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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