Thursday 8 June 2023

Arthur: The King in the West

 Part I: Goreu,  the Shepherd's Son

In the tale Culhwch and Olwen, Goreu the son of Custennin the shepherd (Custenhin heussawr: previously named as Custenhin Amhynwyedic) is often overlooked as a minor character. However, a closer reading shows Goreu to be an important figure with a significant role in the tale, albeit somewhat minimalized in its current form, indicating he was at one time well-known in Welsh tradition.

In Culhwch and Olwen six of his specially gifted warriors are selected by Arthur to complete the impossible tasks set out by the chief giant Ysbadadden Bencawr to be completed before Culhwch can obtain the hand of his daughter Olwen.

Arthur selected his most loyal companions Cai (who had magical qualities) and Bedwyr (who never feared the quest), with Cynddelig Gyfarwydd (the guide), Gwrhyr Gwalstawd Ieithoedd (knew all languages), Gwalchmai son of Gwyar (he never come home without succeeding in the mission and was the best walker and the best rider, and son of Arthur’s sister), and Menw son of Teirgwaedd (he could cast a spell so that no one could see them, but they could see everyone).

Arthur’s six men set off with Culhwch and soon came to a great plain where they could see a caer made of stone and mortar, the greatest of all caers in the world. As they walked towards it they came upon a great flock of sheep and a shepherd. The shepherd tells the men that Ysbadadden Bencawr owns the caer. He says he is Custennin, son of Mynwyedig, and because of his wife Ysbaddaden Bencawr has despoiled him.

The men tell the shepherd that they are Messengers of Arthur, here to ask for Olwen. The shepherd tells them that no-one who has come to ask for that has left with their life.

Culhwch gave the shepherd a gold ring but it would not fit his finger so he put it in a glove which he gave to his wife when he returned home. At first he tells her he found it on a corpse but admits it was given to him by "Culhwch son of Cilydd son of Celiddon Wledic, from Goleuddydd daughter of Anlawd Wledic his mother, and he comes to ask for Olwen.

The shepherd’s wife had two feelings: she felt joy at the coming of her nephew, her sister's son; and sadness because she had never seen anyone go with his soul still with him who had come requesting that.

When Arthur’s men came to the court of Custennin the Shepherd, his wife opened a coffer at the end of the hearth and out came a youth with curly yellow hair. When asked why the boy was kept in hiding, the woman said "This one is all that's left of the twenty-three sons of mine, killed by Ysbaddaden Bencawr. I have no more hope for this one than for any of the others.”

Cai said, "Let him keep companionship with me, and we will not be killed unless we are killed together." And so the boy joins the quest. They set off first for the last of the forty tasks demanded by the Chief Giant, the Sword of Wrnach Gawr

When they arrived at at the fortress of Wrnach Gawr the gatekeeper says they cannot enter unless they have a craft. Cai was admitted as he was a swordsmith, and later Bedwyr as he had a skill. The others went in with the young lad, the only son of Custennin the Shepherd, attached to him over the three baileys until they were inside the caer. Impressed with the lad the men of Arthur said to the son of Custennnin "The Best of men you are!" And from then on he was known as “Gorau son of Custennin.” They dispersed to their lodgings that they might slay those who lodged them, without the Giant knowing.

After slaying Wrnach Gawr, Gorau then joins Arthur and his men hunting the Twrch Trwyth.

Finally, at the end of the tale, it is Gorau who actually beheads the chief giant, Ysbaddaden Bencawr, “….. Gorau son of Custennin laid hold of him by the hair of his head, and dragged him behind him to the mound and cut his head off and placed it on the stake of the rampart. And he overcame his caer and his territory.”1

Goreu, evidently, is a significant character in Culhwch and Olwen; as a giant-slayer he assists Cai in killing Wrnach Gawr, and it is he, rather than Culhwch, who finally cuts off the head of the hero’s nemesis Ysbaddaden Bencawr. 

He acts as a kind of doublet of the hero of the tale, sharing several important features with Culhwch: both are cousins to King Arthur and to each other; both are descendants of Anlawdd Wledig by one or other of his numerous daughters, one of whom was Arthur’s mother Eigr (=Igerna in Historia Regum Britanniae). A fourth cousin was St Illtud, whose mother was Rieingulid, (‘gentle princess’), daughter of ‘Anblaud king of Brittannia’.

The relationship of ‘cousin’ between Arthur, Culhwch, Illtud and Goreu, all sons of the daughters of Anlawdd Wledig, seems to derive from pre-Geoffrey Arthurian tradition. The Life of St Illtud, where this relationship is first documented, has certainly been dated prior to Geoffrey’s Historia Regum Britanniae.

Goreu also appears in the Triads where he is presented as the releaser of Arthur from his three imprisonments, a feat which seems to mirror the stories in which Arthur himself is distinguished as a famous releaser of prisoners, as in Culhwch and Olwen and in the poem Preiddeu Annwfn (Spoils of Annwn):

52. Three Exalted (Supreme) Prisoners of the Island of Britain: 

Llr Half-Speech, who was imprisoned by Euroswydd,
and the second, Mabon son of Modron,
and third, Gwair son of Gweirioedd.

And one (Prisoner) was more exalted than the three of them, he was three nights in prison in Caer Oeth and Anoeth, and three nights imprisoned by Gwen Pendragon, and three nights in an enchanted prison under the Rock of Echeifyeint. This Exalted Prisoner was Arthur. And the same lad released him from each of these three prisons: (that lad was) Goreu, son of Custennin, his cousin.

Culhwch and Goreu are both almost unknown outside the tale of Culhwch and Olwen and triad 52: Culhwch himself is once referenced in the Canu Heledd: “Cynddylan, a warrior like Culhwch, a lion, a wolf-pursuing attacker,”3 Goreu’s name appears briefly in both the Mabinogion tales of ‘Geraint son of Erbin’ and ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy.’

Goreu is described in Culhwch and Olwen as ‘the one son of Custennin the Shepherd’, yet the interpretation of this name later in the tale as meaning ‘Best’ comes somewhat under suspicion owing to the early appearance of Guoreu, and its variants Gurai, Guorai. Rachel Bromwich notes that Gurou, Guorou is an attested personal name and suggests that Goreu = ‘Best’ may be another fanciful onomastic explanation given once more for a personal name whose composition was either misunderstood by the redactor, or he was making a deliberate pun upon it.4 

Consider the two versions of the episode at the caer of Wrnach Gawr; the translation of the Red Book text: 

‘And there was much discourse among those who were without, because that Kai and Bedwyr had gone in. And a young man who was with them, the only son of Custennin the herdsman, got in also. And he caused all his companions to keep close to him as he passed the three wards, and until he came into the midst of the castle. And his companions said unto the son of Custennin, " Thou hast done this ! Thou art the best of all men." And thenceforth he was called Goreu, the son of Custennin. Then they dispersed to their lodgings, that they might slay those who lodged therein, unknown to the Giant.’5

The White Book text:

“And a great debate there was among the men outside. In came Cai and Bedwyr, and in came the young lad with them - the only son of Custennin the Shepherd. What he did, [along] with his companions who had stuck by him, was to go over the three baileys until they were inside the caer, as if it was nothing to them. Spoke his companions to the son of Custennnin "The best of men you are!" From then on he was known as Gorau son of Custennin. They dispersed to their (allotted) lodgings so they might bring about the deaths of those who lodged there, without the knowledge of the giant.”

John MacQueen has noted that the text of this passage of Culhwch and Olwen from the Red Book version differs considerably from the White Book. MacQueen argues that the disparity cannot be the result of mere scribal carelessness, but must result from either the Red Book scribe not copying from the White Book, or he found difficulty in understanding this passage so that he deliberately altered the text in the interest of clarity and correctness as he saw it. He detects a problem with the translation of a key phrase absent from the Red Book, which he considers due to a misunderstanding of the Welsh text. However, he admits that as a whole the paragraph remains obscure.7 

MacQueen suggests that the Red Book scribe did not understand why Goreu was called ‘Best’; he knew that it was in some way as a consequence of his gaining entry to Wrnach Gawr’s caer, but could not himself give a more precise reason. Cai and Bedwyr had already gained entry to the caer with the giant’s approval. For Custennin’s son to be described as ‘best of men’ there must have been some difficulty for him and Arthur’s men to gain entry without the giant’s permission and as a consequence he performed some outstanding task.

As Bedwyr was the only man to receive permission to accompany Cai, the rest of Arthur’s men, along with Goreu, had no permission to enter the fort. They had no alternative but to go across the three walls which cannot have been an easy feat as the caer was constructed of stone and mortar, ‘the greatest and of the world's forts’. Their manner of entry enabled them to take the lodging keepers by surprise, and slay them. MacQueen offers the following translation of the key phrase:

“Together with the companions who stuck to him, he crossed the three walls effortlessly until they entered the fort”. 

Compare with Sioned Davies translation:

“He and his companions, who stuck close to him, crossed the three baileys, as though it were nothing to them, until they were inside the fort.”

He suggests that this may mean no more than that they followed him closely, but it is just possible, MaQueen suggests, that we are to understand that Goreu carried his companions (perhaps magically) over the fortifications. We should not find this surprising as all of Arthur’s six messengers on this mission possessed supernatural qualities as noted above.

MacQueen sees the translation of ‘effortlessly’ (note both Parker and Davies give ‘as if it was nothing to them’) as the key to the whole episode; it is the very effortlessness of their entry which so impressed the intruders that they called the son of Custennin ‘best of men’. This phrase of course, is the main single omission on the part of the scribe of the Red Book (as in Guest’s translation above).

MacQueen argues that the confusion demonstrates the failure of previous translators of the tale to grasp the importance of the White Book text for this passage. All previous translations,9 he asserts, have been based on the Red Book text, while the central point of Goreu’s name cannot be grasped without the text of the White Book.

MacQueen’s observation that the missing text from the Red Book version of the tale in the early translations of The Mabinogion has led to some confusion as to the naming of Goreu, clearly carries some merit. Yet, surely this feat, which implies he carried his companions effortlessly over the fortifications into the caer, deserves a more rewarding name than ‘Best’ which is hardly imaginative or descriptive of his special ability as we might expect with an appropriate epithet.

Bromwich and Evans offer an alternative explanation in consideration of the name of the boy’s father, Custennin; that the name Goreu could have originated from an incorrect division of ‘Custennin Gorneu’ (Constantine of Cornwall), as attested in Bonedd y Saint and elsewhere in genealogies where Old Welsh ‘Corneu’ = Middle Welsh ‘Cernyw.’ 

Noting that it may be significant that the same epithet ‘of Cornwall’ in OW spelling occurs in Bonedd Gwŷr y Gogledd (Descent of the Men of the North)  no:13 ‘Huallu mab Tutvʋlch Corneu tywyssaʋc o Kernyʋ a Dywana merch Amlaʋt Wledic y vam’ (Huallu son of Tudfwlch Corneu prince of Cornwall and Dywana daughter of Amlawd Wledig his mother).10

Bromwich and Evans further speculate that Goreu’s mother, who is never named in Culhwch and Olwen, yet is sister to Culhwch’s mother Goleuddydd daughter of Amlawd Wledig, may be the Dywana daughter of Amlawd Wledig who was married to Tudfwlch Corneu, prince of Cornwall of BGG:13 . 11 

It is certainly tempting to accept that the name Goreu may have arisen as a corruption of Gorneu = ‘of Cornwall’; an onomastic explanation for the whole of Dumnonia, the old kingdom of the south-west of Britain comprising Devon, Cornwall and the Summer County (part of Somerset).12 Thus, the name may well be an allusion to Constantine of Cornwall (Custennin 'Gorneu'). 

Arthur’s relationship (cousins) with Goreu son of Custennin demonstrates that he had been brought into contact with members of the Dumnonian dynasty possibly at an early date. Bromwich ponders if this was due to the existence of the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, or another lost story in which Arthur and Goreu had already been brought together. 13 This would explain Arthur’s affinity for the south-west of Britain as in the tale his court is at Celli Wig in Cornwall, and when the giant boar Twrch Trwyth heads toward the Severn Arthur summons all the men of Cornwall and Devon (Dumnonia) to meet him at Aber Hafren (the estuary of the Severn), and vows “he will not go to Cornwall while I am alive.”14

It is with the name of Constantine (= Custennin) that Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae and the Brut (the Welsh versions of Geoffrey’s Historia) attach the Arthurian pedigree to that of the rulers of Dumnonia. Indeed, according to Geoffrey, Arthur’s grandfather is named Constantine (Arthur m. Uthur m. Custennin, etc.); Arthur is conceived at Tintagel castle, identified as the seat of the kings of Dumnonia; and it is at the River Camblan (Camel) that Arthur is mortally wounded in his final battle; Arthur is then succeeded by Constantine, son of Cador.

Notes & References
1. Culhwch & Olwen – Will Parker
Parker’s online translation follows Bromwich and Evans edition of Culhwch ac Olwen which in turn follows the White Book of Rhydderch up until the point where the latter breaks off, towards the end of the Wrnach Gawr episode. Thereafter, the text of the Red Book of Hergest version is followed.
2. Rachel Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain (TYP), Fourth Edition, University of Wales Press, 2014, p.146.
3. Thomas Jones: The Early Evolution of the Legend of Arthur, Nottingham Medieval Studies, 1964.
4. Bromwich,TYP, p.364.
5. Culhwch and Olwen, from The Mabinogion, trans. Lady Charlotte Guest, Dent, First Edition 1849, This Edition 1906.
6. Culhwch & Olwen - Will Parker. The incomplete White Book text breaks off after Cai beheads Wrnach Gawr with his own sword and they lay waste the caer. (See note 1).
7. John MacQueen, Etudes Celtiques, Vol.8, 1958, pp.154-63.
8. How Culhwch won Olwen, from The Mabinogion, trans. Sioned Davies, Oxford University Press, 2007, p.202.
9. i.e. prior to MacQuuen’s essay of 1958.
10. Rachel Bromwich and D. Simon Evans, editors, with introduction and notes, Culhwch And Olwen: An Edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale (CaO), University of Wales, 1992, p.140.
11. Bromwich & Evans, CaO, p.115.
12. The kingdom of Dumnonia (in reality a Greater Cornubia) named after the British Celtic tribe the Dumnonii, existed in Sub-Roman Britain between the late 4th and late 8th centuries AD. The name survives in modern day Devon, the Saxon name derived from the late-Celtic form, Dyfneint.
13. Bromwich, TYP, p.148.
14. Davies, How Culhwch won Olwen, p.211.

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