The tale of 'How Culhwch won Olwen', known as the Oldest Arthurian tale, is included in the compilation of Middle Welsh texts found in two late-medieval manuscripts, a complete version in the Red Book of Hergest (Llyfr Coch Hergest) and a fragmented version in the earlier White Book of Rhydderch (Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch).
The Red and White book manuscripts were complied in the 14th century, yet from orthographic evidence scholars have established the tale of 'How Culhwch won Olwen' was written earlier than 1100 AD, and probably in the St Davids area.
This collection of medieval texts was initially edited and translated by Lady Charlotte Guest in the early nineteenth century and published as 'The Mabinogion', although the name first appears in the Cambrian Register of William Owen Pughe in 1795. However, the term 'Mabinogion' is somewhat of a misnomer yet it has persistently adhered to this collection since Guest popularised it. The collection usually consists of the 'Four Branches of the Mabinogi', 'The Three Romances' and 'Four Native Tales'. Guest's collection included the Hanes Taliesin.
How Culhwch won Olwen is the most archaic text in the Mabinogion collection and one of the most important texts in the study of the Arthurian cycle preserving the older Arthurian tradition of the hunting of Twrch Trwyth which certainly has antecedents in earlier Celtic tradition. It features an Arthur far removed from the emperor of Geoffrey of Monmouth and the knight of later Arthurian Romance. Here Arthur and his retinue are dealing in the realm of the supernatural, in combat against giants and witches and enchanted boars.
The tale is known for the quality of its storytelling and the humour of the author. However, the tale also contains many bit parts as betrayed by its duplications and contradictions, evidently based on ancient tales of a similar content woven together by a later redactor.
We find a Celtic parallel to the tale in the Middle Irish saga 'The Wooing of Emer' (Tochmarc Emire) and a related tale in the Greek story of 'Jason and the Argonauts'. Culhwch enlists the help of Arthur and his retinue of super-talented followers to complete the difficult tasks, or anoethau. Yet Culhwch well-nigh disappears from the tale after visiting Ysbaddaden Pencawr's fortress with Arthur then taking centre stage until Culhwch's return at the end of the tale to marry Olwen.
It is the longest surviving Welsh prose tale, consisting of three parts:
The first tells of Culhwch's birth and how he has a destiny (geis) imposed upon him by his wicked step-mother which brings him to Arthur's court. Once Arthur recognises him as his cousin, Culhwch demands a boon and invokes his help and all the warriors of the court in his quest for Olwen, the giant's daughter. The second part details Culhwch and his followers at the fortress of Ysbaddaden chief-giant and receiving the forty difficult tasks, or anoethau. The third and final part describes the attainment of some ten of these tasks, climaxing in the hunting of the Twrch Trwyth to obtain the comb and shears between the boar's ears to groom the chief-giant.
The first and second parts both end with long lists; the so-called 'Court List', a roll-call of some 260 warriors and ladies from the court, on which Culhwch calls in his quest for Olwen; the second ends with the long list of the anoethau.
The Forty Tasks (anoethau) of Culhwch
Culhwch sets out with a small band of warriors led by Cei and Bedywr, Arthur's foremost companions, and meets a giant herdsman who advises him to go no further. A meeting is arranged with Olwen who refuses to elope with Culhwch because of a pledge she has made to her father, Ysbaddaden chief-giant. She pleads with Culhwch to demand her from the chief-giant.
Consequently, Culhwch is set forty difficult, or impossible tasks, anoethau, to complete as the price for the Giant's daughter in marriage. Each task receives the same response from Culhwch, 'It is easy for me to get that, though thou think it is not easy.'
Olwen's father, the chief-giant, returns with yet another task, 'Though thou get that, there is that thou wilt not get.' And so on:
1. The great thicket yonder. I must have it uprooted out of the earth and burnt on the face of the ground so that the cinders and ashes thereof be its manure; and that it be ploughed and sown so that it be ripe in the morning against the drying of the dew, in order that it may be made into meat and drink for thy wedding.
3. Gofannon son of Don to come to the headland to set the irons.
4. The two oxen of Gwlwlydd Wineu, both yoked together to plough well the rough ground
5. The Melyn Gwanwyn (Yellow-palewhite) and the Ych Brych (the Speckled Ox), both yoked together,
6. The two horned oxen, one of which is beyond Mynydd Bannawg [A mountain In Scotland, possibly the Grampians], and the other this side-and to fetch them together in the one plough. Nyniaw and Peibiaw are they, whom God transformed into oxen for their sins.
7. Dost see the hoed tilth yonder? When first I met the mother of that maiden, nine hestors of flax seed were sown therein; neither black nor white has come out of it yet, and I have that measure still. I must have that in the new-broken ground yonder, so that it may be a white veil for my daughter's head on the day of thy wedding-feast.
8. Honey that will be nine times sweeter than the honey of a virgin swarm, without drones and without bees, to make bragget for the feast.
9. The cup of Llwyr son of Llwyrion, in which is the best of all drink; for there is no vessel in the world which can hold that strong drink, save it.
11. The horn of Gwlgawd Gododdin
12. The harp of Teirtu to entertain me that night.
13. The birds of Rhiannon
14. The cauldron of Diwrnach the Irishman, the overseer of Odgar son of Aedd king of Ireland, to boil meat for thy wedding guests.'
15. The tusk of Ysgithyrwyn Chief Boar I must have, wherewith to shave myself. I shall be none the better for that unless it be plucked from his head while alive.
15. The tusk of Ysgithyrwyn Chief Boar I must have, wherewith to shave myself. I shall be none the better for that unless it be plucked from his head while alive.
16. There is no one in the world can pluck it from his head save Odgar son of Aedd king of Ireland.
17. I will not entrust the keeping of the tusk to any save Cadw of Prydein (Pictland)
18. I must needs dress my beard for me to be shaved. It will never settle unless the blood of the Black Witch be obtained, daughter of the White Witch, from the head of the Valley of Grief in the uplands of Hell.
19. The blood will be of no use unless it be obtained while warm. There is no vessel in the world will keep heat in the liquid that is put therein save the bottles of Gwyddolwyn the Dwarf, which keep their heat from the time when the liquid is put into them in the east till one reaches the west.
20. Some will wish for milk, but there will be no way to get milk for every one until the bottles of Rhynnon Stiff-beard are obtained. In them no liquid ever turns sour.
21. The comb and shears that are between the two ears of Twrch Trwyth son of Taredd Wledig, the only comb and shears in the world wherewith my hair may be dressed, so exceeding stiff it is.
22. Twrch Trwyth will not be hunted till Drudwyn be obtained, the whelp of Greid son of Eri.
23. There is no leash in the world may hold on him, save the leash of Cors Hundred-claws.
24. There is no collar in the world can hold the leash, save the collar of Canhastyr Hundred-hands.
25. The chain of Cilydd Hundred-holds to hold the collar along with the leash.
26. There is no huntsman in the world can act as houndsman to that hound, save Mabon son of Modron, who was taken away when three nights old from his mother. Where he is is unknown, or what his state is, whether alive or dead.
27. Gwyn Dun-mane, the steed of Gweddw (as swift as the wave is he!), under Mabon to hunt Twrch Trwyth.
28. Mabon will never be obtained, where he is is unknown, till his kinsman Eidoel son of Aer be first obtained; for he will be untiring in quest of him. He is his first cousin.
29. Garselit the Irishman, chief huntsman of Ireland is he. Twrch Trwyth will never be hunted without him.
30. The two whelps of the bitch Rhymhi. [omitted from the list in Culhwch]
31. A leash from the beard of Dillus the Bearded, for save that there is nothing will hold those two whelps. 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.
32. There is no huntsman in the world will hold those two whelps, save Cynedyr the Wild son of Hetwn the Leper. Nine times wilder is he than the wildest wild beast on the mountain.
33. Thou wilt not hunt Twrch Trwyth until Gwyn son of Nudd be obtained, in whom God has set the spirit of the demons of Annwn,
34. There is no horse in the world that will avail Gwyn to hunt Twrch Trwyth, save Du (black) the horse of Moro Oerfeddawg.
35. Until Gwilenhin king of France come, Twrch Trwyth will never be hunted without him.
36. Twrch Trwyth will never be hunted without the son of Alun Dyfed
37. Twrch Trwyth will never be hunted until Aned and Aethlem be obtained. Swift as a gust of wind would they be; never were they unleashed on a beast they did not kill.
38. Arthur and his huntsmen to hunt Twrch Trwyth.
39. Twrch Trwyth can never be hunted until Bwlch and Cyfwlch and Syfwlch be obtained, sons of Cilydd Cyfwlch, grandsons of Cleddyf Difwlch. Three gleaming glitterers their three shields; three pointed piercers their three spears; three keen carvers their three swords; Glas, Glesig, Gleisad, their three dogs; Call, Cuall, Cafall, their three horses; Hwyrddyddwg and Drwgddyddwg and Llwyrddyddwg, their three wives; Och and Garym and Diasbad, their three witches; Lluched and Neued and Eisywed, their three daughters; Drwg and Gwaeth and Gwaethaf Oll, their three maid-servants. The three men shall wind their horns, and all the others will come to make outcry, till none would care though the sky should fall to earth.
40. The sword of Wrnach the Giant; never can he [Twrch Trwyth] be slain save with that.
Finally the chief-giant warns Culhwch, 'Though thou get that, there is that thou wilt not get. Wakefulness without sleep at night shalt thou have in seeking those things. And thou wilt not get
them, nor wilt thou get my daughter.'
Culhwch replies, 'Horses shall I have and horsemen, and my lord and kinsman Arthur will get
me all those things. And I shall win thy daughter, and thou shalt lose thy life.'
A Tale of Two Boars
These forty tasks are all concerned with two prime objectives; the wedding feast and the grooming of the giant on the night of his daughter's wedding, which ultimately requires the hunting of the Twrch Trwyth to obtain the tonsorial equipment lodged between the boar's ears. This is the ultimate challenge and the climax to the whole tale.
The final part of the tale details the attainment of ten of the tasks by Arthur and his retinue with the completion of four others stated without further detail; all but one (the tale of the lame ant) relate directly to the hunting of the Twrch Trwyth. The tale makes no mention of the accomplishment of the other eighteen of the anoethau.
The list contains many contradictions and duplications in its final form that are indicative of the author of the tale drawing on many earlier traditions and blending them into one tale.
For example, many of the characters once listed in the Court List disappear from the text, the only overlap being limited to persons listed in the boar hunts, some of which are merely mentioned as being slain by the Twrch Trwyth. Similarly, the chief giant stipulates that Arthur and his huntsmen are required to hunt the Twrch Trwyth (38) but he is already central to the tale with Culhwch now missing until the finale of the story.
Culhwch sets off to obtain the last task first, The sword of Wrnach the Giant (40). The chief-giant tell us the sword is required to kill the supernatural boar, but the Twrch Trwyth 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. Following the accomplishment of this, the first task, Arthur then says “which task shall we obtain first?” suggesting that this task is a later addition to the original list.
In the initial list of the anoethau, Culhwch is charged to retrieve the comb and shears (21) from between the ears of the enchanted boar, the Twrch Trwyth. But later in the tale a razor is added to the items required to groom the chief giant. Presumably the author has forgotten that the tusk of Ysgithyrwyn Chief Boar has been demanded by the chief-giant to shave himself (15). It is Odgar son of Aedd who is charged with extracting the tusk from the boar, Ysgithyrwyn's head (16) but is actually Cadw of Prydein who draws the tusk yet he is charged with simply guarding it (17).
Further, the author himself draws our attention to yet another discrepancy that it was not the dogs which the chief-giant had named to Culhwch that killed the boar Ysgithyrwyn but Arthur's own hound Cafall. Here the author seems oblivious to the fact that the chief-giant does not name any dogs in the hunting of Ysgithyrwyn.
A further confusion is the apparent omission of the two whelps of the bitch Rhymhi (30) from the list of the anoethau but is clearly implied by the two tasks following, the leash from the beard of Dillus the Bearded to restrain the two whelps (31) and Cynedyr the Wild to hold them (32).
The list contains several doublets such as the two boar hunts, the release of two prisoners and Goreu son of Custennin who is the double of Culhwch and perhaps the hero of a variant tale, although outside of this tale 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 Wledig and therefore also cousin to Culhwch. Goreu's father, Custennin, is brother to Ysbaddaden who is therefore his uncle. Ysbaddaden has dispossessed Custennin and is responsible for the deaths of twenty three of his sons; being the last remaining 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 and so avenging his father and brothers.
The narrative 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.
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.
Idris Llewelyn Foster, Culhwch and Olwen and Rhonabwy's Dream, pp.31-39, in Roger Sherman Loomis, ed. Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, Oxford University Press, 1959 (Sandpiper edition 2001).
Brynley F Roberts, Culhwch ac Olwen, The Triads, Saints' Lives, pp.73-81, in Rachel Bromwich et al ed. Arthur of the Welsh, University of Wales Press, 1991.
Thomas Jones and Gwyn Jones, The Mabinogion, 1949.
* * *
Have this at home. As part of Lady Guests' collection the Mabinogion. Minus Taliesin the bard. Despite the contradictions , How Culhwch won Olwen is such a rip-roaring taleReplyDelete
Hi Michael, I couldn't agree more, it is an excellent tale.Delete
The contradictions apparent in the final form of the tale as we have it would appear to reveal a later elaboration and intertwining of at least two known variants of an ancient tradition of a supernatural boar hunt in which Arthur and his hound participated.
The Marvels of the Island of Britain, attached to the 9th century Historia Brittonum (Nennius) refer to the boar hunt and Arthur's dog
The Gorchan Cynfelyn, attached to the poem Y Gododdin in the Book of Aneirin, again refers to the Twrch Trwyth, the same legendary boar of Culhwch and Olwen. This gorchan has been dated to the arrival of the Y Gododdin A text in Gwynedd, possibly the early 7th century revealing that the tale of the hunting of the Twrch Trwyth, the core of the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, is indeed ancient.