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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