed in the post-Galfridian period, that is after 1138, would be free of its influence.

Geoffrey’s work was immensely influential in Wales with adaptations of his Historia, known as Brut y Brenhinedd (Chronicle of the Kings), produced from the mid-13th century. The Brut was so popular that over sixty versions survive. However, these were not straight forward translations of Geoffrey’s work into Welsh; they largely followed the original Latin but contained additional information by way of marginal glosses and extra commentary, name and geographic corrections.

Although Foster came to the conclusion that CaO was composed c.1100, he argued that there is no perceptible influence from Geoffrey of Monmouth in the portrayal of Arthur and his court. And there has been very little dissension since.

Tatlock, considered an authority on Geoffrey’s Historia, cites several themes in CaO that may have derived from influence of Geoffrey.16 Bromwich and Evans have applied a more cautious approach but concede that Geoffrey’s influence may be detectable through the Welsh Brut.17 Although these versions first appeared in Wales around a hundred years after Geoffrey’s Historia, the earliest versions of the Brut are dated about a hundred years prior to the White or Red Book versions of Culhwch and Olwen.

Dating potential for Galfridian influence on Culhwch and Olwen

c.1100 - composition of Culhwch and Olwen (Foster, Bromwich and Evans)
c.1138 – Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae
1150 – composition of Culhwch and Olwen (Rodway)
1250 - Earliest Brut composed
1350-80 – composition of White and Red Book manuscripts respectively.

Notes and References:
1. Proinsias Mac Cana, On the early development of written narrative prose in Irish and Welsh, Etudes Celtiques, vol. 29, 1992, pp. 51-67.
2. Brynley F. Roberts, Culhwch Ac Olwen, The Triads, Saints’ Lives, in The Arthur Of The Wel Sh: The Arthurian Legend In Medieval Welsh Literature, Edited By Rachel Bromwich, A.O.H. Jarman, Brynley F. Roberts, University of Wales Press, 1991, pp.73.
3. Proinsias Mac Cana, On the early development of written narrative prose in Irish and Welsh
4. JSP Tatlock The Legendary History of Britain, University of California Press, 1950.
5. Rachel Bromwich and D Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen: The Oldest Arthurian Tale, University of Wales Press, 1992.
6. Bromwich & Evans, CaO, UWP, 1992, Introduction pp.lxxxi-lxxxii.
7.  D Edel, The Arthur of 'Culhwch and Olwen' as a figure of epic-heroic tradition. Reading Medieval Studies IX, 1983.
8. Simon Rodway, The Date and Authorship of Culhwch and Owen: A Reassessment, CMCS 49, Summer 2005, pp.21-44.
9. Rodway Ibid.
10. Bromwich & Evans, Culhwch & Olwen, UWP, 1992.
11. Rebecca Shercliff, Arthur in Trioedd Ynys Prydain  in Arthur in the Celtic Languages: The Arthurian Legend in Celtic Literatures and Traditions, Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan & Erich Poppe (editors), UWP, 2019, pp.175-76.
12. Tatlock, Legendary History.
13.  RCAHMW, Battlefields Inventory, Jan 2017.
14. Brynley F. Roberts, Culhwch Ac Olwen, The Triads, Saints’ Lives, in The Arthur Of The Welsh: The Arthurian Legend In Medieval Welsh Literature, Edited By Rachel Bromwich, A.O.H. Jarman, Brynley F. Roberts, University of Wales Press, 1991, pp.73-74.
15. Simon Rodway, Culhwch ac Olwen, in Arthur in the Celtic Languages: The Arthurian Legend in Celtic Literatures and Traditions, Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan & Erich Poppe (editors), UWP, 2019, pp.67-79.
16. Tatlock, Legendary History.
17. Bromwich & Evans, Culhwch & Olwen, UWP, 1992.

Edited 01/04/23

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Wednesday, 8 March 2023

Culhwch’s World: Giant Boars, Gatekeepers and Werewolves

“The Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen is the oldest Arthurian tale that has been preserved in the manuscripts. The extant redaction has been dated to the second half of the eleventh century but its orthography, vocabulary, syntax, and, moreover, certain stylistic and narrative features, suggest that a written version of parts of it may have existed a century earlier.” 1

The Date and Authorship of Culhwch and Olwen -Part I
The Twrch Trwyth refused to give up the comb, razor and shears lodged between his ears requested by Arthur and pledged to go to Arthur's country and cause as much evil as he could. On the next day the gigantic boar left Ireland and landed at Porth Clais in Dyfed, south-west Wales. A cove at the mouth of the River Alun in St Bride’s Bay just south of St Davids still bears this name today.

Many years ago Celtic scholar John Rhŷs suggested that the hunt for the Twrch Trwyth across South Wales resembled an extended dindsenchas following a trail of swine-related place-names through the landscape. In Irish literature the dindsenchas, meaning "lore of places”, are onomastic texts recounting the origins of place-names and traditions, concerning events and often mythic and legendary figures associated with them. Perhaps an influence from Irish place-name stories should not be surprising as Porth Clais and St David's were places of passage between these two Celtic lands.

Hunting the great boar Twrch Trwyth, one of the tasks set by the chief giant Ysbaddaden for Culhwch to achieve if he were to marry his daughter Olwen, is without doubt the climax of the tale of Culhwch and Olwen. The scene of the hunt presents a detailed geography across South Wales from Pembrokeshire to the Severn estuary, revealing an author who must have possessed extensive knowledge of the area if not a local themself. Indeed, it has been noted that the language of the tale portrays a southern bias, however, this may be expected as the text is preserved only in southern manuscripts.

Hunting the Twrch Trwyth (Alan Lee)

The Path of the Boar
The tale of Culhwch and Olwen (here-on referred to as ‘CaO’) is preserved in two medieval manuscripts; an incomplete version in the White Book of Rhydderch, mid-14th century, where about a third of the final text is missing, and a complete version in the late-14th century Red Book of Hergest. The two versions seem to descend independently from a lost exemplar with neither manuscript ascribed to an author. Comparing the first two thirds of the two texts there is very little material difference but the language of the Red Book version has been consistently modernised; accordingly some of the linguistic features may reflect the language of the copyist rather than the author. Neither manuscript provides a title for the tale but a colophon included in the Red Book version states "and that is how Culhwch won Olwen daughter of Ysbaddaden Bencawr".

Both White and Red book manuscripts were compiled for patrons from south Wales, Ceredigion and Gower respectively. In both manuscripts CaO is grouped with other native tales that we know under the modern label 'Mabinogion' yet the tale of Culhwch displays the most archaic language of the collection.

Rachel Bromwich & D. Simon Evans argue that linguistic evidence points to an important monastic centre such as St David's, Carmarthen or Llandeilo Fawr in south-west Wales as the place of the authorship of CaO. They claim that comparisons can be made with the language spoken today in certain areas of south Wales, notably Pembroke, West Glamorgan and north Carmarthenshire and see the setting of CaO against the background of the language spoken in this area, relating it to a local scriptorium where such Old Welsh documents were written.2

This line of reasoning suggests that CaO was produced at a monastic centre which lay close to the route taken by the Twrch Trwyth. Seeing correspondence between the language of CaO and the further contents of the mid-13th century Black Book of Carmarthen, particularly the poem Pa Gur yw y Porthaur (What Man is the Gatekeeper?), (here-on referred to as ‘Pa Gur’) Bromwich and Evans see the priory at Carmarthen as the most likely place where the tale was inscribed and argue that CaO, like the Black Book, belongs to Carmarthen.3

The dialogue poem Pa Gur is the most substantial Arthurian work in the Black Book but is incomplete owing to some missing pages from the manuscript. It may be the remnant of a long Arthurian saga consisting of a catalogue of pre-existing folkloric tales but unfortunately many of these episodes are now lost to us. Pa Gur is then perhaps best seen as a summary of many earlier mythical Arthurian tales that have been assembled together to construct one poem and can consequently be taken as indicative of the nature of the Arthurian world in Welsh literature in the 9th-10th centuries’.4

It is apparent from the surviving part of the poem that Bedwyr and Cai, particularly the latter who is heavily featured in Pa Gur, are Arthur’s main accomplices. Throughout the early stratum of the Arthurian legend we find Bedwyr and Cai as Arthur’s constant companions; we see this in CaO, in the Welsh Triads and the Vita Sancti Cadoci. As Patrick Sims-Williams states the saint’s life is useful for dating purposes as it was composed by Lifris of Llancarfan c.1100, adding that a similar date and south-eastern provenance would suit Pa Gur.5

Sims-Williams has suggested that Pa Gur may have been written near the south-east Welsh border, the very area where the core of the Mirabilia are concentrated. He sees the inclusion of “the vultures of Ely and all three of them wizards" in the poem as key to identifying the location of its composition. The Afon Eléï (River Ely) rises at Tonyrefail and flows through the five valleys of the Rhondda Fawr, Rhondda Fach, Cynon, Taf and Ely of south-east Wales.6

If Sims-Williams is correct in locating the author of Pa Gur here it confirms a body of Arthurian lore was extant in this region from an early date, almost certainly circulating in oral form prior to the composition of the Arthurian battle list in Historian Brittonum. Indeed, if Pa Gur is the earlier text, which is probable, it is almost certain that the author of CaO knew of it.

The Battle of the Werewolves
There are similar allusions in both CaO and Pa Gur to a body of Arthurian episodes that are now lost to us but evidently the audience of the time were assumed to be familiar with.7 Furthermore we find that Pa Gur contains some overlap with CaO, both tales clearly reflecting an early mythological Arthur, fighting witches and supernatural monsters, a character of a similar vein to the Arthur of the Mirabilia.

The Mirabilia displays an Arthur in a supernatural world which appears to be at odds with the military exploits of the Arthur in the battles of the Historia Brittonum contained in the same manuscript. Here the dux bellorum is heralded as a historical figure who was the victorious leader of the Britons in twelve battles fighting back against the Saxon advance. But this two-fold Arthur of the Historia Brittonum and the Mirabilia is precisely the same as we find in CaO and Pa Gur.

In CaO the gatekeeper boasts of military exploits in which he has accompanied Arthur in various battles at such faraway places as Scandinavia, India, Africa, Greece and so on, and yet in the same text Arthur is fighting supernatural monsters such as giants, magical boar and witches. This is exactly what we find in the primary (pre-Galfridian) Arthurian traditions, which depict the great Arthur and his band of men as the mighty defenders of the land against every kind of danger.8

Significantly, in Pa Gur we find Arthur fighting at the battle of ‘traethev Trywruid’ (the shores of the Tryfrwyd) mentioned as Arthur’s 10th battle on the bank of a river called Tribruit in the Historia Brittonum.9 This the only battle from the Historia attributed to Arthur in a Welsh non-Galfridian early source and here it is recorded as a traditional Arthurian battle against werewolves.10 In an earlier passage in Pa Gur Arthur and his men are fighting against an army of ‘cinbin’ (dogheads) at the mountains of Eidin which is followed by the conflict at the river Tribruit where his adversary is called Garwlwyd (Rough-Grey).

In the Welsh Triads we find a character called Gwrgi Garwlwyd (Man-Dog Rough-Grey). He killed one of the Cymry everyday and two on Saturday to avoid killing on Sunday. This is clearly the same character as that of Pa Gur who here again features as a werewolf. As Thomas (Caitlin) Green suggests, this casts doubt on the value of the Historia and the authenticity of the Arthurian battle list therein as a historical source.11 As can be demonstrated with other battles in the list, here the battle at the river Tribruit appears to have been lifted from an earlier source (Pa Gur) and used in the creation of a catalogue of Arthurian victories (Historia Brittonum).

The Black Book of Carmarthen
(National Library of Wales)

The Grip of the Gatekeeper
Both Pa Gur and CaO contain an episode with a gatekeeper setting certain conditions before he admits one to the Court. In both accounts the gatekeeper is named as Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr (Bold Grey Mighty-Grasp). In CaO the guest (Culhwch) must convince the gatekeeper of his right to enter Arthur’s court, but in Pa Gur the role is reversed and it is Arthur who must get past the gatekeeper and gain entry, presumably to his own court? Cai meets a similar recalcitrant gatekeeper in CaO when he attempts to gain entry to the fortress of the giant Wrnach Gawr. Bromwich questions if Glewlwyd had originally been the gatekeeper at the court of the giant Wrnach Gawr?12

Arthur’s recital of his warriors in Pa Gur in order to gain entry to the court is reminiscent of the so-called ‘Court List’ in CaO. The relationship between Pa Gur and CaO proves to be problematic; besides Glewlwyd the gatekeeper, Arthur, Cai, and Bedwyr, a number of characters reappear in CaO, such as Mabon son of Modron and Mabon son of Mellt (perhaps the same person with matronymic and patronymic?), the sea-god Manawydan son of Llŷr and Lluch Llauynnauc/Llwch Llawwynnyawc, who is generally accepted as being the god Lugus (Irish Lugh, Welsh Lleu).

There is clearly further overlap here with the early poem Preiddeu Annwn (The Spoils of Annwn) from the 14th century Llyfr Taliesin (Book of Taliesin), in which Arthur and his retinue journey to the Otherworld in the ship Prydwen to steal the cauldron of the Chief of Annwn. Here we find the character Lluch Lleawc which may be a variant of Llwch Llawwynnawc (as above) from CaO. An 8th century date has been suggested for the poem but anywhere between the 9th and 12th century is probable.13

Considering the length of CaO and its inventories, around 250 characters appear in the ‘Court List’, a degree of overlap is perhaps not surprising. However, many characters and places in Pa Gur are not recalled in CaO and some prominent Arthurian characters are notably absent from the Court List.14

Amr, Arthur’s son as noted in the Mirabilia and appended to the 9th century Historia Brittonum, is not listed in the Court List; the nearest we get is an Amren son of Bedwyr. He may be identical with Hir Amren who appears in the episode of the Black Witch, but is not Arthur’s son. In CaO Arthur’s son is named as Gwydre who is killed by Twrch Trwyth at the battle of Cwm Cerwyn in the Preselis. After this fleeting mention in CaO Gwydre is unheard of again and unknown elsewhere.

Llachau, as with Cai and Bedwyr, belongs to the earliest stratum of Arthurian tradition in Wales, appearing as one of The Three Well-Endowed Men of the Island of Britain in the earliest series of Triads (Trioedd Ynys Prydein, Peniarth 16), in Pa Gur fighting alongside, or possibly against, Cai, and in the 13th century Black Book poem The Conversation between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, where he is mentioned as Arthur’s son, yet he is entirely absent from CaO. Llachau later appears as Loholt of Arthurian Romance.

Medrawd first appears in the 10th century Welsh Annals where he is recorded as falling at Camlann along with Arthur. From this simple chronicle entry it is impossible to know if he was fighting against or alongside Arthur. It is only in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century History of the Kings of Britain, and later texts influenced by that work, that he becomes Arthur’s arch-nemesis.

The absence of Medrawd and Arthur’s two sons Amr and Llachau from CaO supports the probability that this tale is older than the introduction of these characters in to the Arthurian legend.

As we have seen the tale of the hunting of the Twrch Trwyth, evidenced by the place-name story of Carn Gaffalt included in the 9th century Mirabilia, confirms the boar hunt was in existence before CaO was composed in its current form probably in the late 11th century.

The World of Culhwch

Clearly then, as a literary composition, CaO includes a number of earlier oral legendary Arthurian tales assembled together under the umbrella of the folklore tale-type known as the ‘giant’s daughter’ to create the tale as we know it. The most obvious examples of such pre-existing Arthurian tales incorporated into CaO are:
  • the tale of the boar hunt has been in existence since at least the 7th century as witnesses by an obscure reference to fighting the Twrch Trwyth in a river included in Y Goddodin; the original tale alluded to here may have involved Arthur and his men fighting with the boar in the river Severn as recorded in CaO,

  • the story of the hunting of the giant boar Twrch Trwyth has been associated with Arthur from at least as early as the 9th century on the evidence of the Mirabilia (appended to the Historia Brittonum) but must have existed as an oral tale many years before being written down probably in the previous century,
  • the concept of a mythical boar has its origins in pagan Celtic religious beliefs (note similar tales in Irish mythology),

  • In CaO Arthur travels to Ireland his ship Prydwen to seize the cauldron of Diwrnach Wyddel: "Caledfwlch was seized by Llenlleog Wyddel who swung it in a circle, killing Diwrnach Wyddel and his retinue entirely".
  • An identical scene is described in the 9th century (or earlier poem) Preiddeu Annwn when Arthur travels to the Otherworld in his ship Prydwen to seize the cauldron of the chief of Annwfyn:
    "The flashing sword of Lleawch, has been lifted to it.And in the hand of Lleminawc, it was left".
  • In Preiddeu Annwn Arthur journeys to the Otherworld to release the prisoner Gweir. 
    In CaO Arthur must release the prisoner Mabon son of Modron to hunt the Twrch Trwyth.
    Mabon tells us that "never has anyone been as imprisoned in an imprisonment as mournful as mine: neither the imprisonment of Llud Llaw Ereint, nor the imprisonment of Graid son of Eri."
    This is an allusion to a variant of Triad 52, The Three Exalted Prisoners, in which Mabon uab Modron is named as one of three famous prisoners along with Llŷy Llediaith and Gweir ap Geirioed.15

  • In these early tales Arthur’s companions are drawn from the pantheon of ancient gods: Mabon ap Modron (the Romano-British god Maponos and Modron is in all probability related to the Gaulish goddess Dea Matrona), who in CaO is clearly related to the Mabon ap Mellt from Pa Gur. In the same poem we have references to the sea-god Manawydan son of Llŷr and the god Lugus (Irish Lugh, Welsh Lleu).

As with the hunt for the Twrch Trwyth, the raid on the Otherworld features in several pieces of Arthurian literature. The repetition of these tales in early sources strongly suggests we are scratching the surface of the provenance of the Arthurian legend.

Notes & References:
1. D Edel, The Arthur of 'Culhwch and Olwen' as a figure of epic-heroic tradition. Reading Medieval Studies IX, 1983, pp. 3-15.
2. Culhwch and Olwen: An Edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale, introduction and notes by Rachel 'Bromwich and D. Simon Evans, University of Wales Press, (English edition) 1992.
Bromwich and Evans, who as editors of the preparatory material for an edition of this tale, which was left unfinished by the late Sir Idris Foster at his death, acknowledge their use of the work of Sir Idris including his unpublished MA dissertation ‘Astudiaeth o Chwcdl Culhwch ac Olwen’. completed in 1935.
3. Bromwich & Evans, Ibid., p.lxxxii-lxxxiii.
4. Brynley F Roberts, Culhwch ac Olwen, The Triads, Saints’ Lives, in Arthur of the Welsh, University of Wales Press, 2007, pp.73-96.
5. Patrick Sims-Williams, The Early Welsh Arthurian Poems, in Arthur of the Welsh, University of Wales Press, 2007, pp.33-72.
6. Ibid.pp.39-40.
7. Oliver Padel, Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature, University of Wales Press, (new edition) 2013, pp.11-25.
8. See: Thomas Green, Chapter 3: The Nature of Arthur: ‘a mighty defender’? in Concepts of Arthur, Tempus, 2007, pp.93-130.
9. Padel, Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature, p.22
10. Thomas Green, Concepts, p.33
11. Ibid.
12. Rachel Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain, University of Wales Press, (Third Edition) 2006, p.362.
13. Sarah Higley (translator), Preiddeu Annwn: The Spoils of Annwn, from: The Camelot Project 2007, 
14. Patrick Sims-Williams, The Early Welsh Arthurian Poems.
15. Rachel Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein.

Edited 09/03/23

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Wednesday, 21 December 2022

Culhwch and the Quest

Carn Cafall: Arthur’s Stone
Situated 1529 feet up on the southern edge of a windswept hill between Rhayader and the Elan Valley reservoirs in Mid Wales are three, possibly once five, prehistoric cairns which furnished its name. This is Carn Gafallt, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSI), where, according to The Mirabilia, a collection of toponymic tales appended to the 9th century Historia Brittonum, Arthur’s dog Cafall left his paw print in pursuit of the supernatural boar Twrch Trwyth. This was no ordinary stone, as men would come and take the stone away but the next day it would be found back on its pile.  The core of these tales in The Mirabilia are concentrated in south-east Wales and the English border where the author claims to have witnessed several himself.

Prehistoric cairns on Carn Gafallt

In the mid-19th century Lady Charlotte Guest, translator of the Mabinogion, sent a colleague up the hill to find the stone with the dog’s paw print. He apparently found a stone on top of one of the ancient cairns which he considered matched the description in “Nennius” (Historia Brittonum) but whether it was Carn Cabal or not Lady Guest is non-committal and leaves it to others to determine:

"Carn Cavall, or, as it is generally pronounced, Corn Cavall, is a lofty and rugged mountain, in the upper part of the district anciently called Buellt, now written Builth, in Breconshire. Scattered over this mountain are several cairns of various dimensions, some of which are of very considerable magnitude, being at least a hundred and fifty feet in circumference. On one of these carns may still be seen a stone, so nearly corresponding with the description in Nennius, as to furnish strong presumption that it is the identical as to furnish strong presumption that it is the identical object referred to. It is near two feet in length, and not quite a foot wide, and such as a man might, without any great exertion, carry away in his hands. On the one side is an oval indentation, rounded at the bottom, nearly four inches long by three wide, about two inches deep, and altogether presenting such an appearance as might, without any great strain of imagination, be thought to resemble the print of a dog's foot . . ."1

An illustration of the stone was included in Lady Guest’s 1849 edition of the Mabinogion. However, when Oliver Padel climbed the hill a hundred and fifty years later he could not locate the stone on the occasion of his visit on 20th February 1993. Padel quipped that “no doubt it had been removed less than a day previously, and was still on its way back”.2 

There is another ‘Arthur’s Stone’ or ‘Maen Arthur’ (sometimes called ‘Carreg Arthur’) some fifteen miles to the west of Carn Gafallt at Rhos y Gafallt in north Ceredigion. Brynley Roberts suspects there may have been another legend here of a removed stone which persistently returned to its place. As with Carn Gafallt the stone appears to be missing today. The local woodland has been named after the stone, Coed Maen Arthur, in the Ystwyth valley near Pont-rhyd-y-groes. From here a waymarked walk leads to Castell Grogwynion, one of the largest hill forts in Wales.

In this vicinity we also find an earthwork named ‘Llys Arthur’ (Arthur’s Court) an old Roman site at the head of the Castell valley. However, the association of this site with Arthur cannot be dated prior to the 18th century (like so much of the birth of Arthurian tourism) when it arrives for the first time on Lewis Morris’s 1748 map of the Mannor of Perverth.

Not far from Maen Arthur and Llys Arthur is the site where Arthur’s companions Cai and Bedwyr plucked the beard of the giant Dillus Farfog in the tale Culhwch and Olwen, the earliest of the Mabinogion tales and the first Arthurian narrative text.

Giants' Country
One of the tasks sets by Ysbaddaden Chief Giant was to obtain a leash for one of the dogs in the hunting of the Twrch Twyrth. Ysbaddaden says, “There is no leash in the world that can hold Drudwen the whelp of Graid son of Eri except a leash made from the beard of that man. But it must be pulled from his beard with wooden tweezers while he is alive, since it will become brittle in death.”

In the tale we find Cai and Bewyr, Arthur’s companions from the earliest stratum of the legend, at Pumlumon (Plynlimon) in the Cambrian Mountains, barely 20 miles north-west of Carn Gafallt and the Elan Valley. The tale would appear to be localised at Ysbyty Cynfyn, north of Pont-rhyd-y-groes where we find Maen Arthur and Llys Arthur as noted above. On the A4120 road from Devil's Bridge to Ponterwyd we find Erwbarfe (erw = an old land measure, acre + barfa = a number of small peaks), Chris Grooms suggests that Welsh 'barfau' = beards, may be a reference to the tale of Dillus.3 

Pumlumon Fawr from Llyn Llygad Rheidol

While Cai and Bedwyr were sitting on top of Pumlumon on Carn Gwylathyr they saw smoke to the south were Dillus Farfog is roasting a wild boar. After taking his fill of meat Dillus fell asleep. When Cai was certain that Dillus was asleep, he dug a huge pit under his feet, and struck him with an immense blow and squeezed him into the pit. They then completely plucked his beard with the wooden tweezers. And then they killed the giant outright.

After plucking the beard they took the leash to Arthur in Celli Wig in Cornwall, and then Arthur sang an englyn in which he implied that Cai would not have beaten Dillus in a fair fight. This led to a rift between Arthur and Cai, “and, thereafter, Cai would not concern himself with Arthur if he was in need”

Pumlumon (Five Peaks) is the highest point of the Cambrian mountains in mid-Wales, from which the rivers Severn, Wye and Rheidol all rise. The name Garn Gwylathyr is otherwise unknown. Rachel Bromwich and D Simon Evans4 suggest a possible identification with the cairn on the top of Drum Peithnant (Y Garn). Chris Grooms suggests the elusive Garn Gwylathyr is probably to be identified with Y Garn near the slopes near the source of the river Wye (Gwy + llethr = slope).5

However, the Boar hunt as detailed in Culhwch and Olwen does not get as far north as Pumlumon, or indeed Carn Gafallt where Arthur’s hound left his paw print, and takes place across South Wales. The boar hunts, featuring Arthur’s dog Cafall, are just two in a series of impossible tasks set by the chief giant but form the bulk of the story. Culhwch and Olwen is the longest of the surviving Welsh prose tales. 

‘Culhwch and Olwen’ probably first appeared in written form in the late-10th or early-11th century. The text survives as an incomplete version in an early 14th-century manuscript known as the White Book of Rhydderch and a complete text is found in the slightly later manuscript called the Red Book of Hergest (c.1375–1425).  Lady Charlotte Guest produced the first translation of the story into modern English which was included in her translation of The Mabinogion, a collection of medieval Welsh tales containing much pre-Christian Celtic mythology. 

Culhwch and Olwen is the most archaic text in the Mabinogion collection and often referred to as ‘the Oldest Arthurian tale’ for good reason as it is argued that certain features indicate an oral existence of parts of the tale which was written in South Wales, probably the St Davids area, c.1090.6

Culhwch's quest is the well-known tale-type celebrated as 'Six Go Through the World' or more popularly as 'The Giant's Daughter'. According to Bromich  & Evans7 the core of the story, can be traced to the Greek tale of the Argonauts and a Celtic parallel 'The Wooing of Emer'. 

Culhwch and Olwen - Red Book of Hergest

The Quest
In the tale Arthur’s is required to help his first cousin Culhwch marry Olwen the daughter of the chief giant Ysbaddaden. Culhwch’s step-mother has set a condition on him that Olwen is the only girl he can wed. The giant knows that he is fated to die once his daughter marries and will therefore do all he can to prevent it, he therefore sets a series of “anoethau”, difficult or impossible tasks, for the would-be-groom to complete. 

These tasks are focused on the preparation of the wedding feast and grooming the giant. A series of boar hunts is the main focus of the tale, taking up nearly half of the forty tasks, in which firstly Culhwch has to obtain the tusk of the boar Ysgithyrwyn in order to shave Ysbaddaden and then to acquire the razor, comb and shears lodged between the ears of the supernatural boar Twrch Trwyth to dress the hair of the giant. 

Bromwich & Evans see the tale as forming three distinct parts:

1. The first begins with the birth of Culhwch and the quest imposed upon him by his wicked stepmother which brings him to Arthur’s court.

2. Secondly, Culhwch and his companion’s reception at the fortress of the chief giant, who then lists the anoethau or difficult tasks imposed on them by the giant.

3, The third part is constructed from the accomplishment of ten of these tasks – which mirrors traditions of certain archetypal feats which traditionally performed by Arthur and his men.8

Each of the first two sections ends with a long list; the first the so-called Arthurian Court List containing over two hundred names of men and women invoked by Culhwch as guarantors of the privileged gift that he demands from Arthur when he is accepted as his kinsman, an act symbolized by the cutting of Culhwch’s hair by Arthur. Culhwch then demands that Arthur obtains for him Olwen the chief giant’s daughter.

The second part is the list of forty anoethau imposed by the chief giant of which the boar hunts take over nearly half and without doubt the hunting of the Twrch Twryth is the climax of the story.

Of the forty tasks set by the chief giant we are only told of ten that are completed, otherwise if the story detailed how each task was completed it would have been a very long tale indeed. It is apparent that the author of the tale utilized existing folk-tales for those tasks that we are told are achieved: the freeing of prisoners; the taking of the giant's sword; taking feeding vessels (cauldrons); the taking of the giant's beard; and the boar hunts.9

In summarising the tale Doris Edel sees Culhwch and Olwen as consisting “of a series of originally independent Arthurian adventures, the majority of which stem from native epic-heroic tradition. This Arthurian material, with some later accretions, is brought together within the framework of the story of Olwen's wooing by Culhwch - this framework being formed by a combination of the step-mother theme with the theme of the quest for the bride. The fusion of the Arthurian episodes with the story of the wooing has only been partly realized, which is attested by the fact that Culhwch, the suitor, is not once mentioned during the accomplishment of the tasks set by Olwen's father.”10

Culhwch is only successful with the assistance of Arthur and a selection of his followers with super-powers. Indeed, the 'followers' more-or-less take over the tasks eclipsing Culhwch's part in the quest: after assisting him in finding the giant's fortress and declaring his love for Olwen, he is not heard of again until the end of the story. As the chief giant points out, the result is entirely down to Arthur and his men.

"......  the tale as a whole is strongly dominated by the figure of Arthur and Culhwch disappears completely from the scene until the final episode.”11 

Notes & References
1. Lady Charlotte Guest, translator, The Mabinogion, Dent, 1906, (Reprinted 1910), pp.332.
2. Oliver Padel, The Nature of Arthur, in Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies, No 27 1994, p.3 fn 8.
The Mirabilia claims “….. and men come and carry the stone in their hands for the space of a day and a night, and on the morrow it is found upon its pile”.
3. Chris Grooms, The Giants of Wales: Cewri Cymru, Edwin Mellen Press, 1993, p.167-8.
4. Rachel Bromwich & D Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen, UWP, 1992, p.148.
5. Grooms, op.cit.
6. Will Parker, Culhwch and Olwen
7. Rachel Bromwich & D Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen, UWP, 1992, Introduction.
8. Ibid.
- Brynley Roberts, Culhwch Ac Olwen, The Triads, Saints Lives, in Arthur of the Welsh, UWP, 1991 (Reprint 1999), p.76.
10. Doris Edel, The Arthur of 'Culhwch and Olwen' as a figure of epic-heroic tradition. Reading Medieval Studies, IX. 1983, pp. 3-15.
11. Ibid.

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